A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
NB: You can read Pankaj Mishra’s review and the associated letters on the LRB website here.
Since I read Niall Ferguson’s letter in the LRB of 17 November 2011, in which he refers to a negative review of his book Civilization as “a personal attack that amounts to libel,” I have been trying to put my finger on precisely what it is that bothers me so much about the matter.
Well, in a sense, that is glaringly obvious. It’s that term “libel,” and its use by an academic historian (which, as Tisch Professor, Ferguson is). In fact, when I stand back and try to view the whole exchange with as much detachment as I can muster, that is the one element of the thing which strikes me as genuinely “off.” Not the critique of Ferguson’s work offered by Pankaj Mishra and absolutely not Ferguson’s rebuttals of his individual points—to which Mishra has, I think wisely, restricted his response to that same LRB letters page—but the application of a word like “libellous” to a review that, I believe, does not merit the term. Mishra’s review is unequivocally negative, but it focusses entirely on Ferguson’s work, his public self-representation and his statements about history and the order of things; in other words, his professional and not his personal self. If that qualifies as libel, historians all over the world should be seeking legal advice.
Now, of course, you can say that this is all very well on my part; I wasn’t on the receiving end of that review, and it really is a stinker. And oh, what a stinker it is: Mishra takes Ferguson’s work apart in such detail that it takes several readings just to absorb the many ways in which he finds it lacking. I am not a fan of Ferguson’s approach myself—I tend to agree with Mishra’s critique—but neither am I surprised that Ferguson should disagree, even angrily, with a review which aims fundamental criticisms not just at Civilization but at the projected historiographical basis of a broader portion of his work, not to mention drawing some extremely unflattering comparisons. Of course he disagrees. To state the completely bleeding obvious, he and Mishra have strongly differing perspectives on an intensely important question, the question of imperialism; the mere fact of their having an argument about it is not nearly as interesting as the broadsheets seem to believe it is, but the argument itself is very interesting, and necessary. These are things that matter. The strength of feeling on both sides is hardly surprising.
Introduce the allegation of libel, however, and we are no longer in the realm of fair and equal debate. To contest a review is one thing, and Ferguson does contest Mishra’s review and does so thoroughly, as is his prerogative. And yet to characterise it, at the same time, as libellous and demand an apology might be seen to imply that, while Mishra’s criticisms are fair game for argument, Ferguson’s own publicly-held views—to which Mishra’s review responds—are somehow not.
If this case goes to court—if Ferguson sues Mishra and wins, or perhaps even if he doesn’t—we are faced with a situation in which disagreement can seriously be represented as defamation. That ought to trouble people on any side of the historical debate at hand.
Kirsty Jane McCluskey is a PhD student in History at Queen’s University, Belfast. For her own (far tamer) review of Civilization, click here.