…walk into a bar and….
More seriously, though, I’ve been thinking a lot about the minimum qualifying attributes of these three roles. There’s a big Venn diagram overlap of all three in the labor they perform and the sensibilities that they share, but each also has distinctive responsibilities and defining characteristics.
I’m thinking about the minimum attributes because I’m trying to decide where the boundary lines are fuzzy and where they are bright and clean, about when you stop being a scholar, an expert and/or an intellectual. I’m trying to decide that about Niall Ferguson.
I’ve used Ferguson’s Empire as a more recent, updated version of the argument that Gann and Duignan made in Burden of Empire in some of my courses, as a way to expand the historiographical space I’m representing to my students. Most of them quickly grasp without my prompting that Ferguson is an outlier within that historiography in more ways than one. And I’ve used his work on counterfactual history, where again without much prompting, many of the students recognized the oddity of the theoretical contortions in his introduction to Virtual History. (If nothing else, Ferguson’s current activities annoy me because they’re inviting other scholars to associate the entire idea of counterfactual history with Ferguson and dismiss both in one breath. Please stop that.)
Some time ago, I wrote at the defunct blog Cliopatria about how Ferguson’s Empire demonstrated a kind of intellectual sloth that I found both frustrating and annoying. This was not about his argument in the book and series. I’m perfectly content with one possible version of Ferguson’s claims in Empire: that the British Empire left behind political or social institutions that had unintended or complex positive value or usefulness to the societies of the colonized, that liberalism or the spread of human rights was a sort of “collateral effect” of imperialism. I’m less happy with the idea that these outcomes were the laudable purpose or intention of imperialism, or all the shifty “gotta break eggs to make the omelette of modernity” stuff going on in that book and Ferguson’s other work, but I think those are arguments which can still legitimately take place within the sphere of scholarly and intellectual work. What I was annoyed by at Cliopatria was simply that Ferguson didn’t engage a huge corpus of both specific and general work by other scholars that sees British imperialism very differently, essentially almost the entire historiography between Gann and Duignan’s book and today. There’s a very brief bit of hand-waving and that’s all. This strikes me as a typical rhetorical move by a certain kind of contrarian: that all other scholarship is politically motivated, and hence need not really be discussed. That is both self-indicting (because if scholarship which is politically motivated need not be engaged, surely the contrarian is equally culpable) and unscholarly (much that other work, whatever its politics, rests upon extensive craftwork by historians, anthropologists and others which requires presumptive respect until such time as the specific craftwork of an individual scholar can be critiqued as wanting or flawed).
I was rather surprised when Ferguson himself showed up in the comments. The gist of his reply was, “Look at everything I’ve published and done in the last ten years: do I really seem lazy to you, especially compared to all of you small minnows hereabouts?” and “It was a book connected to a TV series, it’s not the right place for a lot of nitty-gritty historiographical debate”. To the former, I said ok, but that wasn’t the kind of lazy that I meant. To the latter I said ok, but you can still be attitudinally generous towards a very big historiography created by the dedicated labor of your peers even if you reserve the right to interpret things differently. And that is where it stood.
Ferguson is one of the kinds of scholars and intellectuals that I wanted to work very hard to create room for in my own discursive universe. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t letting my own politics override my ability to listen to very different interpretative frameworks, very different sensibilities. I wanted to read everything with a fresh eye, always be willing to shake up my own certainties. I still want to do all of those things. I still think you can’t possibly say that you’re interested in a sensitive ethnographic understanding of witchcraft discourse in South Africa and not be equally interested in a sensitive ethnographic understanding of the lived experience of government officials working in national security contexts or investment bankers at Goldman Sachs. Some of the obligations and reservations that attend to the first inquiry are present in any other. I still think you can’t afford to treat communities and groups that you politically oppose, however fiercely, as if their motivations and habitus aren’t as complex and historically intricate as any other community or group. You have to be curious about everything or you might as well be curious about nothing. That doesn’t mean I like some of them, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think some of them are dishonest, manipulative or motivated by goals other than the ones they claim to be pursuing. But I can’t come to rest on the easy certainty of any of those interpretations, and my own convictions and views have to be always subject to the skeptical thought, the unforeseen fact, the surprising experience, the persuasive counterthrust.
Sure, I get frustrated too and blow off steam at times. We’re all human. But when we’re trying to be both (or either) scholars and intellectuals, at least, we have some other responsibilities that kick into gear. Equally, when we’re asked to render expert opinion, it has to be based on something other than our gut reaction, though expertise is sometimes legitimately derived from very quick processing and inference based on long experience. But it is for this reason that I’m not sure I have space for Ferguson any more as a peer, a professional, someone who is living up to the minimal norms and responsibility of any of these three roles.
Ferguson would feel more like he was still within the bounds if he either investigated his own distaste for Obama in more reflective, philosophical and recursive ways or if he was willing to lay out a generalized, prescriptive theory of political leadership that didn’t fitfully move the goalposts on intensely granular or particular issues every few seconds. Why? Because I think scholarship requires some measure of self-aware and reflective movement between what you know and what you believe, and the relationship between your own movements and those of your professional peers. Scholarship in any era or regime is about intertextuality, referentiality, conversation (even if sometimes the conversation is between the living and the dead). A scholar has to believe on some level that things are known or understood only after being investigated, tested, read, interpreted, that there’s something unseemly about robbing the graves and morgues for cast-off “facts” in order to assemble them into a shambling, monstrous conclusion built from a hackish blueprint. Being an intellectual takes some form of thoughtfulness, some respect for evidence and truth, something that goes beyond hollow, sleazy rhetoric that plays dumb every time it gets caught out truncating quotes or doctoring charts. Being an expert means you guide an audience through what is known and said about a subject with some respect for the totality of that knowing and saying before favoring your own interpretation.
I find myself more and more in the situation of the titular character in Batman Begins as I think back on all the folks like Ferguson that I worked hard to include inside my circle of “we”. “I won’t kill you,” he says to Ra’s al-Ghul, “but I don’t have to save you.” I still have to work hard to keep that circle big and permeable, but I don’t have to regard Ferguson as a professional by the standards of any of my worlds, as a person entitled to say that he’s inside any of those sets. He’s left for other climes, and they’re welcome to him.