A Scholar, An Expert, An Intellectual

…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.

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14 Responses to A Scholar, An Expert, An Intellectual

  1. PQuincy says:

    This is the kind of reflective post that makes me want to visit your blog frequently. And should my research take me in directions you have written on, it makes me want to be sure to include your work!

    Thanks for taking down another thinker — a man who is both diligent and intelligent — who has, apparently, fallen for the blithe sense of entitlement and the self-congratulation that academia’s love affair with the star system has encouraged all too often.

  2. Withywindle says:

    I think there’s a Brit thing going on there as well–a tradition of history-as-polemic that doesn’t (I think) have a precise American counterpart; and where the ethics and manners of scholarship are not entirely the point. Or shall we say, the point is victory as much as truth–a lawyer’s brief. Don’t know how well he does the job, though; I haven’t read the book.

    By the by, you should assign some George MacDonald Fraser for your classes–the memoirs as well as the Flashman books; also Black Ajax, and the the McAuslan books. They’re really good, and I think they would work well in a number of your courses.

  3. I used Flashman once, and I’ll have to see if I can’t find another opportunity to assign it.

    I also agree that there’s a tradition of British intellectual polemic that runs raw against the more genteel sensibilities of American academia. But I think even in that case there’s often some sense that you have to have certain kinds of factual or theoretical ducks lined up in a row, and that there is a sort of junkyard-doggish extreme to be avoided as long as you still mean to be taken for an intellectual or scholar.

  4. David says:

    Fantastic post.
    I’ve used Ferguson’s “Empire” exactly twice in an imperialism course; it’s engagingly-written, has great vignettes, and covers a broad timespan; and it re-romanticizes empire (re-enchants empire?) in a way that can offer an interesting contrast to the more usual critical readings.
    But I stopped using it. About half way through the semester, the students would begin to recognize the book’s many gross simplifications, ethnocentric pandering, and outright distortions… and then the students would get really pissy about having invested so many hours in something they see as flawed.
    More important, though, is what I’ve begun to sense as a disingenuousness running through the core of the book. This is hard to describe in a couple sentences… but (for instance) the rhetorical moves he makes concerning indentured servitude vis-à-vis slavery and slave revolts vis-à-vis the American Revolution (Ch. 2) are disturbing. The individual sentences and paragraphs are all fine—but the larger arc of the chapter subtly yet undeniably downplays the perniciousness of slavery in a redemption narrative—of whites’ dogged pursuit of liberty. The book is full of such smooth but disturbing rhetorical gamesmanship that repackages outdated (and immoral?) ideas. I just can’t assign it anymore in good conscience.
    I think of Ferguson as much more a media personality than a scholar. (especially at conferences and talks, when I’ve unconsciously found myself looking around for the invisible camera he seems to be grandstanding to…) There’s nothing wrong with being a media personality: but scholars (as you tactfully say) have a responsibility to some level of self-reflection and to evidence. Real scholarship has to mean more than just artful rhetoric.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    That’s wonderfully put, and I know exactly what you mean re: Empire. It’s like he wants to put forth interpretations that he knows are contrarian call-backs to pro-imperial perspectives but he is also peppering the text with prophylactic asides to counter the most likely attacks he’ll receive. This is most evident on race. He knows he’s going to get attacked as a racist, so he prepares the ground with a bit of genuflective discussion of how awful the slave trade was and how unfortunate it was that imperial officials often practiced racial discrimination. That would only be meaningful in scholarly terms if he was really trying to think hard about how what he believes to be liberal, democratic and meritocratic practices and institutions (in the final analysis) were also accompanied by the pervasive use of and reference to racial hierarchy. But he’s not thinking about that question at all, he’s just baiting what he imagines to be a rhetorical trap for his likely critics. It has an unwholesome feel, an offspring of a sickly mating between modern political spin-doctoring and the adolescent pomposity of a certain kind of high-school debator. I also end up wishing that he’d just let it all hang out and just wallow in colonial nostalgia. I’d almost rather read VS Naipaul in his “I’m the Biggest Asshole on the Planet” mode for that kind of sentiment.

  6. Barry says:

    It’s not lazyness on the part of Ferguson, or his Newsweek article not living up to the standards of peer-reviewed literature. It’s the fact that his article was 100% bullsh*t.

  7. Dave Mazella says:

    Hi Tim,

    I agree with much of this, but isn’t this taking the unobjectionable principle of “interpretive charity” too far, as an intellectual value in its own right? In other words, we need to be charitable, unprejudiced, open-minded etc. etc. readers so that we can take in information and points of view we might not easily find otherwise. But once we find Ferguson cynically informing us that, no, he didn’t make mistakes, but was just actively misleading us, why should we continue to engage with him, except skeptically and symptomatically? And clearly we’re dealing with someone who has no interest in such intellectual generosity, or even curiosity, himself. So my answer would be that Ferguson was never a fellow “peer” or professional in scholarly or intellectual discourse, it just took a while for him to fully reveal his character.

  8. I think that this speaks to that well-known problem area in tenure dossiers where “collegiality” steps in as a kind of swampy, ambiguous double of “character”. One reason most committees fall back on publication as the first and last criteria is not just that it’s quantifiable but that it, in theory, be evaluated impersonally. That’s rarely the case in practice but it is at least something that we throw up as a kind of sustaining institutional myth. If we were to say, “It is not enough that you’ve produced a work that looks like scholarship, you also have to have the character of a scholar, otherwise you might just be very good at faking it”, then I think we all recognize the nasty stuff that would come screaming in behind that proposition. We’ve all seen, for example, that there are scholars within the academy who regard almost all popularizing, synthesizing, speaking within the public sphere, blogging and so forth as unscholarly in its character regardless of whether the speaker in question also produces peer-reviewed works that count as scholarship.

    So I don’t know how anyone could look at Ferguson’s initial work on the Rothschilds and detect behind it a character who would be as recklessly uninterested in scholarly practice as he is now. It’s a really strong work of economic and institutional history. I think his introduction to Virtual History is fully scholarly, even if I think he’s trying far too hard to make counterfactual history the anvil upon which all social history shall be broken. I think The Pity of War is a provocatively interesting scholarly work, even if the Procrustean temptations that have been evident in Ferguson’s more recent oeuvre begin to become visible.

    Now if I’d been Ferguson’s colleague at the beginning, maybe none of what has come to pass would surprise me. But I’d hate to start trying to use my X-ray vision and see the “real person” beneath each and every work that is otherwise creditable, and make my judgments from that.

  9. Dave Mazella says:

    My x-ray vision is no better than anyone else’s, but the “character questions” are not separated, but only tacitly ignored, in relation to more scholarly debates about evaluation, since polemical questioning of credentials, expertise, etc. almost always ends the discussion. This kind of moral dismissal, is, or ought to be, off-limits until behavior like Ferguson’s makes it impossible to ignore the problem.

    And I think that once we see his current behavior, it’s impossible to resist seeing his earlier stuff in a similar light, even if the earlier books possessed a much more scholarly aspect. I’m not disagreeing with you, but I think that what’s going on with Ferguson is retrospective, and properly so. If at least one aspect of a historian’s reputation is dependent on subsequent events, and how her analyses stand up in the present, why not adjust our retrospective view of Ferguson and his earlier work?

  10. David Holland says:

    Props Tim for your eloquent descriptions of and efforts toward both collegiality and the ethos of an open mind. But one caveat via Peter Sloterdjik’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1981), and I paraphrase: The intellectuals of the Enlightenment were naive when they approached the nobile class and said ‘We just want to talk things over, using our reason to rethink your divine right to rule.’ They were actually engaged in subversion and subsequently faced a nobility sponsored counter-Enlightenment.

    Perhaps things have not changed that much 300 years.

  11. Pamela says:

    Hi Tim. There is a another problem with Ferguson, which is that he lost credibility among professional historians the better part of a decade ag (even when he was appointed to Harvard the event was regarded as an inexplicable plunge from a truly distinguished historian of famous research virtues and major conceptual contributions to, at best, a glib lightweight) but continues to exploit, for thinly commercial purposes, the “platform” that supposedly comes from being a “distinguished” professional. Okay, that kind of thing goes back way back. But my department is not alone in having to look at the painful details of Ferguson’s buffoonery –but among them editorials claiming fictional American bombings of Quemoy and Matsu, a whole series of publications on the limitless benefits provided India by British imperialism, and his continuing nonsense on China past, present and future– in order to block off the rush by colleagues in other departments to throw goodies of one kind or another at Ferguson. Historians have been constrained from being pointed in criticism of Ferguson because of the ingrained canard that such criticisms can be motivated only by jealousy and crabby-mindedness. We have a rare treat here of economists doing our dirty work for us, and exposing the factual frauds and broken logic that, nowadays, ar etypical of Ferguson’s work.

    Historians could benefit from a moment’s reflection on what happened to Ferguson (before the latest embarrassment happened to him). I never considered teaching Empire, but I did happily read and when possible use The Cash Nexus. It was good fresh work and bears up under the test of subsequent published research. But immediately he had established himself as a presence in economic and trade history, he accepted a post as house historian for the Rothschild papers. In theory a professional historian can balance such moonlighting with responsible historical work, and there are those who feel that Ferguson found that balance; more don’t. It turned out to be the gateway substance to his subsequent stream of products meant to impress one crowd of corner ideologues, the ones who in the twenty-first century control money and access to powerful people (not power itself). He went, as many of us might, from understandable moonlighting by a painfully underpaid British academic to an embarrassing opportunist who pushes historical blather in any direction that attention and money draws him.

    Ferguson is a waste of time and money, but what is significant to me is that he correctly perceived exactly how to exploit American media, and the zone of well-compensated “consultants” and “advisors.” The way to do that, c. 2003, was to cheer loud and long for aggressive, pre-emptive war. He was able to add the decorative details of empire –naturalizing the monstrous new patterns of domination by an international, interlocking war-flogging elite as if it had the kind of nineteenth century gentility of, say, the late lamented British empire. Something that was new and very dangerous was claimed to be familiar, venerable, even nostalgia-inspiring –the historical equivalent of steampunk. It is not surprising that this particular line of twaddle draws extraordinary rewards. Well-provisioned think-tanks and even right-wing sugar daddies will fork over top speakers’ fees, and media establishments that feel more secure when staggering to the right will flog your brand till the flail disintegrates.

    This became a growth industry after 2002, and it isn’t surprising that Ferguson managed to slither to the top. But the pile is large, and the people laughing the loudest at Ferguson are the ones who want to take his place at the top of the offensive war promotion industry. And their disciplinary backgrounds? Overwhelmingly, historians. Not political scientists, not economists. Historians eager (consciously or unconsciously) to bury some facts and twist others, tilt interpretations, and force square pegs into round holes in search of the next invitation to Washington or the next column in some right-wing rag. And as in the case of Ferguson, they won’t be publicly called to account by other historians.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Probably not. But I think that restraint has something to do with the temperamental inclinations I’ve sketched in this post. We fear the collateral damage that might follow from aggressive “calling to account” in this way. I was a bit bothered, for example, by folks who really went after David Cannadine for Ornamentalism. I don’t think what Cannadine describes in that book is in any way even close to having the comprehensive importance that he seems to think it does, but I appreciate the mischief behind his intervention. I like certain kinds of “sloppy work”, stuff that sketches with a broad brush or aims to provoke, and I do feel that the more we felt obligated to “call out”, the more that we might start to embolden specialists to regard all synthesizers, generalists and popularizers as worth “calling out”.

  13. Barry says:

    Adding on to Dave’s point, it’s not “the more genteel sensibilities of American academia”, it’s that Ferguson was highly dishonest.

  14. Pamela says:

    I understand the point in relation to Cannadine (though I don’t think he really merits your generous defense). I would like to see more broad brushing (I take this to mean conceptual work). I have a preference for it myself in my own work, though I like to think I can tell the difference between an meaningful and meaningless detail. But what is the big conceptual contribution that Ferguson is making? All he has to offer (at least since Cash Nexus) is the obvious, the odious and howling errors. There has to be a threshold beyond which we don’t warmly welcome the exploitation of a creditable discipline for nothing but self-promotion.

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