Political Animal


August 21, 2012 11:12 AM Niall Ferguson Succumbs To Hackery Again

By Ed Kilgore

Many of you have probably read or heard about Harvard professor Niall Ferguson’s “cover article” at Newsweek with the deep, intellectually provocative title: “Obama’s Gotta Go.” (Actually, the print cover title is even more philosophical: “Hit the Road Barack.”)

You can read it yourself if you want, or peruse any number of savage takedowns (from Krugman to Dayen to Lemieux, whose post title “Hacktacular” pretty much sums up the reaction). But what’s remarkable is that a major U.S. publication has given a renowned historian and tenured Harvard professor six gazillion words to make a political point and he’s produced something that pretty much reads like Fred Barnes or Jennifer Rubin on an off day.

This is not, unfortunately, anything new for Ferguson, who has constantly struggled between serious scholarly aspirations and the temptation, to which he has again and perhaps terminally succumbed, to play the public intellectual in the laziest possible way. Veteran readers may remember a profile on Ferguson, based on an extended interview with the man himself, by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the June 2004 issue of the Washington Monthly, when Ferguson was spending most of his time trying to convince U.S. conservatives to hang tough on the Iraq adventure and maintain the dream of American Empire. Wallace-Wells’ kicker is especially interesting today:

Ferguson told me he was regarding his forthcoming move to Harvard as a retreat to the ivory tower, as a chance to start doing archival work once more. “The House of Rothschild was really my best book,” he told me, “and it was that because I actually did dusty-fingered research in the archives—that’s where the real breakthroughs always happen, anyway.” Since he quit archival work, his histories have suffered; they tend to sprawl out of control, and hunt down evidence to support his guiding theories. If he does return to the stacks, it may eventually give him a way to rebuke those who think that his true talent to date has been for sloganeering and publicity, not legitimate scholarly breakthroughs. But it will not undo the damage his ideas about empire have helped to bring about.

Looks like Ferguson instead decided to use his cushy perch at Harvard to pursue sloganeering and publicity sho’ nuff, and to do more damage to his adopted country.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • DAY on August 21, 2012 11:39 AM:

    Used to be that you had to have achieved something of import to become an Ivy League 'tenured professor.' My senior seminar creative writing teacher, for example, was Robert Penn Warren.

    Now it seems writing hack editorials and being on teh TeeVee is enough. (see Goodwin, Doris Kearnes, for example)

  • Mikhail on August 21, 2012 12:03 PM:

    The shame of it is that Niall Ferguson really *could* be a very good historian if he set his mind to it. He's a brilliant man and an excellent author, and so he could have been great if he'd stuck to writing books about 19th and early 20th century German Economics. I read some of his work, and it had promise.

    But I suppose becoming a propagandist and trading off his Harvard reputation is easier and more exciting than actually doing nitty-gritty archival research.

    Crying shame.

  • John on August 21, 2012 12:18 PM:

    I think the general academic consensus is that the Rothschild book is really good, and that most of his other historical work is basically crap (The Pity of War is kind of an interesting polemic, but not particularly good history). Interesting that Ferguson himself agrees, and yet has decided to go down the path of greater hackitude rather than going back to the archives and writing something actually worthwhile.

  • Barbara on August 21, 2012 12:28 PM:

    Regarding Ferguson and empire, I always like to send people to the following review, which is truly illuminating on the subject:


  • dj spellchecka on August 21, 2012 12:31 PM:

    newsweek told politico that they don't employ a fact-checker....."We, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material."

    doing that with a known liar like niall and getting a article that's almost 100% wrong? whocouldaknowed????

  • howard on August 21, 2012 12:50 PM:

    the breathtaking thing about ferguson's dishonesty is that he is pugnaciously resistant to admitting error.

    which means, by definition, he can't be brilliant, even in his chosen field: if you can't acknowledge the possibility of your own error, then you aren't that smart, period, case frickin' closed.

  • grape_crush on August 21, 2012 2:09 PM:

    Veteran readers may remember a profile on Ferguson...

    Oh, Ferguson has graced us with his presence here on a few occasions...



  • Mike in Montgomery on August 21, 2012 2:32 PM:

    Where is Lawrence Summers when Harvard needs him? I will not defend his presidency or his personality in any way, but he did at least get on Cornel West to become more dedicated to conventional scholarship. Will the Chair of the Harvard Department of History or the current president, herself a noted historian,show that kind of resolve and tell Ferguson to return to original, archivally-based scholarship?

  • Freder on August 21, 2012 3:11 PM:

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  • TCinLA on August 21, 2012 5:10 PM:

    It also proves what pretty much anyone who survived freshman year of college figured out: 98% of perfessers are otherwise-unemployable morons.

  • TCinLA on August 21, 2012 5:15 PM:

    Now it seems writing hack editorials and being on teh TeeVee is enough. (see Goodwin, Doris Kearnes, for example)

    Yeah, "No Ordinary Time" and "Team of Rivals" were such collections of crapitude, I can't understand how they could have won Pulizters.

    Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the 2% referred to in my post above.

  • Daryl McCullough on August 21, 2012 6:01 PM:

    Newsweek has always had a diversity of opinions inside, including the bimonthly essay by George Will, but until I held the latest issue in my hands, it really had not dawned on me what a right wing journal Newsweek had become. Niall Ferguson, Megan Mcardle, an article about Fox's Megyn Kelly...somehow it has changed out from under me to something I don't want in my home. I immediately cancelled my subscription (which I have had for years).

  • Sean Scallon on August 22, 2012 7:16 AM:

    Actually it's Tina Brown who succumbs to hackery but you can't quite hiding behind the masthead.

    "But what’s remarkable is that a major U.S. publication has given a renowned historian and tenured Harvard professor six gazillion words to make a political point and he’s produced something that pretty much reads like Fred Barnes or Jennifer Rubin on an off day."

    And I'm sure Ms. Brown would like you to believe that but in reality it's the desperate throw of a desperate publication looking to call attention to itself run by PUMA-bitter ender.