Niall Ferguson and the perils of playing to your audience

History professor Niall Ferguson had another case of the sillies.

Back in 2012, in response to Stephen Marche’s suggestion that Ferguson was serving up political hackery because “he has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk,” I wrote:

But I don’t think it’s just about the money. By now, Ferguson must have enough money to buy all the BMWs he could possibly want. To say that Ferguson needs another 50K is like saying that I need to publish in another scientific journal. No, I think what Ferguson is looking for (as am I, in my scholarly domain) is influence. He wants to make a difference. And one thing about being paid $50K is that you can assume that whoever is paying you really wants to hear what you have to say.

The paradox, though, as Marche notes, is that Ferguson gets and keeps the big-money audience is by telling them not what he (Ferguson) wants to say—not by giving them his unique insights and understanding—but rather by telling his audience what they want to hear.

That’s what I called The Paradox of Influence.

But then, a year later, Ferguson went too far, even by his own standards, when during a talk to a bunch of richies he attributed Keynes’s economic views (I don’t actually know exactly what Keyesianism is, but I think a key part is for the government to run surpluses during economic booms and deficits during recessions) to Keynes being gay and marrying a ballerina and talking about poetry. The general idea, I think, is that people without kids don’t care so much about the future, and this motivated Keynes’s party-all-the-time attitude, which might have worked just fine for Eddie Murphy’s girl in the 1980s and in San Francisco bathhouses of the 1970s but, according to Ferguson, is not the ticket for preserving today’s American empire.

My theory on that one is not that Ferguson is a flaming homophobe or a shallow historical determinist (the expression is “piss-poor monocausal social science,” I believe) but rather that he misjudged his audience and threw them some academic frat-boy-style humor that he mistakenly thought they’d enjoy. He served them red meat, but the wrong red meat. Probably would’ve been better for him to have just preached the usual get-the-government-off-our-backs sermon and not tried to get cute by bring up the whole ballerina thing.

Anyway, it happened again! Fergie made a fool of himself, just for trying to make some people happy.

Brian Contreras, Ada Statler, and Courtney Douglas (link from Jeet Heer via Mark Palko) report:

Leaked emails show Hoover academic conspiring with College Republicans to conduct ‘opposition research’ on student . . . “[The original Cardinal Conversations steering committee] should all be allies against O. Whatever your past differences, bury them. Unite against the SJWs. [Christos] Makridis [a fellow at Vox Clara, a Christian student publication] is especially good and will intimidate them,” Ferguson wrote. “Now we turn to the more subtle game of grinding them down on the committee. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” . . . In the email chain, Ferguson wrote, “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” referring to Ocon.
Minshull wrote in response that he would “get on the opposition research for Mr. O.” Minshull is presently Ferguson’s research assistant . . .

It’s hard for me to imagine that Ferguson, globetrotting historian and media personality that he is, would really care so much about “grinding down” some students in a university committee. I’m guessing he was just trying to ingratiate himself with these youngsters, who I guess he views as the up-and-coming new generation of college politicians. Ferguson’s just the modern version of the stock figure, the middle-aged guy trying to talk groovy like the kids. “Some opposition research on Mr. O might also be worthwhile,” indeed. It’s the university-politics version of, ummm, I dunno, building a treehouse with some 12-year-olds, or playing hide-and-seek with a group of 4-year-olds.

The whole thing’s kinda sad in that Fergie seems so clueless. Even in the aftermath, he says, “I very much regret the publication of these emails. I also regret having written them.” Which is fine, but he still doesn’t seem to recognize the absurdity of the situation, a professor in his fifties playing student politics. As with his slurs of Keynes, the man is just a bit too eager to give his audience what he thinks they want to hear.

(pre-2000) academic historian
(2000-2005) propagandist for Anglo-American empire
(2010-2015) TV talking head and paid speaker for rich people
(2018) player in undergraduate campus politics.

At this point, he’s gotta be thinking: Could I have stopped somewhere along the way? Or was the whole trajectory inevitable. It’s a question of virtual history.

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