Of Ingroups and Outgroups and Niall Ferguson

I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before.  Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil.  Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup.  He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built.  He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.

Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left.  He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors.  Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right.  If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers.  In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;

Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).

Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans.  For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings.  Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:

I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.

and another by James Fallows:

Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.

I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact.  As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun.  For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin.  For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,

Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”

Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,

Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.

Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit.  You be the judge, dear reader.  While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well.  I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.

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