Let The Work Speak For Itself

Pankaj Mishra describes Niall Ferguson’s rise in a review of Ferguson’s latest book:

Ferguson became known to the general public with The Pity of War (1998), a long polemic, fluent and bristling with scholarly references, that blamed Britain for causing the First World War. According to Ferguson, Prussia wasn’t the threat it was made out to be by Britain’s Liberal cabinet. The miscalculation not only made another war inevitable after 1919, and postponed the creation of an inevitably German-dominated European Union to the closing decades of the 20th century, it also tragically and fatally weakened Britain’s grasp on its overseas possessions.

This wistful vision of an empire on which the sun need never have set had an immediately obvious defect. It grossly underestimated – in fact, ignored altogether – the growing strength of anti-colonial movements across Asia, which, whatever happened in Europe, would have undermined Britain’s dwindling capacity to manage its vast overseas holdings. At the time, however, The Pity of War seemed boyishly and engagingly revisionist, and it established Ferguson’s reputation: he was opinionated, ‘provocative’ and amusing, all things that seem to be more cherished in Britain’s intellectual culture than in any other.

The emphasis on being amusing over substantive work brings to mind this apt criticism of Zooey Deschanel, from Seyward Darby:  

my problem with the actress du jour has to do with a message “New Girl” pushes implicitly, but incessantly: that the measure of a person’s character—the test of what makes him or her nuanced and compelling—is the magnitude of endearing personality quirks.

(It’s a funny thing to read at the New Republic, which pretty much stands entirely for the all-too-expected quirky, “contrarian” take on current events.) Darby doesn’t mention the Onion A.V. Club’s classic description from a few years back: “go-to quirk-provider Zooey Deschanel”.

It’s a funny thing to read at the New Republic, which pretty much stands entirely for the all-too-expected quirky, “contrarian” take on current events.

Five years ago, David Orr penned a delightful negative review of a Billy Collins book in the New York Times:

the problem with his work
is not that it is disrespectful,
but that it is not disrespectful enough;

it never cracks wise
to the teacher’s face,
but meekly returns to its desk,

lending itself with disappointing ease
to the stale imagery
of teachers, desks and wisecracking.

In the end, what we need
from a poet with Collins’s talent
is not a good-natured wave

from writer to reader,
or a literary joke, or a mild chuckle;
what we need is to be drawn

high into the poem’s cloud-filled air
and allowed to fall
on rocks real enough to hurt.

Pace Ferguson, our cultural decline (to the extent such a thing exists) isn’t about a lack of confidence in our imperial capabilities, it’s about our preference for the amusing over the funny, the convincing over the accurate, the quirky over the substantive.

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