Damp squid: the fall of Niall Ferguson

The Scots-American we can do without.

I

Whatever happened to … Professor Niall Ferguson, and this year’s Reith Lectures? "A bit of a damp squib," reported my daughter Alison from think tank country. What went wrong?

Did some apparatchik in Room 101 at Broadcasting House think that Fergy as Reith Lecturer would fill up a useful bit of Jockland’s regional radio quota:  "fraternal assistance" coinciding usefully with NATO’s courtship of the Salmond government. Who knows? But after Reith the man seems to have overtaken Donald Trump as the Scots-American we can do without. If Scotland is to approach foreign affairs by regenerating our engineering, international law and environmental traditions, why sign up to a military-financial complex whose overblown rhetoric and confused strategy landed us in Afghanistan?

Qualms have rarely beset Ferguson, the macho face of no-holds-barred capital: blue shirt and chinos, young Connery appearance and delivery, with that hint of "You looking at me, pal?" recalling the Glasgow kiss - or head-butt. Sharp sound-bites and a deft way with the statistics – re. GNP, taxation, the killing fields or whatever – perhaps owing to Harvard Graphics as much as to Harvard Campus? Sailing in convoy with fringe-language research assistants, to pluck the difficult stuff, beefed-up "Bad History" is boosted rather than sunk by readable enemies, like Alan Bennett in The History Boys. The geld comes with influential friends on the Financial Times and Wall Street. "What first attracted you to the billionaire Rothschilds?" as Mrs Merton would have put it.

II

An invite arrived for the last Reith lecture on 28 June in Edinburgh. I was in Tuebingen, holding a Walter Scott seminar there with my conservative friend Allan Massie and organising the 22nd Freudenstadt Colloquium on European Regionalism for the SPD’s Ebert-Stiftung. I couldn’t and wouldn’t go, and what I’d read of the lectures and their feedstock Civilisation: the West and the Rest  confirmed a general disquiet. Was the guy safe at any speed?

Take page xxvi of Civilisation’s intro, where Fergy – always adept at name-checking literature – draws his "West v Rest" parallel from James Hogg’s Justified Sinner and R L Stevenson’s Master of Ballantrae:

Competition and monopoly; science and superstition; freedom and slavery; curing and killing; hard work and laziness – in each case the West was father to the good and the bad. It was just that, as in Hogg’s and Stevenson’s novel, the better of the two brothers ultimately came out on top.

Eh, wait a minute …

In both novels the good brother doesn’t "come out on top". He gets killed. George Colwan is thrown off a crag on Arthur’s Seat by Robert Wringhim; Henry Durie, whom obsessive rivalry degrades to his charming, evil brother’s level, drops dead when James is exhumed, living, from his Caribbean grave.

James Durie was a great storyteller, and the same might go for Fergy. But one senses that the motor of "History Speaking!" Inc. is running out of gas.

Those research assistants don’t always get "some suitable quotation, please" to fit the name-checks. This turns the diligent reader to an index which is very peculiar – and broadcast discourses which, in transcript, don’t improve matters at all.

No Disraeli, for a start. I turned to Civilisation from Tancred (1847), a pantomime, but with lizard wit and hard-headed realism about the Middle East. I found on page 162 Fergy on Stendhal and Scarlet and Black – in which the revolutionaries of 1830 are aligned "with the utmost force". But Scarlet and Black is about reaction not revolution: Julien Sorel, a plausible youth of the Fergy sort, with a photographic memory, impresses French Restoration conservatives trapped in their myopic game of interest-defending, only to be driven to self-destruction by its terminal paralysis as much as by his own conflicts over ambition, sex, and love. Great literature is personal and subtle, like that. Civilisation is not.

III

"The Rule of Law and its Enemies" has brought Fergy’s moment of hubris:  cometh the man, cometh the disaster.

Reith one, "The Human Hive" starts out by elaborating a Kipling tract: "The Mother Hive" is a metaphor of vibrant individual capital depreciated by welfare deformation – and spendthrift baby-boomers. Though the wise ones in the Fergy version turn out to be Germany (fiscal rectitude), and Norway (oil wealth). Between 1980-2008 Germany retained a manufacturing economy and "community banking" while Britain and Wall Street mocked "widget-making"; Norway nationalised its oil, when Britain’s "finance-friendly" Thatcher in Sir Alastair Morton’s words "blew it on the dole". These images stick, though they weren’t meant to.  

In Reith two, "The Darwinian Economy" we are in the ordure of the financial crisis. Ferguson blames public regulation of the markets, cites lots of apparently epic papers by financial authorities. Yet these (like most of the activities of high finance) are abstracted from any objective analysis of production, of the sort that  Karl Marx – ritually denounced – identified in the "Working Day" section of Capital.

Where in all this assertion is "Fordist" welfare capitalism? Ask in derelict Detroit. Where is oil, up from S1.7 to $ 100 a barrel, 1970-2012? How fares the SME/mittelstand in the domain of Microsoft and Walmart? Who trains youngsters when factories close? Where does organised/disorganised narco-crime fit into the banking balance sheets? Or the military-industrial complex, its princely Saudi clients, and their Wahabi-fanatic friends? Or London’s immigrant oligarchs who so much disturb Ferdinand Mount in The New Few? No reference to any of these in Fergy’s affluent but strangely constipated world.

In Reith three, "The Landscape of the Law" there appears the inevitable demand for property-friendly law. As in Pohl and Kornbluth’s brilliant sci-fi satire The Space Merchants (1953), the public sphere will become the corporate: General Motors takes over the USA.

Well, actually, no. The opposite had to happen once the Banksters had fouled up.  

So there’s no mention of how hyper-trading trashed marginal utility, how corporate lawyers bought the Senate. Bagehot’s pristine markets get in, but not John Ruskin’s environmentalism – 'there is no wealth but life' – and J A Hobson’s critique of the imperial plunder and inequality-driven instability that stemmed from it. Does Fergy register the post-1990 decay, shown in Misha Glenny’s reportage, from the liberal ideals of The Rebirth of History (1991) to the plutocrat-and-gangster states of McMafia (2008) and their indispensable London Geldwascherei? Don’t ask.

In Reith four our hero finally reaches Edinburgh. 'Civil Society and its Enemies' has market, Motherhood, Apple Pie, and the Big Society cleaning up the polluted Welsh beach chez Fergy that the lazy state ignores. He pats Free Schools on the head; after all he is advising Michael Gove, another noisy Scots renegade. A few representative local profs – John Haldane, John Curtis (sic), Colin Kidd – question and get slapped down. Ernest Gellner’s 'strong civil society' of the Scots 'estates' – Kirk, Law, Burghs, Colleges – is ignored.

Yet plastic-soiled beaches are the pendant to the rise of marine oil and gas, which vomits the stuff out as by-product. Chris Smout, Doyen of Scots Historians – does Fergy even know of him? –  tells in his fine "Land and Sea" essay in the Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (2012) how we have been afflicted by a commerce as "heartless and witless" as Thomas Hardy’s "nature",  which it has wrecked:

The productivity of the North Sea is one tenth of what it was in 1883 … Greenhouse gas emissions fell by 13 per cent between 1995 and 2004 … but if we take into account those emissions generated by manufacturing imports, they rose by 11 per cent over the same period.

III

Civilisation’s "killer apps" – inevitably a borrowing from disjaikit yoof thumbing its handhelds, fathoming the factflood through peremptory commands  – would have been commonplace in T S Ashton’s day. Competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic simply enable Fergy –  the M’Choakumchild for our own Hard Times –  to slot in a conventional narrative of the sort we thought Eric Hobsbawm had seen off. But "rapping for executives" is going to leave a lot out.

Look up "environment" in Civilisation’s index, and find a couple of pages, largely devoted to the evangelical American Christian take on it. Fergy may claim to be a Humean sceptic but his readership is out there. In the boondocks, in the airport bookstore, the Romneyites, the Tea Party, are thumping their Bibles and fracking God’s land. No contest.

Goldman Sachs was "vampire squid", Fergy’s Reith is damp squid: not feral but feart.  So please stop. You’re famous. You’ve appeared in The Simpsons. Think.

Go wreck a sand dune with Donald Trump? Do a Huffington? Hug trees? Guest with Springsteen, hollering against the bosses? This is showbiz, after all.

Christopher Harvie's most recent book is "Scotland the Brief: A Short History of a Nation" (Argyll Publishing, £5.99).This piece originally appeared on the radical Scottish website Bella Caledonia.

Niall Ferguson, right, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.