Fur flies as top academics trade blows over Felix the Cat (and race)

British historian feuding with Nobel winner compares US President to a cartoon character.
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The Independent Online

Niall Ferguson, the historian, debater and occasional television presenter, has committed the greatest sin of any Briton living in America. At Harvard nowadays, he has been a bit too damned clever. Americans see that Brit Wit and tend to react badly, especially if they consider themselves in competition with you.

In this case, the rival is a certain Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economics professor at Princeton University, who is also good with words. Indeed, he is a columnist for The New York Times. He doesn't much care for our Mr Ferguson, whom he calls a "poseur" and a "whiner".

Academic spats usually burst forth like fireworks, illuminating very little but providing the rest of us with a few moments of amusement. This one, however, has been simmering since April, when the two men clashed during a panel discussion in New York about economic policy.

Mr Ferguson, a Glaswegian, rehearsed the argument that stimulus spending was steering America into a deficit ditch. Mr Krugman guffawed, loudly. Only a few days passed before Mr Krugman, a stimulus spending hawk, said in his blog that Mr Ferguson's views were "really sad", "depressing" and belonged "to the dark ages of economics". Using an article in The Financial Times, Mr Ferguson fired back with some insults of his own.

"It is a brave or foolhardy man who picks a fight with Mr Krugman," he averred. "Yet a cat may look at a king, and sometimes a historian can challenge an economist." He suggested that the "patronising" Mr Krugman should take a refresher course in Keynesian economics. Mr Krugman responded that his foe had not "bothered to understand the basics", adding: "It's all style, no comprehension of substance."

Their debate, at the outset couched in equations about interest rates on government bonds and inflationary pressures, is by no means a trivial one. When the American public is asked by pollsters what most worries them, the answer is the ballooning federal deficit. But Mr Ferguson might find himself slightly less under siege in future if he could resist feline references altogether.

He began another FT article this month likening President Barack Obama to the cartoon character Felix the Cat. "Felix was not only black," he wrote. "He was always very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th President of the US."

It was ill-advised, not just because in the eyes of most Americans black cats denote bad luck rather than good. It also provoked what might be called a sense of humour failure if there was ever a sense of humour when it comes to things "black" and US academia. Mr Ferguson had erred into the terrible thickets of "racial allusion" or, more bluntly, racism.

"I cannot fathom the state of mind that led Ferguson to think this was a good way to introduce a column," Mr Krugman blurted in his blog. "Admittedly, it doesn't really distract from his larger point, since as far as I can tell he doesn't have one." But the best – the silliest – was yet to come. Seeing he had struck treacherous waters, Mr Ferguson blogged himself that though Felix was black, he was not, in fact, "African-American" (we are talking fur not skin). This led to Mr Krugman's conclusion that the Scot is a "whiner". The whiner then went to the best person around to adjudicate on matters of race and manners, Henry Louis Gates, who recently made headlines after a little altercation outside his Harvard home with a white Boston police officer.

After consulting with friends, Professor Gates, also of Harvard, came to the rescue. "None of us thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used. Felix's blackness, like Mickey's and Minnie's, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin colour ... you are safe on this one."

Mr Ferguson then asked, nay "demanded", that the Gates ruling be put up on the Krugman blog.

Mr Krugman obliged in a posting on the subject last week under the tagline "Black Cats", but he could not let Mr Gates have the last word. "The mind reels," he said. "For the record, I don't think Professor Ferguson is a racist. I think he's a poseur." You wonder when they find time to teach.

Niall Ferguson

*Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University.

*What does he argue?

He is for the conservative approach, telling economists to be wary of too much debt.

*Ferguson proposed handing out prizes to public figures: "The gold medal for staving off depression to the Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke, silver to China's leaders for their impressive stimulus... and the president deserves at least bronze."

Paul Krugman

*Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics, and op-ed columnist for the New York Times.

*What does he argue?

He has long argued for increased spending to stimulate the economy.

*Any other pearls of wisdom? His interest in science fiction novels as a teenager drove him to become an economist, in particular the series by Isaac Asimov, the Foundation novels.

Academic spats

*Hogg and Carruthers

In 1997, Patrick Scott Hogg claimed to have found an unknown poem by Robert Burns. Gerard Carruthers, head of Scottish literature at Glasgow University, dismissed his findings and claimed Hogg made abusive phone calls to his home. Hogg threatened legal action.

*Dershowitz and Finkelstein

Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, tried to persuade a publisher not to print a book by Norman G Finkelstein, of DePaul University, in which he claimed that supporters of Israel accused their enemies of anti-Semitism instead of answering their criticisms. Finkelstein had previously claimed Dershowitz did not write one of his own books.