Niall Ferguson Plays The Racist Card

Niall Ferguson offers up the following defense to the Huffington Post, under the headline, "Why My Comparing Obama To Felix The Cat Was Not Racist." It's worth quoting Ferguson's post in full:

I read this with incredulity.

So it's racist to compare President Obama with Felix the Cat? Oh dear, the seemingly dead body of political correctness just twitched. Let's try logic, shall we?

1. Black cats are proverbially lucky.

2. Felix the cartoon character was a black cat, not an African-American cat - in other words, he was not one of the (quite numerous) 1920s figures in popular entertainment that mocked the mannerisms of the descendants of slaves.

3. Obama is a lucky president -- so far. Compare his first six months with Carter's and Clinton's if you don't get that bit.

4. As for the word "black", it's the same one used by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Harvard Black Alumni Society, among others.

The piece made an important point about the biggest threat to Obama's presidency: the seemingly uncontrollable deficit. That's the issue the Huffington Post should be focusing on, not politically correct claptrap.

The problems with this post are rather incredible. It's nice to know that Ferguson's comparison wasn't racist. Of course if you click through the link you'll see that HuffPo accuses him of no such thing. But Ferguson is too good to let the facts stand in the way of flamboyant argument. Hence, the Racist Card.

Look, it's not so bad to say something stupid. Writers who work at high volume are bound to do so from time to time--the expectation of perfection is absurd. Less absurd is the expectation of intellectual honesty, of a writer saying "You know what, I had a point, but I blew the lede." Less absurd is the expectation of respect for the reader, of the writer engaging critics without lying about the actual criticism. Less absurd is the expectation that the writer actually understands the tropes he's employing, that he knows the difference between a four-leaf clover (good luck) and a black cat (bad luck).

I understand the impulse to double-down when you're under attack. But I don't think it's too much to ask people, fortunate enough to think for a living, to do their job. I don't think it's too much to ask writers to refrain from intellectual cowardice. I don't think it's too much to ask Niall Ferguson to, for God's sake, stop digging.

UPDATE: I've been informed that in some cultures black cats are lucky. So, I'd rectract the point about tropes. I still find his defense incredibly dishonest.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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