Cats Have Nine Lives on the Web, Too

Unbelievably, the Niall Ferguson-Felix the Cat debacle has popped up again.

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The stars of academia and journalism don't make it into tabloids, but that doesn't mean they don't try. The Atlantic Wire already covered rounds one and two of the Niall Ferguson-Felix the Cat debacle, which started with Ferguson's controversial column in the Financial Times. Following are the main points of the round three.

  • Ferguson: Professor Gates Is With Me  Responding to Fallows's earlier-expressed wish to see Ferguson discuss his column with fellow Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates (of the recent racial profiling controversy), Ferguson included a note from his colleague: "You are safe on this one," Professor Gates pronounced. "None" of those Gates consulted in the African-American Studies field "thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used." Professor Ferguson requested that Fallows and Professor Krugman publish the note on their blogs:
I hope that you will, and that you will also add an apology to me for the imputation of racism as well as, in Paul's case, the gratuitous and puerile accusation of "whining" (i.e., defending myself against a slur). I remain of the view that you took this line to avoid engaging with my central points that President Obama's administration has no visible plan for stabilizing the finances of the federal government even over ten years, and that Congress will likely impede whatever steps he may take in this direction.
  • Beside the Point  "What can I say?" wrote Paul Krugman, who was the first to post the exchange last night. "While the Ferguson line was deeply offensive [...] it never occurred to me that it had anything to do with the question of whether Felix the Cat was supposed to be African American." Criticizing Ferguson's comprehension of economics, both in the column in question and in general, Krugman clarified his position: "For the record, I don't think that Professor Ferguson is a racist. I think he's a poseur."
  • No Apology  "I don't think and didn't say that Niall Ferguson is a racist," Fallows began. But Fallows was not about to apologize. Proposing a "thought experiment" in which he began a column saying Jackie Chan reminded him of Pluto ("Pluto was not only yellow. He was also very, very likeable."), Fallows made his case:
I could go on to discuss policy aspects of Jackie Chan's controversial comments about democracy in China--as Ferguson goes on to discuss Obama's problems with the budget deficit. But 99% of the readers would think, What the hell? And if asked what I was doing, I would not try to relitigate the case, as Ferguson is now doing in several venues, but would recognize that I'd blundered and back off. But apparently that's just me.

A thought-provoking conclusion indeed: very few in the opinion world--whether bloggers or columnists, whether right, wrong, or confused--know how to "back off."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.