Pankaj Mishra: nationalist fantasies and a moment of reckoning

by Toby Manhire / 18 May, 2013
Niall Ferguson's threats over a review might have made people question the imperial cheerleader line, says Indian author at writers festival.
Empire state of mind: Pankaj Mishra

A couple of years before Niall Ferguson showed his abilities with a shovel by suggesting that John Maynard Keynes’ views were compromised because he was childless and gay, and therefore unconcerned about future generations, the British conservative historian gained headlines when he threatened legal action over a review by Indian author Pankaj Mishra of his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest.

Ferguson was quick to apologise for the Keynes remarks, but he apparently seethes on over Mishra’s critique, which, he said in a long reply to the London Review of Books, "strongly implies that I am a racist".

But Ferguson’s angry reaction, and the “media circus” that followed might have inadvertently aided those who decried such cheerleaders of empire, Mishra suggested at an interesting session at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival this afternoon.

“It was really interesting to watch,” he said in a discussion intelligently chaired by Damon Salesa. “What happened was that a large amount of people came out and said these histories are fraudulent – and being amplified by large media institutions such as the BBC.”

In the leadup to and during the “war on terror”, a “very articulate British contingent” of academics attached to the loftiest universities had become regular figures in American and British media, providing an intellectual buttress to the “disastrous crusade to remake the Middle East”, said Mishra, in response to a question about Ferguson – although he pointedly never referred to him by name.

The war on terror had been propelled by “nationalist fantasies ... and yet this project was given institutional sanction ... a project driven by ideas, of a fake history of empire, a fakery project [that] depended on suppressing the victims of empire. All these lies and falsehoods were institutionalised.

“Really quite intelligent liberal minded people bought this stuff.”

The Ferguson response, however, had sparked “an interesting moment of reckoning”, in which people said, “let’s stop here for a second – why are we believing this history?”

Mishra’s latest book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, is (among other things) an eloquent riposte to Ferguson, telling the stories of a handful of 19th century “cosmopolitans” – poets, activists, journalists – from across the Asian continent.

These people’s stories offer a counterweight to the histories seeped in nationalist struggles, dominated by western European and American voices, and concentrated in the act of imperliasm. Together they prod at what Mishra calls that “strange bubble of parochialism – refusing to look at these other histories, these other narratives”.

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