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”.

 
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

For the Fallen: Remembering those lost to war
71473 2017-04-24 00:00:00Z History

For the Fallen: Remembering those lost to war

by Fiona Terry

Every day before sundown, a Last Post ceremony is held at the National War Memorial in Wellington, to remember those lost in World War I.

Read more
Film review: Ghost in the Shell
71490 2017-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Ghost in the Shell

by Russell Baillie

Nothing dates faster than a past idea of the future.

Read more
The rate of technological change is now exceeding our ability to adapt
71303 2017-04-24 00:00:00Z Technology

The rate of technological change is now exceeding …

by Peter Griffin

A decade on from the revolution of 2007, the pace and rate of change are exceeding our capacity to adapt to new technologies.

Read more
Government tests electric limo for Crown fleet
71520 2017-04-24 00:00:00Z Technology

Government tests electric limo for Crown fleet

by Benedict Collins

An electric-hybrid limousine is being put through its paces to see whether it's up to the job of transporting politicians and VIPs around the country.

Read more
What growing antibiotic resistance means for livestock and the environment
71360 2017-04-23 00:00:00Z Social issues

What growing antibiotic resistance means for lives…

by Sally Blundell

Animals kept in close proximity, like battery chickens, are at risk of infectious disease outbreaks that require antibiotic use.

Read more
The little-known story of Ernest Rutherford's secret anti-submarine work in WWI
71418 2017-04-23 00:00:00Z History

The little-known story of Ernest Rutherford's secr…

by Frank Duffield

Famous for his work splitting the atom, Ernest Rutherford also distinguished himself in secret anti-submarine research that helped the Allies win WWI.

Read more
Book review: Larchfield by Polly Clark
71160 2017-04-23 00:00:00Z Books

Book review: Larchfield by Polly Clark

by Nicholas Reid

Poet WH Auden stars in time-hurdling novel – as a life coach to a lonely mum.

Read more
A Way with Words: Fiona Farrell
71329 2017-04-23 00:00:00Z Books

A Way with Words: Fiona Farrell

by Fiona Farrell

Do I have a routine? Yes indeed. Otherwise I’d never get anything done. I am very distractible. Suggest coffee and I’ll be there.

Read more