Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

“Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them.”

The one problem with writing a book for users, taking a Buddhist-inflected approach to information technologies that emphasizes how people can take back control of their minds, is that I’m less likely to get onto this kind of gravy train:

Ferguson’s critics have simply misunderstood for whom Ferguson was writing that piece. They imagine that he is working as a professor or as a journalist, and that his standards slipped below those of academia or the media. Neither is right. Look at his speaking agent’s Web site. The fee: 50 to 75 grand per appearance. That number means that the entire economics of Ferguson’s writing career, and many other writing careers, has been permanently altered. Nonfiction writers can and do make vastly more, and more easily, than they could ever make any other way, including by writing bestselling books or being a Harvard professor. Articles and ideas are only as good as the fees you can get for talking about them. They are merely billboards for the messengers.

That number means that Ferguson doesn’t have to please his publishers; he doesn’t have to please his editors; he sure as hell doesn’t have to please scholars. He has to please corporations and high-net-worth individuals, the people who can pay 50 to 75K to hear him talk. That incredibly sloppy article was a way of communicating to them: I am one of you. I can give a great rousing talk about Obama’s failures at any event you want to have me at.

What’s so worrying about this trend is that Niall Ferguson, once upon a time, was the best. I’m one of the few people who has actually read his history of the Rothschilds, The World’s Banker, all 1,040 pages of the thing, and it is brilliant, a model of archival research. I find it fantastically depressing that the man who could write that book could end up writing a book like Civilization or an article with just as much naked silliness as the Newsweek cover.

I feel very much the same way about Victor Davis Hanson, a man whose military history is really absolutely first-rate, whose The Other Greeks fairly exploded with insight into Greek society and philosophy, but who’s been mailing in sloppy, thoughtless pieces ever since he left the farm for The Farm. Sad.


1 Comment

  1. Another example, I think, of how the cultures of professionalism and expertise developed in the 19th (and early 20th) centuries are being eroded–I just wonder for how long, and how badly. Usually, I fear the worst.

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