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Gingrich Gets An "A" From Niall Ferguson

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

I get that self-avowed “neo-imperialist” historian Niall Ferguson relishes his gig as academia’s most celebrated colonial nostalgic/conservative reactionary. But this is too much:

I just read the transcripts of some lectures [Newt Gingrich] gave in the 1990s on “Renewing American Civilization.” They positively fizz with historical insights and brilliant brain waves. They make the case against big government as vividly as anything you’ll ever read.

This nugget of praise, apparently written in all seriousness, appeared in the December 19th edition of Newsweek, where Ferguson writes a weekly column. I too read these transcripts as part of an assignment for The New Republic (learn all about it here if you’re a print subscriber) and they simply don’t warrant this level of praise.

First let’s visit Ferguson's claim that the lectures "positively fizz with historical insights and brain waves.” The merits of this statement, grammatical and otherwise, are highly dubious. Gingrich’s “American Civilization” is exemplified by a handful of men who symbolize gumption, business success, or preferably, both. From my piece:

Franklin Roosevelt’s “we can do it” attitude ended the Depression. (No mention of the New Deal.) McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc used working-class perseverance to create the crispiest French fries. Arnold Schwarzenegger overcame poverty through “amazing power of concentration” and “created a major export industry” in the Terminator franchise.

As for his impressive “case against big government,” here, from one lecture, is Gingrich’s biggest complaint about the havoc the Great Society wrought on 1990s America. 

I would assert that no civilization can survive with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year- olds killing each other, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, and 18-year- olds getting diplomas they can't read.

Hence the need for welfare reform. To be fair, Gingrich's 1996 welfare reform law (PRWORA) has worked out better than many liberal critics thought it would. But if PRWORA had been left entirely to him, it would have been significantly more draconian. In order save a civilization ruined by the “subsidized self-destruction” of the welfare state, Gingrich said in the lectures, the social safety net should be replaced by networks of personal charity that distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor.”

In Ferguson, Newt seems to have found an ally who shares his nostalgia for Victorian notions of cultural hegemony and personal responsibility. Such kindred spirits are becoming scarce, as Gingrich’s hopes for victory in Iowa have been derailed by his opponents’ relentless negative television ads. On a related note, if Harvard becomes fed up with Ferguson’s increasingly crude scholarship (see his “6 killer apps” that established western dominance), I hear Freddie Mac is looking for a new historian.