Harvard's Niall Ferguson recently defended a column that he wrote for The Financial Times in which he compared President Obama to Felix the Cat. In a disparaging tone not infrequently deployed by Harvard professors, he says:
So it's racist to compare President Obama with Felix the Cat? Oh dear, the seemingly dead body of political correctness just twitched. Let's try logic, shall we?
- Black cats are proverbially lucky.
- Felix the cartoon character was a black cat, not an African-American cat - in other words, he was not one of the (quite numerous) 1920s figures in popular entertainment that mocked the mannerisms of the descendants of slaves.
- Obama is a lucky president -- so far. Compare his first six months with Carter's and Clinton's if you don't get that bit.
- As for the word "black", it's the same one used by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Harvard Black Alumni Society, among others.
The piece made an important point about the biggest threat to Obama's presidency: the seemingly uncontrollable deficit. That's the issue the Huffington Post should be focusing on, not politically correct claptrap.
Yes, Mr. Ferguson, let's try logic. It's not clear that you have succeeded.
A generous interpretation of your argument might be: Felix the Cat is lucky; Obama is lucky; therefore Obama is like Felix the Cat with respect to luckiness. Pretty simple. Not really clear what that has to do with the deficit.
But let's examine your logic.
First premise: "Black cats are proverbially lucky."
Not so. At least, not in this country. It is true that one of the artists was of German extraction (Otto Messmer), so he might well have thought that black cats were lucky. It is also true that Felix himself was portrayed as being lucky. Nonetheless, your first premise as a general statement is false. It would have been more accurate to say, "Felix is lucky."
Second premise: "Felix the cartoon character was a black cat, not an African-American cat - in other words, he was not one of the (quite numerous) 1920s figures in popular entertainment that mocked the mannerisms of the descendants of slaves."
Debatable. Felix the Cat was one of a number of cartoon characters thought to have racial associations. Others were Krazy Kat and Mickey Mouse. Felix himself had his origins in a cartoon called "Sambo and His Funny Noises." Not decisive, but suggestive. The drawing of Felix (with black body and huge white eyes) is similar to later stereotypical black characters in talkie movies of the 30s (think of some of the characters in the old Charlie Chan movies). Some of the characteristics of Felix the Cat were trickery, innocence, and dumb luck. Such characteristics owed something to then contemporary stereotypes of African Americans.
Third premise: "Obama is a lucky president."
Matter of opinion. Not fact. Moreover, it is not uncommon for those with an unconscious racist predisposition to imply that the success of non-male, non-white individuals is due to luck and not to any native talent or intelligence.
Fourth premise: "As for the word "black", it's the same one used by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Harvard Black Alumni Society, among others."
Irrelevant. This premise does appear to relate to a separate argument (viz: African Americans use the term "black" to refer to themselves; it is not necessarily racist to use the term "black" or to refer to the blackness of certain cartoon characters; therefore Niall Ferguson is not a racist). But this argument is clearly unrelated to the argument defending the position that Obama is like Felix the Cat.
Conclusion: none given.
The argument against Mr. Ferguson runs something like this: (1) Since the comparison between Obama and Felix the Cat is at best dubious; (2) since the use of the figure of Felix the Cat arguably has racial undertones; and (3) since there is no apparent connection between this comparison and the stated intent of the original post (i.e., to raise questions about the deficit); there is good reason to raise the question about a possible racial bias on the part of Niall Ferguson.
To fall back on a general attack against the phenomenon of so-called "political correctness" is a rhetorical appeal not grounded in reasoned argument.
Back to Logic 101, Mr. Ferguson.
(Perhaps back to History 101 as well, since a little historical research into the origins of the cartoon might have been in order. You're letting down the Harvard side, Mr. Ferguson.)