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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?

  1. Black cats are proverbially lucky.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.)

Originally posted to Xenos on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 02:36 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Black character in Charlie Chan movies was (0+ / 0-)

      Mantan Moreland.  Who along with Nipsy Russell was  one of the funniest comedy acts of the 30's, 40's and early 50's.

      He really was pop-eyed and not made up that way.

      His "That's why I like talking to you" act with Nipsy is a comedy treasure.

      Other than that, I like the diary.

      Today, 8/10/09, 4330 Americans, and untold Iraqis are dead, tens of thousands more maimed. Bush lied; President Obama, it is your war now.

      by boilerman10 on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 04:43:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Your logic sounds good to me! n/t (0+ / 0-)

    "The word bipartisan usually means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out." George Carlin

    by lynneinfla on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 02:39:40 PM PDT

  •  Funny how these critics don't like (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    being criticized.  It's OK to make all kinds of assumptions and criticism, but don't misunderstand their analogy or stupid arguments.  

    I agree with you that he should look into historical references when he seeks to make analogies and understand why what he meant isn't what someone else would interpret.

  •  LET'S NOT FORGET (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, etbnc

    Ferguson's high admiration for Margaret Thatcher, and his higher admiration for Chile's partial privatization of it's social insurance -- read Social Security -- program.

  •  Ferguson seems like an odd duck (0+ / 0-)

    Ferguson's Wikipedia page makes interesting reading. He's incited controversy more than once in his career.

    I looked into his career a few months ago when his book about money came out. I heard him on the radio a couple of times, and his comments seemed strangely inconsistent for someone who claimed to be so well educated.

    I consider him less than credible.

    Interesting diary. Thanks!

  •  Ferguson also loves those neoimperialist wars (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    He has said so himself:

    Let me come clean. I am a fully paid up member of the neoimperialist gang. Twelve years ago—when it was not fashionable to say so—I was already arguing that it would be "desirable for the United States to depose" tyrants like Saddam Hussein. "Capitalism and democracy," I wrote, "are not naturally occurring, but require strong institutional foundations of law and order. The proper role of an Imperial America is to establish these institutions where they are lacking, if necessary by military force." Today this argument is in danger of becoming a commonplace.... Max Boot has gone so far as to say the United States should provide places like Afghanistan and other troubled countries with "the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets." I agree.

    •  they're always so glad to praise wars (0+ / 0-)

      they never have to fight themselves.

      he's just another smug, merciless bastard, so wrapped up in abstractions that the little people don't even exist in his universe.

      To put the torture behind us is, inevitably, to put it in front of us.

      by UntimelyRippd on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 03:16:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Ferguson is not as brilliant as he might think... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    litho, kitchen sink think tank, etbnc

    after all, he was a great proponent of the invasion of Iraq as a part of the grand adventure of America as Empire. And we know how splendidly that's worked out. I have his book about the British Empire but it really didn't keep my interest and I've never finished it. Now, I'm not sure I want to ever bother.

    Just another socialist fuckstick!

    by Ian S on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 03:08:38 PM PDT

  •  So, we got here a pic (0+ / 0-)

    of Felix the Cat:

    Felix the Cat Pictures, Images and Photos

    And we put that next to a pic of Al Jolson in blackface:


    And then we've got this winner:

    Felix the Cat Pictures, Images and Photos

    What do they say?  A picture is worth a thousand...

    Richard "The Dick" Cheney: screwing America since 1969

    by litho on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 03:09:31 PM PDT

  •  It's interesting to note that (0+ / 0-)

    that one of Ferguson's children is named Felix.* Maybe he's a fan--?

    I dunno, folks--I sat through hours of Mickey Mouse & Felix the Cat shorts when I was a kid & never saw any connection with people of color. As Dr Fraud Freud is famously (if erroneously) reputed to have put it, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    * Presuming the Wiki article cited above is correct--I've been unable to find a corroborating source.

    May I bow to Necessity not/ To her hirelings (W. S. Merwin)

    by Uncle Cosmo on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 03:19:08 PM PDT

    •  gotta agree here. (0+ / 0-)

      The use of that particular combination of black body/white face was widespread at the time and used as a time-saving and mistake-correcting device by early animators. The white mask simply made facial expressions more emphatic and easier to read. Don't disregard the technological constraints on early cartoon developers and read racist undertones where none existed. Characters such as Bimbo, Flip the Frog, Mickey Mouse, and a few others were created with expedience in mind. The easier to portray, the more cartoons could be produced. There were plenty of truly offensive representations of minorities but I cringe when this "broad brush" explanation tars the pioneering efforts of this art form. And Mr. Ferguson should not commandeer subjects for analogies about which he knows naught.

  •  Where did the deficit come from, Niall? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ian S

    The wars you supported?

    Where did the bubble economy and the financial collapse come from, Niall?

    The need to cover up the deficit caused by the wars you supported?

    Which is why your own country is stuck in the same ditch as ours.

  •  Fukuyama to YOU, too, Niall F! (0+ / 0-)

    Bought-and-sold intellectualism is such a disgrace to intellect.

    Asimov said "Violence is the last resort of the incompetent."

    I say "Claiming P.C. is the last resort of the bigoted."

    Ferguson's Ye Oulde Empyre racist screed
    Tea'd me off!


    Kudos to the diarist for his credit to Felix's great artist Otto Mesmer. FYI -- Pat Sullivan (see picture) is the name of a man who once owned the merchandising rights to the character.)

    ... public service is a privilege. It's not about advantaging yourself, it's not about advancing your friends or your corporate clients.

    by MT Spaces on Wed Aug 12, 2009 at 03:35:39 PM PDT

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