Authorization

There’s a longer post I intend on the ways political/social discourse gets hijacked by experts, well-covered territory to be sure but important nevertheless. In the meantime, I’m still on something of a news hiatus. So I am coming to this a little belatedly.

Apparently, Niall Ferguson, a professor dude who writes about money, wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times, beginning:

President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US as he takes a well-earned summer break after just over six months in the world’s biggest and toughest job.

This earned him some pointed criticism, comparing the president offhandedly to a black cartoon cat. This goes back and forth a bit (‘where’s the editor?’ ‘look forward to comment by Henry Louis Gates’, etc etc.), until Ferguson comes back with the response I want to get at. It’s reprinted in response to James Fallows and Paul Krugman (who calls NF out as an economic poseur, no less):

As you both took exception to my comparison of the President with Felix the Cat, my favorite cartoon character, implying it was racist and recommending I consult Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I have now done so. He has taken the trouble to consult others in the field of African-American Studies, including our colleague Lawrence D. Bobo, the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, and has written to me as follows:

“None of us thought of Felix as black, unlike some of the racially-questionable caricatures Disney used. Felix’s blackness, like Mickey’s and Minnie’s, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin color. … You are safe on this one.”

As he has made clear, you are free to publish this on your blogs. I hope that you will, and that you will also add an apology to me for the imputation of racism as well as, in Paul’s case, the gratuitous and puerile accusation of “whining” (i.e., defending myself against a slur). I remain of the view that you took this line to avoid engaging with my central points that President Obama’s administration has no visible plan for stabilizing the finances of the federal government even over ten years, and that Congress will likely impede whatever steps he may take in this direction.

Ok, the substance of this is kinda nutty. But here’s the thing: why is it reasonable in any sense that Larry Bobo gets to authorize whether a cartoon character is racist or not? Who is the ‘none of us’ in that response? Why does Bobo get to authorize Ferguson as ‘safe on this one’? We sociologists often complain that we lack authority and standing in the great debates of our time. But apparently, being a Black sociologist at Harvard gives you specific authority to adjudicate on whether a person’s analogy is racially-ok or not.

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