How do you contribute?
Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the Center for European Studies, Harvard, where he served for 12 years as the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History. He is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation Distinguished Scholar at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.
He is the author of 14 books. His first, Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation 1897-1927, was short-listed for the History Today Book of the Year award, while the collection of essays he edited, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, was a UK bestseller. In 1998 he published to international critical acclaim The Pity of War: Explaining World War One and The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild. The latter won the Wadsworth Prize for Business History and was also short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Award and the American National Jewish Book Award.
His latest book is The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook (2017).
Question: What impact does your work have on the world?
Ferguson: Oh probably none. I mean what can one do as a writer and lecturer but to write, put it out, make the arguments as best one can, and hope that somebody somewhere is listening?
All my adult life I’ve dabbled in journalism. It’s been my hobby the way other people have fishing as a hobby. And I also write for a serious reason, which is that I want as many people as possible to hear what I say. And they may also be inclined to read 1,000 page long books. So I give them the 1,000 word version or even the 900 word version. Or I make television programs. Or I do interviews for web sites; because in this idealistic way I want to communicate to the largest possible audience and not just to that privileged elite of people who get to study at Harvard.
Whether anybody is paying the blindest bit of attention is very hard to gauge. It’s not like being an opera singer. You’ve had a good night when they stand and cheer. When you write, often it’s a deafening silence. You can’t even tell if the people who buy the book have bothered to read it. And you can’t even tell if the people who’ve read the book have made the first bit of sense of it.
So I don’t know. I suppose I try to make arguments about the issues that I’ve wrote towards understanding. And I have this naïve, undying optimism that at least some people are listening to these arguments; and maybe, maybe, maybe in their decision-making, whether it’s the decision to vote or some higher order decision, they will be influenced by something I’ve said.
Recorded on: Oct 31 2008
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