Ferguson and Felix: Coates’s Pseudo-Defense

Niall Ferguson met widespread vitriol today for the blunt comparison he made, in his column in the Financial Times, between Barack Obama and Felix the Cat. The comparison coming from Ferguson’s observation that—direct quote—“Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US…”

While many were inclined to find the allusion, if not racially insensitive, then just kind of dumb (“Joe Biden Reminds Me of Casper the Friendly Ghost,” TNR’s Jason Zengerle retorted)…one person, anyway, has come to Ferguson’s defense. Kind of.

Ta-Nehesi Coates blames the Ferguson Fe(lix)asco not on the professor-cum-columnist himself, but rather on the system that produced him—a system that christens columnists as pop-public intellectuals, and gives them the power to drive our cultural conversation…but that, in return, expects from those columnists systematic brilliance. Which is an unfair and generally self-defeating expectation: “once you become a brand, you feel the need to feed the beast,” Coates writes. “But the beast isn’t natural. You don’t have something important to say each and every week. And you certainly don’t have something important to say each week, at 800-1000 words. Yet the demand is still there.”

Look closely, and you can almost see an argument for newspaper-columnist-term-limits in there. Or, at least, for columns that are published according to a having-something-to-say schedule, rather than the relatively arbitrary schedule enforced by the seven-day week.

“There are people whose whole business revolves around Big Ideas,” Coates notes. “For those folks, there is immense pressure to talk—and talk a lot. But ‘Big Ideas’ are hard, and some days—nay, most days—you’ve got nothing. And the next thing you know, you’re telling the most powerful man in the world that what he really should be doing is paying more attention to a cartoon that no one watches, anymore.”

One small piece of evidence to corroborate Coates’s argument? Cartoon characters, new or old, that the post-at-will blogger has invoked in order to make his point: 0.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.