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Christopher Hitchens, Niall Ferguson: Why Are Conservatives So in Love With British Intellectuals?

Do they hear an Oxford accent and conclude the individual must be more educated, charming and articulate?

Photo Credit: antoniomas/



The story of American writers and artists who decamped to Paris is a familiar one that’s been recently recast in golden hues by Woody Allen in “Midnight in Paris.” The story of British intellectuals who decamped to the United States is less familiar — and perhaps less colorful. In recent years it has consisted mainly of writers and professors. They prosper in part because of deep-seated American Anglophilism. We hear an Oxford accent and conclude the individual must be more educated, charming — and articulate — than we are. It might be true. Simon Schama, the British historian, recalls that English students practiced debating as well as impersonating 19th century orators. The tradition of debating has all but disappeared from American education, and this may have left us more tongued-tied than our British brethren.

Schama joined the floodlet of British intellectuals who moved to the United States, and now he teaches at Columbia University. Herein lies a question: to what extent do the Brits energize American intellectual life, and, especially, give voice and backbone to conservatives? To be sure, the British ex-pats are not uniformly conservatives — consider Schama himself or the late Tony Judt, both of whom leaned left. Yet — to use economic terms — the issue may be one of demand, not supply. In an era when many conservatives pray at the alter of Ronald Regan and Ayn Rand, celebrate guns-in-every house, challenge evolution and climate warming, champion life for the unborn and the death penalty for the born, they have a greater need for credible intellectuals than the left.

This need shows in the trajectory of two British-American journalists who emerged from similar Oxbridge milieus, enjoyed similar gifts of fluidity in prose and talk, and recently died within months of each other: Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn. While they both moved to New York, and wrote for the same leftist journals, their careers unfolded very differently. Cockburn remained a leftist and physically, if not culturally, moved to the margins. He settled in a hamlet of Northern California — hours from any airport — where he published attacks on the American empire and put out a small newsletter. Hitchens largely broke with the left, settled in Washington, DC, enthusiastically backed the Iraq war, and became a Vanity Fair favorite and an omnipresence on talk TV and the lecture circuit. Indeed, he was one of the most recognized intellectuals of our time. Cockburn peddled his unreviewed books from the trunk of his car. Hitchens wrote best-sellers and palled around with the great and not-so-great.

The death of Hitchens left a gaping hole in the conservative armature, but the demand has produced the supply in the person of Niall Ferguson, another Oxbridge graduate who has decamped to the States. Ferguson is blessed with all the talents of the breed; he is quick in pen and mouth. Plus he has good looks. (He was featured on an Indian TV series, “Beautiful People.”) He hosts documentaries and participates in endless television debates and interviews. He incarnates a new kind of public intellectual who not only dips into the mass media but lives in it. He blithely notes that his latest book, “Civilization,” like four of his past five volumes, “was from its earliest inception a television series as well as a book.” This past August, Newsweek gave Ferguson its cover to explain why Obama “must go.”

Is it newsworthy that Ferguson, who backed McCain-Palin in ’08, supports Romney-Ryan? Yet the focus on him may signify that few conservative intellectuals can step up to the plate and with verve back the Republican ticket. Those who are not ranters, birthers or flat-earthers keep their heads down. Ferguson keeps his head up. He is a gift for conservatives.