Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has a history of saying inflammatory nonsense to get attention. But recently while trying to sex up an attack on his long dead intellectual nemesis, John Maynard Keynes, Ferguson went way too far in his endless quest to widen the eyes of his audience.
Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive…
Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.
Now Ferguson has offered an apology for the remarks in the Harvard Crimson, sort of.
To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry. Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.
The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?
OK, not exactly an apology per se, more of a lament that he gave his critics a weapon to use against him. Apparently other people, who “make a living” seeing prejudice, saw prejudice in Ferguson’s prejudiced remarks. Go figure. And then there is this section of the “apology.”
Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath.
So Keynes’ homosexuality was significant to Keynes’ analysis of the German economy but, somehow, irrelevant to his analysis of economics generally? Now that Ferguson has had time to shine up his homophobia he would like to put the onus on others to prove that Keynes’ sexuality is “totally irrelevant” rather than defend his own previous assertion that it was all encompassing and drove Keynes to disregard the future. We see what you did there Niall, brilliant. I’m sure Professor Ferguson is very sorry… for having let people know his actual opinion.
Photo by January under Creative Commons license.