May 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
By now it is no secret that I think Niall Ferguson is a pompous simpleton. I give the man credit, he has had a few good ideas, and has written a few good books, most notably Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. His recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, would have actually been a pretty good read if not for his sophomoric and embarrassing discussion of “killer apps” developed by the West and now “downloaded” by the rest of the world, especially Asia. He has also been incredibly savvy in banking his academic reputation (though he is losing that quickly) into personal gain. He has managed to land at Harvard, he advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008.
But a few days ago, Ferguson outdid himself. Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson responded to a question about John Maynard Keynes‘ famous comment on long-term economic planning (“In the long run, we are all dead”). Ferguson has made it abundantly clear in the past that he does not think highly of the most influential and important economist of all time, which is fine. But Ferguson has also made it abundantly clear that part of his problem with Keynes is not just based on economic policy. John Maynard Keynes was bisexual. He was married in 1925 to the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, with whom he remained with until his death in 1946. By all accounts I’ve read, the marriage was a happy one. But they did not have children, which obviously upsets Ferguson. But more troublesome for Ferguson is the fact that Keynes carried out many, many affairs with men, at least up to his marriage. Fourteen years ago, in one of Ferguson’s more forgotten books, The Pity of War, Ferguson goes on this bizarre sidetrack on Keynes’ sexuality in the post-WWI era, something to the effect (I read the book a long time ago) that Keynes’ life and sexuality became more troubled after the war, in part because there were no cute young boys for him to pick up on the streets of London. Seriously. In a book published by a reputable press.
So, in California the other day, to quote economist Tom Kostigen (and who reported the comments for the on-line magazine Financial Advisor), who was there:
He explained that Keynes had [no children] 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.
It gets worse.
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.
Indeed. Remember, Ferguson is, at least sometimes, a professor of economic history at Harvard. That means he has gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students in his classes. How are they supposed to feel about him when they go into his class? How is any right-thinking individual supposed to think when encountering Ferguson in class or anywhere, for that matter?
Today, Ferguson apologised on his own blog. He called his comments his “off-the-cuff and not part of my presentation” what they are: stupid and offensive. So for that, I applaud Ferguson. He has publicly owned up to his idiocy. But, I seriously doubt these were off-the-cuff comments. Those are not the kind of comments one delivers off-the-cuff in front of an audience. How do I know? Because I’ve talked in front of large audiences myself. I’ve been asked questions and had to respond. Sometimes, we do say things off-the-cuff, but generally, not. The questions we are asked are predictable in a sense, and they are questions that are asked within the framework of our expertise on a subject.
Moreover, there is also the slight matter of Ferguson’s previous gay-bashing comments in The Pity of War a decade-and-a-half ago. Clearly, Ferguson has spent a lot of time pondering Keynes as an economist. But he has also spent a lot of time obsessing over Keynes’ private life which, in his apology today, Ferguson acknowledges is irrelevant. He also says that those who know him know that he abhors prejudice. I’m not so sure of that, at least based on what I’ve read of Ferguson’s points-of-view on LGBT people, to say nothing of all the non-European peoples who experienced colonisation at the hands of Europeans, especially the British. Even in Empire, he dismissed aboriginal populations around the world as backwards until the British arrived.
I do not wish Ferguson ill, even though I do not think highly of him. But I do hope there are ramifications for his disgraceful behaviour in California this week.