When renowned Harvard University historian Niall Ferguson attacked John Maynard Keynes, claiming the iconic, long-dead economist did not care about future generations because he was gay, effete, and childless, the remarks made headlines and triggered outrage.
During the question-and-answer period of a May 2 speech before a group of investors and financial advisors at the 10th Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. According to Financial Advisor reporter Tom Kostigen, Ferguson “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.” Ferguson then added, according to another reporter, that because “our children are our progeny. It is the economic ideals of Keynes that have gotten us into the problems of today.”
Ferguson’s point—as ludicrous as it is ugly—is that childless homosexuals, especially those married to ballerinas, are indifferent to the fate of future generations. It is Ferguson’s contention that because of his sexuality, Keynes purposely put forth what the right-wing Harvard historian considers to be flawed economic ideas.
A predictable brouhaha resulted, and Ferguson quickly offered his apologies for statements that he deemed to be as “stupid as they were insensitive” and insisted that his “disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation.”
The matter hardly ended there, however. This was not exactly new territory for Ferguson. The economist Justin Wolfers noted that in Ferguson’s extremely well-received 1999 book The Pity of War, Ferguson hypothesizes that what bothered Keynes about World War I, at least in part, was the fact that “the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.” Ferguson also implied that Keynes could have been influenced to become a harsh critic of the Treaty of Versailles because of his attraction to the German negotiator Carl Melchior.
Journalist Jeet Heer added further context in The American Prospect, citing both Berkeley economist Brad DeLong and the Washington Monthly’s Kathleen Geier. Heer said that as stupid as it may be, “the attempt to dismiss Keynes as someone heedless about the future because he was a childless gay man has been a staple of conservative thought for nearly seven decades.” You can find it in the work of Joseph Schumpeter, who observed in a 1946 obituary that Keynes “was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy.”
Heer notes that this view is also present in the writings of such noted right-wingers as George Will, Greg Mankiw, Mark Steyn, V.S. Naipaul, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, who as it happens, was married to neoconservative godfather Irving Kristol and is the mother of Republican strategist William Kristol. Heer points out that Himmelfarb insists that Keynes’s famous aphorism—In the long run we are all dead—has “an obvious connection with his homosexuality.” But as Heer points out, neither she, nor Ferguson, nor any of those noted above bothered to address the fact Keynes and his ballerina wife, Lydia Lopokova, very much wanted to have children but were fated to fail in this respect owing to her miscarriage.
Yet another reason to doubt the sincerity of Ferguson’s apology is his past tendency to draw connections between views of which he disapproves and personality traits that he finds disagreeable. He has been known, for instance, to equate “people [who] today buy the theory of man-made climate change” with those who embraced alleged scientific evidence supporting racist beliefs.
But perhaps the best reason to doubt the sincerity of Ferguson’s retraction, however, is his complete lack of any compelling explanation of why he would wish to say such a thing in the first place. He was not drunk or high or on pain medication or even careless in his wording. None of the reasons that can sometimes lead us to say the opposite of what we mean—save perhaps mere sniveling hypocrisy and dishonesty—can be said to apply in this case. In a casually brilliant blog post in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman writes:
Ferguson, to his credit, didn’t equivocate. He didn’t claim he “misspoke”. He did what we’re always demanding that misbehaving celebrities do: he just said sorry. Except, now that he’s done so, it’s immediately apparent that it’s almost impossible to believe that he’s being sincere. This isn’t only because his previously expressed views predispose me to distrust him, or because the Keynes-as-feckless-homosexual idea turns out to have a long heritage among like-minded commentators. It’s also because there’s something about “apologising unreservedly” for views you’ve expressed that doesn’t add up. Let’s consider the possibilities here. It’s technically conceivable that Ferguson suffers from a mental disorder that causes words to emerge from his mouth that have no connection to his true opinions. It’s also technically conceivable that on Thursday, after his speech, he happened to have a conversation in a bar, or pick up a book in his hotel library, that profoundly transformed his attitudes towards gay people or those without children. But leaving those preposterous scenarios aside, there are really only two options. One is that Ferguson didn’t believe what he said, but just says whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear; the other is that he believed it then and still believes it now. Neither of which makes him look especially good.
Reuters reporter Nicholas Wapshott adds up Ferguson’s various affiliations and points out that he has a lot riding on the reputation to which he has now done such damage. Ferguson is not only an extremely well-paid lecturer at investors conferences such as the one at which he let his mouth run loose, he also enjoys, according to Wapshott, “a chair at the Harvard Business School; membership of the faculty of Harvard’s Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies; a chair at Oxford University; a fellowship at the Hoover Institution at Stanford; a post with the British Conservatives advising on history syllabuses in schools; and an ‘advisory fellowship’ at the Barsanti Military History Center at North Texas University.”
A conservative darling and previously respected historian, Ferguson recently drew considerable media attention for his remarkably specious and fact-challenged Newsweek cover story in support of Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations. Ferguson, perhaps more than any other academic of his generation, has built an extremely successful intellectual brand for himself, most ironically, by exemplifying the anti-intellectual tendency ascribed to neoconservative William Kristol by Bernard-Henri Levy from the latter’s assessment of the strategist and pundit from a 2004 encounter. In an article in The Atlantic, French author Levy, recounting that meeting asks rhetorically of Kristol:
When you uphold one goal of a given faction, do you have to uphold all its goals? … Because you’re in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Christian Coalition and its pestilential practices? When I have dinner with someone in a restaurant, do I have to order all the courses on the menu? Or, on the contrary, isn’t it the privilege of what we call an intellectual—isn’t it his honor and, at core, his real strength, as well as his duty—to continue to defend his own colors, even the shades of those colors, even and especially when he lends his support to the government on a specific point?
By tying together homosexuality and other effete attributes with a belief in the importance of economic stimulus, as well as working in racism and global warming, Ferguson may be endearing himself to business conferences in search of reliably right-wing speakers, as well as to the audiences of Fox News and the like. But he is quite clearly betraying his chosen vocation as an honest scholar and independent intellectual
Lest I be accused of being unfair, I will let Ferguson speak for himself. Here is an excerpt from an open letter to the Harvard Community posted in The Crimson, the school’s student newspaper, in which he wrote in response to the controversy caused by his remarks:
I doubt very much that any of my vituperative online critics have made a comparable effort to understand the nature and dire consequences of prejudice. For the self-appointed inquisitors of internet, it is always easier to accuse than seriously to inquire … those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.
Shame on us.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.