A different spin on the original.
Last week Niall Ferguson said something stupid about John Maynard Keynes. Asked to comment on Keynes’ famous observation “In the long run we are all dead,” Professor Ferguson demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of the observation, then suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay. This was
doubly triply quadruply infinitely stupid. First, plenty of straight people have no children, and plenty of gay folks do. First Second, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second Third, he had forgotten that Keynes’ wife Lydia miscarried. Fourth, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he completely mangled the intended meaning of Keynes’ quote in the first place. And so on.
Ferguson was criticized for his offensive stupidity and offered an immediate and unqualified apology for the remark he made “in an off-the-cuff response,” saying that “[his] disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation.” Except then it turned out that Ferguson has been making exactly same “off the cuff response” about Keynes’ sexuality as pertains to his economic philosophy for at least the last 20 years:
Niall Ferguson’s empty apology niallferguson.com/blog/an-unqual… These were not ‘off the cuff’ remarks. I heard him make the same over 20 years ago.
— Michael Kitson (@MichaelKitson) May 4, 2013
Then it turned out he’s also made similar arguments in print, specifically that Keynes opposed the Versailles Treaty ending World War I because its terms were too onerous upon Germany and Keynes had the hots for a German banker and government advisor named Carl Melchior. No, really. It’s in his “open letter,” linked above, from today:
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.
The historian, unlike the economist, is concerned with biography as well as with statistics. Keynes’ first biographer, Roy Harrod, drew a veil over Keynes’ complex private life. But the author of the more recent and definitive three-volume life, Robert Skidelsky, felt no such inhibition. Anyone who reads that great work will find the question of Keynes’ homosexuality treated sensitively and intelligently and related, where appropriate, to his work. Keynes’ fellow members of the Bloomsbury Group would have approved, had they lived to read Skidelsky’s book, for they had no doubt at all that sexual orientation had a significance beyond the narrow confines of the bedroom, and that intellectual life and emotional life were intertwined.
So, sorry but not sorry?
Naturally people have started to think that Professor Ferguson might just be a wee bit homophobic, which would certainly not be the first time he’s been accused of bigotry. Pankaj Mishra leveled that charge against him in a review of his totally-not-bigoted-sounding-in-the-least-book, Civilization: The West and the Rest:
As in Ferguson’s other books, a vast bibliography trails the main text of Civilisation, signalling the diligent scholar rather than the populist simplifier. But he suppresses or ignores facts that complicate his picture of the West’s sui generis efflorescence. Arguing that the Scientific Revolution was ‘wholly Eurocentric’, he disregards contemporary scholarship about Muslim contributions to Western science, most recently summarised in George Saliba’s Islam and the Making of the European Renaissance. He prefers the hoary prejudice that Muslim clerics began to shut down rational thought in their societies at the end of the 11th century. He brusquely dismisses Kenneth Pomeranz’s path-breaking book The Great Divergence, asserting that ‘recent research has demolished the fashionable view that China was economically neck to neck with the West until as recently as 1800.’ But he offers no evidence of this fashion-defying research. Given his focus on the ineptitude and collapse of the Ming dynasty, you might think that their successors, the Qing, had for nearly two centuries desperately clung on in a country in irreversible decline rather than, as is the case, presided over a massive expansion of Chinese territory and commercial interests. Each of Ferguson’s comparisons and analogies between the West and the Rest, reminiscent of college debating clubs, provokes a counter-question. The rational Frederick the Great is compared to the orientally despotic and indolent Ottoman Sultan Osman III. Why not, you wonder, to the energetic Tipu Sultan, another Muslim contemporary, who was as keen on military innovation as on foreign trade?
‘Something,’ Nick Carraway says of Tom Buchanan, ‘was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.’ ‘Western hard power,’ Ferguson blurts out in Civilisation, ‘seems to be struggling’; and the book exemplifies a mood, at once swaggering, frustrated, vengeful and despairing, among men of a certain age, class and education on the Upper East Side and the West End. Western Civilisation is unlikely to go out of business any time soon, but the neoimperialist gang might well face redundancy. In that sense, Ferguson’s metamorphoses in the last decade – from cheerleader, successively, of empire, Anglobalisation and Chimerica to exponent of collapse-theory and retailer of emollient tales about the glorious past – have highlighted broad political and cultural shifts more accurately than his writings. His next move shouldn’t be missed.
I could outsource the rest of this post to Noah Smith, who took Ferguson to the proverbial woodshed for an article he wrote based on Civilization (sorry for the long quote):
Now, before I move on to the really annoying part of Ferguson’s article, this talk of “non-Western operating systems” has already rankled. What the heck is the “operating system” of a society? What inherent quality of “Western-ness” does Ferguson imagine Japan fundamentally lacks, such that even though Japan has representative democracy, property rights, competitive capitalism, work ethic, science, and medicine, the Land of the Rising Sun is still running on a “non-Western operating system”?Is it Christianity? But then South Korea would be “Western,” since it is majority Christian (and far more religious than, say, France). And Ferguson cites Korea as a “non-Western” civilization in his very next paragraph (which I’ll get to in a moment).Is it geography? Would Ferguson exclude Australia and New Zealand from “the West”?I think you see what I’m getting at, and just to drive it home, here’s Ferguson’s next paragraph:
Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here. And you don’t have to spend too long at any major U.S. university to know which students really drive themselves: the Asians and Asian-Americans. (emphasis mine)So a sign that American civilization is in decline is that…Asian-Americans study hard?Labeling Asian Americans as “non-Western” gives away the game completely. By “Western,” Niall Ferguson is not referring to a geographic region, a political system, an economic system, or a religion. He is not even referring to a specific set of countries. He is referring to a set of people; people who have pale pinkish skin, fine wavy hair, and prominent eye ridges. By “Western,” Niall Ferguson means “white people.” Asian Americans may have American passports, Ferguson thinks, but civilizationally speaking they are permanent foreigners. This interpretation is basically confirmed a couple paragraphs later:
Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point.When you admit to taking your cues from America’s most prominent academic racist, you’ve pretty much laid your cards on the table.
There’s also the subject of Professor Ferguson’s streak of Islamophobia to mention:
The hierarchies are not only economic or rooted in style of life. Ferguson’s Western triumphalism is well-known. I was at a conference where his comments about the (perfectly nice) Oxford Islamic Center was brought up, and he shouted, “They’re in Oxford!” Ferguson thinks it was a good thing for Oxford graduates to run, and loot, Muslim countries at gunpoint during the past two centuries, but is appalled that Muslim intellectuals might turn up for peaceful academic discussions in the old college town. He was all for the Iraq War and only carped that it couldn’t be successful unless the US committed to run Iraq for decades. Presumably this is because Iraqis (Muslims after all) are juveniles that need the firm adult Western hand. The Conservative fascination with reviving a long dead and impracticable Empire is just one more manifestation of a desire for social hierarchy. The imperial masters are on top.
Professor Ferguson responds to such criticisms either by threatening a libel lawsuit or by using the “some of my best friends are X” defense, using as examples his marriage to a Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the fact that Andrew Sullivan, a gay man, served as godfather to one of his children. Of course these are not especially compelling pieces of evidence, but this is what he’s got to work with. To wit, from his open letter today:
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.
Of course, he didn’t just “criticize President Obama.” He said:
President Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat. One of the best-loved cartoon characters of the 1920s, Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky. And that pretty much sums up the 44th president of the US as he takes a well-earned summer break after just over six months in the world’s biggest and toughest job.
This is of course in no way racist, because Felix the Cat being black, like Barack Obama, is just essential detail to his point for some reason passing understanding.
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?
Yes, why indeed.
Now that Professor Ferguson, the “historian” who is really more pundit than scholar, the Very Serious Pundit Because He Is A Serious Academic who can’t manage to write a Newsweek cover story without mangling virtually every “fact” in the piece, has moved from the “I’m sorry” phase of his apology to the “my critics are the real bigots” phase, it’s important to keep these things in mind. No, the charge of racism, or homophobia, or bigotry, should not be tossed about lightly; it can stifle real dialogue and damage careers unfairly. On the other hand, when a thing walks, talks and quacks like a duck pretty much constantly for two decades, you can probably feel safe pulling out your favorite orange sauce recipe.
It’s nice that Professor Ferguson apologized for this one time he said something stupid and bigoted. We probably shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for him to apologize for the many, many other stupid, bigoted things he’s said and written over the years.