Niall Ferguson is a prominent and influential historian of economics at Harvard. He’s also married to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And boy did he step in it with some recent comments at a private gathering of wealthy investors, when he said that John Maynard Keynes’ economic policies were flawed because he was gay and childless.
Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, 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.
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.
This takes gay-bashing to new heights. It even perversely pins the full weight of the financial crisis on the gay community and the barren…
Throughout his remarks, Ferguson referred to his “friends” in high places. They should all be embarrassed and ashamed of such a connection to such small-minded thinking. Ferguson says U.S. laws and institutions have become degenerate. Rather, I dare say, it’s Ferguson’s arguments which are.
I’ll give Ferguson credit for issuing an actual apology:
But I should not have suggested – in an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation – that Keynes was indifferent to the long run because he had no children, nor that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’s wife Lydia miscarried.
My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life. As those who know me and my work are well aware, I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.
My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.
On the other hand, there is Andrew Sullivan, who has been friends with Ferguson for decades. He writes of the incident:
I am obviously an interested party to this. I’ve known Niall as a friend since we studied history together at Oxford. This has not deterred me from criticizing his public arguments on the merits, so I’m not a suck-up. But I have known the man closely for many years – even read Corinthians at his recent wedding – and have never seen or heard or felt an iota of homophobia from him. He has supported me in all aspects of my life – and embraced my husband and my marriage. He said a horribly offensive thing – yes, it profoundly offended me – but he has responded swiftly with an unqualified apology. He cannot unsay something ugly. But he has done everything short of that. I am biased, but that closes the matter for me.
And one other small thing: if he really believed gay men had no interest in future generations, why would he have asked me, a gay man with HIV, to be the godfather to one of his sons? And why would I have accepted?
Still, it’s difficult for me to get my head around how anyone who is not a bigot could have thought what he thought and said what he said. I don’t know him, and even if I did that would not necessarily mean that I know his innermost thoughts. We are all two people to some extent, and it is hardly unusual for someone to hold prejudices against a group while still treating some within that group, those to whom we are close, with love and respect. Human beings are complicated and we often do compartmentalize in this manner.