I’m not sure how to deal with Niall Ferguson. On one hand, he’s an atheist and married to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which I guess makes him part of the New Atheist movement. On the other hand he’s written a great deal of high- and middle-brow crap in the past few years. Key example is his article attacking President Obama, which generated a cottage industry of economists debunking it and forced Newsweek to admit that they don’t fact check.
Ferguson entered the public sphere by writing a two-volume history of the Rothschilds, which was scrupulously researched and well received. That work gave him a great deal of credibility among historians.
Since then he’s produced a number of works that were increasingly political and decreasingly researched. He’s got the same pro-imperial attitude that was so irritating in Christopher Hitchens, but he doesn’t have Hitch’s wit to back it up. He wants the US to take up the white man’s burden and seems distressed that we don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to give him the Empire he waxes nostalgic for.
He also seems to be drinking from the well right-wing of slander. Just recently he was asked a question about John Maynard Keynes. He responded with a slur:
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.
This is apparently a bit of pop-psychology that is found among conservatives. Never mind the absurdity of it, Brad DeLong points out that Ferguson misunderstands Keynes completely. That should be it; Ferguson should have to backtrack and explain how he misread Keynes’ whole economic argument. Instead, he’s issuing waffling apologies about how this was an off the cuff remark that he shouldn’t have made.
As far as I’m concerned, Ferguson has now spent whatever capital he had as a historian. I’m starting to hope that he storms off in a huff and goes back to Britain.