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Jesus historian Niall Ferguson and the improving standards of public discourse

History professor (or, as the news reports call him, “Harvard historian”) Niall Ferguson got in trouble when speaking at a conference of financial advisors. Tom Kostigen reports:

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. . . . Ferguson . . . says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. . . .

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.

According to Henry Blodget, “Dan Jamieson at Investment News, also reported the remarks.”

It will be interesting to see what Ferguson’s next steps are. I’m guessing he’ll eventually get to the full groveling apology, but other options include affirmation (“Yes, Keynes was a poof who didn’t know jack about econ!”), explanation (“Statistics show that gay and childless people invest less in the future”), flat-out denial (“I never said such a thing”), a mumbling quasi-denial (“I don’t recall saying such a thing . . . must have been misquoted”), an appeal to academic freedom (“No, I’m not embarrassed to speculate in a politically incorrect fashion”), or, of course, the non-apology apology (“I’m sorry that people chose to be offended over my remarks”).

In short, he can go in two directions: (1) cut his losses or (2) aim to be a cult hero of political correctness in the Larry Summers mold (although I doubt that Larry Summers himself is going to endorse this particular anti-gay move).

In some ways, this is a higher-profile version of the choice that Ferguson had to make awhile ago, whether to follow his counterparts such as Jeffrey Frankel and John Yoo into embarrassing hackery, or stay on the academic straight and narrow (so to speak). A couple years ago, the choice was to keep doing academic research/writing/learning or to make provocative speeches saying silly things to rich people for big bucks. Now that Ferguson is upping the ante by antagonizing entirely new groups of people, he’ll have to decide where to go next.

The good news, though, is I think this whole story is a sign of improving standards of public discourse, at least when it comes to outspoken professors. Back in the old days, there were respected academics who were Stalinists, Fascists, you name it. Nowadays when you take an extreme position, you’re expected to defend it, otherwise you don’t get taken seriously any more. (For example, academic policy advocates such as Krugman and Mankiw piss off lots of people, but they defend their controversial statements.)

P.S. From his webpage:

Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University. He is a resident faculty member of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies. He is also a Senior Research Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford University, and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

But he’s always referred to as “Harvard historian” or “Harvard professor” Niall Ferguson. Doesn’t seem so fair to Oxford and Stanford. I propose that future news articles refer to Ferguson as “Jesus historian” or “Hoover historian.” These have a good ring to them, no?

P.P.S. Ferguson chose the first option, a complete apology:

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.

This retraction seems like a reasonable move to me. After all, everybody makes mistakes.

As I wrote in comments, I’m guessing that, in the heat of the moment, Ferguson thought that some Keynes-bashing would be popular with a business crowd. What happened is, he misjudged his audience. He threw them the wrong flavor of red meat.

P.P.P.S. More here.

52 Comments

  1. Notso Fast says:

    The “effete” term sounds kind of nasty, but I haven’t see a complete quote. And somehow I doubt Ferguson is crudely hostile to gay people, being a worldly humanities professor and all. The reference to poetry wasn’t necessarily said in any sort of hostile fashion–it was probably just a slightly humorous aside. (Andrew, if we had a collection of the less funny of your humorous classroom asides, would they all look great written down and inspected?”

    More interesting is the substance: a suggestion that childless people (not coextensive with gay but obviously correlated) are less interested in the future than others. That’s an empirical proposition, right?

    A simple starting point would be to survey people about how much they think about the future beyond their own lives, how much they care about it (this could be asked about using hypothetical tradeoffs, eg how much money you’d give up now to prevent harm happening to future generations, etc.) (I wonder if you personally would bet a lot of money there would be no correlation between having children and caring about the world of the future?)

    By suggesting that Ferguson deserves to be denounced, aren’t you making it less likely anyone will ever dare investigate that question? Criminalizing empirical propositions is part of your “improving standards of public discourse”?

    • Andrew says:

      Notso:

      Regarding your last paragraph: I did not “suggest that Ferguson deserves to be denounced,” nor did I recommend “criminalizing empirical propositions.”

      Also, some students actually did compile a list of 75 of my classroom asides from last semester. I’m not embarrassed by any of them.

      • gwern says:

        > Also, some students actually did compile a list of 75 of my classroom asides from last semester. I’m not embarrassed by any of them.

        What an interesting thing to do. Were they humorous, or are your asides just that profound and enlightening?

        (I am reminded of when I was reading through the primary & secondary literature to write http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yunmen_Wenyan and came across the story that two of Ummon’s students preserved various incidents and sayings by making clothes out of paper so they could write them down on the spot! They mustn’t’ve’d a very good memory if he felt the need for such measures…)

        • Andrew says:

          Gwern:

          I’d like to think that my asides were humorous, profound, and enlightening, but of course I’m not the best judge of that! I suggest you ask some of the students in my courses.

      • Notso Fast says:

        It turns out that Ferguson’s thought crime was not original–the idea has been kicked around over the years by a variety of respected intellectual and economic historians:

        http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/347396/keynes-was-gay-not-theres-anything-wrong

        Omigosh, Andrew, isn’t it disturbing to think they *got away with* these thought crimes and paid no career price for them?!

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “Effete” is a valid description of Lytton Strachey, the leader of the Bloomsbury Group, of which Keynes was a member. See Paul Johnson’s account of Strachey’s influence on Britain’s catastrophic turn between the Wars toward pacifism and appeasement in “Modern Times.”

  2. Notso Fast says:

    Andrew:

    Sorry if I overstated what you said. But you did imply that people seizing on Ferguson’s comments was a sign of “improving standards of public discourse”.

    Another view would be: it is a sign of a Gotcha era which makes any sensible professor avoid even thinking about or mentioning any sort of proposition which might offend some group (or at least, some favored group), even if it were true. Isn’t that a bad thing not a good thing?

    Another point: aren’t you bothered by the fact that the description of what he said involves so few consecutive words of direct quotation and so much stitching of bits of quotation into lots of words chosen by the writer? Maybe your jokes are all innocent but we haven’t tried stitching them into other people’s characterizations of what you might have been saying–if you give us that license I bet you might be embarrassed by some of the results.

    I believe the same was true of the original Larry Summers incident: Summers had merely enumerated possible explanations for different numbers of men and women having faculty positions in math-related fields, without even endorsing any of these possibilities. Merely alluding to a politically incorrect logical possibility was enough to make him a thought criminal.

    Did that incident also promote “improving standards for public discourse”?

    • Andrew says:

      Notso:

      I don’t think anybody is questioning Ferguson’s right to say whatever obnoxious speculations he might choose to make in a paid talk for a group of financial advisors. But I think it’s good for people to call him on it. If he wants to say he wasn’t serious, it was just a joke in poor taste, that’s fine. Or if he wants to double down and defend his claim, perhaps using his experience as a historian, that’s fine too. As is, it seems to me that he’s lending his credibility (earned via actual historical research) to barroom-style philosophizing that, in this case, was not quite what his audience wanted to hear. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Ferguson has a pattern in recent years of spouting out low-grade punditry for $; that’s what he does now. But if that’s what you want to do, you gotta know your audience.

    • merian says:

      I am continually astounded by the extraordinary thin skin of people in high positions when their public statement are meeting with reasoned albeit vigorous criticism, or at least the delicateness of constitution granted to them by their defenders. Admittedly, in the age of the internet it is possible that many people give voice to the obvious reaction simultaneously, which can lead to a little bit of cacophony, but hey, that’s life.

      Seriously, “thought criminal’? No, but just because someone’s called Summers or Ferguson with impressive titles to his name doesn’t make their trite, uninformed idle speculation any less trite and uninformed. Suggesting women are biologically inferior (oops, sorry, “different in a way making them less suited to occupy some socially desirable positions”) or teh gayz just self-centered parasites isn’t making promising empirical proposition that is likely to inspire new axes of research. In the best case, it’s showing that the speakers haven’t kept up with the topics they’re talking about. More likely, it’s hard to shake off the taint of the generations who’ve used such categorical judgements to justify discriminatory treatment.

      IOW, I’m completely with Andrew Gelman’s analysis that having higher expectations of our public thought leaders is an excellent thing.

      • Jim says:

        Both Summers’ and Ferguson’s arguments are reasonable and at least Summers’ claims are supported by plenty of evidence. If Ferguson had compared heterosexual men with and without children rather than a gay and straight man, no one would have batted an eyelid but rather would have regarded Ferguson’s argument as plausible or even self-evident.

        So this has nothing to do with Summers and Ferguson being “uninformed”. Rather, their mistake was to publicly express views that (allegedly) reflect badly on officially designated victim groups, damaging the self-esteem of those poor oppressed folks, or whatever. I am continually astounded by the delicateness of constitution granted to the members of these victim groups by their defenders. Of course, there’s nothing new in this. People have always wanted to punish those who offend against sacred values, no matter how reasonable the arguments of the perpetrators are.

        • merian says:

          Jim, re: “… reasonable …”, “… supported by plenty of evidence…”: Just because you affirm that doesn’t make it true. Also, let me go on the record that idle speculation about men with vs. without children regarding psychologizing interpretations of theoretical frameworks created by them is just as ridiculous as the gay vs. straight guy speculation though of course somewhat less insulting.

          As for the rest, suit yourself and get all huffy and offended when the rabble dares to require actual thought and expertise from the great men.

        • Norman says:

          *Plenty* of us would have batted an eyelid, because even when applied to heterosexual men with and without children, it is very far from self-evident. In that case it would been self-evident that Ferguson was making claims to suit his audience without a shred of actual evidence to support it. In reality, Ferguson was making claims to suit his audience without a shred of actual evidence to support it, and used it as an opportunity to degrade a group of people he presumed his target audience looked down on. Ferguson has manifestly lost all interest in actual intellectual discussion, even on controversial topics. People have always wanted to defend those who profess sacred values, no matter how unreasonable the arguments of the defenders are.

        • Chris G says:

          > Both Summers’ and Ferguson’s arguments are reasonable and at least Summers’ claims are supported by plenty of evidence.

          Please, go on…

    • bnfenster says:

      Ferguson is a high-priced prostitute for right-wing extremists. He lies and tells them what they want to hear and they pay him highly for it. Like a prostitute engaged in role-playing, no one should for a minute think that anything he says has anything to do with reality.

  3. Jim says:

    Some years ago, the economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe made remarks similar to Ferguson’s during a lecture, and was then slapped with a “non-disciplinary letter of instruction” by his university, according to which he had “created a hostile or intimidating educational environment in violation of the University’s policies regarding discrimination as to sexual orientation”. However, Hoppe refused to recant, and eventually the university rescinded all charges against him.

    I think it’s a reasonable hypothesis that childless homosexuals and family men may have different time preferences. It’s not an “extreme” view that should be censured.

  4. Brett says:

    Looks like he tried to go for the first option right away: “an unqualified apology” – http://www.niallferguson.com/blog/an-unqualified-apology

  5. Thinkling says:

    With all due respect, this is a tempest in a teapot. Other than a snarky word, this was all intellectual fair game. The ghost of George Orwell must surely be smirking in the grave to see improving standards of public discourse come to mean flippant disparaging of unpopular but honest ideas.

    There are indeed recent examples of people saying embarrassing and even legitimately scornable things. But the reactions to this are far more embarrassing to good discourse than the statements themselves.

    • Andrew says:

      Thinkling:

      You might well be right about Orwell, as he did write some homophobic things during his career.

      Also, you may be giving Ferguson too much credit when you say his ideas on Keynes are “unpopular but honest.” My guess is the opposite, that Ferguson doesn’t really believe this stuff but he thought that Keynes-bashing would be popular with a business crowd.

      What happened is, Ferguson misjudged his audience. He threw them the wrong flavor of red meat.

  6. Corey says:

    Surely it would be “Jesus College historian”, not “Jesus historian”. (“Harvard” needs no such disambiguation.) (Yes, I know you’re joking.)

  7. Roger says:

    His apology says: “It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life.”

    Would it be equally wrong to suggest that Romney’s approach to economic policy was inspired aspects of his personal life? Or Obama’s approach? If so, then we should hear apologies from most of those commenting on last year’s election.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      In the 2012 election, Mitt Romney’s share of the vote by state correlated with the white total fertility rate by state at a level of r = 0.83. So, yes, there is evidence of a link between fertility and ideology.

      http://www.vdare.com/articles/happy-white-married-people-vote-republican-so-why-doesnt-the-gop-work-on-making-white-peopl

      • Chris G says:

        So we should expect a GOP campaign to knock up white women in swing states?

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Read the article and see.

          • Chris G says:

            I did.

            > What the Years Married measure implies is that the people who vote Republican tend to be happy white people.

            But to what extent do happy white people tend to vote Republican? Related: It would be interesting to see how the definition of “happy” varies from state-to-state, i.e., what self-identified happy people cite as the source of their happiness. (I don’t doubt that affordability of housing plays a role.)

            Given the GOP’s hostility to public policy conducive to “affordable family formation” and the Democratic party’s nominal support of it, it would be more than a little ironic the adoption of pro-affordable-family-formation policies turned the beneficiaries more Republican.

            > California used to be the paradise for the common man. Housing was no more expensive than in the rest of the country and the public schools were good. Inevitably, there was a huge influx from the other states, driving up real estate prices. But, quite evitably, there was gigantic illegal immigration into California, which devastated the public schools.

            Perhaps Prop. 13 also played a role?

  8. Steve Sailer says:

    Edmund Burke married and had one child, but M.J. Sobran once wrote that that the 1970s scholarly rumor that Burke’s semi-scandalous relationship with a kinsman (named, confusingly, Will Burke) may have been homosexual in nature should not be dismissed out of hand.

  9. Steve Sailer says:

    If Ferguson had criticized Keynes for his avid, lifelong promotion of eugenics, he would have not heard a peep of criticism.

    After all, in 1911 Keynes, along with Ronald A. Fisher, R.C. Punnett, and Horace Darwin, helped found the U. of Cambridge Eugenics Society. Keynes was a eugenics activist throughout his life, serving as an official of the national eugenics promotion organization from 1937-1944. In the year of his death, 1946, Keynes made a speech citing eugenics “‘the most important and significant branch of sociology.”

    Ferguson just forgot who is riding high at the moment and who is not.

  10. Steve Sailer says:

    There’s an enormous academic literature discussing how the sexual orientation of the Bloomsbury intellectuals (e.g., Keynes, Strachey, Woolf, etc.) influenced their social, political, and cultural views.

    Ferguson’s faux pas was not in alluding to this endless discussion, but in being on The Wrong Side of it, in suggesting that homosexuality might have negative as well as positive consequences. Rather than seeing progress in intellectual standards, I see deterioration. As Lenin said, the central question is always Who – Whom? and 21st Century intellectuals appear to be coming around more and more to Lenin’s point of view of seeing every question as one of who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys, with identity politics categories offering quick and easy answers to that question (e.g., Gay = Good).

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      Actually I think the problem was that Ferguson did not seem to be engaging with an open mind but rather seemed to be just trying to throw mud at Keynes as if he (Ferguson) were operating a political campaign rather than engaging in academic inquiry. If Ferguson were to give a talk all about the connections between the personal circumstances and political beliefs of historical economists, I don’t think people would have a problem with it. He could mention Keynes’s sex life, Adam Smith’s pets, and anything else that might be relevant. Ferguson is a historian (or, as I assume he would say, an historian), and he’d be highly qualified to do that sort of thing. But to just throw culture-war words at his audience in an attempt to vaguely disparage Keynes, that’s just stupid. A Harvard/Jesus/Hoover professor should be able to do better than this.

      • Rahul says:

        My reading is it is much ado about nothing. This was a offhand remark at a talk. Not in a thought out editorial. Or a conference. etc. People often make stupid remarks. Let’s not hold everyone up to such an exacting standard of conduct.

        Didn’t a recent blog post illustrate how the most upright of us may have bigotry hidden in the recesses of our brain?

        • Andrew says:

          Rahul:

          Indeed, everyone makes mistakes. The issue here is that Ferguson (who is always referred to as a Harvard professor) has moved from scholarship to being something like a politico of the intellectual world, and this is not just one incident. He shows a continuing pattern of trading off his academic reputation and then making empty, politically-loaded, non-thoughtful proclamations, of which this is one. It’s sad. Maybe happy for him because he gets big speaking fees, but sad for people like me who are fans of his earlier, more serious work.

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    Personally, although I try not to have opinions on macroeconomics, I’m a big fan of Keynes. (For instance, his essay on what he discovered in Isaac Newton’s trunk of documents is wonderful.)

    My impression, by the way, is that Keynes was not a lifelong homosexual — that his marriage, which amazed his former boyfriends, was driven by new-found heterosexuality. However, it is now dogma that gays never convert to straights, despite several examples being apparent among the best documented group of people in world history: 20th Century British writers (e.g., Keynes, Waugh, Spender).

    • Erik says:

      People never switching from a same-gender partner to a different-gender partner is not a dogma and by implying so you create a strawman. No one doubts the existence of bisexual individuums. The point that is usually made is just that it is not a voluntarily choice, and personally I can confirm that I never consciously choose whom to fall in love with. I don’t think most people would argue with that. I also like Keynes writings btw.

  12. Mark Palko says:

    “It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life” -NF

    Suggest repeatedly as it turns out.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/business/2013/05/niall-fergusons-history-john-maynard-keynes-gayness/64885/

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Ferguson’s messing with your heads. To say, “It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life,” is obviously absurd. We read biographies in part to understand the interplay between personal life and ideologies.

      What next? Are we supposed to believe that the rich gays on Wall Street who fund pro-gay campaigns don’t have any personal motivations?

    • Roger says:

      It is funny how Ferguson’s critics do not attempt to show that he is wrong. I guess he offended the Keynesian economists, gays, childless, ballerinas, poets, Englishmen, and others. But was he wrong? Or did he just tell a politically offensive truth?

      • Andrew says:

        Roger:

        Well, Ferguson himself said his comments were “stupid,” so there’s that.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Ferguson is kow-towing to the power of Big Gay Money. He makes a lot of money making speeches to financial organizations, so he can’t afford to offend Organized Victim Groups that play a major role within them, such as Jews, gays, and women. At this moment in our culture, gays are particularly dominant, and are looking for ways to throw their weight around to permanently intimidate skeptics.

          • Andrew says:

            Steve:

            Kowtowing may explain Ferguson’s retraction but it doesn’t explain why he said the stupid stuff in the first place. For that, I’d still go with my theory that he was trying to throw in some crowd-pleasing anti-Keynes rhetoric. But he didn’t know his crowd. It could’ve worked if he were a comedian or politician or talk-show host, but his claim to fame is that he’s a star academic, not that he’s a king of insult comedy.

            • Steve Sailer says:

              What Ferguson said was hardly stupid: it was a not unreasonable interpretation of the endlessly publicized Bloomsbury Group worldview. The point of the mostly homosexual or bisexual Bloomsbury Group (Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, J.M. Keynes, et al) was to undermine the Victorian public virtues that had put Britain on the top of the world the later 19th Century in favor of private pleasures (of a muted English variety). For example, Forster notoriously wrote (in 1938!): “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

              A more sophisticated view, however, is that Keynes subtly moved away from the effete Bloomsbury view and became one of English history’s great wartime civil servants, ranking up there with Pepys.

              Ironically, this transition from hedonism to heroism may well have had something to do with his conversion from a homosexual lifestyle to a heterosexual lifestyle after his marriage to the Russian ballerina (who was endlessly snubbed by the other other Bloomsburies).

              • Andrew says:

                I still think it was a stupid thing to say. Niall Ferguson knows about 1000 times more about English history than I do, but even I knew that Keynes was one of English history’s great wartime civil servants. He’s famous for working himself to death during the war. I’m sure Ferguson knew that too. It still seems most likely to me that Ferguson thought he could score some cheap points off of Keynes with some snide remarks about his being a poetry-loving poof.

  13. What’s up with the shark image? I can think of reasons, then reasons against, and then exceedingly complicated reasons against those reasons against.

  14. P Mike says:

    Shark image? Obviously “jumping the shark.” Correlation between having kids & worried about the future?

    http://www.vdare.com/articles/happy-white-married-people-vote-republican-so-why-doesnt-the-gop-work-on-making-white-peopl

  15. […] Jesus historian Niall Ferguson and the improving standards of public discourse […]