Jesus historian Niall Ferguson and the improving standards of public discourse

by Andrew Gelman on May 4, 2013 · 16 comments

in Academia

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. As usual in such cases, I see a gap between what this guy is doing and what he has the potential to do. The Kenyes-is-a-poof remarks would’ve been unremarkable had they been made by a comedian or a politician or talk-show host. A historian can and should do better, and Ferguson himself recognized this by characterizing his remarks as “stupid.”

{ 16 comments }

Aidan May 4, 2013 at 11:37 am

You really think that one Frankel column makes him equivalent to John Yoo? Come on.

Andrew Gelman May 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Aidan:

Fair enough. Frankel may have just been having a bad day.

Donald Douglas (@AmPowerBlog) May 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Gee Gelman, you’re not homosexual are you? Should Ferguson be fired? Would that appease the anti-speech ayatollahs on the left and in the academy? Keynes was gay, wasn’t he? Who says you have to like it? If the business conference didn’t like his comments they don’t have to invite him back. Done deal. Over with. Sheesh.

Andrew Gelman May 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Donald:

Who said anything about Ferguson being fired? He said something wacky so he got some attention. Fair enough, no?

giantslor May 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm

This is the second article I’ve seen on this where a commenter has asked if the author was gay. I don’t know if this is a coordinated effort or if homophobes just all think alike, but you guys can go and fuck right the hell off. You people are becoming a reviled minority, and your stupid bigotry doesn’t hold weight here or in any decent company. Maybe some white supremacists or Muslim extremists will let you hang out with them.

Corey May 4, 2013 at 11:45 pm

Hear, hear!

j May 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm
Marcus May 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Like clockwork: people like Mr. Douglas always seem to think that whenever conservative public figures are held accountable for the opinions for which they use their notoriety and prestige to disseminate, it is “anti-speech”. The whole reason we have free speech, Mr. Douglas, is because we’d rather let our beloved market forces of ideas enforce accountability rather than relegate that job to the state. But in this scheme, it’s nobody’s responsibility but our own to do the regulating.

“Freedom of speech” is not the same thing as “freedom from accountability”; rather, public accountability for public remarks is a hallmark (and a necessity) of freedom of speech. You’d think someone who so eagerly wraps himself in the flag would understand this fundamental principle of American freedoms.

Manoel Galdino May 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

+1
I’ll tweet it… “‘freedom of speech’ is not the same thing as ‘freedom from accountability’”

DB May 4, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Who said anything about Ferguson being fired? Donald Douglas, of course.

Ferguson has apologized and most rational people will agree with Niall that he made a bone head comment and move on. Douglas will rush to the ramparts to defend bone headedness whenever and wherever it exists.

Ronan Fitzgerald May 6, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Ferguson was always a hack, and was making this argument during the respectable phase of his professional life (apparently)..the difference is he was a right wing hack, so instead of being pushed back against in US academia, he got a place at Harvard. Such is the nature of the system..now we have this endless outrage 10 years too late, with Dan Drezner devising overly complicated theories to explain how such hackery could be rewarded, whereas the answer is simple.. US academia and the academic chattering classes reward and admire right wing hackery and give its proponents a degree of leeway they would never give to anyone else on the political fringes.. I know, I know, this is where someone says ‘but House of Rotschild is wonderful’..well I’ve never met anyone who has read the goddamn book, and I have my doubts

Professor B in L.A. May 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

Ferguson made the same statement in his book about World War I, _The Pity of War_, about 14 years ago. In fact, he made it *twice,* taking the trouble to remind readers that, “as noted earlier,” Keynes was homosexual. Clearly, he genuinely believes Keynes’ sexual orientation is an important explanatory variable in analyzing his policy recommendations. Inasmuch as he did not, moreover, allege that Woodrow Wilson’s HETEROsexuality profoundly influenced even one of the Fourteen Points, it seems difficult to pretend this was just “off-the-cuff.”

Barry May 7, 2013 at 11:18 am

Seconding Prof B. This wasn’t the first time; it was the first time that people actually spoke back. This says something about the field of history – I’d have expected such comments in a book to have drawn fire, but then again I’d have been wrong).

Barry May 7, 2013 at 11:20 am

As for hackdom, IIRC, Ferguson spent a couple of years being flat-out wrong in an alleged field of expertise (bond markets), and playing punching bad to Krugman. No apologies for being so full of it, and the only change in his behavior seems to be his choice of hackery.

Barry May 7, 2013 at 11:22 am

As for Mankiw, I was reading his blog back before he turned off comments. IMHO, he got bested repeatedly, frequently because people would point out that his post-Bush statements contradicted his pre-Bush economic writings.

Bear Braumoeller May 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm

When I taught at Harvard and asked one of my colleagues how one got tenure, the response was, “It’s simple—just be famous.”

In all fairness, he never said whether it mattered how you did it.

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