Rebecca Liao reads Niall Ferguson’s gay-baiting career:
During a Q&A session last Friday at the Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, California, noted economic historian Niall Ferguson asserted that John Maynard Keynes did not think long-term because he was homosexual, childless and effete, preferring to read “poetry” to his wife rather than procreate. Outrage came swiftly, and Ferguson responded Saturday morning with an unreserved apology for his “stupid and tactless” remarks.
As far as public apologies go, many have noted the skillful completeness of Ferguson’s. Oliver Burkeman at The Guardian went so far as to say that it was too good to be true. He turned out to be right: Ferguson lambasted those who were unsatisfied with his first apology as “insidious enemies of academic freedom” in an open letter to the Harvard community (Link).
Trouble is, Ferguson has made the same sort of bigoted, non sequitur argument before about Keynes. In his 1999 book The Pity of War, he had this to say of the economist’s (wrong) prediction in late 1915 that Britain’s economy would collapse if WWI did not end soon:
Though his work in the [British] Treasury gratified his sense of self-importance, the war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy. Even his sex life went into a decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.
The suggestion is that Keynes had a particular hankering for the war to be over so that his pool of homosexual partners could be replenished.
Still, Ferguson should not be further punished for apologizing only after a public storm. Apology accepted. But no amount of contrition can close the door he had just opened to what were once merely disconnected and silent musings about the exaggerated masculinity of his work.
When a heterosexual man uses “gay” as a criticism, especially when leveled against a dead man, he is putting down another’s manliness as a means of beating his own chest. It does not help that the word “effete” would not make any sense in this context except to underscore how unmasculine gay people are. Ferguson therefore eliminated any chance to claim that he had meant for “gay” and “childless” to be redundant.
An unapologetic display of machismo has always been integral to Ferguson’s ideas. His gleeful provocation of leftists (i.e. the insufficiently strong and individualistic) began while a student at Oxford in the 80s with a Thatcherite hatred of “wet” Tories. He then strong-armed his way into intellectual legitimacy with a pro-imperialist economic history of the British Empire. His most recent book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, reaffirmed his paternalistic belief that British colonialism had a largely beneficial effect on the colonized countries, not least because it civilized them through economic development and brought them under the wing of British humanitarianism. As author Pankaj Mishra and many before him have pointed out, Ferguson has made these points while rationalizing the great loss of life, culture, and national resources in former colonies. Not to mention that the inherently debilitating effects of subjugation barely register in his assessment. His faith in the inherent benevolence of robust, muscular intervention in less developed countries has attracted many accusations of white-male solipsism.
He more or less carries on that mantle in his current preoccupation with the decline of the West. The geopolitical threat of the Middle East had him lamenting the West’s “pusillanimity,” though he denies that he is a hawkish neoconservative. On the other hand, despite expressing concerns with the stability of its authoritarian regime, he has looked on China with admiration, especially when it comes to the country’s economic success. Never mind the threat that also poses to Western supremacy.
It is not surprising that Ferguson would favor China since he confesses in Civilization that he left Britain for America because that is where “the money and power actually were.” Among his many talents is a knack for finding an amenable home for an aggressive instinct. He stated in an interview in 2011 that he took his current position at Harvard because the American intellectual culture glorified his brand of “excessive vehemence” whereas the British would not tolerate it. He made the right bet with America, and his broad-sweeping ideas and unshakeable confidence have made him a star on the Davos-TED-Aspen circuit.
It remains to be seen whether last week’s remarks will dull the popularity of his intellectual output among that glamorous circle. Of all possible hints Ferguson has offered over the years of a source for his many ideological loyalties, there has never been one so visceral, and therefore with the same ring of truth. To finally blurt such strong evidence of a powerful urge to assert his masculinity in his ideas is the crack of vulnerability he’d been trying to avoid all along. Without that crutch of authority, one wonders if, from now on, he will be searching for a new hint of indifference from his audiences.
— Rebecca Liao, May 11, 2013
Rebecca Liao [bio here] is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books; her pieces on China’s 2012 yearbook is here; her piece on fashion here.