I was in the audience at the Altegris conference in Carlsbad, Calif., last week when Niall Ferguson, well-known historian, Harvard professor and author, spewed his remarks knocking economist John Maynard Keynes for being homosexual and not having children. Indeed, it was my blog post that drew worldwide attention to the comments. The following day, Ferguson issued an unqualified apology. I thought that was that. But I was wrong.
Ferguson issued yesterday an open letter to the Harvard community, explaining himself and qualifying his remarks. He equivocates, and points out that Keynes had said offensive things himself. Ferguson also goes to town on his critics and detractors, and hammers the "blogosphere." Most importantly, he tries to explain how Keynes' homosexuality affected his judgment.
First, let me explain that I have no personal axe to grind with Ferguson. I don't even think he is a homophobe, as some have called him. I do think he plays fast and loose with the facts. And this is what keeps getting him into trouble. As one of the attendees responded to me when I asked about Ferguson's remarks at the conference: "Niall is a smart guy. But he'll use whatever data and information he can grab in the moment to make his argument." That's not how one would think to describe a professor at Harvard, a research fellow at Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. But that description seems spot on.
What's troubling to me is what's festering here.
Soon after my blog post appeared, Ferguson e-mailed me saying that he was "dismayed" to see what I had written, and that I must have misunderstood him. "Dismayed" and "misunderstood" are not words of apology; they are words of contrition in attempt to spin. And spin he has with his open letter: "Not for one moment did I mean to suggest that Keynesian economics as a body of thought was simply a function of Keynes’ sexuality. But nor can it be true—as some of my critics apparently believe—that his sexuality is totally irrelevant to our historical understanding of the man. My very first book dealt with the German hyperinflation of 1923, a historical calamity in which Keynes played a minor but important role. In that particular context, Keynes’ sexual orientation did have historical significance. The strong attraction he felt for the German banker Carl Melchior undoubtedly played a part in shaping Keynes’ views on the Treaty of Versailles and its aftermath."
I must cry foul again. There is a distinct difference between people and policy views. Plenty of politicians have created policy that does not reflect their personal beliefs never mind more emotive compulsions. Plenty of professionals make executive decisions, observations and manage outside the realm of their personal feelings, sometimes in spite of their personal feelings. Moreover, I don't care if you have a crush on someone, are in love with someone, are sleeping with someone, hate someone, or are related to someone: NO ONE CAN ASCERTAIN WHAT YOU THINK AND HOW THAT AFFECTS YOUR JUDGMENT. I am sure there are married people whose judgment has not been swayed—positively or negatively—by their spouse. Yes, as difficult as that might be to believe.
The open letter brings the whole argument full circle. The crux of the problem with Niall Ferguson is his attempt to link personal beliefs with professional judgment. Henry Blodget at Business Insider put it best: "This is the first time we have heard a respectable academic tie another economist's beliefs to his or her personal situation rather than his or her research. Saying that Keynes' economic philosophy was based on him being childless would be like saying that Ferguson's own economic philosophy is based on him being rich and famous and therefore not caring about the plight of poor unemployed people."
And this from a column by John Wasik, a Forbes' contributor: "By playing the sex card, Ferguson neatly sidestepped the long-held slur that Keynes somehow despised capitalism and was a die-hard socialist like his Fabian friend George Bernard Shaw."
With regard to Ferguson whining about what the blogosphere says about him, I say "whaaa!" Since the story broke, I have been labeled as a member of the "pro sodomy gestapo," or "gaystapo" by Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association. My response to that is ... a big, fat yawn. These types of creatures don't know me. Crazy people aren't worthy of response. News to Niall: Nut jobs are going to call you names.
As I said, I don't think Ferguson is a homophobe. He probably isn't a bad guy. He's educated, smart and is married to one of the most respected women in the world, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She wouldn't, I imagine (note the qualifier here), have married a madman. Nor would Ferguson, if he was anti-gay, have befriended the political commentator and editor of The Dish, Andrew Sullivan, who is openly gay. (No, one doesn't have to be a homophobe or anti-gay to gay bash or utter anti-gay things.) Sullivan has come out in Ferguson's defense on the homosexuality issue.
What I think is that Ferguson is trying to prove out theses that are wrong, or flawed. And the world is closely watching him stumble and blunder.
All this would be less painful to watch and read if Ferguson just admitted his mistakes—and moved on.
Or just shut up.