Harvard Historian Decries ‘Speech Police’ In Pseudo-Defense Of Homophobic Comments

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Niall Ferguson, not content to simply let go after apologizing for his suggestion that famous economist John Maynard Keynes’ sexuality meant he didn’t care about the future, has now penned an open letter decrying his critics and defending some of his controversial comments about Keynes.

After reiterating that his theory about Keynes and future generations was “stupid,” Ferguson argued that the “speech police of the blogosphere” were wrong to accuse him of homophobia. Ferguson also defended his prior suggestion that Keynes’ view of the World War I settlement with Germany was set by his attraction to German Carl Melchior, suggesting that critics of that theory were the real villains in this story:

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry. Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?…

What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.

Ferguson is missing his critics’ point. The question isn’t whether Ferguson hates gay people, but whether or not his commentary on Keynes is informed by biases about gay and bisexual (Keynes was more accurately described as the latter) people. Prejudiced remarks aren’t problematic only if the speaker is openly bigoted; they can also reflect unconsciously or unreflectively held prejudices that shape a person’s worldview. Raising Ferguson’s past critical comments on Keynes and homosexuality were important in that they suggest that such unconscious biases might run through his work on Keynes.

The defense of Ferguson’s comments on Keynes and Germany in the letter similarly dodge the real issue. Ferguson argued “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,” a point that no one, including his critics, would deny. Rather, the point was that Ferguson reduced Keynes’ economic views to a simple physical attraction in a way that relied on the steroetype of gay and bisexual men as being shallow and sex-obsessed.

As historian Eric Rauchway points out, Keynes had developed his views about German post-war reparations well before meeting Melchior, and had done so on the (as it turns out, correct) grounds that punishing Germany too harshly would end up hurting both innocent Germans and the European economy more broadly. His meeting with Melchior helped bolster these views, not determine them. Ferguson’s older reduction of Keynes’ views about the settlement to Melchior, then, is worth mentioning in the same breath as his comments about Keynes because it plays into the same tropes that made the subsequent comments offensive.

Though Ferguson argued his critics have been attacking academic freedom, some of the harshest critiques of his comments about Keynes have come from academic economists and economic historians.