May 5, 2013

Niall Ferguson loves him some Margaret Thatcher. Bloomberg TV, April 9, 2013.

Harvard Professor of History Niall Ferguson is often called upon for his urbane punditry on a wide array of issues. Frankly, I suspect much of that comes from the fact that Americans think posh British accents just sound inherently smarter. Ferguson is also conservative, which of course, makes him very attractive to traditional media suits. Criticizing Obama with an accent has so much more gravitas, doesn't it?

Unfortunately, as a historian, Ferguson sometimes likes to argue with what he calls "counterfactual history":

I think that's the key. It's not a matter of plucking imaginary scenarios out of the air. Virtual history -- and this is a very, very important point, which isn't understood by many people who dabble in "what if" questions -- is only legitimate if one can show that the alternative that you're discussing, the "what if" scenario you're discussing, was one that contemporaries seriously contemplated. In all the essays in the book Virtual History, the contributors were asked to make it absolutely clear what the evidence was for their alternative scenarios. After all, that's not difficult to do, because in the present, we don't know the future. We have plausible futures from which to choose. We make plans. We build scenarios. We do this in our everyday lives, because we've absolutely no idea what's coming a year from now. So it's not difficult to go back and find that in 1914 -- just to give that example again -- British politicians were imagining plausible scenarios, including non-intervention. That's how they made the decision. They set these scenarios out. They discussed them, and they opted for intervention because they saw a nightmare future of German domination of the continent.

That's the key point. You've got to look at the alternatives contemporaries considered. After all, if we are in the business, as Ranke said we should be, of capturing the past, "Viez aiglen les te vezen," as it actually or essentially was, that has to include the experience of decision-making, the experience of contemplating futures, including futures that never actually happened. helps though--and you wouldn't think this would need to be explained to a Harvard professor--if you do have a basic grasp of the facts in the first place. But that's not going to bother Ferguson. He has published articles with half-truths and lacking basic fact-checking before.

Most conservatives are not big fans of Keynesian economics. Few take it to the level Ferguson opted to go this week at a conference for financial advisors, opting to take it to an ugly homophobic level:

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. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

It gets worse.

Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it's only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an "effete" member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson's world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.

Alrighty then. While it's true that Keynes did in fact have openly homosexual relations in and around the famed Bloombury Group, he also fell madly in love with Lydia Lopokova and married her. It was not a platonic arrangement as Lopokova did miscarry in 1927. He stayed with her until his death in 1946.

But moreover, his statement is just offensive on every level. So only straight people with children care about the future? The mind reels at the ugliness from which that stems. And Ferguson realized it quickly afterwards, issuing an unqualified apology:

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.

My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

But sadly, here's the thing: this isn't the first time that Ferguson took a homophobic jab at Keynes, as Raw Story points out:

While Ferguson may be backing off the aspersions he cast at Keynes as a brief moment of public misspeech, economist Justin Wolfers pointed readers to this excerpt from Ferguson’s The Pity of War, in which takes a gratuitously homophobic swipe at Keynes, insinuating that the economist’s misgivings about World War I were traceable to the lack of anonymous gay sex in London.

Sigh. Would it be too much to hope that Harvard reconsider allowing this man to teach students? I know that there's nothing he could do to get taken off television.

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