Niall Ferguson’s Homosexuality Problem – And Ours? Thoughts on Niall Ferguson, Keynes, and LGBT History

It’s the beginning of a much-needed restful weekend here in Moscow, steaming tea by my side, as I sit down to write. After getting back to town early on a red-eye flight from Berlin, I had to quickly dive in to finishing up a piece for a conference in Trento taking place shortly; sign a bunch of leasing and other bureaucratic documents to prepare for the beginning of my stint at Harvard next autumn; and shell out eye-watering sums of cash to pay for a flight from Phoenix to London (and, thence, Oxford) for my viva, scheduled for the middle of next month.

That said, several friends whom I haven’t seen in too long will be in Oxford, and my visit happily coincides with the Paul Bergne Lecture at St. Antony’s College, an annual lecture given in honor of Bergne, a British diplomat and scholar who played a crucial role in developing diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and the post-Soviet Central Asian states following 1991. (He also authored The Birth of Tajikistan, a great introduction to the early years of the country for people interested in Central Asian affairs.) Fittingly enough, the speaker this year is William Dalrymple, speaking on his recent Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistanon the first Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. I’m not entirely sure how, or if, I’ll manage sitting a viva grilling before two of the top historians on Soviet and international history and still make it to the Dalrymple lecture, all while still on Arizona local time … but them’s the shakes at the intellectual smorgasboard that Oxford at its best can be.

One last visit for my D.Phil. viva and Dalrymple in a month … !

Speaking of Oxford, Harvard, and historians, readers may have become aware of the brouhaha that erupted recently over Harvard historian Niall Ferguson’s comments during a speech at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference, a ‘strategic investment conference’ held this year in lovely Carlsbad, California. The conference’s self-made video of highlights gives some taste of the intellectual thrust: the USA is on the verge of inflationary crisis, ‘entitlements’ have to be scaled back for responsibility’s sake, and money-printing central bankers can’t be trusted. None of this is that surprising, but what was, as Financial Advisor editor-at-large Tom Kostigen originally reported, was Ferguson’s off-hand comments about the massively influential British economist John Maynard Keynes. According to Kostigen:

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.

The outrage over the argument was considerable. Many commentators seized upon Ferguson with charges of homophobia. Nor did the fact that Ferguson, trained in the first place as an economic historian of Germany, was speaking again about issues of macroeconomic policy to an audience of hedge fund managers do anything to dissipate the main current of anti-Ferguson that seizes plenty of readers today: he’s posing as an economist; he spends too much time on the (lucrative) financial lecture circuit rather than using his (considerable) talents to write good history; he’s again steering too much in the direction of lobbing controversy bombs rather than doing scholarship (another example of which was, when, in his introductory essay to The Shock of the Global, a fine edited volume, he suggested that the 1970s have a bad rap in history because so many academics saw their position in society and salaries relative to other professionals drop).

An apology was soon forthcoming. First, as I’ve learned – and in what might be the only good piece of press for Ferguson in the brouhaha – from the Harvard historian to his own graduate students, whose job prospects and image as serious scholars might stand to suffer the more their seen as Ferguson proteges, rather than independent and creative intellects. Second, however, and arguably making matters worse, was Ferguson’s open apology to the Harvard community, printed in The Crimson, the student newspapers at what we at Princeton called ‘the other place.’ Wrote Ferguson:

Last week I said something stupid about John Maynard Keynes.  Asked to comment on Keynes’ famous observation “In the long run we are all dead,” I suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and 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’ wife Lydia miscarried.

So far, so good. But, continued Ferguson, people have the right to know whether or not their professor was a homophobe. Well, Ferguson wrote, I am not a homophobe. Why?

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?

He contrasted the charge of homophobia with earlier slanders against him as a racist:

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.

Both of these, clearly, went too far down the road of ‘I’m not a racist – I have a black friend!’

Keynes: path-breaking economist or effete, ballet-loving homosexual?

More seriously, however, the Ferguson micro-scandal – the timing of which, I’m sure, has absolutely nothing to do with the recent appearance of Ferguson’s now awkwardly titled The Great Degeneration (based on his 2012 Reith Lectures, which you can hear for free here) – raises several interesting points of departure for how historians, and scholars more broadly, have failed to take gender and sexual orientation seriously in their scholarship in the past. It also opens vistas of how those scholars might improve on an (often embarrassing  sometimes horrifying) legacy of hardly-conscious attempts to delegitimize gay people, gay men in particular, in scholarship, while devoting little critical attention to gender as a lens when looking at ‘normal’ people (read: straight, white, oppressive, imperialist men like myself). For while Ferguson’s remarks were indeed stupid and his own problem, they also reflect deeper structural failings in the profession when someone trained and employed as an economic historian at top institutions could not only show such poor judgment, but also seem genuinely unconscious of why his comments might have been ill-received in the first place.

It bears, for example, understanding how Ferguson’s comments did just just emerge ex nihilio, but rather stem from a rich tradition in the history of economics that has sought to delegitimize Keynes in particular, but also homosexuals more generally, as ‘effete,’ purely self-interested, selfish, or, at worst, child molesters. As South African Twitter user David Fowkes pointed out, in his 1977 book The End of the Keynesian Era, economic historian Robert Skidelsky (who jumped to the defense of Ferguson) had the following to say:

That Keynes’ milieu and tastes at this time were predominantly homosexual is now fairly widely known. Strachey certainly construed Moore’s teaching a justification for homosexuality. Homosexuality is the quintessentially useless passion, in the sense that it has no purpose outside itself (unlike heterosexuality, whose biological purpose is procreation). As such it was the most radical assaults on the Victorian principle of living, particularly in its weakening of the motive for saving or accumulation. To ignore the possible influence of its ‘childless perspective’ on Keynes’s attitude to life, and thus on his life’s work, would be biographical philistinism.

Two decades later, in a 1995 article in The Spectator, Ferguson continued the ‘gays can’t be trusted’ line of attack on Keynes, writing (in the context of Keynes’ meetings with the German banker Carl Melchior and Keynes’ skepticism towards imposing burdensome reparations on Weimar Germany) that

There is […] no question that a series of meetings with Carl Melchior, one of the German representatives at the armistice and peace negotiations, added a vital emotional dimension. Melchior was a partner in the Hamburg bank MM Warburg – ‘a very small man,’ as Keynes described him, ‘exquisitely clean, very well and neatly dressed with a high stiff collar…The line where his hair ended bound his face and forehead in a very sharply defined and rather noble curve. His eyes gleam..with extraordinary sorrow.’

‘It is not too much to infer from these emotive phrases some kind of sexual attraction…Those familiar with Bloomsbury will appreciate why Keynes fell so hard for the representative of an enemy power.’

As economic historian (and former Warden of Rhodes House during the majority of my time at Oxford) Donald Markwell and scholar of Keynes has commented, however, this obsessive focus with homosexuality as the key lens through which Keynes made policy decisions isn’t just creepy; it’s also bad history. As the British journalist Nick Cohen writes following correspondence with Markwell, after all of Ferguson’s bluster,

there is the question of whether Keynes was right to wonder whether Germany could cope. Ferguson brushes over the awkward facts that in 1919 Germany was close to starvation, communist revolutionaries were trying to seize power, and right-wing militias (the ancestors of the Nazis) were trying to put them down. As Markwell says, Keynes thought that ‘if starvation were to be staved off, Germany’s need for food supplies was urgent,’ and France’s revanchist willingness to let the country suffer had to be fought. (Markwell adds but Ferguson forgets to mention that many in the British and American delegations agreed with Keynes, and admired Melchior as well. Perhaps they were gay too) Then there is the question of Keynes’s patriotism. You can say that The Economic Consequences of the Peace helped prepare the ground for appeasement if you want to stretch a point. Unlike Virginia Woolf and many others in Bloomsbury, however, Keynes was not a pacifist. He saw through Hitler the moment he came to power, and found ways to finance World War II.

Nor, of course, is this attempt to delegitimize homosexuals confined to the realm of economics and economic history. Most obviously, the attack spills over into the realm of public policy, as in this paper by Princeton professor Robert George and collaborators in which they argue against gay marriage (among other reasons) by invoking the analogy of marriages to baseball teams. Gay marriages, they argue, aren’t just like bad baseball teams that get crushed in comparison to ‘real’ (read: straight) baseball teams. They’re not even playing the same sport. They’re broken. They’re malformed. Throughout it all, the assault on homosexuals (but especially gay men) follows the same themes. They can’t be trusted, they’re traitorous, they’re interested in useless pursuits (gay sex first and foremost, but also things like poetry, opera … and, err, macroeconomics and monetary theory), they may be child molesters, and, basically, they’re abnormal. It’s worth noting, too, that these attempts at delegitimizing gay people weren’t just undertaken in isolation. Typically undertaken at a time in Western societies when antipathy towards gay people was common, they sought to link causes despised by the right (Keynesian monetary policy, a decoupling of marriage norms from Catholic social doctrine) to a more general hatred of homosexuals.

More subtly, however, the problem isn’t just that these scholarly interventions are mean to gay people. Nor is it that these moments of being mean to gay people may spill over into the general culture, making bullying and/or suicide on the part of young gay people more common. Rather, it’s that because the imagination of these authors when it comes to gender and sexual orientation is so limited, their attacks tend to harden a binary division of sexuality into gay or straight that itself is of (at least in America) recent historical precedence. Indeed, as sensitive works of history like George Chauncey’s Gay New York taught me as an undergraduate, America – at least New York City – in the 1920s and 1930s was a totally different world of gender norms than I had thought, one in which our (current-day) hard boundary of ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ was far more fluid and elastic, and in which the concept of ‘coming out of the closet’ would have made far less sense. Even our current-day vocabulary of ‘straight’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ and so on views sexuality as fixed notches where one is either a 0 (totally straight), 10 (totally gay), or a 5 (bisexual), rather than a far more discrete, but ever-shifting sexual disposition of the world Chauncey describes.

Read this book!

That’s all interesting, historically speaking. The relevance of Chauncey’s scholarship to the Ferguson brouhaha, at least as I see it, however, is that making any dispositional arguments about the relevance of one’s sexual orientation or identity to their policy positions is really stupid. Not just because it’s usually incredibly hard to prove anything like that, but because the idea of someone being 100% gay, and then that 100% gayness (or straightness, God forbid) then informing their political ideology locks people into the binary sexual categories that historians like Ferguson and Skidelsky implicitly operated within. It would be crude, for example, to attack Ferguson’s arguments as being informed by his heterosexual orientation (even if there’s a whiff of Ferguson as the manly Victorian Brit teaching us effete Yankees how not to lose our empire) not just because it’s poor scholarship, but because the idea of a ‘straight argument’ or ‘gay outlook’ on issues itself reinforces ideas of rigid sexual identity that are basically only recent historical inventions.

It’s therefore disappointing that so few of the members of the Harvard History Department did, well, anything, to take advantage of their privileged, tenured position to comment on the issue. History News Network comments:

None of Ferguson’s colleagues in the Harvard history department have publicly criticized him. However, several members of the Harvard history faculty, in emails to HNN, wished to make clear that their public silence should not be taken as a statement of support for Prof. Ferguson’s remarks.

HNN contacted thirty-eight members of the history faculty, We received eleven responses. No respondent was willing to directly criticize Prof. Ferguson on or off the record, and the only two historians who commented on the record — and who were quoted in the original HNN article [Charles Maier and Mark Kishlansky] — offered qualified support.

I’m glad to see that tenure is still justifying its existence. Not a great moment here for Harvard History.

That all said, I’m a tad skeptical of a recent intervention by a group called the Committee on LGBT History, a scholarly society recognized by the American Historical Association that promotes ‘the study of homosexuality in the past and present by facilitating communication among scholars in a variety of disciplines working on a variety of cultures.’ In a recent statement last Monday, Dan Romesburg, the Committee’s Co-Chair and a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, issued a statement in response to the Ferguson public apology that read as follows:

Ferguson’s subsequent attempts to clarify his statement unfortunately show little more understanding of the history of sexuality than his initial comment did. The Committee on LGBT History encourages him to consulting the field’s extensive scholarship, much of which our members have written, to avoid echoing unfounded and discriminatory stereotypes and to deepen his understanding and analysis of the LGBT past. Harvard should show leadership here by, at a minimum, hosting a major conference about LGBT history and encouraging Ferguson to attend. It is also high time that Harvard makes a new tenure-track hire in LGBT history. The incident has underscored the value of teaching and researching LGBT histories. This confronts ignorance about LGBT people, lives, and communities, and in the process, builds a more accurate historical record overall.

Fair enough, for the most part. My only concern here is Romesburg’s quick leap from ‘Ferguson said something stupid, offensive, and homophobic’ to ‘we need a new job for people doing LGBT history.’ I’m fully on board with the idea that we need more work done on issues of gender, sexual orientation, and the family. But as I’ve written before, I tend to adopt a more assimilationist attitude towards disciplines like LGBT history, African-American history, and other histories of groups traditionally left out of our narratives of history. Ideally, I’d like to see fewer attempts to formally institutionalize LGBT or African-American Studies as departments or programs unto themselves, and more attempts to create a more ecumenical, catholic conversation under the big tent of already existing History Departments or sub-fields (American History, Russian History, etc.) Put in other way, I think that gender and sexuality can be an important lens or focus in works of history, but I’m not sure that they constitute methodological approaches unto themselves. Gay New York was a great work of gay history, but it was also a work of American history, for example.

Perhaps I’m wrong: critics might say that to seed the minds of (to return to Ferguson) young economic historians with a critical eye towards gender or sexual orientation, it’s critical that those LGBT chairs exist. Maybe so. Let’s just make sure they stay in History Departments, rather than wandering out into their own segregated Departments. Or, more troublingly, to hedge fund managers’ conferences in San Diego.


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