The prominent academic and public intellectual Niall Ferguson posted an “unqualified apology” to his blog Saturday after coming under fire for making seemingly anti-gay remarks at a recent public appearance.
Ferguson, a historian at Harvard University and regular contributor to Newsweek, told attendees of the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., that the mid-century British economist John Maynard Keynes “didn’t care about future generations” because “he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of ‘poetry’ rather than procreated,” according to a financial journalist who attended the conference.
In fact, Keynes almost had a child, but instead his wife miscarried. Attendees reportedly “went quiet” after Ferguson made the remark.
“My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation,” Ferguson wrote in his Saturday mea culpa. ”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.”
But while Ferguson described his remarks as “off-the cuff,” this isn’t the first time that he has sought to explain Keynes’ political views with reference to his sexual orientation. In his book The Pity of War, Ferguson repeatedly analyzed Keynes’ foreign policy analysis through the prism of the economist’s attraction to men.
“Though his work in the Treasury gratified his sense of self-importance, the war itself made Keynes deeply unhappy,” wrote Ferguson, in explaining why Keynes became pessimistic about World War I. “Even his sex life went into a decline, perhaps because the boys he liked to pick up in London all joined up.”
It’s not just remarks about sexual orientation that have landed Ferguson in trouble in the past. He drew fire for comparing President Obama to the cartoon character Felix the Cat in a 2009 Financial Times column, writing that “Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.”
But while these inflammatory remarks have received plenty of coverage, there has been less mainstream coverage of the worldview which produces them. Ferguson is not merely a conservative intellectual, but a strident defender of imperialism and the prerogative of the ruling class.
For example, Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, takes as its thesis that Western civilization has “enjoyed a real and sustained edge” over the rest of the world due to “killer apps” such as property rights, competition, and consumer society. In the London Review of Books, critic Pankaj Mishra wrote that Civilization celebrates “imperial benevolence,” and does not include “the role of imperialism’s structural violence” among the “killer apps” which have sustained the West’s wealth.
Similarly, shortly after Margaret Thatcher’s death, Ferguson described the Iron Lady as “right about nearly everything,” including her attack on the British labor movement and mass privatization scheme.
More recently, near the end of the 2012 election, Ferguson recommended that President Obama swerve to Romney’s right on foreign policy “by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” In a lengthy Newsweek cover story called “Hit the Road, Barack,” he pilloried the president for not intervening in the Iranian and Syrian protests, and for doing “absolutely nothing to close the long-term gap between spending and revenue.”
While some of these remarks and columns have been met with a fair amount of outrage, mostly from the left, they have done little to damage Ferguson’s credibility or his reputation as a serious thinker. Whether the same will hold true for this latest backlash remains to be seen.