You would think that a Harvard historian would know about the First Law of Holes: When in a hole, stop digging.
But Harvard historian Niall Ferguson dug his own hole of trouble a bit deeper, in "An Open Letter To The Harvard Community" posted at the Harvard Crimson's website on Tuesday. In the letter, Ferguson apologizes profusely for recent dumb statements he made about the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes. In the process, Ferguson makes several more dumb statements.
In case you missed it, Ferguson last week declared that Keynes' homosexuality had left him childless, making Keynes care nothing about the future and leading him to suggest that governments should spend their way out of economic downturns, which is why he is history's greatest monster. Suck it, logic! At last conservatives had a Unified Theory Of Gay to explain all that has gone wrong with the world for the past 80 years or so.
Of course, most oxygen-breathing creatures immediately recoiled at the 100 or so varieties of stupid in Ferguson's statement and reacted with fury and scorn. Like Ron Burgundy after he jumped into the Kodiak bear pit to save Veronica Corningstone, Ferguson immediately regretted his decision. In a statement on his website on Saturday, he offered an "Unqualified Apology," admitting his comments were "doubly stupid" -- not only do childless people care about the future, but Keynes's wife had suffered a miscarriage, he pointed out. I would add that gay people can also have children, which makes Ferguson's comments at least trebly stupid. But anyway, Ferguson's apology was indeed appropriately unqualified. "It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life," Ferguson wrote.
But he just couldn't shut up about it. He seems to have been baited into commenting further after Berkeley economist Brad DeLong and others noted that Ferguson had previously commented on Keynes' sexuality, back in 1995. Ferguson's "Open Letter" now addresses those claims. While purporting to be an apology, it is not unqualified at all. Instead, it turns into an exercise in peevishness and self-defensiveness. And it turns out that Ferguson thinks Keynes's personal life does have bearing on his economics, after all. (Emphasis in the quotes below is mine.)
Ferguson's first line of defense is the old standby, "some of my best friends are gay:"
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?
See, Ferguson let a known gay, "of all people," be around his kids and attend his non-gay wedding. That is just how down he is, you guys.
As for Ferguson's statement in 1995, that Keynes had opposed the Treaty of Versailles purely because he had a big gay crush on a German -- well, he stands by that one:
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.
It could not be possible that Keynes was smart enough to see that the Treaty of Versailles would wreck Germany economically, facilitating the rise of the Nazis; only lust could have driven him, according to Ferguson's analysis.
And it turns out that Ferguson is not just deeply concerned with the sexual preferences of Keynes. Ferguson is concerned with the sexuality of many, many figures in history:
Keynes is very far from the only homosexual or bisexual I have written about. In The Pity of War, for example, I discussed the case of T.E. Lawrence, whose real or imagined rape by his Turkish captors was central to his experience of World War I. In The House of Rothschild, I identified at least three members of that illustrious financial dynasty as gay. In Empire, I sketched the lives of both repressed and unrepressed homosexuals who played important roles in the Victorian British Empire.
Like some people eat potato chips, Ferguson spots gays in history. It's just his thing. In fact, he can't resist pointing out one more: "Frederick the Great of Prussia, who was almost certainly gay." He could do this all day, people. From love.
In case these defenses aren't strong enough, Ferguson suggests Keynes was a bigot, too, pointing out that Keynes said a couple of mildly mean things about Poland and the United States.
Shock, horror: Even the mighty Keynes occasionally said stupid things. Most professors do. And—let's face it—so do most students.
See, to paraphrase Keynes, in the long run, you're all a bunch of idiots, so don't go pointing fingers at Niall Ferguson. He is, after all, the real victim here:
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.
Niall Ferguson hopes you're all ashamed of yourselves.