Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

As a gay person it’s probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q&A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off of John Maynard Keynes’ famous line ‘in the long run we are all dead’ to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, since he was gay and didn’t have any kids. So he obviously doesn’t care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting so:

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.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn’t hide behind ‘I’m sorry for any offense I might have caused’, or any of the other tongue-twisters politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment, took responsibility, we’re moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper where he argued that Keynes didn’t criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson’s books says WWI made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson.

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.

That’s Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his un-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?

It’s easy to laugh at Ferguson’s naiveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go ‘Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let’s call this off!’?

But Ferguson’s gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don’t think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the ‘but I’ve got plenty of gay friends!’ defense, which sounds patronising and tokeney, and often is. We scroll through Ferguson’s 30-year career, we find two instances of problematic analysis, we tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles Ferguson wrote in his youth where he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister, or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I’m not trying to defend Ferguson. I’ve read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven’t been debating whether Ferguson’s books suck, or whether his comment was homophobic. We’ve been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson’s body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes’s homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes’ actions with that brush. That’s a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes’ homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-WWI German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago, his friendship with Andrew Sullivan, evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that’s something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson’s statement that Keynes’s homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes’ actions. I can’t help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we’re doing the same thing.


Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Serious

5 responses to “Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

  1. Helen

    More than anything, Ferguson sounds confused. I wonder whether he isn’t hiding some unacknowledged, unresolved tendencies of his own. Hypocrisy? We expect that from politicians (I wish it were otherwise). More likely a pathology – he’s too obsessed by this theme. Cowardice, denial. Not making excuses for him, though. If he can’t say something intelligent, he needs to learn to shut up already.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree. I think it’s important to call out such problematic analysis, but I worry that essentially giving someone life-without-parole with the “homophobe” label is doing a similar thing in return. Ferguson, for his missteps, really doesn’t seem to be a bad person, yet you wouldn’t know it to look at the internet.

  3. Far too many people take far too much offence far too quickly and then seem to think that other people (and legislators) should give a damn. Opinions are fast becoming illegal. I am staunchly heterophobic. I don’t know why, I just am. I’ve seen what heterosexuals do and it makes me bilious. The thing is though, I don’t scream it in their faces and I work hard to not let my distaste influence my actions and interactions. I suppose that the difference twixt me and Numbnuts Niall is that I don’t express my opinions (“prejudices”) in a large public forum or with any presumed authority. I think different rules apply to public forums and private situations, and to public figures and gossip over the garden fence (the latter should have more leeway, the former much less).

    There’s a vast social playing field with proper protections and safeguards and legislation in one goal and a celebration of our variety and differences in the other goal. Somewhere in-between is a happy compromise. If we get this compromise horribly wrong, as we seem to be doing at the moment then our species will sink into dreadful grey homogeneity.

    Perhaps a campaign is needed: “Some folk just can’t stand some other folk – get over it!”?

    p.s. nothing here should be taken to imply that I am not wholeheartedly in favour of decent, full equality legislation and behaviours, because I am in favour! I just think that opinions and their expression should be protected too, to some extent. It’s messy, and it will never be solved completely.

    p.p.s. I think an appropriate response to Mr Ferguson’s long-expressed and obvious opinion is for me to withdraw all respect from him and cease listening to him or buying his books. This action has been completed. Notice how this action is non-violent, and does not directly disadvantage the idiot Ferguson. His world just got a tiny bit smaller, my world just got a whole lot cleaner.

    p.p.p.s. Now look at what you’ve done. There I was, crunching toast and drinking coffee and you’ve made me come over all serious and opinionated. Pah! Steps off soap-box and exits stage left, with a flounce…

    p.p.p.p.s. Sorry that this is such a long comment – I have long opinions, and no mates.

  4. well done. sober and fair.

  5. Yeah the outrage / apology cycle is pretty dumb, and you’re right that there’s nothing he could do to “disprove” the charge of homophobia. I’m not sure outright homophobia is even the right charge. He’s just the kind of smug prick who’s titillated by making little suggestive jokes references to homosexuality, in a way that fits with the smug prickness of the rest of his public persona.

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