Thursday, May 9, 2013

Doctor Dumbass

When I think of my profession, first and foremost, I am an historian.  I'm also a teacher, who wants to share his knowledge of history.  Currently, I teach high school, mainly because college jobs are hard to find.  I honestly don't think that once I complete my PhD that the job market will be much better for history professors, which is why a news article I read yesterday pisses me off so much.  Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson recently made what I consider some idiotic remarks.  At a May 2013 investment conference in Carlsbad, California, Ferguson was asked about his views on economist John Maynard Keynes's quotation that "in the long run we are all dead." Ferguson implied that Keynes was indifferent to the future because he was gay and did not have children.

Ferguson did post an apology for these statements shortly after reports of his comments were published, saying his comments were "as stupid as they were insensitive".  In the apology, Ferguson stated: "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."  However, how seriously can we take Ferguson's apology.  If you read his full apology "An Open Letter to the Harvard Community" in the Harvard Crimson, you will see that he does not back down from saying that Keynes's homosexuality influenced his decision making, he just gives it a different twist this time.  His apology sounds much more like when someone says, "Yeah, I was told to apologize, and though I should not have said it and I am 'sorry,' I was still right."

Bruce Bartlett,  an American historian whose area of expertise is supply-side economics and served as a domestic policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan and as a Treasury official under President George H. W. Bushargued that right wing critics of Keynes have long used his homosexuality to "defame him and discredit his theories" and that Ferguson was simply the latest.  Paul Harris, writing in The Guardian, suggested that Ferguson had borrowed his controversial view of Keynes from similar opinions expressed by historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and economist Joseph Schumpeter. Several commentators pointed out that the views Ferguson expressed on Keynes and his sexuality at the conference can be found in previous lectures and published work by Ferguson himself.  Bartlett, among others has argued that Ferguson misunderstands Keynes' view that one cannot simply ignore the short term in the interest of the long term.

I probably should backtrack a bit here for those not familiar with John Maynard Keynes.  Keynes was a British economist whose ideas have fundamentally affected the theory and practice of modern macroeconomics, and informed the economic policies of governments. Keynes is most famous for Keynesian economics, which bears his name.  Keynesian economics is aeconomic theory stating that active government intervention in the marketplace and monetary policy is the best method of ensuring economic growth and stability.  Supporters of Keynesian economics believe it is the government's job to smooth out bumps in business cycles.

As for Keynes's personal life, his early romantic and sexual relationships were almost exclusively with men. At Eton and at Cambridge, Keynes had been in many homosexual relationships; significant among these early partners were Dilly Knox and Daniel Macmillan. Keynes was open about his homosexual affairs, and between 1901 to 1915, kept separate diaries in which he tabulated his many sexual encounters. Keynes's relationship and later close friendship with Macmillan was to be fortuitous; through Dan, Macmillan & Co first published his Economic Consequences of the Peace. Attitudes in the Bloomsbury Group, in which Keynes was avidly involved, were relaxed about homosexuality. Keynes, together with writer Lytton Strachey, had reshaped the Victorian attitudes of the influential Cambridge Apostles; "since [their] time, homosexual relations among the members were for a time common", wrote Bertrand Russell. One of Keynes's greatest loves was the artist Duncan Grant, whom he met in 1908. Like Grant, Keynes was also involved with Lytton Strachey, though they were for the most part love rivals, and not lovers. Keynes had won the affections of Arthur Hobhouse, as well as Grant, both times falling out with a jealous Strachey for it. Strachey had previously found himself put off by Keynes, not least because of his manner of "treat[ing] his love affairs statistically."

Ray Costelloe (who would later marry Oliver Strachey) was an early heterosexual interest of Keynes. Of this infatuation, Keynes had written "I seem to have fallen in love with Ray a little bit, but as she isn't male I haven't [been] able to think of any suitable steps to take."

In 1921, Keynes fell "very much in love" with Lydia Lopokova, a well-known Russian ballerina, and one of the stars of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. For the first years of the courtship, Keynes maintained an affair with a younger man, Sebastian Sprott, in tandem with Lopokova, but eventually chose Lopokova exclusively. They married in 1925. The union was happy, with biographer Peter Clarke writing that the marriage gave Keynes "a new focus, a new emotional stability and a sheer delight of which he never wearied." Lydia became pregnant in 1927 but miscarried.  Ferguson at least had the good graces to acknowledge this fact in his "apology."

Back to Ferguson, it is abhorrent to me that Harvard University, one of America's most prestigious centers of learning, would employ someone such as Ferguson.  However, Harvard is know for employing controversial historians, which in my opinion, Harvard should be ashamed of itself.  Niall Ferguson is the worst kind of historian, one who is politically bent and has no sense of objectivity.  It makes him one-sided and therefore not creditable.  So as Leslie Winkle referred to Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, so will I refer to Niall Ferguson as "Doctor Dumbass."


silvereagle said...

Well written and researched as usual. The sexual orientation of Keynes is irrelevant. Now the question of the hour...going to complete the dissertation this summer are you professor.

Will said...

No doubt you are familiar with Harvard's schizoid history with homosexuality: educating and graduating large numbers of homosexual men while also destroying the reputations of and persecuting large numbers during President Lowell's time (Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals by William Wright -- it's available used on Amazon for $1) in spite of the fact that his own sister, Amy, was a mannish Lesbian).

My own interactions with Harvard during my theatrical design career (designing several Hasty Pudding Shows, designing productions that that performed at the Loeb Drama Center and Agassiz Theater) brought me into contact with large numbers of my fellow gay men throughout the Harvard faculty and administration. For Niall Ferguson to make such statements, particularly his sleazy apology, to the Harvard community and the American public at this moment in history is a supremely stupid thing to do. It is amazing given the history of the gay rights struggle, that reputedly intelligent people still think and, especially, say such things in public.

Jack Scott said...

On a brighter note, the reception for Jason Collins by his fellow NBA players and the public at large has been exceptionally positive. Collins is well respected; and it seems, almost every one thinks his homosexuality is irrelevant, which it indeed is.

I'm afraid I don't hold much respect for too many college professors these days. They are underworked and overpaid at a time when young people are having to hock their financial futures to get a degree. I hope you do make it to becoming a professor. I think your intellect and your ethical outlook would be a welcome change on many campuses.

Jack Scott

brotherdoc said...

I agree with your assessment of Ferguson, I also have not agreed with much of his work. A great article I just ran across that critiques Ferguson and goes on to talk about the relationship between judging homosexual sex (Keynes in particular) and conservative economics is called "Sex, Economics, and Austerity" by Jeet Heer and is in the May 7 on line issue of the American Prospect. I learned quite a lot from it.

Coop said...

An elitist academic who thinks he's always right. That's a novelty. NOT.
(I'm talking about Ferguson, not you, Joe)