“There’s wrong, there’s very wrong and then there’s Niall Ferguson.”

“There’s wrong, there’s very wrong and then there’s Niall Ferguson.” – economist John Aziz on Twitter

Aziz tweeted that earlier this week, before Ferguson made yesterday’s instantly infamous homophobic attack on John Maynard Keynes at a talk for financiers:

Harvard Professor and author Niall Ferguson says John Maynard Keynes’ economic philosophy was flawed and he didn’t care about future generations because he was gay and didn’t have children.

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, 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. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.

Ferguson should be the last person to be casting aspersions on anyone else’s personal life, given that, while still married to someone else, he began an affair with author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and knocked her up. He then dumped his wife of over 20 years (they had had three children together) to marry Ali. What a heart-warming demonstration of traditional values!

Ferguson’s slur was ugly indeed — so much so that, according to the report, the no-doubt conservative audience fell into a stunned silence following his remark. But Ferguson — a man for whom the term “hackademic” would surely have been invented, had it not already existed — is part of a long right-wing hack tradition. He is far from the first to take this line of attack. Ferguson likely stole the “childless homosexual” epithet from British wingnut Daniel Johnson (who’s the son of another winger, Paul Johnson. Why do these demon spawn second generation right-wingers tend to be even more appalling than their progenitors? ). The great novelist — and famously nasty conservative — V.S. Naipul has characterized Keynes as a gay exploiter.

Over on this side of the pond, conservative author Mark Steyn attempted to smear Keynes’ ideas by referring to him as — surprise! — a “childless homosexual.” The American Spectator has repeated that slur, as has this contributor to FrontPageMag.com. George Will has also cast the “childless” aspersion (which is pretty clearly a dog whistle for “gay”) against Keynes. So did right-wing economists Greg Mankiw and Joseph Schumpeter. I am reliably informed that William F. Buckley used to gay-bait Keynes as well, although a quick internet search did not produce evidence of this.

Ferguson’s comments are idiotic and offensive on many levels. First of all, there’s his illogical ad hominem style of argument — could not an Oxford-educated Harvard professor done a little bit better? Then there’s the juvenile homophobia — OMG! this faggy fag economist who liked to talk about faggy subjects subjects like poetry and ballet with his wife! — when everyone knows only Real Men can do economics!

But it’s not only the homophobia that’s offensive, it’s the bitchy slur against childless people. I resent the insinuation that, because I haven’t irresponsibly procreated, I care nothing about future generations and would cheerfully assent to the world going to hell in a handcart. In some ways, it’s precisely because I don’t have kids that I am committed to helping build a better world. Rather than children, what I will leave behind me are whatever small ways I’ve helped individual people and the activist causes and organizations to which I devote my time and labor. At any rate, I strongly suspect that the “childless” gibe may have been directed not so much at Keynes as at another famous economist for whom Ferguson apparently has an obsession — and who happens to be childless.

The other thing that’s so nasty about Ferguson’s remarks is his mischaracterization of Keynes’ personal life, which reveals his utter lack of empathy for the man. In the pre-Stonewall era it was not uncommon for gay people to marry opposite sex partners; this happens even today. LGBTQ people who lived openly with same-sex partners faced extraordinary stigma. Let’s not forget that Keynes lived in a society where you could do hard time for sodomy. Also, Keynes and his wife Lydia Lopokova did attempt to have a child, but she suffered a no-doubt painful miscarriage. I don’t doubt that Keynes was fundamentally gay, but by all accounts, he loved his wife and the couple were happy together. That may seem hard to understand, especially today. But people are complicated. Given the choices he’s made in his own personal life, Niall Ferguson should be the first person to recognize this.

UPDATE: Ferguson has apologized for his remarks.

MORE UPDATES: 1) It wasn’t ol’ Niall’s first time at this particular rodeo. More of Ferguson’s gay-baiting of Keynes can be found here and here. Apparently he didn’t get it from Daniel Johnson after all.

2) Brad DeLong notes that wingnutty historian Gertrude Himmelfarb (and mother of demon spawn William Kristol) was an important transmitter of the “Keynes the evil homo” meme.

3) Media Matters provides a useful recap of some of Ferguson’s other greatest hits:

This is not the first time Ferguson has been the subject of scrutiny following an offensive comment. He was harshly criticized for a 2009 column in which he compared Obama to the cartoon character Felix the Cat, writing that Obama was “not only black” but “also very, very lucky.” More recently he claimed that New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman’s supposed “inability to debate a question without insulting his opponent suggests some kind of deep insecurity perhaps the result of a childhood trauma.”

4) I’m also reminded of this immensely satisfying takedown of Ferguson by the brilliant Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books. It kicks off by comparing Ferguson to The Great Gatsby‘s Tom Buchanan and just keeps getting better from there. This kind of article is exactly the reason why I subscribe to the LRB. The piece struck a nerve with Ferguson, so much so that he threatened to sue the LRB for libel (he never followed through with the suit).

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee