Politics

05.06.13

Niall Ferguson and the Future

You are undoubtedly aware of the Niall Ferguson contretemps that exploded on Saturday over his remark that John Maynard Keynes didn't care about the future because he was childless. He offered what he called an "unqualified apology" on his own web site, and indeed it seemed quite ingenuous and contrite, until it was quickly revealed that he written similarly about Keynes in a previous book, which suggests that the remark was maybe not quite as "off-the-cuff" as he suggested but was a notion that's been jumping across his synapses for some time now.

It turns out that there's a whole conservative critique that puts Keynes's sexuality at the center of his economics, which Brad DeLong discusses here. It's pretty fascinating and warped. But another development concerns Ferguson's own concern about the future. David Roberts of Grist tweeted Sunday that Ferguson apparently isn't concerned about climate change. Here's a 2011 column by a Telegraph right-winger celebrating a Fergusonian jibe on British television:

Civilization – Niall Ferguson's brilliant, impeccably right-wing analysis of why it is that the West is going to hell in a handcart just gets better and better. (H/T Phantom Skier)

In the latest episode, he explored how the roots of the Holocaust lay in a dry run genocide carried out by the Germans (who else?) in German South-West Africa (now Namibia) in the 1900s against the Herero and Namaqua natives. Around 80 per cent of the former tribe and 50 per cent of the latter were brutally massacred with many of the survivors sent to concentration camps where their racial characteristics were studied by proto-Dr-Mengeles as part of the fashionable new scientific field popularised by Francis Galton – eugenics.

Ferguson said:

"The important point to note is that 100 years ago, work like Galton's was at the cutting edge of scientific research. Racism wasn't some backward-looking reactionary ideology: it was the state of the art and people then believed in it as readily as people today BUY the theory of man-made climate change."

This is not necessarily definitive, although it does certainly suggest a point of view. I Googled around and wasn't able to turn up anything Ferguson has actually written on the subject. But it's certainly amusing. Lots of people could easily argue that this mockery of climate change demonstrates that Ferguson, even with all his prodigious progenation (four kids), doesn't care about the future.

It just shows how silly his remark was. It was factually wrong, since Keynes and the "ballerina" conceived but suffered a miscarriage, as Ferguson acknowledged. But procreation doesn't make a person any more automatically qualified to be concerned about the future than being a historian does. We've had lots of childless philosophers and writers and artists throughout history who produced work that was concerned with certain immutable questions of the human puzzle.

I would guess that Ferguson saw a potential storm brewing that might cost him dearly on the lecture circuit. Gay people have political power now, so you can't say that sort of thing without experiencing some consequences, and that's just fine as far as I'm concerned.