A common and tedious refrain amongst some modern conservatives is "these days you're not allowed to criticize X," where X is gays or African-Americans or whatever group the conservatives believe to be unreasonably elevated in modern society this week. By "not allowed to criticize," they don't mean that they'll be arrested or sued or deported; they mean they might be subjected to rough criticism, which as well all know is tyrannical.1
On some occasions these conservatives may have a point: bad behavior should be criticized whatever the hue or orientation of a bad actor. Other times, they're wrong, and their logic absurd.
Take the strange case of Niall Ferguson.
Niall Ferguson is an historian and Harvard professor. If you teach at Harvard or study there, you'll find that you can coast a great distance on the Harvard name with little effort. Ferguson is determined to reject such complacency and make his own mark as an asshole entirely on his own merits. Asked about economist John Maynard Keynes, Ferguson had this explanation for why Keynes was insufficiently future-focused:
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.
. . .
Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an "effete" member of society.
Ferguson later apologized abjectly. We can all say very stupid things sometimes. It's entirely possible his comments were a poorly-thought-out seat-of-the-pants response to a question, not a reflection of a genuine hostility to people based on sexual orientation. Perhaps he's not a irredeemable oaf like, say, Dean Chambers, who suggested that Nate Silver's electoral number-crunching ought not be trusted because he's "a man of very small stature, a thin and effeminate man with a soft-sounding voice."2
Whatever Ferguson is, and whatever he really meant, his apology and the criticism that preceded it has enraged some on the right, who have used it as an example of how you are just not allowed to criticize gays without, you know, people saying mean things about you, which is hurtful. Some have gone further to say that Keynes should be roundly damned because he was a racist and anti-Semite and supported eugenics. Take, as a sample, Robert Stacy McCain:
A friend on Twitter informs me that John Maynard Keynes was an anti-Semite who was also head of the British Eugenics Society, which under ordinary liberal custom would be enough to render someone historically radioactive. However it seems the new rule is that being gay — or, as was apparently the case with Keynes, being nominally bisexual — is sufficient to silence all criticism.
Niall Ferguson says, in effect, “John Maynard Keynes was a bad economist who was wrong about everything and also, he was gay, which might be relevant to the problem.” OUTRAGE!
Well, here you go: Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer and a cannibal, and also, he was gay, which might be relevant to the problem.
What's amazing is that McCain and people advancing the "Keynes was an awful person" argument don't seem to grasp that this makes Ferguson look worse, not better.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that Keynes was indeed a racist and an awful anti-Semite and an advocate of eugenics, the practice of compelled selective breeding to weed out "undesirables." Niall Ferguson was asked to offer a criticism of Keynes and his view of responsibility towards the future. Ferguson didn't say "Keynes' anti-Semitism, the rot at the root of many disordered economic theories, characterized his failed thinking about peoples and nations." Ferguson didn't say "Keynes was an advocate of eugenics, a sign that he saw people as instruments rather than as individuals whose autonomy is its own good end." No, instead, Ferguson went with the "he was a childless effete who read poetry rather than screwing his wife." That line of argument is not, in fact, a flattering defense of Niall Ferguson. Similarly, when someone who is black or gay is an utter cad, and your critique of them centers on their identity as black or gay, it's ridiculous to complain when people don't focus on your target being a cad.
Since McCain brought up serial killers, I'll now explain the title: what would you think of someone who, asked what they thought of John Wayne Gacy, said "I hate his clown paintings?"
- For God's sake, whatever you do, do not allow this to detract from the conservatives' message that they are the muscular, unbending, purposeful, brave contingent of American society that can be expected to stand up to dictators and terrorists and stuff, unlike those wishy-washy and weak liberals. ▲
- I wonder what Chambers thought of that analysis last November 7. ▲