Why Despise John Wayne Gacy? Clown Paintings. Definitely The Clown Paintings.

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?"

  1. 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.  
  2. I wonder what Chambers thought of that analysis last November 7.  

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Why does being an awful person or being a not awful person have to do with wanting to amass wealth for yourself or your nation?

  2. says

    Not to mention before Keynes economic theory was that if you build / produce it they will come and that we were always at or trending towards full employment. Not that we seem to have anything more figured out at this point.

  3. Pete says

    Extrapolating from the daily moral reasoning spectacle presented herein, could it not be said that neither a person's sexual orientation, nor awkward artistic predilections are salient when the real issue at hand is…ninnyhammery?

  4. Ancel De Lambert says

    What exactly is wrong with ballerinas? They're insanely flexible? Too toned and limber? Oh, right, they can kick like a mule and that unmans you, especially if you stand too close. Go pump iron and insist you've got the "not-gays."

  5. says

    It should be noted that Robert Stacy McCain is a former member of the white nationalist League of the South, so it's rather ironic for him to be complaining about the failure to denounce Keynes for being a bigot.

  6. Palimpsest says

    Niall Ferguson has a long history of being obnoxious. His books promoted the idea that the natives didn't appreciate all the good things that being invaded and colonized by the British Empire brought them.

    The conservatives are having snit fits about Keynes because it's becoming clear that he was quite correct and the anti-Keynes austerity has done very bad things to most of the countries in Europe. See Paul Krugman for details.

  7. That Anonymous Coward says

    I've commented quite a bit in the past about the phenomenon that is 'The Other'.
    'The Other' is the reason your life is bad.
    'The Other' is the reason your out of a job.
    'The Other' is the reason your kid is fat.
    'The Other' is the reason your taxes are so high.
    'The Other' is the reason…

    One of my more recent offerings…
    "Because organized groups need to have a villain to keep the followers focused upon.
    If they didn't have something to keep the masses distracted, the masses might turn their view to the leaders who more often than not are doing much worse than those they focus their ire upon.

    It doesn't matter how insane the boogeyman is or ridiculous the claims, they will make them to keep control. Fearful people cling to those claiming to the only ones who can tell them how to be saved. Every bad thing that befalls you isn't because you were stupid, it is the fault of "the others". "The others" are why us nice people have to get felt up to get on planes, they are they reason you lost your job, they are the reason they want to take your guns away, they are the reason your life isn't as good as you feel it should be. Personal responsibility is dead, and you can feed it by shifting the blame to "the others"."

    They have doubled down on a course, and they need to hang all problems on the "real" issue. It is an attack on religious freedom, if you disagree with what they say. It is a safety blanket they wrap their fear, disdain, and bigotry up in.

    They are terrified someone will make a law making it illegal to call someone a faggot, yet they have passed laws giving them control over other peoples life, liberty, and uteruses. What is good for everyone else, is horrible when applied to them.

    To paraphrase…
    Me thinks the lady doth protest to much…
    and this just goes here…

    Oh and I'm sorry if the word faggot bothered anyone, it hardly phases me anymore. I'm less concerned about a word than the person using it, and if they have a weapon and ill intentions towards me.

  8. Anony Mouse says

    it's becoming clear that he was quite correct

    No, no he wasn't.

    Well. He might be. Nobody ever pays attention to anything Keynes said aside from the bit about government spending. You know, the part about cutting government outlays in good times? The part that nobody does?

    Also, we've been riding the Keynes train at a cost of trillions of dollars for five years now, and it's clearly not working. It's easy for Prof. Krugman to chant "More, more, more!" but there isn't any more, and the bills come due eventually.

    The sooner we kick this nonsense to the curb, the sooner we turn things around.

  9. TTC says

    Having known more then a few gay people talk snearingly about 'breeders,' I think we're possibly guilty of using a bad generalization to accuse Ferguson of using a bad generalization.

    Also, it seems to me that Keyne's racism and anti-semitism was even less relevant to the discussion of his views on economics and the burdon of future generations then his sexuality and progeny. So not sure why we're awarding/detracting points based on that…

  10. Xenocles says

    @TTC – If nothing else, he was right about the Treaty of Versailles.

    @Grifter – You're supposes to leave the "Hitler" implied and allow other commenters to answer the question with unexpected people.

  11. AlphaCentauri says


    I definitely need proper computer glasses. I was reading too fast and saw, "'The others' are why us nice people have to get felt up to get on planes" and initially read, "'The others' are why us nice people have to get felt up by ponies."

  12. Basil Forthrightly says

    "Also, we've been riding the Keynes train at a cost of trillions of dollars for five years now, and it's clearly not working."

    Well, it's working a hell of a lot better than the European "austerity" debacle, which has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, producing most recently a year of recession for Europe after a year of weak recovery.

    And I suspect it would be working even better if some members of the political class had not threatened to trigger default on Federal debt.

  13. says

    Also making Ferguson look worse are the folks at National Review, who have whipped up a list of people (including Gertrude Himmelfarb riffing on the "soul of Bloomsbury" :roll: ) who have previously linked the ideology of Keynes to his sexual orientation in the way Ferguson did.

    But that's just to condemn Ferguson further by establishing that he's a derivative parrot of prior cheap shots.

  14. says

    "…what would you think of someone who, asked what they thought of John Wayne Gacy, said 'I hate his clown paintings?'"

    I would think they have great taste in art. What that has to do with talking heads whinging about being the victims of Butthurt in the Second Degree, I am still trying to wrap my head around…


  15. says

    Seven comments in before someone tried to shift gears into an argument over Keynesian economics. I actually didn't expect the article's topic to survive even that long.

  16. Maria says

    @TTC: I know more than a few straight people who don't want kids and call others who do, "breeders". And more than a few gay people who have adopted kids and would definitely include their welfare in their own calculations of welfare.

    But I think I may be misinterpreting your point? I read you initially as saying that "we" were incorrect in thinking that Ferguson's generalization was incorrect.

  17. David but not that David says

    Also, there's the bit where Keynes' wife had a miscarriage, generally a sign that there was some attempt at procreation going on.

  18. C. S. P. Schofield says

    When you get right down to it; unless something goes seriously wrong, Gacy's creepy clown paintings are the only thing about him likely to affect much out in The World.

  19. TTC says

    @Maria I know quite a few of those straight people too.

    My point was that we were using an incorrect generalization to impeach his incorrect generalization. Bad thinking is a poor weapon to attack bad thinking.

  20. That Anonymous Coward says

    @piperTom – I do that sometimes. I'll just have to ask that you just accept my flaws and be happy that the words were not spelled backwards as sometimes happens.

    @AlphaCentauri – And I think you just gave Ken new nightmare material. Grats you! :D

  21. Palimpsest says

    it's becoming clear that he was quite correct

    No, no he wasn't.

    Well. He might be. Nobody ever pays attention to anything Keynes said aside from the bit about government spending. You know, the part about cutting government outlays in good times? The part that nobody does?

    Agreed. The Bush Tax cuts prevented the building of a surplus, and they were cheerfully passed along by Congress with spending the Social Security Reserve

    Unfortunately now is not the time to shrink government spending unless you want to shrink the whole economy. So it would be better if the Bush tax cuts were deferred instead of made permanent, but that's not going to happen in the thrill of kicking taxes to the curb.

  22. bst says

    I'm still trying to figure out Ferguson's criticism that Keynes "was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina". Is he saying that it takes a gay man to prefer someone so feminine and girly as a ballerina? That Ferguson as a real man goes for manly things and would only marry a big burly lumberjack type woman?

  23. Dave says

    "Well, it's working a hell of a lot better than the European "austerity" debacle, which has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, producing most recently a year of recession for Europe after a year of weak recovery."

    It might help if they tried actual cuts, instead of using the accounting trick of making a cut to the planned rate of increase and whining loudly about deep cuts while the actual spending increases. You know, the same dog and pony show we called the sequester.

  24. luis says

    Ferguson got to a possibly valid conclusion from a flawed logic…

    His conclusion was that because Keynes had no kids his worldview was pretty egocentric.

    I tend to agree with that, having kids transformed my worldview completely in ways that someone (regardless of sexual preference) that does not have kids can never fully understand.

    The rest of course is hogwash

  25. James Pope says

    Not being gay has had some truly transformative effects on my life as well, but of the possible outcomes of heterosexuality I find its benefits to my supposed understandings of economics not the least bit compelling. That's a shame actually, as I'd love to truthfully set out to bar hop and use the line "Hey baby, why don't you and me go home and screw myself smarter" just once.

    As it is, I suspect the only way that works if there's a contagious disease involved. Abort.

  26. Sami says

    My central focus, in academia, is largely history.

    It is, perhaps, worth noting that when I saw the story about Ferguson, my reaction went:

    "… Wait, that name's familiar. Yeah, I know that guy. Hey, I HATE that guy!"

    Not that I know him personally, but I know his work. And I loathe it, and, accordingly, him. He is a known dicksplash of the highest order. And – as this very incident demonstrates – he is bad at history, and I find his prominence infuriating.

    Trying to claim that Keynesian economics has already been proven wrong is a fresh new irritant, though. There's a reason why in the immediate aftermath of the GFC, Keynesian economics suddenly became popular again. It always seems to happen in a financial crisis, because it's a functional and effective theoretical framework for when laissez-faire or whatever else has fucked everything up. Historically speaking, Keynes works best.

    That doesn't mean he was automatically a great person. But then, Ford makes some good cars, regardless of the fact that Henry Ford was an anti-Semitic, poisonously horrible Nazi. Wagner wrote some very good music.

    It's true that the Model T Ford was actually sort of terrible and Hitler's paintings were dismally mediocre at their best and Hitler's book was awful to a degree that approaches Dan Brown levels of rancidity, but still. Ride of the Valkyries is quality work.

  27. Sami says

    @bst: Oddly, Keynes was openly homosexual, and also married a ballerina. I don't really know the details of that relationship, but it's worth noting that it's not that they definitely didn't want children. His wife miscarried.

  28. Sami says

    @Anony Mouse: Also, no, America has not been riding the Keynes train. You can tell, because stimulus spending has been woefully inadequate, and you've spent years with arguments with "deficit hawks" about "cutting welfare" and "entitlements", and instead vast swathes of the so-called stimulus money has been spent on crap like tax cuts.

    Whereas if you look at countries like France and Germany, which bounced out of recession almost immediately, they went much harder on stimulus spending and real benefits to the unemployed; you can also look at Australia, which never went into recession at all, but did slam down some immediate and hefty stimulus spending too.

    Oddly enough, Australia also has socialised medicine and welfare programs it is currently extending. And, you know, national infrastructure not on the point of collapse (including a national broadband network under construction).

    How did we do it? By staying reasonably Keynesian all along.

  29. says

    @ saki – and we did it all with a staggeringly incompetent government, and only slightly less so opposition. We weren't distracted, however, by the earth-shatteringly important bollocks Americans waste political capital on, like enabling their teens to massacre one another, prevent nipples being broadcast on TV, and Gawd . . .

  30. flip says

    TL;DR version of this post… don't use ad hominems to make your case.

    Fortunately I enjoy reading every word of Ken's posts anyway ;)

  31. AC says

    Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer and a cannibal, and also, he was gay, which might be relevant to the problem.

    Hang on a second….how exactly does McCain think that Dahmer being gay was relevant to the problem? Would he have been judged differently if he'd murdered, screwed, and eaten women? Or would such a scenario merely make his heterosexuality "relevant"?

  32. ZarroTsu says

    I think I might consider writing a few letters on the bathroom wall in my own blood and then dying quietly in the tub. Then my mom can wander into the bathroom and stare at me for a good 2 minutes while her jaw twitches in confusion, followed by her moaning like a deranged moose in slow motion.

    But that might be overreacting a little.

  33. rabbitscribe says

    Fun Fact: Ferguson is married to the Somali-born feminist/ New Atheist/ former Dutch parliament member Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

  34. NI says

    Assume Keynes to have been a terrible person. What does that have to do with whether his theories were right or not? Do we trash the Declaration of Independence and Constitution because some of the men who signed off on it owned slaves?

  35. NI says

    It's a fun exercise in mental masturbation to try to explain someone's views by psychologizing them, but even the worst of us occasionally have good ideas.

  36. Ross says

    @Chris R

    Amassing wealth for yourself generally comes at the expense of other people, so this is entirely relevant to one's character. I note that you said "amass" and not "create." The means by which you grab your loot matters a great deal and is subject to scrutiny, criticism, and sometimes legal proceedings.

  37. Dictatortot says

    Well, Keynes was a philosopher as well as an economist. I suppose that, even if it isn't relevant to your economic arguments, the sort of person you are has some bearing on your credibility when talking about the good, the true, and the beautiful. If Keynes was indeed a eugenicist and anti-Semite, that implies a certain disorder in his vision of the worthwhile society … which could be worth considering when we evaluate his nostrums for bringing that society about.

    And Sami: it's true that Keynesian economics become more popular in lean times. It could well be that the reason is because they work so well during those times. On the other hand, it could also be that Keynesianism gives politicians cover to spend in ways that they otherwise wouldn't have the gall to try during such periods.

  38. Merissa says

    It's a great punchline. It belongs in the same category as those got-your-nose Holocaust jokes. You know:

    Q: What's worse than biting into an apple and finding half a worm?
    A: The Holocaust.

    Q: What's the worst thing about John Wayne Gacy?
    A: The clown paintings.

    IME, there are more people afraid of clowns than of being sodomized and murdered. Until they wake up in the basement, anyway.

  39. Sam says

    The only reason I know about John Wayne Gacy is the Sufjan Stevens song. And I rather like that song. Syllogistically speaking, I'm an asshat who tolerates Gacy's clown paintings because he likes obscure music.

  40. TTC says

    "Hang on a second….how exactly does McCain think that Dahmer being gay was relevant to the problem? Would he have been judged differently if he'd murdered, screwed, and eaten women? Or would such a scenario merely make his heterosexuality "relevant"?"

    Dahmer's homosexuality certainly mattered in his selection of victims. He almost exclusively obtained his victims from pick ups at gay bars.

    Further, he got a 'pass' because of his homosexuality. One of the his later victims, a 14 year old, escaped from Dahmer's apartment, naked, bleeding and drugged. A pair of neighborhood women found him and called the cops. Dahmer caught up with the boy, and managed to convince the cops that the boy was his drunk 19 year old boyfriend and that they were just having an argument. The dumbass cops turned over the kid because they thought it was just a case of gays being gay.

  41. kritikk says

    @Dave, I live in Greece, and have been for the last 17 years (am Greek-American), believe me the spending cuts have not been "accounting tricks". Or tell that to a friend of mine whose a kindergarten teacher making 560 euro a month (from 900), while her rent alone (w/o utilities), in a shit-crap cheap apartment is 250 a month (cost of living in Greece is not low). Or a married couple, friends of mine, both high-school teachers, making combined 1300 a month (from 1900 two years ago). Or to the new 50.000 homeless people, just two years ago employed or small business owners (Greece never before had even a tiny fraction of so many homeless people). Or to the newly just last week voted minimum retirement benefits of 360 euros a month (from 600 euros three years ago). And so on and so forth… believe me, Greece has real cuts, and the economy is like we just suffered through WWII!

    @AnonyMouse, about cutting spending during the boom years in the US, if you really read Krugman's blog, you'd have seen his chart that between WWII and Reagan, the deficit had been severely decreased, than came Reagan with his extravagant spending, then during Clinton again the deficit was decreased, until Bush junior again took it through the roof! So yeah, some politicians do cut spending and deal with the deficit during the boom years.

    Living in Europe through the whole crisis, seeing Merkel and her econoquacks promising "next year, there'll be growth" every year since '09, while this year we'll be having another 4.5% GDP shrinkage (total since '09 of 17% GDP shrinkage) I wouldn't say austerity holds any water during a Depression, at least with central bank interest rates at 0%.

    For comparison, right before the crisis, Spain had an 80% debt ratio and a budget surplus, and through "austerity" it has a huge budget deficit, a 90% debt to GDP ratio and a 26% unemployment rate.