In defence of Niall Ferguson

8 May 2013

One of the most striking divides in the left/right political debate is this. Those on the right disagree with people on the left. They find left-wing opinions misguided, incorrect or otherwise wrong. But they tend not to assume that their opponents are evil. This favour is rarely reciprocated.

The Harvard professor and historian Niall Ferguson is the latest to suffer from this. In a discussion in California last week, he was invited to comment on John Maynard Keynes’ notorious observation, ‘In the long run we are all dead’. Ferguson mentioned somewhat flippantly that Keynes may have been more indifferent to the future because he had no children, because he was gay. For this he is now being denounced as an anti-gay bigot.

All the usual self-appointed, left-wing, gay-rights ‘spokespeople’ (incidentally, at which convention did we appoint them?) have condemned him. Ben Summerskill and Peter Tatchell have referred to the comments on Keynes as a ‘homophobic slur’. Others have claimed that his comments ‘take gay-bashing to new heights.’

As it happens I don’t think Niall Ferguson needed to apologise for making this comment. The attempt to shut down debate to such an extent that a glib off-the-cuff comment such as this can be subjected to such souped-up outrage is another reminder that the left-wing search for what it thinks of as ‘equality’ has become little more than an attempt to ignore any and all differences that exist in the world.

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For instance, no difference between men and women can be commented upon without being accused of being ‘sexist’. No difference between transsexuals and non-transexuals can be referred to without committing ‘transphobia’. No difference between different cultures can be commented upon without being deemed ‘racist’. And no difference between gay people and straight people can be mentioned without being accused of ‘homophobia’. For what it is worth, none of this does anything to help the cause of actual equality. It simply attempts to shut down discussion, straining in the hope that if we pretend there are no differences between people then there will exist no differences between people.

The specific difference Niall Ferguson appears to have been referring to is not between gay people and straight people but between people who have children and those who do not. Most gay people do not have children while most straight people I think still do. Whatever the sex or sexuality, I would suggest that having children or not having children is one of the biggest differences that exists between people. This isn’t to say that people who don’t have children have no concern over the future. I don’t have any children and I don’t think anyone could successfully claim that I am under-concerned about the future. But there are major differences between the concerns of those who have children who they need to provide for and those who don’t.

As it happens, Ferguson obviously feels he spoke badly and has issued a fulsome apology for his comments in an ‘open letter to the Harvard community’ (which can be found here). But a great round of ‘Niall Ferguson, right-wing historian and homophobe’ claims has gone up. I suppose they can now join the ‘Niall Ferguson, right-wing historian and racist’ slur that did the rounds a couple of years back.

As with so much in our current debates, the argument works just fine so long as you don’t have to submit any evidence.  Niall is far too decent a person to play the game of identity politics that the left expects, and whose absence it punishes. When he was casually accused of racism it did not matter to his critics that his wife happens to be a black refugee from Somalia. Had Niall been on the left he would doubtless have gone on and on about having a Somali-born wife. But he doesn’t, and since he is on the right it would offer no protection anyhow.

The same goes for his alleged ‘homophobia’. I am not the only gay friend of Niall’s who can attest to the absolutely fathomless stupidity of the claim. Plenty of others, some public figures but most not, could do likewise. At Niall’s wedding a couple of years back I certainly met some heterosexual couples, but it took a while to find them. Of course a left-winger would bang on and on about this. But those on the right tend to hope that we don’t have to. That, though, is to forget the terrible fact that in the eyes of much of the left, if you are on the right you are guilty until you are ‘proved’ guilty.

As it happens, most of the anti-gay hatred I experience is as able to come from people who think of themselves as being on the political left as on the right. It is precisely because they think they’ve got all this stuff neatly squirreled away as a tool to use against their opponents that they don’t need to wonder if they are remotely susceptible to it themselves.

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Show comments
  • S Brown

    Wait, so Ayaan is his “beard?”

  • chump23

    Nope, in this instance he has form. He has also claimed Keynes was in favour of ‘going easy’ on Germany at Versailles because he fancied a Kraut negotiatior:
    Thoroughly stupid as well as unpleasant. And I am very far from being a lefty.

  • George West

    Note to sub-editors:



    i) Complimentary or flattering to an excessive degree: “they are almost embarrassingly fulsome in their appreciation”.

    ii) Of large size or quantity; generous or abundant.

    Dougie – I think you meant Mr Ferguson has “issued a sincere apology”.

    But I can understand why a sophist such as you would favour such an onomatopoeic delight as fulsome! You certainly talk a good game.

    By the way, just how much are you paid by unnamed lobbyists to spout such outrageously pro-Israel propaganda?!

    • Claire Geber

      How would anybody know whether the apology was sincere? “Fulsome” – in either of its senses – would give some hope that it wasn’t.

      In what way is “fulsome” onamotopoeic? What is the sound of
      abundance, or excessive flattery?

      “Unnamed lobbyists” – I think we are all sophisticated enough to know what that sounds like. You old rhetorician, you.

  • mightymark

    “One of the most striking divides in the left/right political debate is this. Those on the right disagree with people on the left. They find left-wing opinions misguided, incorrect or otherwise wrong. But they tend not to assume that their opponents are evil.”

    I suggest that if Douglas looks at below the line comments on this very site, he will be disabused of that belief!

  • dawud helleman

    Doug Murray, managing to hate on Tim Winter on Sunday and defend Niall Ferguson on Wednesday. He manages to say that Tim Winter should lose his job over remarks made 15 years ago in a private forum, then writes this in defense of NF:
    “And no difference between gay people and straight people can be mentioned without being accused of ‘homophobia’”
    and without egg on his face or visible shame, this:
    “The attempt to shut down debate to such an extent that a glib off-the-cuff comment such as this can be subjected to such souped-up outrage…”

    apparently there is no continuity in Doug Murray’s mind. ‘Souped-up outrage’ is fine when it serves his purposes, apparently.

  • Dicky14

    It’s human interest for nerds, geekgate.

  • Swank

    Your first paragraph in particular is bang-on. The rest is a detailed illustration of how that paragraph is true.

  • RJ

    I like Douglas Murray, but this article is desperate. Of course he was right to apologise. I suggest reading Nick Cohen’s Spectator Blog on this.

  • Claire Geber

    The Harvard leftists are the academic counterpart of the enraged Muslim mob swarming the streets over blasphemy. Larry Summers fell victim to its clamor – recall the sexism furore? They circle the skies watching for prey to feed their humanity. Larry apologized too. Harvard is a cushy gig.

  • MikeF

    Why put paretheses around such words as ‘equality’ and ‘sexist’ but not ‘bigot’. The latter now has no more meaning than any of the newer, mock-analytical terminology – all the ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ – that the left has devised for itself. The word once had a worthwhile definition – someone with an inflated regard for their own opinions – but is now in effect a curse-word devoid of any worthwhile meaning and employed instead for its sound and appearance to attempt to intimidate into silence anyone who dares to question the ‘left-liberal’ consensus – parentheses justitfied because the mindset in question while undoubtedly ‘left’ is not at all ‘liberal’. This use of language is particularly revealing of the extent to which the left is now an exercise in irrationalism, a sort of secular voodooism, and it must be confronted and exposed for what it is at all times.

  • John Steadman

    Typically forthright and courageous, Douglas. Well done. But aren’t you more than a little irked by Ferguson’s apology? I think he is hardly worthy of your (commendable) supportive stance.

  • Abhay

    I am an admirer of Douglas Murray, his writings and his polemics. He is great to listen to. And is bravely fighting medieval, Islamist theocrats.

    But why did he write such a long piece defending Niall F? NF seems to be doing fine defending himself, saying sorry in various ways, all a bit cringe-causing frankly. He just needs to acquire some humility when in public.

    Hirsi Ali, NF’s wife, is a great at debating too.

  • Mussi Buma

    The fundamental strategy of the leftwing fascist thought-police is to make their opponents feel scared of everything they say. “Control their speech, and we control their minds”.

    The same outraged leftists are totally silent about the 650,000 black africans being kept as slaves in Mauritania. They are silent about the asian women who are treated as sex-slaves in Gulf states (many only returning home in a coffin). The left are silent about the 9yo girls in Islington being sold off & raped in the evening, whilst attending primary school during the day. The left are silent about gay people being assaulted and driven out of east London over the last 20 years.

    The Left only jump into outrage when there is an opportunity to attack those they consider to be their enemy.

  • Kroton

    Murray protests about those who “shut down debate”. I wonder if this is the same Murry who wishes to get Timothy Winter removed from his job for making perfectly sensible remarks about homosexuality (stating the basic position of the Three Abrahamic Faiths, not to mention almost the entire population of the earth for nearly all of human history)? Murray the ‘conservative’ sexual revolutionary has also assured us that “Perhaps gay marriage will encourage more straight people back on t the marital path”. The depths of ignorance expressed here should dissuade anyone from taking this bloodthirsty (see defences of nuclear strikes/carpet-bombing etc.) anti-Christian gay commissar seriously.

    • Arturaski

      I take it ‘the basic position of the Three Abrahamic Faiths’ is one in which they aren’t bending over…

    • Dicky14

      No date tonight?

  • JustAnOtherRandomGit

    The new Left can be absolutely, rip-curlingly awful, but I don’t think any point on the political spectrum has a monopoly on bigotry. I know many bloody dinosaurs with views close to my own, and also many quite accommodative Lefties. The time when the “I’m baking cakes for Palestine” brigade had a stranglehold on political discourse is thankfully gone, and their taboos and hatreds are also getting more and more powerless. All of this is great, but us more conservative types can no longer really portray ourselves as victims or brave free-speech pioneers …

  • Arturaski

    I don’t think the apology Douglas referred to was really ‘fulsome’; I doubt that it’s the word he wants to use. Mind you, if it is the word he wants to use then that would be hilarious.

    On another matter, does anyone else find themselves pausing so that they don’t malaprop Ben Summerskill’s name into Sen Bummerskill?

    • Benjamin O’Donnell

      Douglas Murray seems far too well-educated (Oxford degree in *English*, for goodness sake!) to make that mistake. It was either an ignorant sub-editor or a mischievously ironic author who chose that word…

      • tom w huxley

        I don’t think holding an Oxford degree makes anyone infallible in its subject. I think we can forgive Douglas a minor grammatical error, having delivered what is otherwise such a fine piece of writing.

      • Arturaski

        Douglas seems to be a chap in full control of his vocabulary, so I’d take a punt on him knowing precisely what he’s doing.

        • Benjamin O’Donnell

          In which case, this article contains a rather sinuously concealed jab at Ferguson, the very person whom it purports to defend…

          • Arturaski

            Indeed, although the two do seem to be friends. Swank above feels that it can be used as a compliment, which isn’t in my experience, but perhaps others feel it can be used that way as well. I’m not sure on this one.

    • Swank

      ‘ characterized by abundance : copious’
      There’s nothing wrong with the word the way Murray used it.

      • Arturaski

        I’ve never seen a definition of the word where its use is complimentary. I think it can be used in praise, but the emphasis is on the praise being excessive. Most definitions I have range from oily and sycophantic, through effusive to disgusting. That last one (Collins Pocket) does surprise me, but is in keeping with its generally negative tenor.

  • Benjamin O’Donnell

    The real problem with Niall Ferguson repeating this old Schumpeterian canard is not its homophobia, but its disappointing historical ignorance (or perhaps, intellectual dishonesty). It’s telling that few people bother to give the famous Keynes quote in its full context, neglecting to read even the very next sentence: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is past the ocean is flat again” (“The Great Slump of 1930” (1930) in Essays in Persuasion). Keynes was *not* saying that we should ignore the long run, he was saying that it’s useless to say the economy will return to full employment in the long run, when in the short run lives are being ruined by unemployment.

  • mattymaxxx

    This was not an off-the-cuff remark. He had repeated this a number of times. He just got caught this time.

  • andy_gill

    Funny how some on the left go ape-shit over a perceived anti-gay remark by Niall Ferguson, yet happily embrace full-on Islamic homophobes.

    Well, not actually funny, more disgusting.

    • Matthew Blott

      Some do but most don’t. I dislike prejudice and bigotry whether it’s in the form of homophobia, racism or misogyny.

    • Benjamin O’Donnell

      As Matthew says below, some do but a lot don’t. Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for example, are liberals (in the US sense) but are also so anti-Islam they have recently been smeared as “Islamophobic” or even racist…

    • Redneck


      A very important point, well said.

      It is a tragic failing of our more left-wing citizens: they don’t seem to realise that their often successful attempts to close down free-speech will hasten a caliphate that will crush them also.

  • Stephen Higgins

    “Had Niall been on the left he would doubtless have gone on and on about having a Somali-born wife. But he doesn’t..”

    He may not have gone on about it, but he certainly did mention it as though it were relevant.

    • Andy M

      Well, it is relevant. He’s married to a woman with different skin colour, with different cultural origins. If he had a problem with people based on a racist mindset, he wouldn’t have married her.

  • David Gormley

    Yeah, the Left would “bang on and on” about how many gay friends Ferguson has and that his wife is from Somalia. Probably exactly like Murray has done, though presumably not in such a roundabout way.

  • Simon Semere

    Seems like he’s had the good sense not to bring her up in defence of being an alleged ‘racist’, any attention on what she advocates would have proved that hollow and desperate, not to mention the plausible intimations he could have introduced as his marriage being a political stunt.

    • Andy M

      “any attention on what she advocates”? She is a champion of free speech and women’s rights in the face of the sexism they are subjected to in Islam.

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