Op-ed: Conservatives' Misread of Keynes Reveals Unconscious Bias

A backhanded insult to gays and revered economist John Maynard Keynes proves that those who are only fiscal conservatives and not social conservatives can still be homophobic.

BY Nathaniel Frank

May 09 2013 4:00 AM ET

Growing support for gay rights by conservatives and Republicans has reinforced a dubious political narrative: that there are fiscal conservatives and social conservatives and only the latter are antigay. But Niall Ferguson’s bizarre attack on the personal life of economist John Maynard Keynes has exposed the nasty moralizing aspect of fiscal conservatism. Indeed, it’s revealed a deep philosophical connection between social and fiscal conservatism and suggests the presence of unconscious homophobia at the root of the conservative mind.

Ferguson's controversial comments centered around Keynes’s famous remark that “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Ferguson, a Harvard historian who studies how empires decline, told an audience of 500 that Keynes’s economic worldview grew out of his personal experience as a childless homosexual. According to reports, Ferguson cast Keynes as selfish and “effete,” concerned more with poetry than progeny. His logic was that the economist favored high debt and short-sighted consumption over the more virtuous Protestant ethic of saving and self-denial because childless gays are less invested in the future. (Apparently Ferguson forgot the advice of heterosexual father George W. Bush following the 9/11 terrorist attacks: to go shopping.)

Ferguson apologized Saturday for suggesting that Keynes developed hedonistic economic beliefs because he was a childless gay with no investment in the future. He stated that he would never dismiss Keynes’s economic beliefs by impugning his sexuality, and he claimed to “detest all prejudice.” But evidence quickly materialized that Ferguson has a history of making precisely such dubious and disparaging links.

Recognizing the gravity of his misstep, Ferguson penned a longer letter to the Harvard community. In his open letter to the Crimson, Ferguson resorts to a version of the “some of my best friends are black” defense against prejudice. Indeed, Ferguson previously fought allegations of racism for comparing President Obama to a black cat, and his retort was he couldn’t possibly be racist because his wife was born in Africa. Likewise, he wrote this week that he couldn’t possibly be antigay because he asked a gay person (Andrew Sullivan) to be his son’s godfather.

To Ferguson, these personal facts about his bio make the charges of bias “easy to refute.” But I don’t think they do. To be clear, I do not wish to join the chorus of critics who call Ferguson’s remarks “gay bashing” or who angrily hurl the epithet “homophobe” at anyone who goes off-script about gay people. Indeed, I’d like to make this script less, well, scripted, and encourage our culture to learn from the feelings that words express instead of censoring the script.

On this, Ferguson and I agree. He says we can confront prejudice through “repression” or “education” and, correctly, chooses education, touting his own efforts to condemn eugenics, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. But just what are we to make of his having said these things in the first place? Ultimately, Ferguson gives us zero explanation for how these things could ever have come out of his mouth, simply dismissing the words as the “stupid things” that we all occasionally say.

The problem with Ferguson’s explanation is that he entirely misses the difference between taking a position and having a feeling. And he misses this distinction in a surprisingly unthoughtful way. “There is still, regrettably,” he writes, “a great deal of prejudice in the world.” But he doesn’t seem capable of applying this critique to himself.

The difficult truth is that it is very possible to love people and hold nasty and incorrect views about them at the same time (or nasty and correct views, for that matter). In fairness, if this is Ferguson’s failure, it’s reflective of a larger failure of our culture. Too often we prefer the WASPy dinner party to the revealing — and healing — heart-to-heart, opting for everyone to say the polite thing rather than to get to the bottom of the issue. As Ferguson writes, “To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays.” And if, in writing this, I am insisting that, of course Ferguson must be kinda antigay, I’m compelled to add that none of us is immune to prejudice.

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