Homophobia at Harvard and Other Hideous Horrors

May 29, 2013, 1:52 pm


In the intellectual spirit of the man himself, let me ask a counterfactual: why have so many people temporarily abandoned longstanding critiques of Niall Ferguson in favor of condemning him as a homophobe?

My guess is that Ferguson is not a homophobe, at least not in the conventional sense of wanting to exclude gay men from work and public life because they are gay, or not wanting his son to marry one. Having been educated at Oxford, where, according to his Wikipedia entry, he became dear friends with right-wing queer Andrew Sullivan, I can’t quite imagine that Ferguson is uncomfortable with white, gay men like John Maynard Keynes either.  I mean Oxford’s intellectual history is as gay as it gets, right?

Here is Ferguson’s own account of his intellectually sloppy remarks at Harvard earlier this month about having bashed Keynes, not for his ideas, but for his sexuality:

Last week I said something stupid about John Maynard Keynes. Asked to comment on Keynes’ famous observation “In the long run we are all dead,” I suggested that Keynes was perhaps indifferent to the long run because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay. This was doubly stupid. First, it is obvious that people who do not have children also care about future generations. Second, I had forgotten that Keynes’ wife Lydia miscarried.

Two things interest me about this (other than, having had a wife and at least some intercourse, the economist might be easily described as “gay.”) One is the notion that Keynes did have a “child,” when in fact the fetus was not carried to term. This is a very peculiar view, but it is a common conservative fantasy (see Sara Dubow’s prizewinning Ourselves Unborn, 2010). The second is his statement that  ”it is obvious” that childless people “also care about future generations.” My guess is that some do, but others — for example, queer literary scholar Lee Edelman, the elderly voters of Florida and California who refuse to pay taxes adequate to funding their public schools — don’t.

However, for my money, if we put the homophobia aside, both  statements guide us back to ongoing and widespread  criticisms of Ferguson’s scholarship. This is a man who has made a great career out of beautifully written, sweeping, lengthy books that ask big questions about the history of “the West.” However, except for his first book, they are far too thinly researched to stand much scrutiny, ignore most of what historians have learned about empire over the last several decades in favor of conservative cultural politics, and write off the history of colonized peoples as inconsequential to world history. As a result, although Ferguson’s narratives are compelling and readable, his arguments are highly ideological, Whiggish, and increasingly, not particularly original. Furthermore, the man was a paid advisor to the McCain-Palin campaign and has been an ongoing champion of neo-imperial interventions like the (failed and illegal) war in Iraq.

I think the gays will survive this moment: let’s get back to the real disagreements we have with Niall Ferguson, shall we?

If You Displease Me, I May Destroy You (If I Don’t Forget About You First, or Don’t Have Some Other Place To Be That Is More Important, Have Washed My Hair and Am Also Finished With My Book.) Among the more peculiar exchanges that appear from time to time in this comments section and on my Twitter feed, are those that presume I am entirely self-serving, vengeful and without ethical fiber.  A few (presumably younger) scholars seem to harbor the fantasy that I am on the brink of punishing them for disagreeing with me about this or that, despite the fact that I don’t seem to know them.  Occasionally I look at the bits of information in an online profile and deduce that, were I so inclined to actually punish someone who has written a critical comment or blog post, I would have to take a few days off; travel; devise an elaborate, ruinous scheme; and enlist the aid of numerous senior colleagues at other institutions.

Honestly? I think anonymous critics just want to be rude, they aren’t actually interested in what I think, and they want to bloviate without being accountable to professional standards of behavior. I recently pointed out to an anonymous Twitterstorian that s/he is capable of putting anything about me into public circulation, no matter how ridiculous, without any consequence, because I am well-known and s/he is pseudonymous. She responded that anonymous speech was a correct and necessary defense against ruthless senior faculty like me: “At this moment, there is no doubt in my mind that you, if you knew who I was, would try to retaliate,”  s/he tweeted.

Fight the POW-uh!

Seriously, this exchange reminded me of  a passage I read in a letter written by the normally lucid lesbian-feminist and peace activist Barbara Deming. It dated from the mid-1970s, when feminists were grappling with applying theories about male violence to their encounters with sexism and patriarchy. She explained to a prominent male editor that all female writers understand that if they quarreled with a man’s intellectual decision he might rape them. Not that the editor (who was flummoxed and a little crushed by the suggestion) was known for raping dissident female writers, mind you. But, as Deming explained, because he had a penis, he was capable of rape, and any relationship he had with a woman, of any kind, had to begin with the “fact” that he might use that penis to enforce his will.

In the eyes of some younger correspondents, apparently, tenure is my figurative penis (following Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born tenured, one becomes tenured.) Forget it that I have no reputation for using my tenurepenis to control other people. If you believe that senior scholars in your own workplace are likely to rape you with their tenurepenises, that’s one thing. But what kind of adult would go out of the way to seek out tenurepenis-holding people on the Internet, insult them publicly, and then insist (anonymously) that they live in fear of being ruined by people to whom they are only tangentially connected — if connected at all? It makes no sense. Furthermore, why would I  – or anyone like me — take time out from reading, writing, blogging, research, watching teevee and engaging in other cheerful activities, to concoct elaborate plots to destroy people I don’t know?

Could we be a little more practical with our readings of Foucault? Power may be everywhere, but the will and energy to wield it is not. As blogpal Lesboprof suggests in a recent piece, while bad things do happen to good people, asserting fear of harm, powerlessness and victimization seem to be all too pervasive in the academy.

Mind Your Manners, Buster Brown. In case you are thinking of leaving a snarky comment about queers, Keynes, Niall Ferguson, the British Empire, and/or me, not so fast. Check the American Historical Society website first: Vanessa Varin whipped up a roundtable over Memorial Day weekend about civility on the web, featuring me, John Fea (The Way of Improvement Leads Home), Ann M. Little (Historiann) and Ben Alpers (US Intellectual History Blog).  It’s in front of the firewall, but I did not see a comments box until I logged in. You may need to be member to join the conversation over there, but this is the blog where membership is always free!

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