ONLINE ONLY: Ferguson’s Fact of Nature

Historian Niall Ferguson has found himself in hot water over unscripted remarks during a question and answer session at a conference in California. Commenting upon Keynes’s famous observation regarding the long view of economics — “in the long run we are all dead” — Ferguson said Keynes was indifferent to the long view because he had no children, and that he had no children because he was gay. Many were quick to point out that being homosexual does not preclude taking an interest in the future, and in future generations. Ferguson issued an unreserved apology, condemning prejudice in all its forms.  Ferguson had forgotten of course that Maynard was bisexual and later married Russian prima-ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Their love letters show a relationship with a childlike sweetness, based on deep mutual affection and love. They tried for children but Lydia miscarried. Maynard had four nephews through his brother Geoffrey, my great-grandfather. Family stories attest to the great interest Maynard and Lydia took in the lives of all four nephews. Maynard and Lydia are always spoken of with fondness by the generations of Keyneses who followed them. Writing Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren Maynard may well have been thinking of his nephews’ numerous offspring, myself among them.  So Ferguson is absolutely right to apologise for making two errors: that Keynes was homosexual when in fact he was a married bisexual who tried for children, and that being homosexual somehow prevents a person taking a long view of humanity. Of course it doesn’t, and it’s wrong to suggest otherwise. Error admitted, apology accepted, we can all forgive and move on now. But what of the second part of Ferguson’s statement, “no children because he was gay”? It strikes me there’s a truth in this statement for which no apology need be given, namely the fact of nature that sex between two men, or sex between two women, cannot produce children. Gay couples wanting children have to resort to adoption, surrogacy, or artificial insemination. Is it “anti-gay” to point this out?  This is the uncomfortable truth at the heart of the same-sex marriage debate currently happening in Europe and the US. Those who oppose plans to redefine the institution of marriage do so on the basis of the sterility of homosexual sex. For traditionalists, marriage is about the complementarity of a mother and a father and the creation of children. Since when did simply speaking out the fact that homosexual sex does not result in conception become “anti-gay”? If it’s since it became part of the argument opposing same-sex marriage, then Ferguson’s hasty backdown suggests certain truths have become unsayable. Coming at a particularly sensitive point in time for a gay community lobbying for same-sex marriage, it’s not hard to see why reminding a liberal California audience of an uncomfortable truth might provoke a reaction.  Ferguson’s apology is wholly warranted where it reveals his prejudice, but
anyone calling themselves a liberal should feel a little disquiet if reaction based on high feeling is allowed to elide error, which should be apologised for, with truth, which should be stated boldly and debated sensibly. Keynes was a liberal of the old stamp, committed to the liberal cause, and as such he valued rigorous thought and clarity as the only ways to the truth.

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