Niall Ferguson Contains Multitudes (or The Walt Whitman Theory of Public Figures)

It’s been a rough few years for Niall Ferguson. His 2012 Newsweek cover story endorsing Mitt Romney was widely accused of sloppiness, factual distortion, and in some spots being flat-out erroneous. More recently, he was roundly criticized for remarks made at a conference in California which suggested John Maynard Keynes did not care about the long run because he was gay and had no children (Ferguson “unreservedly apologized” shortly after).

Just this past week (and thanks to my coauthor for bringing it to my attention), he has called out ostensible supporters of Paul Krugman for their alleged incivility (for example, Josh Barro referred, quite rightly in this blog’s opinion, to one of Ferguson’s 2011 columns as “asinine”), and then attempted to demonstrate his superiority as a public intellectual…by calculating the ratio of tweets to followers for himself and the writers in question.*

Those are just some examples of the questionable judgment Ferguson has exercised while operating as a public figure, and not, I think, crucially, exclusively as a historian. Indeed, as a historian, much of his work has been widely praised. His history of the Rothschild family is almost universally acclaimed, he continues to teach (with endowed  professorships, no less) at some of the world’s most prestigious institutions), and hey, I thought The War of The World was excellent (and the New York Times agreed).

So what’s going on here? Why does Niall Ferguson the generally respected historian insist on exposing us to Niall Ferguson the questionably-informed pundit? Lacking any specific insight on the inner workings of the man’s mind, the simplest explanation is the Walt Whitman one. Niall Ferguson, like most people, is large, and contains multitudes. Unlike most people, he has a platform from which he can inform the rest of us of this fact.

In fact, I’d argue this recent episode with Ferguson is actually a fairly common phenomenon – being quite good at one thing (in Ferguson’s case, writing history) does not mean you’re any good at other things (like punditry or journalism). In a completely different context, Tim Thomas serves as another prominent example in this vein. Tim Thomas is very good at hockey. Respectfully, Tim Thomas is not very good at politics.** In both cases, we only know about the person’s questionable qualifications in the second arena on account of their success in the first.

Situations like these always upset me.*** It is emotionally and intellectually unsatisfying (to say the least) that people we like and respect for one thing may also be anywhere from objectionable to despicable when it comes to others. But I suspect this state of affairs says more about me than it does about the public figures in question. After all, if we’re honest with ourselves, I think we will all admit that even our closest friends are just as complex and, at times, infuriating. It’s just that we’re the only people who care when they are.****

*I don’t want to put words in Josh Barro’s mouth, but I imagine he was as surprised as I was to see him described as a Paul Krugman supporter
**Mostly see the Glenn Beck bit
***In a, why doesn’t the universe fit into discrete boxes, way. Not in a Bridget Jones eats Ben and Jerry’s way
****This raises the question of what responsibility, if any, public figures have to stick to what they’re good at, so to speak. Presumably, if that responsibility does exist, it’s much more profound in the case of Ferguson than Thomas