"We can pull a sledge together without being kemmerings" —
I.e., approximately, We can cooperate without liking one another.
— A saying on the planet Gethen in Ursula K. Le Guin's
The Left Hand of Darkness (ch. 6)
The actual occasion for this essay was my taking out my Election 2004 Kerry/Edwards T-shirt to wear while exercising and having to decide whether to wear it as the bottom layer of my T-shirt, thermal underwear shirt, T-shirt sandwich, where it would be invisible, or the top, where it would make its statement to the world.
I'll return to that T-shirt, but I have a somewhat more respectable and definitely more up-to-day "hook" for this essay in the brouhaha in early May of 2013 over Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson's contrasting the great economist John Maynard Keynes and the great conservative thinker Edmund Burke. Ferguson argued, approximately, that Keynes discounted future generations, whereas Burke stressed our continuity with and obligation to them, because Keynes was gay and childless and Burke heterosexual and a father. As the self-admittedly rather conservative Tim Worstall points out in Forbes on line, Ferguson's comment "is wrong on so many different levels that it’s complicated to point them all out," and Ferguson has since withdrawn the comment and apologized.
A couple things here. First, the folks calling for Harvard to fire Ferguson should save their breaths. Ferguson is tenured, and tenure includes the right to be wrong and stupid in public without fearing for one's job. Tenure is free speech given economic meaning, and as the ACLU saith, the answer to the problems of free speech is (almost always) more free speech. Ferguson's right to say wrong and stupid things in public is balanced by the right of people like Tim Worstall to point out in public and at some length that Ferguson has said something wrong and stupid. And professors occasionally saying dumb and/or harmful things is a small price to pay for having us around to say useful things that are politically unorthodox or politically incorrect (e.g., pointing out that the arguments for the wars in Vietnam and Iraq had serious problems). Think of professors as if we were the Court Foole or a satirist: licensed wise-asses speaking Truth to power, except scholarly discourse comes with citations and less entertainment value.
But moving on: One should also refrain from demanding firing the man if Ferguson is a homophobe, or if he were a Communist or sexist or Ayn-Randian atheist or free-will-denying Calvinist or Arian heretic or Aryan chauvinist or any other state of being or identification. The issue is what Ferguson or any professor does in the classroom and his research and other official duties or, if it's really egregious, does outside the classroom. Saying some heretical or offensive thing occasionally, fine, possibly even helpful; intimidating students outside of a little Socratic bullying, uh no. Going off on rants or insisting your students believe your bullshit — or believe anything, for that matter — definitely not.
(As a mediator for an academic department I sometimes had to explain the know/believe distinction to young teachers. Teachers can insist that their students learn and understand all sorts of things; they may not insist that the students believe any of it. See J. S. Mill, On Liberty : freedom of thought for all concerned is a basic principle of academic freedom. For me as a Jew who taught a fair amount of Christian theology so students could understand large swaths of English literature, it's a truism that "to know" doesn't necessarily mean "to believe." I also taught some Freudian theory on occasion — and, more often, the theory of the Four Elements [Air, Earth, Fire, and Water], which is arguably more demonstrable than Freudian theory.)
The second thing I'd bring up from this affair de Fergie is the extent to which Ferguson's dumb-ass comment on Keynes should be added to other of his errors to discourage right-thinking people like me to dismiss Ferguson generally and entirely.
The answer is, Not much: not to a significant extent.
I'm approaching here a question of ethos or "the ethical proof" or what I'll deal with in a strong form as "The John Edwards Issue": the idea that in judging an argument one should "Consider the source." The most legitimate use of this criterion is a person's record on accuracy, insightfulness, usefulness, and other positive rhetorical stuff. When people have histories of error and dishonesty, we should be especially skeptical about anything they go on to say. Even as "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs," assertions by the careless, malicious, and/or mendacious require extraordinarily careful testing.
Still, only in logic puzzles do liars always tell lies and truth-tellers always speak truth. In the real world, anyone can screw up, and nasty, stupid, often mendacious people may be right sometimes, and their intellectual and ethical betters can be screamingly, horribly wrong.
I've listened to a couple of Niall Ferguson's books with profit and pleasure and found them, where questionable, still usefully provocative. Economic historians can find much to complain about in Ferguson's work, but for someone on my level what I heard was instructive, and I don't think I was seriously misled.
Sometimes it's all the more dangerous for being attractive, but vigorous and thought-provoking error can often be more useful than truths that just sort of lie there and glows with righteousness.
Pushing the point brings me to my T-shirt, the John Edwards for Vice President part of it.
I wore the T-short, and on the outside.
First off, the political memory of Americans is about 2.5 weeks, which is, nowadays, maybe two news cycles; plus few Americans walking their dogs at 8:15 a.m. seriously read other people's T-shirts. So I could be pretty sure I wouldn't get hassled for the "T" and what was involved, mostly, was my self-respect.
You see, John Edwards is a cad and has done the deeds of a cad and in addition may be a scoundrel: unconvicted, but quite possibly a felon who misappropriated campaign funds to cover up his extramarital affair … plus siring a bastard child, lying — a bunch of shit. So if you would decline to vote for John Edwards if he ever tries to rehabilitate himself, I'm not going to argue with you.
Still, I'll keep the "T" and wear it because John Edwards brought some useful messages to the 2004 and 2008 campaigns: he stressed issues of class.
Provocation can be useful, and if anyone does note my T-shirt I can remind them that "During the campaign of 2004," the in-this-Honorable John Edwards "spoke often of the two Americas: the America of the privileged and the wealthy, and the America of those who lived from paycheck to paycheck." Edwards was the Senator and candidate who "spoke of the difference in the schools, the difference in the loan rates, the difference in opportunity"; the Senator who brought again into mainstream discourse Benjamin Disraeli's crucial observation in 1845 of the "Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor."
I can see not voting for Edwards if he fails what might be called the nausea test. Most American women should never vote for Edwards; but I might. "The personal is the political" indeed, but people, maybe especially men-type people, are notoriously good at compartmentalizing our minds and, thank God, often even better at hypocrisy. I believe Edwards could have been kept to his words on rich vs. poor and pressured into working to keep the US from falling to where Americans are rich or poor, and those are the non-choices and the poor get consistently and royally screwed.
Anyway, I'll keep the T-shirt and keep it in its place in rotation of my exercise wear. And I'll wear it on the outside now and then, and hit the elliptical trainer with my iPod, perhaps listening to The Ascent of Money or Civilization, audiobooks by Niall Ferguson.
Addendum: on Tuesday, 7 May 2013, Mark Sanford was elected to the United State Congress in a special election in Shouth Carolina's First Congressional District. When governor of South Carolina in 2009, Mr. Sanford disappeared for six days to visit his lover in Argentina, a woman who was not his wife. Mr. Sanford's actions were less reprehensible than those of John Edwards but a good deal weirder; Sanford's quick political rehabilitation is a strong sign of growing tolerance for politicians' behaving badly in private, so long as they act offically in ways people see as the public interest, or at least in the interest of "our kind."