05/14/2013 07:31 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

What Is an Acceptable Defense Against a Charge of Bigotry?

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As a gay person, it's probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q-and-A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off John Maynard Keynes' famous line "in the long run we are all dead" to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, because he was gay and didn't have any kids, so he obviously didn't care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting as much:

My colleagues, students, and friends -- straight and gay -- have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn't hide behind "I'm sorry for any offense I might have caused" or any of the other tongue twisters that politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff that they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment and took responsibility, so we're moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the Internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper in which he argued that Keynes didn't criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson's books says that World War I made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson:

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry.

That's Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his non-bigotry. He continues:

Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a "gay-basher", as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

It's easy to laugh at Ferguson's naïveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go, "Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let's call this off!"?

But Ferguson's gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don't think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the "but I've got plenty of gay friends!" defense, which sounds patronizing and tokeney, and it often is. We scroll through Ferguson's 30-year career, find two instances of problematic analysis, tsk-tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles that Ferguson wrote in his youth in which he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I'm not trying to defend Ferguson. I've read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven't been debating whether Ferguson's books suck, or even whether his comment was homophobic. We've been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson's body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes' homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes' actions with that brush. That's a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes' homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-World War I German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago and his friendship with Andrew Sullivan evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that's something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson's statement that Keynes' homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes' actions. But I can't help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we're doing the same thing.