So, just as I’m finishing reading comedian Jen Kirkman’s book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, historian Niall Ferguson goes and claims that people who don’t have children don’t care about society or the future. Or at least, he claims that about economist John Maynard Keynes, while suggesting that Keynes was gay:
Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive. It gets worse. Ferguson, who is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University, and author of The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, says it’s only logical that Keynes would take this selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society. Apparently, in Ferguson’s world, if you are gay or childless, you cannot care about future generations nor society.
That was on May 2nd. For two days the blogosphere discussed whether Ferguson is a homophobe, and on May 4th he apologized— kind of. He went to great lengths to disavow any possible homophobia, including suggesting that it would be impossible for him to be homophobic since he’d asked Andrew Sullivan to be godfather to one of his sons. The reader is treated to a lecture on how absurd and idiotic it would be to think that Ferguson of all people might harbor any bigotry toward homosexuals, as well as the fact that Keynes himself was not immune to such, being somewhat xenophobic toward Poles and Americans. Which is relevant because…I’ve no clue. The apology ends with a flourish of snark so abrupt it threatens rhetorical whiplash:
Shock, horror: Even the mighty Keynes occasionally said stupid things. Most professors do. And—let’s face it—so do most students. What the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere forget is that to err occasionally is an integral part of the learning process. And one of the things I learnt from my stupidity last week is that those who seek to demonize error, rather than forgive it, are among the most insidious enemies of academic freedom.
Be warned! All who took offense to Ferguson’s remarks and fail to accept his apology given here are forthwith declared members of the self-appointed speech police of the blogosphere and enemies of academic freedom! Criticism is censorship! Free speech! The ability to speak one’s mind openly is in peril when people object too stridently to illogical and offensive smearing of widely respected economists! Geez, you’d think he was a comedian who made a rape joke.
And one common theme that exists in both Ferguson’s “apology” and the reactions of people who took exception to his remarks is this: the emphasis on homophobia. Being anti-gay is wrong. Nobody should suggest that gay people are selfish, impetuous, nihilistic, or otherwise deficient in character in any way because they are gay, say the detractors. I didn’t mean to suggest that, don’t believe it, and don’t attack me too much for accidentally claiming it or else you’re the speech police, says Ferguson.
Okay…but how about what he suggested about the childless?
Ferguson remarked on the added stupidity to his comments arising from the fact that Keynes’ wife did actually get pregnant but suffered a miscarriage, implying that it’s underhanded to criticize that particular couple for not having children because at least they apparently tried, and it would amount to pouring salt on the wounds of someone who has lost the baby they hoped for to claim that no such hope ever existed. Which, indeed, it would be…although considering that Keynes died in 1946 and his wife Lydia Lopokova in 1981, it’s safe to say that those wounds have long since scabbed over. More fundamental to the point, however, is the fact that Ferguson’s characterization of Keynes as selfish and shortsighted due to not being a parent is equally a catastrophic failure of logic and fairness whether he and his wife had attempted to procreate or not. This is because not only does not having children count as character flaw; neither does not wanting them.
Childless by choice, otherwise known as childfree, is not a bad thing to be. Really.
I frequently make the same joke as Jen Kirkman makes in her book’s title– how could I be a parent, when I can barely take care of myself? But let’s be clear…it’s a joke. Mostly. In addition to being a quasi-memoir and thoroughly enjoyable read, Kirkman’s book tears to shreds a lot of popular misconceptions of what it’s like to not want children, as well as countering arguments– yes, arguments— people make for why you should have children, even though you don’t want to. Especially if you’re, you know, female. People without children don’t understand how precious life is. They won’t have anyone to take care of them when they’re old and infirm. They have no legacy to succeed them. They are doing a disservice to their parents and partners (who, presumably, not only want children/grandchildren themselves, but require them). They are not truly fulfilled and actualized women (not applicable to men, seemingly– they don’t tend to get this one, even from Niall Ferguson).
Along with revealing the extent and nature of homophobia in the United States, the culture war over gay marriage has revealed a lot of other kinds of prejudice and narrow-mindedness that tend to overlap with it. They’re like a Darwinian tree of bigotry, the root of which is basic sexism. From that root sprout a seemingly infinite array of stringent and ingrained beliefs about what men and women should do, say, and in general be, and one of the things they should be is parents. With a person of the opposite sex. Naturally. That is, by a combination of the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg achieved via sexual intercouse within the context of marriage, probably in the missionary position with the lights off. Not artificially, whether by adoption or in vitro, not outside of marriage, not with a partner who has the same type of genitals you do, and absolutely, positively, not not at all!
It’s sort of like atheism, in that a religious person would prefer that you be of the exact same religion that they are (after all, their belief is the Truth with a capital T)…but they can deal if you’re, say, of another denomination. Methodists can get along with Presbyterians when they need to get things done. And hey, when it comes right down to it, if you at least agree on a lot of traditions and have a similar basic history underlying your respective belief systems…okay, Protestants can get along with Catholics. And then, well, you know, in the spirit of ecumenicalism, they can also manage to get along with Jews and maybe even Muslims. And then, hey, I guess if we’re going to try and all be on the same page, in the end what matters is that we all worship God, right? In our own ways, but everyone has a different path up the mountain and what matters is that you get there.
But wait….you don’t even believe in God?
You don’t even want children?
The brain seems to short-circuit here, as in a conversation Kirkman recounts having had at a wedding with someone she’d just met:
“I know you’re not even married yet,” Lucy lectured, “but at your age, you have to think about making a family while you’re planning the wedding.” Five minutes ago I was too young to know that I was going to change my mind and suddenly I’m too old to waste any time after my wedding to plan on making a family? Which age bracket am I in? Young and stupid or old and barren? And “making a family” is another expression that grosses me out. I pictured Matt standing over me in a lab coat with a turkey baster. Lucy took a big sip of her red win, wiped her lip, and leaned into me. She may have been a little drunk or a little dehydrated or a little both, because she had that dry “wine lip” that looks like someone poured purple paint into the cracks of a sidewalk. She leaned in close and whispered, “What would you do if you accidentally got pregnant?” I didn’t even understand the question. “Oh, I would never cheat on Matt,” I answered. “No, Jen, I mean what if you got pregnant, by accident, with Matt’s baby?” “Are you asking me, someone you barely know, at our friends’ wedding, if I would have an abortion?” “Well,” she said, “it’s something you have to think about if you don’t want kids. I mean, I personally think that abortion is something for teenagers who couldn’t possibly raise a child. But ever since I decided that I wanted to try to become a mother and I see how difficult it can be to get pregnant, I realize that it’s a gift to be pregnant and if a married couple who are both employed accidentally get pregnant, I don’t see how you can give that up.” A total stranger tried to small-talk me about abortion. I have never had an abortion. I never want to have an abortion. I also don’t want to have a baby.
And trust me…we’ve thought about it. We’ve heard all about
how Jesus wants to be our lord and savior how great parenting can be, how fulfilling, how important, how necessary. And by “necessary,” I mean we’ve heard about how it’s necessary for everyone who is capable of procreating, especially the rational and intelligent ones, to partner up and make some babies already, for the sake of the human race!
But really…we don’t. We have our reasons. And it’s okay.