The storied career of James Webb as the second administrator of NASA (responsible for the Apollo missions) led to the naming of the space telescope in his honor. Now, however, he is the subject of a cancel campaign to remove his name after professors accused him of being anti-gay. That cancel campaign also now includes a black astrophysicist, Hakeem Oluseyi, who published a study exonerating Webb. He is reportedly being banned from leading journals after finding no evidence to support the claim. Regardless of the ultimate conclusions that one can reach on the Webb controversy, there should be universal concern over the growing intolerance for opposing views in academic institutional and journals.
The New York Times reported that Oluseyi, president of National Society for Black Physicists, was asked to look into the allegations made by physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire. She joined three other scientists in writing a Scientific American article demanding the renaming of the telescope because Webb “acquiesced to homophobic government policies during the 1950s and 1960s.”
The focus of the objection was the “Lavender Scare,” a period in which homosexual government officials faced intense investigations. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had declared in 1953 that homosexual government officials were a national security threat. That crackdown is the subject of a documentary film.
Many of us are familiar with this terrible period and how homosexual scientists and officials were often unable to serve their country due to the prejudice against their sexual orientation. The powerful movie “The Imitation Game” tells the story of World War II code-breaker and early computer pioneer Alan Turing, who was hounded over his homosexuality. It is a disgraceful chapter in our history.
While media like CNN have reported that Webb “isn’t mentioned in most government records or sources” about these investigations, historian David Johnson noted in 2004 that Webb had met with President Truman on the issue of gay officials when he served in the State Department.
Prescod-Weinstein and her co-authors put forward a petition to change the name. In addition to references to the “Lavender Scare,” they noted one particular case:
Notably, in the case Norton v. Macy, former NASA employee Clifford L. Norton sued for “review of his discharge for ‘immoral conduct’ and for possessing personality traits which render him ‘unsuitable for further Government employment.’”
Even though the Norton v. Macy case rose to prominence in 1969, the actual incident that led to Norton’s dismissal took place in 1963 while James Webb was NASA administrator. Norton was arrested by DC police after having been observed speaking with another man, and was brought in for questioning on suspicion of homosexuality. While at the police station, NASA Security Chief Fugler was summoned to the police station, where he participated in Norton’s interrogation. Upon Norton’s release by DC police, NASA Security Chief Fugler then took Norton to NASA Headquarters, where he continued to interrogate him until the following morning. NASA subsequently fired Norton for suspicion of homosexuality, based on activities he was suspected of conducting during his personal time. We do not know of any consequences for NASA Security Chief Fugler, who conducted an extrajudicial interrogation on federal property.
It was government policy at that time that you could not hold a clearance or work in sensitive areas if you were a homosexual. Some 1700 people signed the petition to remove Webb’s name without any further investigation.
NASA ultimately did conduct an investigation. In October, the agency reported that:
“NASA’s History Office conducted an exhaustive search through currently accessible archives on James Webb and his career,” the agency told CNN in October. “They also talked to experts who previously researched this topic extensively. NASA found no evidence at this point that warrants changing the name of the James Webb Space Telescope.”
That did not sit well with Prescod-Weinstein or others. They ultimately focused their ire on Oluseyi who was asked to study that history. He said that he was initially “sympathetic” to these claims but, after researching the actual records, he wrote in Medium that “I can say conclusively that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”
I can understand that some may contest those findings. However, what followed was a cancel campaign that shifted to those who opposed it, particularly Oluseyi. Prescod-Weinstein insisted that NASA assigned Oluseyi to “impugn” her concerns and to provide a “shield” for Webb.
Others did not care what the investigation found. The New York Times reported that the Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society declared that “no astronomer who submits a paper to its journals should type the words ‘James Webb.’” The American Astronomical Society, and the publications Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American have also reportedly declared the case closed against Webb.
Oluseyi was soon also tagged and said that he has been unable to have letters published in the journal that attempted to point out the allegedly flawed evidence cited by Prescod-Weinstein and others. So, not only are journals declaring the matter effectively closed, but they will not allow readers to see opposing views.
Even former colleagues publicly denounced Oluseyi. George Mason’s Peter Plavchan, who said that he welcomed Oluseyi to that school as a visiting professor, tweeted a note to Prescod-Weinstein that “I do believe [Oluseyi] owes you and LGBTQ+ astronomers an apology.”
Yet, other academics have raised concerns over this intolerant and anti-intellectual response.
David Johnson teaches history at the University of South Florida and is the author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.” He objected that Prescod-Weinstein and others “ignore the historical context.” He further noted that “Mr. Webb did not lead efforts to oust gays; there was not yet a gay rights movement in 1949; and to apply the term homophobe is to use a word out of time and reflects nothing Mr. Webb is known to have written or said “No one in government could stand up at that time and say ‘This is wrong.’ And that includes gay people.”
The campaign is continuing to rename the telescope. Prescod-Weinstein wants the telescope be named for Harriet Tubman. She insisted in a CNN interview that
“There are people who have argued that Harriet Tubman wasn’t a ‘real scientist.’ But to do science is to apply rational knowledge of the physical world. Harriet Tubman represents the best of humanity, and we should be sending the best of what we have to offer into the sky.”
Prescod-Weinstein, who publicly identifies as “all
#BLACKandSTEM/all Jewish. queer/agender/woman,” has previously been herself the subject of controversy with critics noting that she previously argued that antisemitism by black people are due to the influence of white gentiles: “White Jews adopted whiteness as a social praxis and harmed Black people in the process […] Some Black people have problematically blamed Jewishness for it.”
In the end, being a free speech advocate means that you support all of these figures in this debate. I would be equally opposed to efforts to seek to fire or cancel Dr. Prescod-Weinstein.
This is the type of debate that was once welcomed on campuses and in academic journals. Reasonable minds can disagree on the underlying facts and their meaning. What concerns me is that, despite a division of opinion among academics, there is yet another cancel campaign that will not tolerate opposing views to be voiced.
It is, unfortunately, all too familiar today. Cancel campaigns have become a type of academic credential. It is not enough to disagree with a fellow academic. You must now seek to silence him or fire him. If you believe in a cause, anyone voicing an opposing position is now viewed as intolerable.
In my brief review of these articles, there does not appear to be much in terms of direct evidence against Webb. I am certainly open to allegations based on new evidence, but it is less likely that we will see such discussions after the treatment of Dr. Oluseyi and others who have raised objections.