A Tangled Webb | Simple Justice
With a tip from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire who described herself as “Jewish. queer/agender/woman/she” with an overactive twitter account seeking out and attacking people for their failure to live up to her woke demands, an article in Science accused James Webb of being unworthy of having a telescope named after him.
But as the telescope neared completion, criticism flared. In 2015, Matthew Francis, a science journalist, wrote an article for Forbes titled “The Problem With Naming Observatories for Bigots.” He wrote that Mr. Webb led the anti-gay purge at the State Department and that he had testified of his contempt for gay people. He credited Dr. Prescod-Weinstein with tipping him off, and she in turn tweeted his article and attacked Mr. Webb as a “homophobe.”
As it turned out, Webb wasn’t the person who did this and Prescod-Weinstein was simply factually wrong. The article caused astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi to take a look, realized her failure and corrected the “record.”
Hakeem Oluseyi, who is now the president of the National Society of Black Physicists, was sympathetic to these critics. Then he delved into archives and talked to historians and wrote a carefully sourced essay in Medium in 2021 that laid out his surprising findings.
“I can say conclusively,” Dr. Oluseyi wrote, “that there is zero evidence that Webb is guilty of the allegations against him.”
That, he figured, would be that. He was wrong.
Two things followed. The first was that Prescod-Weinstein attacked Oluseyi personally. The second was that the argument shifted from the false claim of what Webb did to the vapid claim of what Webb didn’t do.
In a blog written with three fellow scientists, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire with a low six-figure Twitter following, said that it was highly likely that Mr. Webb “knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War,” adding, “We are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia.”
In other words, Webb may not have committed the sin of purging the agency of gay employees, but instead committed the cardinal sin of not preventing someone else from doing so. And in the world of astrophysics, that was close enough.
In October, the Royal Astronomical Society in Britain waded in, declaring that Mr. Webb engaged in “entirely unacceptable” behavior. The society instructed that no astronomer who submits a paper to its journals should type the words “James Webb.” They must use the abbreviation JWST.
The American Astronomical Society demanded in April that NASA issue a formal and public report on its naming decision. And a trio of top scientific publications — Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American — published essays and editorials sharply critical of Mr. Webb with nary a dissenting word. Dr. Oluseyi said Scientific American rejected a letter from him pointing out flawed statements in its essays and rejected his proposal to write about his findings on Mr. Webb.
A petition demanding NASA rename its telescope has garnered more than 1,700 signatures, a majority from faculty and graduate students.
Webb’s sin was not being as radical as Prescod-Weinstein, et al., would have him be based not on the world as it was, but as they want the world today to be.
“This is about who we canonize and who are our real saints,” Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said in an interview. “We can’t just exonerate a dead white guy who was in the thick of a repressive government.”
This view, called “presentism” which holds people in the past culpable based on present notions of propriety and morality, not only believes that the views of the moment are absolutely correct and irrefutable in perpetuity, but that it was, or should have been, similarly obvious back then such that failure to act upon the present moment’s ideological certainty damns any historical figure such that they’re successes and accomplishment cannot be lauded because of their failure to meet with Prescod-Weinstein’s approval and survive her scolding.
Ironically, Webb was a pretty damn bold man for his time.
Mr. Webb, who died in 1992, cut a complicated figure. He worked with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson to integrate NASA, bringing in Black engineers and scientists. In 1964, after George Wallace, the white segregationist governor of Alabama, tried to block such recruitment, Mr. Webb threatened to pull top scientists and executives out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
But the days of the red scare were also the days of the lavender scare, when gay people were hunted out and removed from government service as security threats as well as, well, just being gay. Even then, Webb did what he could to be uncooperative with the Republican investigations. But he didn’t come out screaming and denouncing their actions, so he was, by Prescod-Weinstein’s definition, “complicit.”
Historians who specialize in this era in gay history said such expectations ignore the historical context. 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.
In 1963, police arrested a NASA budget analyst, Clifford Norton, in an anti-gay sting in Washington. He was forced out of his job.
Critics say Mr. Webb stood silent. Mr. Odom’s report for NASA, however, found no evidence Mr. Webb knew of this case in an agency of many thousands. In any event, he would have had no good option, said James Kirchick, author of “Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington.”
“It is unimaginable that a high-level functionary would have stepped in and blocked a broad federal law that applied to every agency,” he said.
But how the world looked in 1963 is irrelevant to the perpetually outraged. And so it’s of no matter what good Webb did, but only what he did not do. And big deal about trying to personally destroy Hakeem Oluseyi in the process because his crime of telling the truth in the face of the narrative. Does anyone rise to the level of meeting the scolds’ identitarian approval?
How should we handle naming memorials, given the messiness of history? Dr. Prescod-Weinstein said she would draw an exacting line and memorialize no government leader of that era. “Rename the Kennedy Center for Harriet Tubman,” she said.
Not that Harriet Tubman isn’t worthy, but since when did anyone give a damn about Prescod-Weinstein’s approval of anyone or anything or else?