The sins of the past are never that far from us. I occasionally touch on historical topics in my work, often because the incorrect Great Indispensable Man view of science is prevalent. I wrote a relatively short opinion piece about one of those “great men” six years ago for Forbes: James Webb, who was NASA’s second director and namesake of the forthcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled to fly this year after many delays. Slate just published my latest on this subject, all the more relevant because of the impending JWST launch.
The Red Scare of the 1940s and ’50s was a messed-up time, even by American history standards. Ambitious, unscrupulous people in the government used fear of Soviet spying and infiltration to justify violation of civil liberties. While attacks on military personnel and entertainment figures got the most attention, the State Department also fired 425 employees under suspicion of being gay.
I wrote about Webb because he served as undersecretary in the State Department in that era. While he wasn’t the public face of gay persecution, the historical evidence shows he was involved, which is a matter of concern for queer scientists and their allies. Do we want to name a telescope — a flagship observatory no less — for a man responsible for wrecking lives and careers?
This all came up again in January, when astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi wrote a post for Medium claiming to demonstrate that Webb was completely innocent. This post was shared very widely around Twitter, with many people praising Oluseyi’s historical research and expressing relief that they didn’t have to worry about JWST’s name anymore.
To be clear up front: based on the evidence I’ve seen, Oluseyi is wrong on this issue. That wouldn’t really be a big deal, since people make mistakes, especially when they’re working outside their expertise. However, he also accuses a number of people of “shoddy investigative rigor”, “not apply[ing] proper journalistic rigor”, and “blindly accepting the allegations” against Webb, concluding “They all should have known better and they all should have done better.” Those people include historian David K. Johnson — who literally wrote the book about government persecution of queer people — along with his fellow astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and me.
In other words, we didn’t just make a mistake, in Oluseyi’s opinion: we committed an active harm, violating ethics and failing in our moral responsibilities. That’s a pretty big accusation, and one I don’t want to let slide. For my own part, I didn’t get much blowback, but from various conversations it seems Oluseyi is specifically going after Prescod-Weinstein’s reputation, and using me to do it.
The historical case
I’m not a historian, so I drew on other people’s original research to write my Forbes piece; if they got the facts wrong or if I misinterpreted what they said, I’m happy to accept correction. However, I think the evidence is pretty clear and consistent.
In addition to using explicitly homophobic arguments and offensive language about the destruction of American morals, the government argued (without evidence) that queer employees could be blackmailed by Soviet agents into betraying the nation, so their very presence was a security risk. This fear of gay betrayal is often referred to as the “Lavender Scare” (in reference to a homophobic stereotype of the era), a term coined by Johnson for his 2004 book.
As historian Dorian Alexander highlights in his excellent comic on the Lavender Scare and the early queer rights movement, Washington, DC had a lively LGBTQ+ culture in the 1940s, largely thanks to friendly hiring practices on the part of the Federal government. Queer people made a convenient target for persecution; the infamously demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover both used accusations of homosexuality against people to discredit them, and according to Johnson’s book, part of the reason Truman took up the mantle of queer persecution was to undermine McCarthy’s own anti-gay campaign.
With so many heroes with feet of clay in the world, I would personally be happy to be wrong about Webb. However, I think it’s clear that Oluseyi is wrong here, based on Johnson’s research: Webb was directly involved in the purge of LGBTQ+ employees from the government, as reflected in memos and other records from that era (credit to astronomer Adrian Lucy for this find). As such a high-ranking member of the State Department, he couldn’t have escaped some degree of responsibility.
I note that Oluseyi did not bring up another point from my Forbes article: “in her book Operation Paperclip, Annie Jacobsen notes that Webb also aided with the fallout over NASA rocket engineer Wernher von Braun’s Nazi past, including his role as an SS officer.” Webb of course did not engineer the recruitment of Nazis into the rocket program, and in fact from what I’ve seen he wasn’t a big fan of it. However, by helping clean up von Braun’s reputation, he showed he cared more about the program than he did the slave laborers used in constructing von Braun’s rockets that bombarded England.
The personal case
If I had it to do over again, I would probably avoid saying Webb was a bigot. Not because I think he was innocent of the purge of LGBTQ+ employees, but because it’s too easy to focus on that word and demand that I prove he was bigoted in his heart and mind, which obviously I can’t do. But it’s our actions that define us, not our secret thoughts. We can take no consolation in a hypothetical queer-friendly Webb who still worked with other members of his department to fire hundreds of people.
As for Oluseyi’s accusation of journalistic malpractice, my Forbes article was an opinion piece, not a fully reported piece of journalism. I didn’t interview any experts, or do any original research. I relied on other people’s published work. I’m at best an amateur historian of science, and definitely not an expert on spaceflight history, NASA history, or queer history. Even if I were writing a journalistic piece on Webb, I would be interviewing actual historians, not relying on my own original historical research.
But Oluseyi also is problematic in the way he attacks others. As astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz points out, much of Oluseyi’s defense of Webb relies on “a false dichotomy between the advancement of Black people within NASA and the persecution of LGBTQI+ people, as though there are no queer Black people, and then uses this dichotomy to drive a false equivalence argument between the experiences of oppression within these overlapping communities.”
In fact, the primary motivation of Oluseyi’s piece may be to discredit Prescod-Weinstein, who is a queer Black Jewish woman. He singled her out in his essay with the claim that she “propagated unsubstantiated false information as if it were true without performing proper scientific rigor to investigate its veracity”. Much of his case against me comes down to the fact that I thanked her for alerting me to the problem with Webb in the first place, and that I referenced the sources she pointed me to.
I don’t believe I have ever met Oluseyi, and if we’ve interacted online, it hasn’t been extensive, so I don’t think there’s a personal reason for him to dislike me. (I definitely haven’t met Prescod-Weinstein in person, but we have spoken extensively over social media, and I’ve interviewed her for at least one scientific article.) In other words, I suspect I am merely collateral damage — along with Johnson and other writers — an acceptable secondary target. But guess what: nobody likes being accused of malpractice, and nobody likes their reputation being used to get at someone else. Certainly I as a white man do not appreciate being used to score points against a Black woman, particularly a Black woman astrophysicist, which thanks to current and historical racism puts her in a shamefully small group of people. (Now go read her book.)
In the end, though, this isn’t really about me. As Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Walcowicz, and Brian Nord wrote in Scientific American, “The same hypermasculinist fears that characterized the lavender scare and other ideological purges during the cold war continue to animate the incarnation of far-right movements across the globe. So what signal does it send to current and future generations of scientists when we prioritize the legacies of complicit government officials over the dreams of the next generation?” The very effort required to defend high-level government officials of the past against their own actions is a sign of how far we still have to go to achieve true justice and equality. We owe it to scientists of the past and present — along with those denied the chance to be scientists — a better future, and we can’t do that if we’re stuck elevating white men over everyone else.