The New York Times’ Michael Powell is described on that newspaper’s web site as “a national reporter covering issues around free speech and expression, and stories capturing intellectual and campus debate.”
But if you follow Powell’s writing closely, it’s clear through his choice of topics that his sympathies lie with those who think “wokeism” has run amuck, even as he buffers his personal biases in the anodyne language many mainstream media reporters use to seem as if they are neutral when they are not.
Powell clearly thinks that undergraduates and grad students at, say, Sarah Lawrence or Yale Law School being inflexible in their beliefs — inflexibility in personal crusades being a hallmark, for many, of being university students — are a greater threat to free speech than Elon Musk pushing a fascist agenda on Twitter. This is a hallmark of a different kind, that being the tendency of well-to-do white guys at the New York Times to see every bit of pushback against their beliefs and history as a threat to civil society.
Powell has piece up today that has great personal interest for me as a gay man who’s experience all manner of discrimination:
NASA’s decision to name its deep-space telescope after James E. Webb, who led the space agency to the cusp of the 1969 moon landing. This man, they insisted, was a homophobe who oversaw a purge of gay employees.
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.
The struggle over the naming of the world’s most powerful space telescope has grown yet more contentious and bitter. In November, NASA sought to douse this fire. Its chief historian, Brian Odom, issued an 89-page report that echoed Dr. Oluseyi’s research and concluded the accusations against Mr. Webb were misplaced.
NASA acknowledged that the federal government at that time “shamefully promoted” discrimination against gay employees. But Mr. Odom concluded: “No available evidence directly links Webb to any actions or follow-up related to the firing of individuals for their sexual orientation.”
Critics called the NASA report “selective historical reading.” And they reframed their argument, saying that Mr. Webb should be held responsible for any anti-gay activity at NASA and at the State Department, where he had previously been a high-ranking official.
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.”
This controversy cuts to the core of who is worthy to memorialize and how past human accomplishment should be balanced with modern standards of social justice. And it echoes a heated debate among historians over presentism, which is the tendency to use the moral lens of today to interpret past eras and people.
The entire way this is worded suggests, once again, that Powell agrees with those who think that Webb should not be judge by the standards of today for those things he did back when homosexuality was considered a mental illness.
But this is the same argument that some white racists have used to argue against the tearing down of Confederate statues, namely that we ought not judge former slaveholders by the standards of today when owning slaves was normal during a time when blacks were considered sub-human.
This is ridiculous, of course.
It does appear that there have been homophobic words and intent that were, early in this controversy, unfairly attributed to James Webb. Many of those errors have been corrected, though sometimes not refuted in as public a way as were the original accusations against him.
But Webb did at least acquiesce when the “Lavender Scare” was in full-swing, and gay and lesbian NASA employees were being forced from their jobs and careers and committing suicide.
That fact might be mitigated with the argument that Webb was a product of his time. But not by much. They were still being forced out of jobs by accusations that had nothing to do with their abilities as scientists and administrators. And just as with slaveholders vs. abolitionists, there were many people in the time of the Lavender Scare who were able to come to the fully rational conclusion that firing gay people because they were gay was immoral and unnecessary.
Some of those people were likely uncomfortable with the subject of homosexuality. But they also knew that what someone did in their private romantic life had no bearing on their ability to do physics. Yet James Webb, an educated man, went along with the mob.
Which begs the question: Why choose Webb at all? There are so many other deserving people for whom that telescope could have been named, some of them women and people of color. And none of those people have Webb’s baggage, all of which was brought to the attention of NASA administrators at a time when changing the name of the project would have been easier.
The reason it wasn’t changed is because the Old Boy network had decided to honor one of its own, and they were not going to let some inconvenient history, nor noisy activists, alter their decision.
Because that is the way the Old Boys Network operates. And trying to dress that up in arguments about free speech tells us all we need to know about Michael Powell and the people who argue that we should stick with the name James Webb.