A Telescope for Social Justice: No White Men Need Apply

A cosmic storm is roiling the Astrophysics community. Focused on the name of a NASA space telescope, the controversy is one more in a decade-long whirlwind of accusation that has made clear to straight white men that their days of pursuing science free of guilt and obeisance are decisively over. 

As an academic field, Astrophysics became 'woke’ years ago and is now one of the most rigidly doctrinaire of the hard sciences. It has seen numerous purity campaigns against non-believers, first against insufficiently feminist-compliant men. A blog called Women in Astronomy promotes indignant tales of female suffering, profiling young women shattered when men expressed sexual or romantic interest, or deeply hurt when researcher Matt Taylor, whose team put a space probe on a comet, appeared on television wearing an ‘inappropriate’ shirt

In one of the field’s most public spats about female victimhood, renowned Italian particle physicist Alessandro Strumia was ejected from CERN, the prestigious European center for high-energy physics research, after he presented a meticulously documented conference paper arguing that the targeted hiring of women into STEM positions was neither necessary nor wise. For this, he was denounced as a misogynist in a histrionic open letter by Particles for Justice, a posse of modern-day Puritans who hunt academic thought criminals, led by New Hampshire University physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a self-described “activist for equality in science” and AI researcher Brian Nord of the University of Chicago.

On guard against toxic masculinity.

Strumia need not have bothered. Fealty to the principles of “diversity,” especially to the dogma that women and people of color should always be hired and promoted over white men, is now an accepted requirement in Astronomy departments across the western world. Denunciations of misogyny, heterosexism, and anti-blackness have become the primary preoccupations of many astronomy researchers, at least some of whom seem to spend far more time and energy agitating for social justice than studying the heavens. Last year, these crusaders organized a one-day Strike for Black Lives, during which they stopped work to discuss white supremacy (it says something about the nature of their work that nobody noticed the stoppage) and joined with Indigenous activists to prevent the building of the world’s largest telescope on Mauna Kea, a Hawaiian mountain deemed sacred.

The latest ideological conflict is more purely symbolic. It concerns NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the flagship NASA project due for official launch later this year. According to NASA’s website, the Webb will be “the largest, most powerful and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space,” and will provide unprecedented opportunities for research on the origins of galaxies as well as on stars and planetary systems in process of formation. Complementing and extending the work made possible by the Hubble, Webb will revolutionize insight into our universe.

James E. Webb (1906-1992) was NASA’s administrator in the years 1961-1968, shepherding NASA through what was arguably its period of most outstanding progress. He transformed the agency into a highly focused research organization intent on achieving manned flight and a moon landing. It was as a result of Webb’s prescience that NASA developed rockets not only for military and propaganda purposes but for scientific ones as well, with the aim of using American technology to learn about Earth’s solar system and beyond. Without that focus, the Hubble would never have been constructed and astronomical research would have been set back by decades. Every astronomer working today owes a debt to Webb. 

But gratitude is in short supply among today’s warriors for social justice, who object to honoring Webb’s memory. Led by Particles for Justice founders Prescod-Weinstein and Nord, and joined by Sarah Tuttle and Lucianne Walkowicz, they are lobbying NASA to find a more suitable (i.e. non-white and non-male) candidate, one who represents “our highest values” for which they conveniently nominate themselves the arbiters. Webb is disqualified because of a less than pristine personal history as a government official during the Cold War. 

James Webb: on trial for insufficient Wokeness.

According to the four doyennes of woke Astronomy, who recently published in Scientific American their argument for why “The James Webb Space Telescope Needs to Be Renamed,” Webb was complicit “in homophobic discrimination in the federal government.” It is now well known that federal government employees who were homosexual were believed particularly vulnerable to blackmail by Soviet agents; Webb worked for the federal government at the time the policy of barring homosexual employees from the civil service was discussed and implemented, resulting in hundreds of firings over a period of more than a decade. 

It is not known that Webb himself pursued the policy with any zeal—or even that he did anything more than passively acquiesce, as the vast majority of people today acquiesce in workplace policies that may, more than half a century from now, be deemed discriminatory and unjust—but for the proponents of LGBTQ liberation, he was “a facilitator” of homophobia who deserves to be purged in turn. The sum total of the case against Webb deserves to be quoted at length so as to reveal its lack of substance:

When he arrived at NASA in 1961, his leadership role meant he was in part responsible for implementing what was by then federal policy: the purging of LGBT individuals from the workforce. When he was at State, this policy was enforced by those who worked under him. As early as 1950, he was aware of this policy, which was a forerunner to the antigay witch hunt known today as the lavender scare. Historian David K. Johnson’s 2004 book on the subject, The Lavender Scare, discusses archival evidence indicating that Webb, along with others in State Department leadership, was involved in Senate discussions that ultimately kicked off a devastating series of federal policies.

In other words, there is no evidence whatsoever that Webb himself favored, developed, or actively implemented anti-gay legislation. He was, in the authors’ deliberately vague words, “in part responsible” and “aware” of a policy “enforced by [others].” The worst that can be said, it seems, is that “there is no record of him choosing to stand up for the humanity of those being persecuted.” Note, here, how absence of evidence becomes evidence of absence, a classic logical fallacy.

The question that remains is what any of this has to do with a space telescope; or, more specifically, why the astronomy research community should care about James Webb’s failure to be a pro-gay activist at a time when being one would almost certainly have accomplished nothing aside from the sabotaging of his own career, likely with the result that he would never have been able to promote astronomical research at NASA.

The anti-Webb activists have no answer except the melodramatic assertion that “many queer scientists fundamentally do not feel safe in their workplaces” today and a febrile rhetorical question: “What signal does it send,” they ask, “to current and future generations of scientists when we prioritize the legacies of complicit government officials over the dreams of the next generation?” 

I’m not sure who nominated these authors the adjudicators of the next generation’s dreams, but even conceding them such authority cannot disguise their use of a false dilemma. Naming a telescope after Webb doesn’t send any particular signal about gay rights, now firmly established in American law and attitudes. If the naming sends any signal, it is simply that a man like Webb deserves recognition for his demonstrated contribution to astronomical research. 

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Maybe you should.

Purging him, on the other hand, sends a stark signal about the runaway craze of cancel culture, confirming that decades after one’s death, one’s legitimate achievements can be smeared by activists who comb through every recorded utterance and action to find the taint of a retroactively-imposed ethical failure. So convinced are the authors that they have arrived at the end of history that they cannot imagine themselves condemned for an insufficient defense of another’s humanity.

The authors’ choice to replace Webb is almost laughably formulaic. They advocate the telescope’s renaming after an escaped 19th century slave woman and abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. It is not known that Tubman ever gave a thought to astronomical research, but the activists claim that she “almost certainly used the North Star […] to navigate her way to freedom.” If that seems a tenuous connection to high-level astronomical research, then you undoubtedly haven’t engaged in an extensive enough consideration of white male evil. As we are informed, “The time for lionizing leaders who acquiesced in a history of harm is over.” That puts 99.9 percent of the people who lived before us in the west firmly out of the running for commemoration.

Harriet Tubman: hidden figure?

Anyone thinking that a call of such manifest over-reach might be ignored has not taken the febrile temperature of Departments of Astrophysics over the last decade. The appeal has received widespread support, with signatories to petitions registering their opposition to Webb’s memorialization, and NASA officials now running scared. A ponderous article “NASA investigates renaming James Webb telescope after anti-LGBT + claims” explains that NASA officials are reviewing archival documents to investigate the extent of Webb’s “crimes” and will render a decision upon completion of the investigation. 

In the short term, NASA officials have little to gain and much to lose in standing firm for Webb. I won’t be surprised if the agency announces, after a suitable period of consideration, that it has found a progressive icon to replace the discredited white man. 

Like the forced acquiescence of sports teams, browbeaten into changing their names or removing mascots and logos, the chastisement and bullying of NASA will set an extraordinary precedent. Why should demands halt with Webb? How is it that the Hubble Space Telescope has retained its imprimatur: surely something insalubrious could be found in the life of its namesake? Why not purge all scientific instruments and discoveries of harmful white male names, beginning with Halley’s Comet, Newton’s Laws of Motion, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Only time will tell which pale male will be next in line for elimination.

Our Black Marxist Murder Spree

Only rarely do present circumstances so align themselves as to reveal the future with clarity. We are in such a period right now, and to those willing to open their eyes to it, the future staring back at them is bleak indeed.

I worked as a police officer in Los Angeles for more than 30 years, and people of my generation may recall with dread the crime wave of the late ‘80s and early '90s, when Los Angeles saw an average of three times the number of murders as have occurred in recent years. In 1992, the Los Angeles Police Department handled 1,092 homicides. Compare this figure with 2020’s total of 349 and you get an idea of how much safer the city became in 28 years, thanks largely to the efforts of the men and women of the LAPD. But even the 349 figure was a significant increase from 2019, when 253 people were killed in L.A. Will we soon look on 2020 as the good old days? All available evidence says yes.

I’ve been writing about the coming crime wave since 2014, when Michael Brown’s death in a Ferguson, Mo., police shooting gave rise to the widely circulated lie – still believed in some quarters – that he had been killed while trying to surrender. Brown’s death and the rioting the followed led to what Heather Mac Donald described as the Ferguson Effect, in which police officers shrink from proactive crime-fighting measures for fear of becoming involved in a controversial incident. The Ferguson Effect lives on, more destructively than ever.

Ferguson, Mo., 2014.

This fact is welcomed, even celebrated, by the Black Lives Matter organization and their myriad acolytes. BLM, formed in 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin, became the leading voice in opposition to what had been the traditional responses to crime, i.e., arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration.

BLM’s influence has only grown in the years since, most especially after last year’s death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and today it is the puppet master of the far left. The news media, academia, and the entertainment industry unquestioningly, even gleefully parrot its calumnies, most prominent among which is the claim that the American criminal justice system is irredeemably racist and must be torn out root and branch in order to achieve some utopian vision of “social justice.”

It is important to note that the appending of any modifier to the word “justice” inverts, even perverts, its very meaning, and in no arena has actual justice been more perverted than in “social justice,” which at it core subordinates the interests of crime victims and the law-abiding to those of the criminals who prey upon them, revealing the enduring truth in the Old Testament wisdom that those who are kind to the cruel will be cruel to the kind. How else to explain the unhinged reaction among American elites to the April 21 police shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio?

Police body camera footage clearly showed Bryant, 16, was armed with a knife and in the very act of trying to stab a girl at the time she was shot. Of course we are saddened by the sight of someone being killed, most especially someone so young, but how depraved must one be to sympathize more with Bryant than with the girl she was attacking? Yet we heard voices from across the American left, from politicians to media figures to professional athletes, denouncing the officer and calling for his arrest. Had that officer not arrived and acted when and as he did, the city of Columbus and the country overall most likely would have recorded another instance of a young black person dying at the hands of another, the type of incident that happens thousands of times every year yet results in no protests, no outrage, and no indignant commentary in the newspapers or on television.

The silence among our elites to this carnage is deafening. Last year brought an alarming rise in homicides across the country, with killings up by an average of 37 percent in America’s 57 largest cities. Some cities were hit harder than others: in New York City the increase was 39 percent, in Chicago it was 55 percent, and in Milwaukee murders nearly doubled over the previous year. All told, there were 7,101 homicides in these 57 cities, the great majority of whose victims were blacks or Latinos who fell to killers of their own ethnicity.

The Washington Post reports 1,021 people in the United States were shot and killed by the police in 2020, and even if one accepts the phantasmagoric proposition that not a single one of these killings was justified, one is still left with problems so different in scale as to question the motives of those who focus on the smaller number and not the larger.

And yet that is what Black Lives Matter and their cult of followers do. Certainly an injustice was done to George Floyd, whose death has been addressed to the extent the legal system is able, but is his death more lamentable than those of the 81 other people murdered in Minneapolis last year? What of the 261 victims in St. Louis, the 437 in New York, and the 769 in Chicago? Were their lives so meanly regarded as to be insignificant to those who lecture their fellow citizens on the value of black lives?

They will not answer this question, and they will impugn the motives of anyone who dares put it forward, for to question them is obstruct the revolution they make no secret of advocating. BLM is merely the latest iteration of Marxist radicals to win the adulation of our political, academic, and media elites, the latest band of misfits to wield “Critical Theory” as a hammer and chisel (hammer and sickle?) against the pillars of Western civilization, among the foundational of which is the rule of law.

Chronicle of deaths foretold.

In his 2017 book The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, my friend Michael Walsh tells of the grim harvest brought by these purveyors of Critical Theory. “Look about your daily lives here in early twenty-first-century America and Western Europe,” he writes, “and see the shabbiness, hear the coarseness of speech and dialogue, witness the lowered standards not only of personal behavior but also of cultural norms, savor the shrunken horizons of the future.”

As it has in the past, America will one day repudiate the visions espoused by the neo-Marxists, but until it does, how many murdered corpses will litter our shrunken horizons?

The Suburbs Are Safe -- for Now

The Trump Administration has  announced that it's repealed the radical Obama-era institution of the so-called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) policy, after receiving thousands of complaints from around the country that the plan would radically change the nature of America's suburbs. "The suburb destruction will end with us,” President Trump stated.

This long expected and overdue repeal will allow the president to use the inflammatory issue of keeping federal control and divisive mandates out of and away from the nation's suburbs in his campaign. The issue is critical for appealing to suburban voters who constitute a majority of Americans, and who oppose nationalizing housing policy by Washington, D.C.

This move comes on the heels of the announcement by the Democratic presidential campaign of Joe Biden (“Obama 3”), that, if elected, he would aggressively implement AFFH, to force middle and upper middle class suburban communities to house, educate, and subsidize the poor.

The now-repealed 2015 Obama iteration of AFFH claimed that the federal government could use HUD’s community block grants to force suburbs to provide high density, low income, and Section 8 housing despite local zoning laws. That is, it gutted the right of communities to determine their own zoning policies, and thereby threatened to destroy the nature and property values of thousands of suburbs across the country. This policy rests on a radical departure in the definition of "fair housing." Prior to the Obama Administration, the term had always meant "no housing discrimination based on race or creed." 

The stated intent of the original 1968 Fair Housing Act was to defeat de facto segregation, by opening up the nation’s housing supply to anyone who could afford property. Obama’s radical socialist HUD Secretary, Julian Castro, chose to redefine "fair' to include economic status, and to compel local authorities to change zoning laws to force communities that typically lack public transportation, infrastructure, needed academic programs in schools, and even suitable jobs, to provide those things, along with the higher density Section 8 housing -- as if not having all of the above was a sign of active racial and economic discrimination.

The Trump Administration, which has been aggressive about removing unhelpful regulations from the books, noted that the Democrats' implementation of AFFH would have imposed a massive regulatory burden on localities, required high density zoning, eliminated single family zoning, and destroyed our suburbs.

The White House pointed out that the majority of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans now live in suburban communities, where they, like so many other Americans, are able to afford homes, achieving one important part of the American dream. And that home ownership “offers the chance for all Americans to build wealth for their families.”

The point about home ownership being a basis for building wealth is an important rejoinder to the critique of those who believe in "structural racism” that African Americans are somehow denied the ability to create inter-generational wealth. To be sure, that requires both actual ownership and a stable community, in which the value of property appreciates over time. Introducing mandatory Section 8 housing has generally reduced the value of adjacent properties while also raising the rates of crime that many homeowners fled the cities to escape in the first place.

As for the Obama-era regulatory interpretation, HUD noted that:

This approach is not required by applicable statutes, which give HUD considerable discretion in determining what “affirmatively furthering fair housing” means, and it is also at odds with both federalism principles and specific statutes protecting local control over housing policy. For example, Congress specifically barred HUD from using funding to force grantees to change any public policy, regulation, or law.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson said,

After reviewing thousands of comments on the proposed changes to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation, we found it to be unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most. Instead, the Trump Administration has established programs like Opportunity Zones that are driving billions of dollars of capital into underserved communities where affordable housing exists, but opportunity does not. Programs like this …. allow communities to focus more of their time working with Opportunity Zone partners to revitalize their communities so upward mobility, improved housing, and home ownership is within reach for more people. Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs.

Because this is all a matter of regulation, not law, it would be entirely possible for a Biden Administration to revive the Obama interpretation, and return to actively urbanizing and, consequently, destroying the suburbs. That is what they have promised to do in their statements on housing policy. As we approach November, that fact should be and widely publicized by the administration -- widely understood by American voters.

Design for Living, Badly

Since the end of the Cold War, the world’s governments have been engaged in a vast collective enterprise under the aegis of the United Nations and with the guidance of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to reduce the rise in global temperature, aka global warming, aka climate change. That reduction has changed over time. Until 2010 the aim was to cut the rise to 2.0 degrees above . . . well, above what?  

The answer is an odd one: the target was to hold the rise to 2.0 degrees above the global temperatures prevailing before the world began to industrialize.  

But as Rupert Darwall points out in his new monograph, The Climate Noose: Business, Net Zero, and the IPCC’s Anti-Capitalism (Global Warming Policy Foundation, London), there didn’t seem to be any solid scientific foundation for choosing that target: early 20th-Century warming between 1910 and 1945 had occurred before anthropogenic carbon emissions could have had a major impact on global temperature. So why choose that starting point? 

Darwall concludes that the 2.0 degree target was prompted by what he calls “the foundational tenet of environmentalist ideology: that the Industrial Revolution constitutes the original sin of modern civilization.” And that suspicion is supported by other oddities that he uncovers during his summary of how global warming policy has developed since 1989.  

For instance, the UN Framework on Climate Change was signed in 1992 with the aim of reducing carbon emissions. In the twenty-two years from then to 2016, carbon emissions (from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture) actually rose faster than before—namely, by 61 per cent compared to 50 per cent in the period 1970 to 1992.  Was this because the capitalist West was pumping out greenhouse gases? Everyone from the UN Secretary-General to the Pope would like you to think so. But that’s not remotely the case. Darwall is fond of unveiling inconvenient facts and here is one of his best: 

1981 was the last year when the West’s carbon dioxide emissions exceeded those of the rest of the world. By 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West’s emissions were 46% of global emissions. Before the pandemic struck, they accounted for around 25%.

Developing countries now emit three times the emissions of the advanced West.  

Sky's the limit.

That shouldn’t surprise us too much because it’s a firm principle of climatist ideology, not to mention a firm policy commitment of Third World governments, that developing countries should not agree to be bound by any limits on their industrial development and use of carbon-based energies. When attempts were made to get the developing world to accept such limits at the 2010 Copenhagen conference, China, India, Brazil and others rebelled and the conference ended in obvious failure.  

The response of the IPCC, the European Union, and the Obama administration was to relaunch the international climate policy process in a way typical of global bodies. They adopted a far tougher target for carbon emissions reduction—namely, one of a 1.5 degree rise in temperature since industrialization—but left the task of meeting the targets to national governments while proposing a raft of  reforms to make it possible. The 2018 IPCC report described these reforms as “very ambitious, internationally cooperative policy environments that transform both supply and demand" or, more succinctly, as “intentional societal transformation.”  

And, of course, they reveal the dirty little secret of UN environmentalism—it's a program for economic redistribution from the West to the developing world almost as much as for climate change mitigation. Since foreign aid has been intellectually discredited in recent years, the climate change process now has to take up the slack. But the economic consequences of imposing these reforms—as coyly hinted at in the dead bureaucratic language of the IPCC reports—are so savage in their impact on the poor that no amount of capital transfers from the West would compensate for them.  

There were some very large and gaping loopholes in this strategy, as there always have been in IPCC reports, to enable governments to evade, postpone, and “forget” the commitments they accept in such agreements. Realistically, such loopholes have to be there—or the entire U.N. Framework would collapse. The developing world has never accepted that the 1.5 percent restraints apply to itself in the first place; the U.S. under Trump has rejected them (while actually achieving larger emissions cuts than any other country because it has permitted fracking); and the EU and most of its member states outside Central Europe have adopted them hypocritically in the knowledge that they can’t possibly be achieved without a global recession worse than any in history (including what might emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.)

Incredibly, some Western governments—notably, U.K. governments under Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson—have gone beyond the IPCC recommendations and committed themselves to net-zero emissions by 2050. Barring some amazing technological breakthrough that target cannot be achieved, but it can cause enormous economic damage in the course of failing and being abandoned.  

What then will happen? One of the academic architects of the 1.5 target initially said it was “incompatible with democracy” -- i.e., that the voters would never stand for it. His judgment is confirmed by the fact that whenever the voters in the U.S. or Australia have been given the chance to vote down carbon taxes, they have taken it enthusiastically. The sceptic was persuaded to amend his judgment to say that implementing the target would merely be “very hard” after a discussion with the headmaster, but his first thoughts were correct. Exactly how “hard” it would be to sell the IPCC formula is somewhat speculative because, tellingly, both the IPCC and sympathetic Western governments refuse to conduct cost-benefit analyses of the commitment.  

Mr. Darwall’s own attempts to construct one from the scattered information in the reports is devastating. Whatever the assumptions, it seems, the costs vastly outweigh the benefits, and the impact on everyone, especially the poor, will be to increase their energy and food costs, to reduce their standard of living overall, and to destroy any prospect of improvement in their lives 

Poor, but Green.

And because governments cannot promise credibly to deliver either the 1.5 or net zero targets if the voters stop them, the UN and Green campaigners have turned to another partner: namely business. Indeed, the recruitment of Wall Street and industry to the cause of promoting a carbon-free economy is the central and the most novel part of his argument. He shows how leading figures in Wall Street and central banks, such as Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney, have suddenly discovered that capitalist corporations should abandon shareholder sovereignty and profitability as the main engines of their activity and instead seek wider social objectives, above all "saving the planet," in partnership with a wider range of stakeholders. Nor do they merely make this argument, they are designing financial incentives to penalize companies engaged in lawful and socially necessary activities such as mining or oil and gas exploration by obstructing their access to capital investment. And they seek changes in the law to encourage corporate giving to “Green” causes irrespective of its impact on shareholder value. 

I’ve written on this theme myself on The Pipeline here and here. It is becoming a cause for concern more broadly. Andrew Stuttaford, an old friend, recently wrote powerfully on the dangers of this misnamed corporate social responsibility on NRO. In effect, it gives corporate managers the power to tax their shareholders to spend that revenue on political causes of which the shareholders themselves might not approve.  

Taxing is rightly regarded as a government monopoly in democratic regimes, and we call those rulers who divert public money into their own bank accounts “kleptocrats.” We should be very wary of the idea that Michael Bloomberg is gifted with special insight into what the voters want, given that he recently spent half a billion dollars of his own money to get nothing whatever in the Democratic primaries. Who knows what he might not achieve with ours? Kleptocracies are not improved by being private rather than public.  

Unless the spread of corpocrats buying virtue with our cheque books is restrained, the victims will not only be their shareholders and people whose security rests on pensions invested with them. They will include capitalism itself. For, as Darwall argues brilliantly, in seeking to transform capitalist companies into charities that may also make a profit (with luck), the new green capitalists would unconsciously ensure that companies (and entrepreneurs) would no longer be moved by the constant incentive of profitability to innovate and compete. Indeed, it is that very incentive to innovate that the IPCC and the principal ideologists of environmentalism dislike so much. They want a stable, even a declining, world that consumes less and less. Their plans honestly include a series of restraints and obstacles to enterprise, innovation, and growth.

If they were also able to replace the animal spirits of capitalism with the protective mentality of the bureaucrat, they would make companies into agents of economic and social stagnation and in time decay. In short, what the Bloombergs, Carneys, and corporate responsibility hucksters want would lead to a result they almost certainly don’t want. They want capitalism to commit suicide in order to save the world from the growing pains of prosperity.  But we know that the world before capitalism, like the world outside capitalism before 1989, was one of stagnation, decay, poverty, tyrannies, limited horizons, zero net hope.  

The international implications of that I’ll return to next week.  Meanwhile, read on:

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