The Movement to #RenameJWST is About More Than One Person
A statement in solidarity with Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and against tabloid journalism at the New York Times
The following statement was written by myself, Dr. Sarah Tuttle, and Dr. Brian Nord.
Last week, the NY Times published an article by columnist Michael Powell, titled “How Naming the James Webb Telescope Turned Into a Fight Over Homophobia.” Rather than a work of unbiased journalism, this article was an op-ed intended to attack our colleague and friend, Professor Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. Although we have submitted a letter to the editor, the 175-word limit is not enough to tackle the sizable mess the NY Times made by publishing Powell’s error-riddled screed. In the statement that follows, we aim to make several points clear (and further expand on each below):
Powell’s “article” is a flimsy, error-riddled opinion piece. In contrast to the movement to #RenameJWST, which is based on a full and thorough review and analysis of information related to the telescope naming decision, and the historical record about both James Webb and anti-LGBT government activity at the time, neither Powell’s published opinion nor the NASA report ask enough questions–or the right ones–to defend the assertions and claims contained within them. Instead, Powell’s piece is part of his attempt to style himself as a culture warrior. The article singles out Professor Prescod-Weinstein by denigrating her leadership in physics research, and by attempting to twist the various facets of her identity into a weapon that makes her vulnerable to attack. The factual errors and poor analysis in Powell’s article are symptoms of the fact he is unqualified to have written it in the first place: Until early 2020, Powell’s beat at the NY Times was sports. In the early months of the pandemic, however, his writing shifted into works on race, free speech, and civil rights– all written from now-familiar soap boxes favored by right-wing talking heads: e.g., that “cancel culture” has run amok, that free speech is under attack, and that critical race theory is inciting fury by discussing how conceptions of race can shape society. The only thing these arguments have in common with sports is that they follow a predictable playbook.
Powell’s article attempts to reframe the debate over whose historical legacies merit a $10 billion monument into a spat between two individuals, Professor Prescod-Weinstein, and Professor Hakeem Oluseyi. However, the movement to #RenameJWST is not a single person. It was spearheaded by four of us (Lucianne Walkowicz, Sarah Tuttle, Brian Nord, and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein), but there are also nearly two thousand signatories on the renaming petition, including many leading scientists in the field.
As a Black, Jewish, queer, agender woman, Professor Prescod-Weinstein has been singled out for harassment– for years, but also specifically by Powell’s article– for her steadfast questioning of the decision to name the telescope after James Webb. But she did not act alone, and does not stand alone: we categorically reject the torrent of hatred unleashed upon her, and will continue to speak out with her and in her defense.
In the following sections, we provide some of the fact-checking that we would otherwise have expected from a major paper like the NY Times. Sources are provided throughout, and we encourage readers to look at those.
Documentary film: Behind the Name: James Webb Space Telescope
Folder of resources and historical documents used in the Behind the Name documentary
Fact check #1: Where did the debate over the naming of JWST come from?
Powell’s article incorrectly names Professor Prescod-Weinstein and science journalist Dr. Matthew Francis as the original instigators of questioning Webb’s record, and also leaves out NASA personnel’s involvement in initiating Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi’s blog post.
Public awareness of Webb’s involvement with the Lavender Scare originated with Dan Savage, who originally raised the issue in the Stranger in 2015. In fact, the NY Times itself reported on Savage’s role in raising the issue just over a year ago, in Dennis Overbye’s article on JWST naming. Savage’s column was where both Professor Prescod Weinstein and Dr. Francis (the latter of whom wrote an article about Webb’s record) learned of Webb’s role.
Professor Oluseyi’s blog post represents itself as an impartial investigation into Webb’s record. However, the documents released from a FOIA request (by Alex Witze of Nature) indicate that NASA’s Science Engagement and Partnerships Division Director, Kristen Erickson, prompted Professor Oluseyi to dig into the issue (page 385 of the FOIA release of internal NASA documents, email from Erickson to Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz). At the time, Professor Oluseyi was serving under Erickson at NASA Headquarters; thus the request to write a blog post exonerating Webb was instigated internally by NASA, though not with the involvement of NASA’s own historian or any historian, at that time.
Fact check #2: What is the nature of the debate over JWST’s name?
Powell’s article misreported both the process through which JWST was named, and the contribution Webb made to NASA as administrator. From Powell’s “article”: “In 2002, NASA named the telescope after Mr. Webb, citing his work in pushing to land a man on the moon.”
However, JWST was in fact named via a unilateral decision by President George W. Bush’s second NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, in violation of NASA’s own long-standing naming process for telescopes.
When telescopes are named for people, they are intended to honor their namesakes. As huge investments of not only taxpayer dollars but time, they are akin to massive monuments in space. The names of flagship projects, like the Hubble Space Telescope, become inextricably enmeshed with their fascinating discoveries, as well as their ability to inspire curious minds. Because the names of telescopes carry so much weight, NASA has long followed an established process for selecting the names of telescopes. That process was not followed in the naming of JWST.
Powell, and others, assert that James Webb is known for his role as the Administrator of NASA during the historically-significant Apollo program. However, landing a man on the moon was already a Presidential priority, and would have been regardless of Webb’s involvement. Webb’s main legacy at NASA actually is having argued to the President that NASA should continue to do scientific research, rather than just putting humans on the moon. Webb’s defenders have seemingly lost the plot of what they are actually defending: perhaps they don’t know the historical record quite as well as they think they do.
As we have argued many times, however, a person’s legacy is not limited to actions that one finds palatable: the honor of a $10B space monument should be determined by a holistic evaluation of that individual’s full record, including both the good and the bad. The fact of the matter is, NASA Administrators are generally not the ones directly carrying out policy. However, as leaders, they are still responsible for the impacts of the policies they enforce: that’s part of the fundamental definition of leadership. Therefore, if Webb is responsible for the successes of NASA during his term, he is also responsible for the failures that occurred on his watch, including the abhorrent treatment queer NASA and State Department employees were subjected to under his leadership.
Fact check #3: Does NASA’s investigation into Webb clear his record?
Powell implies that the final report led by NASA Historian Brian Odom exonerates Webb. Moreover, Powell accuses critics of the naming of JWST of “reframing” our argument after the release of the NASA report. However, it is both Powell and NASA that has reframed the debate, ignoring the concerns voiced by nearly two thousand signatories to the petition to #RenameJWST, which was published on May 25, 2021, nearly a year and a half before the NASA final report was published. As the petition, which we co-authored, clearly stated then (and as we also clearly stated in our March 1, 2021 opinion in Scientific American):
“[T]he historical record is already clear: under Webb’s leadership, queer people were persecuted. Those who would excuse Webb’s failure of leadership cannot simultaneously award him credit for his management of Apollo. Leaders are responsible not only for the actions of those they lead, but the climate they create within their spheres of influence. As we have noted previously, Webb’s legacy of leadership is complicated at best, and at worst, complicit with persecution.”
To the contrary, the NASA Historian’s report asks a far more circumscribed set of questions:
Do historical documents show that Webb was “an architect and a leader for the firing of homosexuals from the federal workforce,” also known as the Lavender Scare, while he was Undersecretary of State?
Do historical documents show that Webb was personally aware of NASA budget analyst Clifford Norton’s firing from NASA for suspected homosexuality?
These two questions do not address the question of whether Webb’s record as a leader merits a $10B monument. Nor do these questions address whether Webb engaged in homophobia, bigotry, or other discriminatory activities while he was the second-ranking leader at the State Department or the leader of NASA. Perhaps this is because NASA’s final report includes documents (of which we were aware even a year and a half earlier) that show Webb’s personal participation in perpetuating homophobia at State. In particular, Webb, on behalf of the President and Secretary of State, personally hand-delivered a State Department memo written by his subordinate to the leader of the Senate committee that was looking into homosexuals in the federal government with. This memo from Webb’s subordinate describes homosexuals as “emotionally unstable” and “immoral” people who “indulge in acts of perversion which are legion and which are abhorrent and repugnant to the folkways and mores of our American society.” The memo, addressed directly to and written for Undersecretary Webb, concludes that “homosexuals are weak, unstable and fickle people who fear detection and who are therefore susceptible to the wanton designs of others,” identifying them as security risks “unsuited for employment in the Department.” The author of the memo, Carlisle H. Humelsine, State’s head of internal security under Webb, was granted the authority to continue running the Personnel Security Board (along with Deputy Undersecretary John Peurifoy), with the mandate of removing employees deemed a security risk, under the early 1949 reorganization of the State Department that was directed and implemented by Webb himself.
The aforementioned documents, along with additional resources showing Webb’s role during his time at State and at NASA, are chronicled in the documentary Behind The Name: James Webb Space Telescope, and available in the associated folder of supporting historical materials and references.
With regard to NASA specifically, the narrow question posed by Dr. Odom does not even consider whether Webb oversaw or was involved in the ongoing HR policies of NASA that included the monitoring of and discrimination against suspected LGBT+ employees. Clifford Norton was by no means the first federal employee serving under Webb’s leadership who was fired, as is publicly documented, including in NASA’s own final report, which notes that 31 State Department employees were fired for suspicion of homosexual behavior in 1949, when Webb was Undersecretary of State.
Moreover, these questions imply that leaders are only responsible for their personal, individual actions for a particular discriminatory incident. They don’t ask if leaders are responsible for upholding policies and creating an environment that promotes the well-being and equitable treatment of their team members.
Powell’s article also quotes Professor David Johnson as saying “No one in government could stand up at that time and say ‘This is wrong.’ And that includes gay people.” However, other agency leaders did precisely that, asserting that homosexuals did not pose a security risk, and should instead be evaluated on their own merits as employees. And, more obviously, Clifford Norton was a gay man “in government”, and stood up for himself and others to say that “This is wrong,” taking his case to federal court.
It is worth noting that Powell and some of those quoted in his “article” attempt to imply that Professor Prescod-Weinstein is somehow redefining bigotry. We strongly reject that assertion. We three, who co-authored the petition with Professor Prescod-Weinstein, agreed at the time that bigotry is not limited to only use of overt slurs or other so-called “smoking guns” but that it instead includes doing nothing to stop bigotry of others under one’s supervision. The nearly two thousand signatories to the petition also signed on to this idea, which suggests it is those who wish to narrow the definition of homophobia now that are out of step with the times.
Powell describes Clifford Norton as being fired following an anti-gay sting, but leaves out that Norton was dragged into NASA Headquarters by NASA’s Security Chief and subjected to an extrajudicial interrogation until the wee hours of the morning. It’s not surprising that he chooses the clinical language, “fire,” instead of clearer, more detailed language that reflects the ugly historical record – in this one case where we know the details because of Norton’s court case. Norton’s assistance in obtaining legal help to press that case came from gay activist Frank Kameny, a former astronomer who had been fired from government service for being gay approximately a decade before, in the early years of the Lavender Scare.
Therefore, Webb is still responsible in his roles as a leader (in its full definition) during the Lavender Scare while he was Undersecretary of State, as well as persecution of queer NASA employees while he was NASA Administrator.
Fact check #4: Is the movement to #RenameJWST personally targeting Professor Oluseyi?
Perhaps the most pernicious, insidious aspects of Powell’s article are that it implies that a) Professor Oluseyi has been the subject of some sort of witch hunt within astronomy, and b) that Professor Prescod-Weinstein has alleged misconduct against him. However, it is Powell’s own article that accuses Professor Oluseyi of Title IX violations. Powell cites tweets by Professor Prescod-Weinstein regarding astronomers with records of harassment being passed between institutions; These tweets could refer to any number of cases that many in the academic field are aware of, including several known cases that have been well-documented in the press (and none of whom are Professor Oluseyi). Moreover, it was again Powell who has involved George Mason University in these allegations. Powell purposely confuses tweets that Professor Prescod-Weinstein made about the larger problem of institutions playing “pass the harasser” with a very specific exchange she had with George Mason professor Peter Plavchan about her disappointment regarding Professor Oluseyi’s support for the naming of JWST. This intentional obfuscation, including the libelous assertion that Professor Prescod-Weinstein was the “professor at another university” who reported misconduct allegations against Professor Oluseyi was not fact checked, and had it been, it would not have been printed, as Professor Prescod-Weinstein was not the person referred to by Professor Plavchan. It is unfortunate to see Professor Oluseyi championing Powell’s article, one that makes public misconduct accusations against him, written by someone who lacks the journalistic prowess to clear his name. It is Powell, not Professor Prescod-Weinstein, that has attempted to transform a debate on the naming of JWST into one that raises “personal” issues involving Professor Oluseyi.
Fact check #5: Was Professor Prescod-Weinstein responsible for critiques of Professor Oluseyi?
Throughout the movement to #RenameJWST, the four of us (Tuttle, Nord, Prescod-Weinstein, and Walkowicz) have attempted to leave Professor Oluseyi largely out of discussions of the historical record, despite the thinly-veiled personal attacks on the integrity of Professor Prescod-Weinstein and Dr. Francis in his original blog post. It was, in fact, Professor Prescod-Weinstein who pushed strongly to ensure that #RenameJWST did not name Professor Oluseyi in our petition and our March 2021 Scientific American opinion piece. This is because our issue has never been about Professor Oluseyi, or any other defender of the naming of JWST, as individuals; our concern is with the legacy of Webb’s time at the State Department and NASA, and what message naming one of the greatest astronomical instruments ever after a man with that legacy is being sent to current and future LGBT+ astronomers, science geeks, and people who look up at the stars in wonder. It is Powell, not the four of us, who have painted Professor Oluseyi as a person under attack.
Perhaps, if a more complete telling of Webb’s historical record seems like an attack, there is wisdom in there for astronomers who would defend him. We believe that Webb’s own record speaks for itself, and tells the story of a man with a complicated, oft-complicit legacy with some of the uglier aspects of the Cold War in the US (including not only the Lavender Scare, but his advocacy for the use of psychological warfare).
Powell’s “article” was not only poorly written and reported, but released during Hanukkah, and filled with right-wing dog whistles. It has instigated a barrage of attacks against Professor Prescod-Weinstein, who is daily filtering through racist and anti-semitic hate mail and messages. This article, which would never have made it out the door of a responsible publication, was intended to exploit Black physicists for clicks (as Professor Prescod-Weinstein has written herself). Professor Prescod-Weinstein has been singled out for this harassment– first by being the topic of Powell’s article, and then by the accompanying entourage of trolls– because of her identity as a Black, Jewish, queer agender woman. The other three of us who created the petition to #RenameJWST, who co-authored the opinion pieces that Powell cites, but who are referred to only as “critics” or “influential young scientists,” have not been singled out like she has. Powell’s article is racist, antisemitic tabloid journalism, designed to sow division by attacking the most vulnerable amongst us. We repeat: Professor Prescod-Weinstein does not stand alone, but with us, and we will not see her attacked. She is our friend, our valued colleague, a leader amongst her peers, and an inspiration to us all.