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On Cancel Culture and Antisemitism in Academia

Editor's note: This is a reply to “The Myth of Cancel Culture in Chemistry (and Science)” by M. Micheel

How do you derail an argument that you cannot debunk with facts and logic? Distort the argument and attack the distortion instead of the main thesis of your opponent. This tactic, ever popular on social media, has been deployed by critics of the recent paper by Krylov et al., “Scientists Must Resist Cancel Culture” [1] and Krylov’s earlier article, “The Peril of Politicizing Science” [2]. These viewpoints document recent instances of cancel culture and scholarship suppression in STEM, placing the present rise of illiberalism in the West in the historical context of the illiberalism of past totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. 

Published in Nachrichten aus der Chemie on February 1, “Scientists Must Resist Cancel Culture” has generated intense exchanges on Twitter, complaints to the journal by email, and, within one day of its publication, a rebuttal entitled “The Myth of Cancel Culture” by Mathias Micheel [3]. One complaint in the rebuttal as well as on Twitter is that the parallels Krylov et al. draw between today’s cancel culture and totalitarian regimes of the past are hyperbolic. Like others who engaged in such comparisons before, Krylov and co-workers are accused of trivializing the atrocities committed by those regimes. The journal has even received a complaint that such comparisons are anti-Semitic.

Certainly, we are not living in the Third Reich or the Soviet Union. We are not being hunted, murdered, or slaughtered for our views, opinions, ethnicities, or religious beliefs. What is happening instead is that those of us who think differently than a certain self-appointed minority of activists are feeling the pressure and the threat to our professional, and sometimes, personal, lives by means of mobbings, cancellations, and censorship campaigns. 

Most astonishingly, illiberalism is once again accompanied by a distinct antisemitic sentiment [4]. Woke ideology is obsessed with race and identity, and Jewish identity and immigration are increasingly being presented in a negative light: first-generation immigrants, whose families arrived in the West with nothing, are being called “powerful” and “privileged”; Ashkenazi Jews are referred to as “oppressors”; there is a rise in antisemitic incidents; the very right of Israel to exist and defend itself is questioned by academics; diversity, equity, and inclusion officials, who are often associated with cancellation campaigns, can be seen engaging in antisemitic rhetoric. All of this means that the need to address censorship and free speech issues, the need to stand against woke identity politics, is very much aligned with a stand that needs to be taken against antisemitism and other forms or racial hatred.

A distinguishing characteristic of the Nazi regime in Germany and the Communist regime in the USSR was their focus on censorship, suppression of dissent, and ideology. Their heart-wrenching histories serve as a dire warning of where that path leads. In this context, we should welcome articles such as those written by Krylov et al. [1,2], because only by shedding light on these issues and placing the current trends in historical context can we hope to ensure that the atrocities committed in the past are not repeated in the future. This is especially true when these articles are written by people who had the misfortune of experiencing and witnessing the workings of the totalitarian machinery firsthand—and then the fortune to escape to the West and tell the story.

In his rebuttal, Micheel writes: “No, dear authors, Jews were not expelled from academia because of their political views. They were the victim of one of the largest genocides in the history of mankind.” This is, of course, correct, but he misrepresents what Krylov et al. have written in their piece: «The ideologues of Nazi Germany were also obsessed with the political views and identity (understood as racial purity) of scientists. Liberals were jailed and murdered. Jews (or “Aryans” married to “Jewesses”) were expelled from academia.» (my highlighting). Mathias Micheel is engaging in a willful misrepresentation of how the Holocaust unfolded, ignoring the fact that the focus of the Nazi regime on identity, race, and racial purity led to “one of the largest genocides in the history of mankind”—as Krylov et al. correctly pointed out. (The regime was also obsessed with political views and persecuted liberals). 

Micheel goes on to propose that the German Chemical Society should be purified from unsuitable members: “... it would be in the best interest of the organization to tell these members: We do not care about you. If we cannot even agree on the very basics of how to do science, then we have no basis for future cooperation” – except it’s not their way of doing science that he is concerned with, but their views and their age: “The Nachrichten tries to not alienate these old members”; “how often do active members have to ... make themselves targetable to attacks from the right”. This is an ad hominem attack and a call for cancellation—quite the ironic thing to write in a piece whose thesis is “Cancel Culture in science is just a myth”.

The author wishes to thank Jay Tanzman and Anna Krylov for thoughtful feedback.

[1] A. I. Krylov, J. S. Tanzman, G. Frenking, P. M. W. Gill: Scientists must resist cancel culture. Nachrichten aus der Chemie 70, 2022. DOI: 10.1002/nadc.20224120702

[2] A. I. Krylov: The Peril of Politicizing Science. J. Phys. Chem Lett 2021 12 (22), 5371–5376, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.1c01475

[3] M. Micheel: The Myth of Cancel Culture in Chemistry (and Science)

[4] Izabella Tabarovsky: Soviet Anti-Zionism and Contemporary Left Antisemitism

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