Watching the Whitewash

A man exclaiming

The true story of Hsu controversy is disappearing.

“In the fullness of time” Steve Hsu assures the listeners on a recent podcast (more about the podcast below) Michigan State University President Stanley asking for and accepting his resignation, “will really looking like irrational mob stupidity causing an action, a hasty action by the administration” (17:30) . No one knows if he’s right or not but as a historian who has researched and written about many similar controversies I suspect Hsu could not be more wrong. The aftermath of the Hsu controversy is playing out in the exact same way dozens of other similar controversies have played out. This post is to point out the moves of what is more-or-less a ritualistic dance. As they said on Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.”

(More on the podcast below. For background on this controversy, see here. For information about his resignation as Michigan State’s Vice-President for Research see here).

There are two common threads I’ve discovered in my historical work on race and science.  First, the line between establishment scientists and right-wing racists is very, very thin and establishment scientists far too often think that their status of “scientist” can protect them from being used by  unsavory political actors. Sometimes, as in the case of Jensen (see here or here) the scientist just blunders along and helps some of the most noxious political agendas imaginable. Other times supposedly establishment scientists simply parrot the arguments of the racist right–who knows if they realize they are doing so or not? (see here or here). .

The second thread is that both establishment scientists and the racist right try desperately to control how specific events and controversies are remembered. The narrative is pretty standard: Brave scientists seeking the truth about racial differences in an objective and apolitical manner are hysterically attacked by lefty ideologues, or more recently, “postmodernists,”  who, to use a phrase I just now made up, “can’t handle the truth!” (see here or here).

As a historian it is fascinating to see this entirely predictable narrative unfold in real time in the Hsu controversy. Let’s explore both threads in this controversy.

Woman dusting bookshelves

The right is dusting off their “brave scientist being attacked for political reasons” playbook.

The Line Between the Respectable Right and the Radical Right Disappears

Hsu has published two blog posts since his resignation (here and here). One is his analysis of a editorial supporting him in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ editorial page has long been at the edge of acceptable right wing politics in the United States, it never met a fascist it didn’t like, for example. Hsu also points to other supportive blogs and conservative newspapers. Well and good.

Hsu does not refer his readers to this post over at the Unz Review where he was declared a victim of “the #BLM witch hunts [which have] have spawned what is probably the most intense orgy of ‘unpersonings’ to date.” In fact, Hsu hasn’t publicly mentioned the Unz Review since this whole thing blew up on 10 June 2020 even though his promotion of his friend, Ron Unz, was a major point of the controversy. Only Hsu knows the reasons for his silence on the topic but it seems he just doesn’t want to address it.

Hsu’s appearance on Stefan Molyneux’s podcast was also controversial. My view was that Hsu was unfit for his VP office because he was unwilling or unable to distinguish between real scholars and overt antisemites and racists. Since his resignation, Hsu has simply reinforced my view by appearing on the podcast of Tom Woods. Tom Woods is a radical libertarian of the Murray Rothbard school of paleo-libertarianism. Rothbard was an “anarcho-capitalist” believing that the State had no legitimate function including police and national defense. His libertarian stance led him to endorse racial separatism as he endorsed both The Bell Curve and the political career of David Duke:

It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke's current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleolibertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy; slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what's wrong with any of that?

One thing Woods agrees with Rothbard about: the South was the right side of the Civil War The War Between the States (Woods prefers the Confederate name). Woods was a founding member of the League of the South, an organization devoted to the cause of the Confederacy (see here or here on neo-Confederacy). Woods often published articles supporting the South’s side in the Civil War (see here and here). He brought this view to a bestselling book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History which simply recounts long-discredited views of the Civil War and slavery:

A remnant of the antebellum era happy slave stereotype, the Faithful Negro provided a sense of relief for the reader, assuring whites that not all was amiss. The Faithful Negro who worked hard to support the confederacy was apparently doing so not because of enslavement or threat of physical harm/death, but out of loyalty (Evans, 1918). Key Neo-Confederate texts that support this line of thinking include Grissolm’s (1989) Southern by the Grace of God, Kennedy’s (2003) Myths of American Slavery, and Woods Jr.’s (2004) Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (promoted on Fox news), all texts that form a canon of the home school movement alongside history books prior to WWII.

Woods is even worse on civil rights, repeating the favorite arguments of segregationists of the 1950s. For example:

Most ominously, [Woods] makes an elaborate argument that the 14th Amendment was “never constitutionally ratified” because of irregularities in how it was adopted. This, too, is a pet cause of the fringe right, one the Supreme Court has rejected. If it prevailed, it would undo Brown v. Board of Education and many other rulings barring discrimination based on race, religion and sex. But Mr. Woods does not carry his argument to its logical conclusion. If the 14th Amendment was not properly ratified, neither, it would seem, was the 13th, which was adopted under similar circumstances, and slavery should be legal.

Let me add one more criticism of Woods’s incredibly shoddy methods. In order to prove that the North, but not the South, engaged in brutal, “total war” methods, Woods cites “F.J.P. Veale, in his classic study of the development of total warfare” (p. 71).  Veale was a British fascist and close associate of Oswald Mosley. Veale’s “classic study” cited by Woods was a 1953 book that also argued that Nazi antisemitic violence had been discussed “to the point of gross exaggeration” and “the brutality, inhumanity and illegality were about equally distributed between the Nazis and their opponents” (p. xiv). Sometimes things are “politically incorrect” because they are empirically and historically incorrect.

The controversy about Hsu was about, at least in part, appearing on the podcast of white supremacist Molyneux and having the antisemitic Unz appear on his podcast. To tell his side of the story he then appears on a podcast of a neo-Confederate. Hsu apparenly cannot tell the difference between a credible point of view and one that is not only without empirical foundation but is actively harmful and dangerous.

The Brave Scientist versus the Leftist Mob

I’ve written about this before in this space. The nasty “equalitarians” who block race research not for any scientific reasons, but for political ones (here, here and here). The argument is over a century old. Here’s America’s Ur-racist, Madison Grant writing in 1916:

There exists to-day a widespread and fatuous belief in the power of environment, as well as of education and opportunity to alter heredity, which arises from the dogma of the brotherhood of man, derived in turn from the loose thinkers of the French Revolution and their American mimics… Thus the view that the negro slave was an unfortunate cousin of the white man, deeply tanned by the tropic sun, and denied the blessings of Christianity and civilization, played no small part with the sentimentalists of the Civil War period, and it has taken us fifty years to learn that speaking English, wearing good clothes, and going to school and to church, does not transform a negro into a white man. (p. 14)

This argument has two parts. In the first, our brave scientist overstates the case for the scientific reality of race or racial differences or the innateness of IQ or whatever is the scientist’s pet cause. Hsu does this in the podcast with Woods in the first five minutes when he claims that the large datasets that can predict “ancestry” and that this kind of work was only controversial in the past but no longer. Hsu does a typical equivocation in this explanation between “ancestry” and “race” when he says, “People on the sort of far left felt that this was undermining their position, their long-held position, that race was entirely a social construct.” (3:20 min. mark). The equivocation becomes clear when you try to find someone who claims “Ancestry is a social construct.” Ancestry is not the same thing as race. As I’ve previously explained, there are plenty of geneticists who agree that race is a social construction and the entire idea originated from a study of population genetics. Hsu apparently thinks they are all far left activists and not scientists.

Hsu stance that commercial genetic testing services are uncontroversial is also incorrect. There are serious doubts about their usefulness either for predicting “ancestry“or medical care. The promises of a decade ago have remained unfulfilled. Hsu also ignores the research that tracks how racists use such genetic testing services to prop up their ideology (here or here). Over-blowing the status of their own scientific views and ignoring any possible social implications of them allows the scientist, and their defenders, to move to the second prong of the argument: that the critics are anti-scientific ideologues standing in the way of scientific truth.

Both of Hsu’s blog posts reference the “Twitter Mob and Moral Panic.” The “Twitter mob” theme has been picked up by those right wing sources Hsu cites in his blog entry. The mob is composed of activists and are “emotional, they are not rational, Spock-like scientists” (6:00 min.). Let’s be clear about the people Hsu thinks he just described: The 550 MSU faculty, staff, and students who signed the letter to President Stanley outlining their concerns about Hsu? They are an emotional “mob.” The statement from the Center for Genetics and Society objecting to Hsu’s misguided views about genetics? They are a irrational “mob” too. The original long Twitter thread from the Graduate Employees Union (GEU) with specific links to their concerns? They not just a mob, they are a “Twitter mob!” And, although Hsu has never mentioned my humble blog I suppose I’m part of this hated “mob” as well. All these people are, according to Hsu, “horrible people.” However, when Hsu claims there are ” ~2000 signatories to the letter of support, and many dozens of individual letters from scientists and professors” that is apparently not a “mob”  but rather Spock-like rationalists, each and every one. Those who claim the critics of Hsu are commit a “guilt by association” argument seem to have no problem with Hsu’s “innocent by association” argument when he claims the support of “top scientists” or “Steven Pinker at Harvard” (17:20). Either Hsu’s associations tell us something about his judgment or they don’t. You can’t have it both ways. Hsu has never explained why the folks at his own university are horrible people while the unknown folks who signed his letter of support are informed angels, but then he has explained very little about the actual issues in this controversy.

If you go read any of the Hsu’s critics I cited in the previous paragraph you’ll see that, with the exception of a small section of the GEU thread, none of them discuss Hsu’s interview with Joe Cesario about Cesario’s study of police shootings. Yet, for nearly the entire interview with Woods that is all Hsu talks about. Guess what? Cesario and his co-authors have now retracted that paper because it makes unwarranted inferences about police bias. They make it clear that this retraction was for scientific reasons and was notdue to either political pressure or the political views of those citing the paper.” Joe Cesario and his colleagues clearly understand their ethical and scientific responsibilities for their ideas and their actions here are commendable and do Michigan State University proud. We can but wonder if Hsu will follow them in their honorable example.

On Woods’s podcast, Hsu claims that it was the Cesario interview that caused leftist activists to say, “Let’s fire Steve Hsu over this. That was literally what happened” (20:00). No. that is absolutely not what happened. Read the letter from MSU personnel: the concerns are about Hsu’s “statements that contain racist and sexist language couched in scientific terms,” the video of “friendly conversations between Hsu and Stefan Molyneux, an open white supremacist and proponent of scientific racism.” and that “Hsu also used his own podcast to praise and promote individuals who themselves traffic in Holocaust denial and antisemitism.” Cesario’s research is not mentioned. Nor have I ever mentioned it in my blogging about this controversy. Hsu misleads his audience by claiming his office’s sponsorship of Cesario’s work was central to the controversy when it was tangential at best.

Rather than trying to engage his critics and explain how his actions as VP were justified, Hsu simply taps into standard right-wing talking points about the dangers of the lefty academy, groupthink, and the “Titter mob.”  Hsu cites the Heterodox Academy to claim that the liberal conservative ratio of university faculty used to be that left of center to right of center  was 2:1 but it is 5:1 now (30 min. mark). The implication being that right wing views are being shut out of academic discussions. Assuming, for a moment, those numbers are correct, why might that be the case?

Well, one explanation might be that for the past seventy years, American conservatives have been relentless in their attacks on higher education. I’ve written about this before To quote myself: Here are just a few of books published by conservatives attacking American higher education since World War II and after:

  • Field, A. N. 1941. Why Colleges Breed Communists. Hawthorne: Christian Book Club of America.
  • Buckley, William F. 1951. God and Man at Yale; the Superstitions of Academic Freedom. Chicago: Regnery.
  • Hobbs, Albert Hoyt. 1951. The Claims of Sociology: A Critique of Textbooks. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co.
  • ———. 1953. Social Problems and Scientism. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co.
  • Shafer, Paul W, and John Howland Snow. 1953. The Turning of the Tides. New York: Long House.
  • Dodd, Bella V. 1954. School of Darkness. New York: P.J. Kenedy.
  • Root, E. Merrill. 1955. Collectivism on the Campus; the Battle for the Mind in American Colleges. New York: Devin-Adair Co.
  • Wittmer, Felix. 1956. Conquest of the American Mind, Comments on Collectivism in Education. Boston: Meador Pub. Co.
  • Rudd, Augustin G. 1957. Bending the Twig; the Revolution in Education and Its Effect on Our Children. Chicago: Heritage Foundation.
  • Iversen, Robert W. 1959. The Communists & the Schools. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
  • Veritas Foundation, New York. 1964. The Great Deceit; Social Pseudo-Sciences: A Veritas Foundation Staff Study. West Sayville, N.Y.
  • Steinbacher, John A. 1971. The Child Seducers. Fullerton: Educator Publications.
  • Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Kimball, Roger. 1990. Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. New York: Harper and Row.
  • D’Souza, Dinesh. 1992. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Whitaker, Robert W., and Joe Sobran. 2004. Why Johnny Can’t Think: America’s Professor-Priesthood. North Augusta: Kudzu Media.

These are just the books mind you and only some of those. Pick up National Review or The Freeman or Modern Age or any other conservative periodical and you’ll find a steady drumbeat of articles attacking the notion of “academic freedom” and warning of leftists overthrowing the government by brainwashing students. Not that there is any data to prove that they are brainwashing anyone, quite the opposite, but that doesn’t stop the creaky claim being widely circulated in right wing circles.

So one reason conservatives don’t go into academia is because they, and their parents, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparents have been told that academia is a breeding ground for Commies, hippies, and radicals who Hate America. Hsu and Woods both speak in somewhat nostalgic tones about how there used to be free inquiry at our universities. Just when was this halcyon time? According to the American right wing–never.

Conservatives have also been profoundly anti-scientific for decades. Creationism, which entails a rejection of not only biology but geology and much of physics, has been at the center of American Christian fundamentalism for roughly a century, which is an important constituency for conservative politics (just ask our Vice President). The denial of climate change is overwhelmingly a right wing political phenomenon, tied not only to free market ideology but also to xenophobia and nationalism. I probably don’t have to mention the rejection of epidemiologists and public health professionals by our current administration which is an important part of the country’s problems with Covid-19.

Claims of an unreasoning mob and all the liberals in academia means Hsu does not have to engage with the real criticisms of his behavior. In the interview Hsu claims “I had posted a rejoinder to all these accusations” (22:50) This is not true. He did offer a false claim that Molyneux was not “controversial” in 2017. He has never tried to explain inviting Ron Unz on his podcast and promoting the Holocaust-denying Unz Review. At no time has he engaged with his critics about the real concerns about his behavior as Vice-President of Research. This behavior is not embracing the norms of free inquiry and intellectual exchange.  

Finally, Hsu complained about the process by which he left his job. He claims he wanted a committee to investigate the process and that he would have welcomed the opportunity to explain his position. It was Hsu himself who foreclosed this opportunity. Instead of calling for the formation of a committee or going to the ombudsperson office at MSU, Hsu threatened a lawsuit soon after the GEU Twitter thread was posted:


Proclaiming one is foursquare for free speech and inquiry while threatening lawsuits against one’s critics has been a staple of race scientists for some time. In the early 1960s, anthropologist Carleton Coon threatened to sue Theodosius Dobzhansky when Dobzhansky published scientific criticisms of Coon’s racial theories. (p. 168). He later threatened the Anti-Defamation League for publishing a number of scientific responses to his work (p. 172). Segregationist Nathaniel Weyl urged biologist Wesley Critz George to sue the American Academy for the Advancement of Science for their stance on George’s scientific defense of segregation. In the early twenty-first century the late, unlamented Philippe Rushton threatened legal action against William Tucker for Tucker’s history of the racist Pioneer Fund (pp. 1145-6). Looking at this history Hsu’s threat is no surprise.

A lawsuit is certainly not in the spirit of academic exchange of ideas or free inquiry that Hsu has been touting since this controversy began. Hsu has never discussed this threat of a lawsuit since he made it on 15 June 2020. I’m no lawyer but my understanding is that winning such an action requires the plaintiff to show real harm has been done. Since Hsu has now publicly stated that he expects after leaving the VP position, “My quality of life actually goes up” (18:15) and that he plans to continue to blog and podcast (32:00) it is doubtful he can show any damages.

While Hsu concludes he will be just fine and his quality of life will go up, the same can’t be said for leftist professor, Jeff Klinzman,who “received a barrage of death threats and his wife was forced to flee their home” for his political speech. Or Professor Tommy Curry who spoke out against racial violence and received so many death threats he left the United States altogether. Around the 32 minute mark of the interview Hsu claims there is a “climate of fear. No one can stand up to this mob…You apparently can’t survive if the mob comes for you.” The only people whose survival is threatened are anti-racist scholars opposed to the right about 100 in 2017 alone. Hsu, returning to his research and his life, has no business invoking a “climate of fear” and not “surviving” the intellectual criticisms of his behavior.

None of this means anything for Hsu and his defenders at the Unz Review, or the Wall Street Journal, or neo-Confederate Tom Woods. For them the university and academia are the same closed-minded, leftist-dominated, brainwashing factories William F. Buckley, Jr. described in 1951. Evidence doesn’t matter. The actual events of the Hsu controversy don’t matter. The Hsu controversy has, indeed, been a battle of blind ideology against facts and evidence. It is just that the roles are the opposite ones Steve Hsu portrays.

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4 thoughts on “Watching the Whitewash

  1. Great analysis as always. As a Trekkie myself, I’m offended by Hsu’s invocation of Spock, who was not only logical but also symbolically and practically anti-racist and anti-xenophobic. I can’t imagine Gene Roddenberry would have supported an interpretation of the character that lent support to racist arguments.


  2. “Proclaiming one is foursquare for free speech and inquiry while threatening lawsuits against one’s critics has been a staple of race scientists for some time.”

    Yes very true and I’ve had one file a lawsuit against me with the outcome very bad for him.


  3. Pingback: Pedigreed Bunk: The Right Wing Media on the Hsu Controversy | Fardels Bear

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