Cancel Culture Claims Another Scalp

Bret Stephens is a columnist at the New York Times. On Friday he wrote an op-ed titled The Secrets of Jewish Genius. In that column, he speculated about why Jews have made such signal contributions to modern intellectual life, far out of proportion to their numbers. Stephens attributed the phenomenon to Jewish teachings and experience:

There is a religious tradition that, unlike some others, asks the believer not only to observe and obey but also to discuss and disagree. There is the never-quite-comfortable status of Jews in places where they are the minority — intimately familiar with the customs of the country while maintaining a critical distance from them. There is a moral belief, “incarnate in the Jewish people” according to Einstein, that “the life of the individual only has value [insofar] as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.”

And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible — knowledge most of all — is potentially everlasting.

Nothing controversial there. Along the way, however, Stephens visited the possibility that Jews may be, on the average, smarter than gentiles–not exactly a novel thought. But in raising and mostly rejecting this hypothesis (“The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates.”), Stephens violated a taboo by referring briefly to IQ scores:

The column cited a 2005 paper by researchers Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Utah stating that “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data. During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.”

The simple-minded among us might say, Yup. There are a lot of smart Jews. But liberals promptly swung into action, in many cases weirdly accusing Stephens of perpetuating an anti-Semitic stereotype.

But the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Harpending was an anthropologist who possessed a white nationalist ideology and promoted eugenics, which was studied and practiced by the Nazis.

I would’t take the SPLC’s word for anything, and there is something laughable about a supposed pro-Nazi who publishes an article finding that Jews have high IQ scores. Be that as it may, the Times beat a hasty retreat, editing Stephens’ column to remove the reference to the Harpending study and issuing this lengthy Editors’ Note:

Editors’ Note:

An earlier version of this Bret Stephens column quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. He went on instead to argue that culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements and that, as he put it, “At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.” We have removed reference to the study from the column.

So according to the Times, it was improper to cite the University of Utah paper, not because its methodology was flawed or its conclusions were incorrect, but because one of its authors–not the other two, apparently–held “racist views” having nothing to do with the academic paper in question.

This is profoundly stupid. I yield to no one in my contempt for the New York Times, but I don’t think its editors are actually this dumb. I think the real problem was that Stephens momentarily admitted the possibility that there could be relevant genetic differences, on the average, between different demographic groups. (Observe how the Editors’ Note moves seamlessly from one issue–the alleged racism of one of the study’s authors–to a second, completely different issue–the “impression with many readers” that Stephens was arguing that “Jews are genetically superior.”)

Do such innate differences exist? I don’t know. Why is it, for example, that Asian-American incomes are substantially higher, on the average, than white American incomes? Could the cause somehow be genetic? I have no idea, but I won’t have a fainting fit if someone raises the possibility. For the New York Times and other leftists, however, any such discussion is verboten.

In the Bret Stephens flap, we see cancel culture operating at one remove. Liberals are demanding that Stephens be fired, not because he himself is a racist, but because he innocently cited a study which, as far as we know, was properly conducted and whose results are unimpeachable, but one of the whose three authors was a racist. Which provoked this comment on Twitter:


If the reference is obscure, google “Watson racist.”

Cancel culture is reminiscent of the French Terror. The revolution inexorably eats its own. Some years ago I read Simon Schama’s Citizens, a classic of narrative history. When Robespierre finally went to the guillotine, with a broken limb or two after being shoved down a flight of stairs, I stood up and cheered.

Responses