The bust of Nelson Mandela and the Professor


Bust of Mandela commissioned by Ken Livingstone in the 1980’s

Foreword/disclaimer: as for all posts here (except when noted otherwise), these are my words and I take full responsibility/credit for them. This post is a bit different from most as it is not about science nor the fabric of science. 

The past week has seen antisemitism making the headlines and the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone suspended from the Labour party. Here is an anecdote which illustrates why it is so difficult for the left to understand and fight this pervasive prejudice.

The Professor in my anecdote is David Colquhoun, a hero of mine as an advocate for open science, defender of the NHS  and indefatigable fighter against quackery and p-hacking. As many, he tweeted about the antisemitism row (he tweets quite a lot; the few tweets I quote here do not claim to be representative). Here is an early one that caught my attention (and gave this post its title).

What strikes me is the sheer irrationality of the comment. Somehow Ken’s support for Mandela in the 1980’s is seen as relevant to evaluate whether his comments last week were antisemitic. The Professor does not think Ken could be racist. It is simply unimaginable: he is one of the good guys who supported Mandela. Unfortunately, it is impossible to confront that one can not imagine.

In another thread, the Professor asksGenuine Q. Is it “anti-semitic” to deplore treatment of Mordechai Vanunu? Or deplore not signing nuclear non-proliferation?“. The answer is obviously no… and no one had suggested this (and possibly no one has ever suggested this ever). A classical example of the Livingstone formulation, a displacement from a concern about antisemitism to one about “silencing criticism of Israel”. Since the Professor seemed to have a genuine desire to find ways to express his views while avoiding antisemitism, I suggested this piece and noted that:

I suppose my tweet was slightly clumsy: the Professor thought I had accused him of antisemitism. Now, if I am accused of prejudice, any form of prejudice, my reaction will be to seek to understand the charge so that I can learn what I could have done better, and, if necessary, apologize or dispute the charge. Well, that is not how the Professor reacted. Instead, he quoted my tweet to his 12.5K followers:

Antisemitism is not a prejudice, it is an insult. I clarified the misunderstanding (and the Professor accepted the clarification). In the following few days, the Professor would go on to quote various (thoroughly unrepresentative) Jewish voices that would reassure him that no, there really isn’t a problem with antisemitism in the left, and, the Tories are much worse anyway, etc. And then this retweet; a good old conspiracy: the “antisemitism” is within brackets and the story has been “concocted”.


Some resources:


One comment

  1. The way that this is going, in another month or so, Livingstone will say something so bad, that Colquhoun will not be able to defend him anymore. Is there a term for something that, when you say it, the exact opposite condition becomes true just by virtue of you saying it (besides paradox or quantum observation)? I’m thinking that applies pretty well to Livingstone’s comment that Israel’s founding was a mistake (obviously this was not antisemitic enough yet… but give it another month). The moment he said it, the opposite started to immediately hold, because a substantial number of Jews don’t have to live under politicians like him.

    At this point, they should just suspend all the Labour politicians and let them back in only if they prove they are not antisemites. Would probably save on the number of cases they have to clear.


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