His real subject

Because of a stupid time-wasting SIWOTI argument I’m having with a tedious prolix humorless commenter in an earlier thread about Howard Jacobson’s reactionary rant about Tim Hunt in the Independent, I want to make clear how strongly Jacobson did imply that Hunt was “hounded out of a job.”

He starts with three paragraphs riffing on personal grooming with a specific focus on nose hair, claiming to be deeply concerned with it himself in contrast to other sorts of people who are not so concerned.

We shouldn’t be too hard on vanity. It can be a mark of respect for the world. The day I don’t attend to my nostrils is the day I will have forsworn that world and become a different person. Someone otherwise preoccupied. Someone who couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of his appearance, someone for whom the material life has lost its appeal. I will have retreated into myself, to that place where eccentricity and maybe even madness reside. Science, perhaps.

He’s joking, of course. Novelists aren’t generally considered worldly and respectable in contrast to those zany scientists.

Then there’s the next paragraph, the fourth:

The astute reader will by now have worked out that in truth nostril hair is only my sub-theme, and that my real subject is Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who recently made a joking reference to the lachrymosity (were there such a word) of women, in punishment for which University College London expeditiously removed him from the honorary post he held there.

His real subject is Tim Hunt.

Then we get four paragraphs on eccentricity in dress and the academic life.

Then we get two paragraphs in which he makes the transition from eccentricity in dress to eccentricity in opinion:

So what right did we have to expect modern attitudes from them? Of course they were sexists, racists, pederasts, colonialists, anti-Semites. Of course they made jokes which not another living soul found funny. Bigotry was expected and even required of them. There have to be places where people let nostril hair run wild, think differently from the rest of us, implicitly call into question and even deride everything we have made up our minds about, find wisdom through unconventionality, and say a lot of foolish things along the way. Universities are such places. Correction: universities should be such places.

Show me a university which is a hotbed of thin-skinned offence-taking, where every unacceptable idea is policed and every person who happens to hold one is hounded out of a job, and I will show you a university that isn’t a university but an ideological prison camp and indoctrination centre.

He’s already told us his real subject is Tim Hunt, so yes, “every person who happens to hold one is hounded out of a job” is meant to apply to Tim Hunt even though he didn’t name him in that sentence.

He does name him in the next sentence though.

Reaffirming the college’s pusillanimous decision to show Tim Hunt the door, the Provost of University College London said: “Our commitment to gender equality and our support for women in science was and is the ultimate concern.”

Jacobson said the college decided to “show Tim Hunt the door” – i.e. to throw him out, i.e. to sack him from his job.

I don’t know how intentional all this implication was. I don’t know if Jacobson deliberately worded those passages to create the impression that Hunt was sacked from a job, or if he just lost track while writing – but he decidedly did write that piece in such a way as to create the impression in the unwary reader that Tim Hunt was sacked from a job.


  1. Lady Mondegreen says

    Are we supposed to excuse “them” because (supposedly) in Ye Olden Dayes everybody was sexist, racist, a pederast, a colonialist, and/or an anti-Semite?

    Or are we supposed to excuse them because they “[thought] differently from the rest of [the people in their society]?”

    And what does this

    think differently from the rest of us, implicitly call into question and even deride everything we have made up our minds about, find wisdom through unconventionality

    have to do with refusing to coddle bigotry? Even if it didn’t tend in the other direction, bigotry isn’t necessary to unconventional thinking.

  2. says

    Well, you see, in these days when the Politically Correct Gestapo-Inquisition has all the power, bigotry is rebellious and unconventional, and therefore it’s also true.

    There might be a flaw in the logic of that somewhere.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    My dictionary does list “lachrymosity” as a word, without even offering any alternatives.


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