Culture

Tim Hunt, George Patton, and Death Camps

Hunt at a science conference in 2012. (Csaba Segesvari/AFP/Getty)
Even if his remark was meant seriously, did it matter more than his work?

Tim Hunt, as you’ve probably heard by now, is a Nobel Prize–winning chemist who was forced to resign his position at University College London after he said, at a lunch for female journalists and scientists, “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. . . . Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”

Common sense says he was joking. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that what he said was sincere and offensive. Is a sexist remark worth ending Tim Hunt’s career? Dr. Hunt won his Nobel Prize for the discovery of cyclins, a group of proteins that control a cell’s progression through its life cycle. Because some cancers stem from errors in cells’ cyclical march toward mitosis, Dr. Hunt’s work has contributed a great deal to cancer research.

We have to ask ourselves: What’s more important, fewer insulting remarks or less cancer?

General George Patton was an anti-Semite. Although he commanded a large number of Jewish soldiers — including several staff officers — he refused to permit Jewish chaplains in his headquarters. He made a number of unambiguously racist, anti-Jewish statements; he once wrote that Jews were “lower than animals.” However, Patton helped push the Nazis out of North Africa and capture Sicily. Between the summer of 1944 and the spring of ’45, he led the Third Army as it captured 82,000 square miles of German-held territory, 12,000 towns and cities, and 1.3 million German soldiers. Under Patton, the Third Army wounded 120,000 German soldiers and killed 50,000 more. Without Patton, the Holocaust might have continued into 1946.

Patton could have been removed from his command for anti-Semitism. In fact, he was suspended from command in August ’43, after slapping two shell-shocked soldiers he accused of cowardice. He was reinstated after D-Day, once Eisenhower and Marshall concluded that his service was more valuable than his contrition. You’d be hard pressed to find a Jew who disagreed with that decision. We had to ask ourselves: What was more important, less casual anti-Semitism or fewer death camps?

Last spring, when it was revealed that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, a billionaire, was a bigot, UCLA rejected $3 million he had pledged for kidney research. What’s more important, fewer racist billionaires, or less kidney disease?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. We overlook it because he did much more good than bad.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. We overlook it because he did much more good than bad. Likewise JFK, who was an adulterer. Picasso — an avid adulterer himself — was a Communist proponent of that great socialist paradise, North Korea. Should Picasso be excluded from socially conscious art galleries for having lent his support to one of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century? What about Jackson Pollock, who killed a woman (and himself) while driving drunk?

Tim Hunt hasn’t killed anyone or plagiarized anything. So far as I know, he has never cheated on his wife — who is also a chemist, and doesn’t seem to find her husband especially sexist. It’s hard to believe that Hunt’s remark about women scientists was meant as anything other than a joke — but even if it was intended to be the most sexist damned thing ever uttered: What’s the going rate for helping cure cancer?

Josh Gelernter — Josh Gelernter is a former columnist for NRO, and a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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