Magazine | December 31, 2018, Issue

The ‘Titmouse’ Terror


In the waning days of 2018, a comedian was kicked off the Oscars-hosting job for old tweets, and a Heisman Trophy winner was shamed on his day of triumph for something he tweeted when he was 14. Will 2019 continue the trend? Of course! Expect something like the following story.

January 2, 2019, 7:00–01 p.m. “The international body that confers the Bohdi Award, the most prestigious recognition of excellence in science, announced today it was giving its honor to Henrik Henriksson, an 87-year-old Swedish physicist who had discovered the drurk, a subatomic particle responsible for sadness.

“I am honored beyond measure,” said Henriksson, speaking from his home in Dour, a suburb of Grieff. “While the award does not dispel the yawning vacancy at the heart of existence, whether it be that of a titmouse or of the cosmos itself, it is a reminder that life can provide unexpected moments, and that is perhaps a reason to live — at least until that most expected moment of them all, death.”

January 2, 2019, 1:11 p.m. Twitter user @Sciencebiatches392 tweets: “Did he just say titmouse?? And we wonder why there aren’t more women in STEM?? #revokethebohdi”

January 2, 2019, 1:37 p.m. #revokethebohdi is trending on Twitter, along with #HenriKKKsson

January 2, 2019 2:55 p.m. Washington Post story: “Contro­versy over ‘Titmouse Prof’ Intensifies as Old Writings Surface, Raising Questions about His Views

“According to the website, early writings by controversial Bohdi Award recipient Henrick Henriksson used derogatory terms for African Americans and homosexuals and described the way a transgender-presenting performer could be burned to death.

“Reached for comment, Henriksson — who has previously faced public backlash for using a slang word for female breasts — said that he did not know what the questioner was talking about. His wife had signed him up for the Book of the Faces, as he called it, and he said he had been receiving death threats all day.

“‘When you consider it,’ the scientist said, ‘the act of being born is a death threat. But this is quite different from a college student in California wanting me to die because I suggested Transylvania people should be burned. Should I care? They sound ill.’”

January 3, 1:03 p.m. releases the text that contained violence against trans people and offensive language against African Swedes and homosexuals. It is from “Bloody Days and Bloodier Nights,” a work of fiction Henriksson wrote when he was 13:

“The revolution had reached its peak! They pulled the queen from the tumbrel and towards the bonfire. As the dragged queen screamed, cries went forth from the crowd: ‘Don’t be niggardly with the faggots, lads!’ one man yelled.”

Some dissenting voices pointed out that there was nothing wrong whatsoever with the passage. The “drag queen” was a dragged queen, the supposedly offensive term for African Swedes was “niggardly,” a word with no etymological connection to the N-word slur, and “faggots,” far from being a homophobic taunt, was a reference to a bundle of sticks.

“That is what they are up in my drawers about?” Henriksson said when reached for comment. “A lifetime of penetrating the mysteries of the universe, and I am supposed to open my guts with a penknife over some drivel I scratched as a schoolboy three quarters of a century ago?

Conservatives seized, pounced, then seized and pounced on the situation, with several Internet provocateurs doing YouTube monologues while wearing “Niggardly with the Faggots” T-shirts. Rachel Maddow noted that the professor had described his job as “penetrating” the universe, after which she smirked; Jimmy Fallon noted the same thing, after which he raised his eyebrows; there was talk that Jon Stewart would come out of retirement and say the same thing, then look into the camera with a deadpan expression.

January 7, 2019: A writer for Vicox, a website formed by people fired from Vice and Vox, noted that the Swedish language did not have the word “niggardly.” There were 148 words that meant “withholding something,” from “skrunubrug” (to withhold praise from a child for its own good) to “skrankenung” (to withhold affection from a wife if she is careless with flour) and so on.

But the choice of “niggardly” was the translator’s decision and did not reflect the thoughts of Henriksson. Likewise, “faggots” was a translation of “buntar av pinnar,” which meant bundle of sticks.

Unfortunately for Henriksson, the translator possessed a kaleidoscope of victimhood credentials: an asexual non-gendered Jamaican Uighur (preferred pronouns: “xhe,” “wombat”) who had written a Ph.D. dissertation on finding hidden racism in the ingredient labels on food products. Xhe was regarded as an unimpeachable expert on intuiting authorial intention, and thus the translation’s use of the offending words — which did not occur in the original text — was seen as a revelation of Henriksson’s true thoughts.

Faced with the evidence, the committee had no choice but to revoke the scientist’s award. After additional consideration, it was decided that discussion of the subatomic particle he discovered would constitute violence against those groups he had demeaned, and it was agreed that the particle did not exist at all.

Reached for comment, Henriksson said, “You cannot vote to overturn a law of physics. Science is not a democracy. God help these people if they discover Newton told a bawdy joke; they would only approve of gravity, then, should people like me hang themselves. ”

Henriksson was apparently unaware that the Union of Concerned Scientists had voted to declare gravity “under review” because it had a disparate impact on people of different body shapes. Twitter approved with great delight, for a day. Then it was on to new glories.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners




Readers weigh in on Allen C. Guelzo’s “The Great War’s Great Price” and Kevin D. Williamson’s “Pillars of Fire.”
The Week

The Week

The worst part about getting coal in your stocking isn’t the indignity; it’s the notice of violation from the EPA.
The Long View

Holiday Revisions

From “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” words and music by Frank Loesser, with revisions and amendments by the women’s-studies department at Bard College...


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