4. On a Bus in Kiev

I remember very little about my childhood in the Soviet Union; I was only seven when I left. But one memory I have is being on a bus with one of my parents, and asking something about a conversation we had had at home, in which Stalin and possibly Lenin were mentioned as examples of dictators. My parent took me off the bus at the next stop, even though it wasn’t the place we were originally going.

Perhaps I have some of the details wrong (was it just Stalin, or also Lenin?); childhood memories remembered 35 years later are like that. I’m telling this to explain why I feel so strongly about it, based on my memories; my personal account does not affect the soundness (or unsoundness) of my arguments. But my sense from all I’ve heard is that this is exactly how life was like there, and that no-one who lived there in the 1970s would think the scenario at all improbable.

What’s more, this is so even though most people, including most Communists, knew that Stalin was of course a dictator. The government itself had acknowledged as much. Even Lenin was widely understood to have been a dictator in the sense of someone who didn’t govern through democratic means.

But it’s not the sort of thing that you’d want to say in public, or even to your friends in private. Sssh! — people might hear! Those who hear might draw deeper inferences about what else you might believe. This might get back to the place you work. You might be fired, or blacklisted. By the 1970s, you probably didn’t have to worry much about being shot, or being sent to Siberia; these were not the 1930s. But lost jobs, ruined careers — sure. And a forced public apology: well, of course, that might help a bit.

Now I hasten to say that the controversy at Harvard is only a pale echo of Soviet Communism. With luck, this student won’t have her career ruined, or even much affected. I’ve seen a public call for her to be expelled (a call made by a professor at a different university), but I doubt that this will happen. And even if some of the best future jobs are closed off to her, at least for a while, a Harvard Law diploma will get you to plenty of places. She doesn’t have to worry, I suspect, about not being able to feed herself or her future family.

Yet the public revelation of a private conversation; the public condemnation by management; the obvious danger of serious career ramifications; the apology, which I take it came out of a fear of those ramifications — all for daring to say to friends something that simply represents a basic scientific principle (the need to be open to the possibility that there are racial differences in intelligence, as one is open to other possibilities on other scientific questions) — that just sounded a little too familiar to me.

It’s a pale echo, but of something so bad that we should be wary even of pale echoes. Say, comrade, didn’t I see you reading The Bell Curve and the articles criticizing it? Would you say that this means you “do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent”? Tsk, tsk, comrade, I wonder what the Dean will say. But don’t worry! Perhaps if you publicly apologize, all will be forgiven.

Now of course all societies, even the freest, have their taboos. I’m deeply and constantly grateful to my parents for having brought me to a place that treats many fewer ideas as taboo than the Soviet Union did, or that nearly all societies throughout human history have done. And I understand why this taboo is indeed present in our society.

But that doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it right for me to sit quietly, enjoying my tenured professorship, while this is happening.

I say it again: The student’s e-mail expressed an openness to a possibility that has to be understood as a scientifically plausible possibility. Whatever one might suspect about any other beliefs the author might have, that is a highly unreliable suspicion (given that the e-mail is just a portion of a broader conversation, to the rest of which we were not privy), and one that cannot properly form the basis of the sort of public condemnation that the e-mail has received.

And whenever our society labels as taboo an openness to scientific possibilities, even possibilities that are undoubtedly fraught with possible bad consequences — whenever important institutions in our society publicly condemn people for their openness to such possibilities, against a background of possible career retaliation — our society makes itself less free, and makes its science less reliable.