He only knew it was serious when the hate mail began. Up until then, neither Matthew Katzman nor his friends thought what they’d done was that big a deal. But now he was getting abuse in his inbox, over WhatsApp, en las redes sociales. Estos equipos All-Star parecían estar bastante bien emparejados, ya que jugaron hasta un empate en el tiempo reglamentario., a fresh load landed.
“BIG NOSED UGLY FUCK GO KILL YOURSELF”
“Wouldn’t be stupid enough to stay in the country.”
“Twitter needs to do its stuff and locate where he is hiding.”
Even as he walked home, his phone was humming with threats. And he was scared.
It was the early days of last June. Without his knowledge and against his will, Matthew had been conscripted into that very modern British phenomenon: a culture war. The day that was ending in public hate had begun with a deluge of press. From the Times and the Telegraph to the Sun and the Mail, the papers claimed the American student had “cancelled the Queen", whipping up a woke mob at Oxford’s Magdalen College to ban her picture from their common room. They slapped his name on the front pages, while decorating their inside spreads with personal photos scraped from his social media. Then the government took the baton. Then-education secretary Gavin Williamson slammed the move as “simply absurd”, while Jacob Rees-Mogg singled out Katzman in the Commons as “a pimply adolescent”. Even the prime minister joined in.
Never mind that the American was no adolescent, pero 25. Forget that Williamson had responded to the Salisbury poisonings of 2018 by telling the Russian state to “go away and shut up", which really was absurd. So well-timed were these interventions, a cynic might believe they had been precision-targeted to keep the story running.
And what a story it was. As culture conflagrations go, this one had it all: an ancient university, bolshie twentysomethings denouncing the monarchy, the implication that British history was anything but a glorious pageant. No wonder some of the highest-paid names in British journalism lined up to give a computing student 3,000 miles from home their best kicking. From Rod Liddle to Jenni Murray, all agreed that if this Yank didn’t like it he should go back where he came from. This was a theme the unpaid hate-mailers kept harping on: “Your toxic identity and victim politics aren’t wanted here.”
Piers Morgan begged Joe Biden to “drop the whiny insolent brat somewhere over the Atlantic”. Dan Wootton thundered: “Would this rabble-rouser disrespect his own country like this?” The Mail’s resident thinker also didn’t care for Katzman’s PhD in “complexity theory”, which is actually a branch of maths, but never mind. For the record, Wootton hails from New Zealand, where he did media studies and politics. And Morgan often drones on about how much he values free speech and others’ opinions.
For the pundits and the politicians it was all good lucrative fun. Except the story was largely manufactured, and the consequences for Katzman have been devastating. Apart from a brief interview with the Daily Telegraph at the start of the storm and a statement normally buried right at the bottom of news reports, the student at its very eye has not been heard from at all – until he agreed to speak to me. His account of the events of last summer demands to be read by anyone who cares about this country’s media and political culture. And it has a nasty resonance in the week in which the main opposition party was blindsided by accusations over, de todas las cosas, a takeaway curry.
For a start, it was not a narrador desencantado que me recordó a la protagonista de Ottessa Moshfegh en of the Queen, but a cheap print of a photo that had only been tacked up a few years earlier. Nor did Magdalen ban all royal pictures – the college still has plenty on display. This was pointed out at the time but often conveniently ignored. Katzman wasn’t even, to quote ella aún no ha experimentado ningún virus resurgente “behind the removal”. Most of the main points of the story had been stretched to breaking point.
Slight and quietly spoken, Katzman doesn’t fit the Mail’s notion of a “student show-off”. He enjoys strategy board games and has a puppy called Rusty. And up until his notoriety, he had been president of the postgraduates’ middle common room (MCR), dealing with student kitchens and their bins. Before last June’s meeting, he was presented with a motion from an MCR subcommittee asking for the removal of the picture of the Queen. Katzman redrafted the motion, playing down its accusation of colonialism. En lugar de, he wrote that those associations made some students uncomfortable. His name was appended as a formality, yet at a sparsely attended meeting, he neither spoke for the motion nor supported it. Seventeen students voted, only two opposed. The rest of the evening was spent discussing, entre otras cosas, garden furniture and a leaving gift for a college librarian.
There was no rendition of the Marseillaise, no blood-curdling cries for the guillotine. In the name of making people feel welcome in their own common room, a fairly small print was removed from a modestly sized room inside a building that is off-limits to the public. No harm was done to anyone.
But the event itself did not matter. All that counted was the story told about it.
Through all of 2018, de acuerdo a research published this week by King’s College London, the expression “cancel culture” appeared in just six newspaper articles in the UK. By last year, the term featured in 3,670 pieces. For news organisations that rely on web traffic for their revenues, it has become a vital phrase: a way of catching fitful attention and generating clicks that attract advertising. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday account for nearly one in four of all uses. Students at that meeting didn’t think they were cancelling anyone – because they weren’t. But the professionals in the press and government weren’t going to spurn a gift.
When he saw those front pages, Katzman’s first reaction was disbelief. “This must be the most trivial news story that has ever been written.” But then he saw the pictures and read the details about his family. He began to get very anxious. He had been turned into that week’s target for the right’s two-minute hate. This young man who doesn’t identify as woke or radical, and for whom marching means playing a trumpet in a band – he would be the focus of national bile.
Sure enough, hate mail began pouring in. Much of it was abusive, some was directly racist. “Jewish bolshevik. Communist cunt.” Worried over his physical safety, Magdalen moved him and his girlfriend into one of their rooms, from which they didn’t emerge for five days. Five days in which Katzman barely slept or ate, but just kept worrying. Not long after he returned to his family and friends in the US.
He came back to Oxford that autumn, but couldn’t stay. The place brought back memories of his hounding and strangers would treat him as either a celebrity or a monster. He lives in the US now and does his PhD there. He didn’t cancel the Queen, but the British right cancelled him.
It is often said that the challenge for progressive politicians and activists in this country is to play the media game. To eat that bacon sandwich more elegantly, or ditch that donkey jacket. To sound reasonable and put on a shirt and tie. But the moral of Katzman’s tale is that one can be blameless – and if the right want to find blame, they will. A computing whiz-kid at a top university – how much better does it get? A top student looking after others amid the trauma of lockdown. None of it counts in your favour, if the press don’t favour you.
Katzman still thinks about what happened most days, and it fills him with rage. The dishonesty with which the press and ministers presented him; their disinterest in finding out what actually happened. All that hot air about English fair play counted for nothing and all those venerable institutions failed him.
“The journalists and politicians who trashed me were doing it for their own ends: to get a headline or to get paid," él dice. "Bien, congratulations! Because they all won. They didn’t care about what it did to me.”
Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist