He realized it was serious as soon as the hate mail started coming in. Before that, neither Matthew Katzman nor his friends thought that what they did was such a big deal. But suddenly he began to receive insults in his mailbox, on WhatsApp and on social networks. Every few minutes a new shipment arrived.
“DAMNED UGLY NOSE, SUICIDE”.
“You shouldn’t be so stupid as to stay in the village.”
“Twitter has to do its job and find out where it’s hiding.”
As he walked home, his phone vibrated with threatening notifications. And I was afraid.
Those were the first days of last June. Unbeknownst to him and against his will, Matthew was recruited for a new modern phenomenon: the culture war. The day these hate speeches ended began with an avalanche in the media. From The Times and The Telegraph to the tabloids The Sun and The Daily Mail, newspapers have claimed that an American student “cancelled the queen” for provoking a wake-up (sort of “progressive”) mob at Oxford University’s Magdalen College. ban photos of Elizabeth II in the common room. Matthew’s name appeared on the covers, and personal photos taken from his social media pages graced the inside pages. Later the baton was picked up by the British government. Then-Secretary of Education Gavin Williamson called the move “simply absurd” and Jacob Rees-Mogg called Katzman in the House of Commons a “pimply-faced teenager”. It doesn’t matter that the American was not a teenager, but a 25-year-old man. Even the Prime Minister joined the campaign.
As for the culture wars, this one had it all: the ancient university, the twenties denouncing the monarchy, the suggestion that British history was anything but a glorious spectacle. No wonder some of the highest paid names in British journalism are lining up to give a better kick to a computer science student 3,000 miles from home. Everyone from Rod Liddle to Jenny Murray agreed that if this Yank didn’t like the way things were, he should go back where he came from. The unpaid writers of these hate messages kept pushing the issue: “We don’t want your toxic personality or your politics of harassment to be here.”
TV presenter Piers Morgan pleaded with Joe Biden to “throw this brat out somewhere in the Atlantic.” Dan Wootton thundered: “Can this agitator be so disrespectful to his country?” The Daily Mail commentator also disliked Katzman’s PhD in “complexity theory”, which is actually a branch of mathematics, but whatever. For reference, Wootton was born in New Zealand where he studied media and politics. And Morgan often emphasizes how much he values freedom of speech and the opinions of others.
what the student says
For commentators and politicians, it was all just lucrative entertainment. But this story was largely fiction, and the implications for Katzman were enormous. Other than a brief interview with The Daily Telegraph at the start of the controversy and a statement usually buried towards the end of articles, nothing was known about the student who came into the spotlight until he agreed to speak to me. His account of the events of the past summer should be read by anyone who cares about UK political and media culture.
To begin with, this was not a portrait of the Queen, but a cheap copy of a photograph that had hung several years ago. Also, Magdalen College hasn’t banned all depictions of members of the royal family – there’s still plenty to see at the college. This fact was noted at the time, but was often ignored for convenience. Katzman did not even stand, contrary to what The Times wrote, “for leaving.” Most of the central moments of the story have been distorted to the point of no return.
Carefree and reserved, Katzman does not fit in with what the Mail describes as a “boastful student”. He loves strategy board games and has a puppy named Rusty. And before his infamy, he was president of the college’s graduate common room (MCR), which handles student kitchens and their waste. Before last year’s meeting, Katzman received a proposal from the subcommittee to remove the photo of the Queen. Katzman reformulated the sentence, downplaying his accusation of colonialism. Instead, he wrote that such associations made some students uncomfortable. His name was added as a formality, but during a sparsely attended meeting, he did not speak out in favor of the proposal or support it. Seventeen students voted, only two voted against. The rest of the evening was spent discussing, among other things, garden furniture and a farewell gift to the university librarian.
In the interest of making people feel welcome in their own common room, more or less fine print has been removed from the modest-sized room inside the building, which is not accessible to the general public. No one was harmed.
But the fact itself didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the story that was being told around him.
In all of 2018, according to a study published in May by King’s College London, the phrase “cancel culture” appeared in just six newspaper articles published in the UK. Last year, the term appeared in 3,670 articles. For news organizations that depend on web traffic for their revenue, this has become a lifeline: a way to grab the public’s indiscriminate attention and generate ad-driven clicks. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday account for nearly one in four uses. The students attending this meeting didn’t think anyone was being canceled because it wasn’t. But neither press professionals nor the government were going to miss out on such a gift.
When he saw these front pages, Katzman immediately reacted with disbelief: “This must be the most trivial piece of news ever written.” But then he saw the pictures and read the details about his family. He began to get very nervous. He became a weekly target of short-lived right-wing hatred. This young man, who does not identify as awake or radical, and for whom “marching” means playing the trumpet in an orchestra, has become the center of national bile.
And so it was, messages of hate began to reach him. Many of them were aggressive, some were openly racist: “A Jewish Bolshevik. Fucking communist. Concerned about their physical safety, Magdalene moved him and his girlfriend to one of their rooms, from which they did not leave for five days. Five days, during which Katzman hardly slept, did not eat, and did not stop worrying. Soon after, he returned with his family and friends to the United States.
That autumn he returned to Oxford, but could not stay. The place was reminiscent of the chase, and strangers treated it like a celebrity or a monster. He now lives in the United States and is working on his PhD there. He did not abolish the queen, but the British right did abolish him.
It is often said that the challenge for progressive British politicians and activists is to play the media game of eating a smarter bacon sandwich, throwing off your donkey jacket, acting smart and wearing a shirt and tie. But the moral of Katzman’s story is that you can be innocent, but if the right wants to find the culprit, they will. A computer genius at a top university: isn’t he the perfect target? A high-level student who cares for others in the midst of the trauma of imprisonment. None of this matters in your favor if the press doesn’t support you.
Katzman still thinks about what happened almost daily, and it fills him with rage. The dishonesty with which it was presented by the British press and ministers; their lack of interest in finding out what really happened. All this talk of English fair play had come to nothing, and all these venerable institutions had failed him.
“The journalists and politicians who trashed me did it for their own purposes: to get headlines or to get money,” he says. “Well, congratulations! Because they all won. They didn’t care how it affected me.”
Translated by Julian Knochert.
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