Dear Zachary Kuehner: If you’re not a white supremacist, you sure fooled us

Image by Samir Basante Valencia

Note: See follow-up story here.

Dr. Zachary Kuehner, MD, writes, talks and behaves like modern white supremacists —all while wearing the doctor’s white coat to veneer his ideology in respectability. Zach has not apologized or retracted any of his positions or statements. When he faced consequences for them, instead he sued and went with the “it’s just a prank bro” defence.

A brief history

According to his Statement of Claim against the CBC and journalist Ryan Cooke, Zach’s woes began on June 2, 2020, when he posted a series of inflammatory messages downplaying the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns about systemic racism that was driving it, calling them “pity propaganda” and asserting that it’s based on a “false premise.” This was presumably done under the pretense of not being ‘sheeple’ or maybe to ‘own the libs’ or some similarly faux-enlightened shit. Though Zach was inflammatory, dismissive and degrading, he claims that readers “misunderstood and misconstrued the nature of [his] comments.” Nah bruh. We read you loud and clear.

From there, it was a short stop to his now-deleted Twitter page in which Zach “used the word ‘islamophobe’ [to describe himself] in his bio.” Opinion pieces he previously published were also unearthed (1, 2, 3) and seem like classic dog-whistle racism / white supremacy, complete with White Man’s Burden undertones. In one part, he unironically refers to Indigenous people travelling to Thunder Bay for “entertainment, school, prison, and aimlessness” as its “cross … to bear.”

Since Zach himself invited those who objected to “feel free to talk to Eastern Health, PGME [postgraduate medical education], faculty of medicine [and] whatever suits,” several organizations and a few courageous medical students did.

Medical students at Memorial University push back

Four medical students at Memorial University wrote a strong letter of complaint to the Faculty of Medicine. The letter cited Zach’s writings as examples of how he “interacts with the public in a disrespectful, belittling, and condescending manner.” These brave students and the three other students who supported their letter in writing made a “call to action for [the Undergraduate Medical Education and Postgraduate Medical Education offices] to address such abhorrent behaviour.”

It is heartening that our future doctors came together to push back against behaviour that is unprofessional and unbecoming, just like we advocate in ethics classes. Instead of immediately responding to disgusting behaviour by one of its resident physicians, medical school dean Dr. Margaret Steele elected to throw red tape at the problem, claiming that “the students did not file a proper complaint with their letter.”

I looked for Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine complaint process using common search terms a student might use. Even though the homepage highlights “Professionalism and mistreatment” in a block on the main page, I had to dig through two more pages to find a six page document with a link at the bottom to an eleven page document of jargon on policies and procedures.

This exact problem was noted in an 85-page 2018 report the school commissioned on intimidation, bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. The report highlighted the “lack of knowledge about what policies and resources exist” for complaints, as well as noting that “confidence in the organization is eroded when incidents are reported but no action is seen to be taken and the offensive behaviour does not change.” That report also found that bullying and harassment were frequent and tolerated at the school.

I could find no evidence that Dr. Margaret Steele or the medical school implemented the report’s findings that they must “develop mechanisms of ‘safe’ reporting that encourages people to come forward without fear of retribution” or that they tried to “develop mechanisms to detect recurrent patterns of behaviour by specific individuals over time, even when victims are unwilling to file a formal complaint that would trigger a formal investigation.”

After trying their best to ignore the issue, the medical school was finally forced to act after pressure from students, faculty and physicians.

Consequences make Zach feel butt-hurt

Zach has not commented publicly on the consequences of the complaints against him. However, looking at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Newfoundland and Labrador’s (CPSNL) records, and his statement of claim (SOC) against the CBC and Ryan Cooke gives us some hints.

According to the SOC, “MUN temporarily suspended [Zach] pending its investigation into his social media activity. […] As a result of this, [his] license to practice medicine was automatically suspended by the CPSNL.” The suspension “deferred his [Emergency] Fellowship training” and delayed his graduation from residency. This suspension was from June 10, 2020 until November 2, 2020.

According to the CPSNL, Zach was “counselled to comply with s. 32 and s. 33 of the CMA Code of Ethics and Professionalism.” He was also “counselled to participate in the academic remediation program which has been developed for him by the Memorial University Faculty of Medicine, Residential Training Committee.”

In case you wondered, s. 32 and s. 33 of the CMA Code of Ethics and Professionalism are to “engage in respectful communications in all media,” and “take responsibility for promoting civility, and confronting incivility, within and beyond the profession. Avoid impugning the reputation of colleagues for personal motives; however, report to the appropriate authority any unprofessional conduct by colleagues” respectively. I could find no report from the Residential Training Committee about Zach, though confidentiality is the standard for most training committees, so this is usual.

Instead of apologizing for his actions, Zach filed suit against the CBC and the journalist who covered the story, Ryan Cooke.

Plot-twist: supposedly pro-free expression asshole trying to silence journalistic free expression

People like Zach will often defend themselves by claiming the right to free expression, including the right to express bigoted, racist or discredited views. Often they present these ideas as ‘nuance’, ‘asking questions’, or ‘debating in the marketplace of ideas’. In fact, Zach previously donated to PEN Canada, an organization explicitly committed to free expression in the context of journalism and other writing.

So why is “I put my money where my mouth is” pro-free expression Zach suing the CBC and journalist Ryan Cooke for fact-based reporting on him?

What people like this usually mean when they talk about free expression is that they want the freedom to spout off their bullshit, while using any available tools to silence critics and evade consequences.

White supremacists still wear hoods

While we cannot know what’s inside Zach’s heart, his actions, writings and behaviour are classically islamophobic and white supremacist. He literally called himself an islamophobe. In one opinion piece, he called Islam a “racket.” He posted an inflammatory anti-Muslim cartoon saying that “Islam is dangerous and, as such, deserves our virulent disrespect,” though he added a few weasel words there so he could blame the reader for “misconstruing” his post if he were ever confronted on the subject.

Canadian Women in Medicine’s complaint commented on Zach’s impact on indigenous communities and communities of colour too, saying that he “has shown himself to be unsafe to provide health care to Muslim or Indigenous patients.”

If Zach accidentally and innocently veered into this territory, one would expect him to respond to the massive public backlash by human rights organizations and advocates by reflecting, publicly acknowledging and apologizing for his actions. He has not. In my opinion, the only conclusion I can draw is that Zach is a bigot, an islamophobe and a racist.

It is a testament to our work that most bigots feel they cannot directly espouse racist views. A lively anti-racist response creates a deterrent, especially in sectors where people’s lives are in play. However, even when white supremacy was at its peak, its members wore hoods because they were afraid of being linked to their ideas.

In modern times, the ‘hood’ is coded language and the “it’s just a prank bro” defence. They try to redefine white supremacy as a caricature so they can deny their views are racist, while accusing anti-racists of misunderstanding them. Take a look at John Oliver’s takedown of Tucker Carlson and you’ll see lots of themes common to the way Zach operates.

The problems of systemic racism in medicine and society are big. But what scares the bigots and racists out there is this one undeniable fact:

We are so much bigger.

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Tarek is an emergency physician at London Health Sciences Centre (Canada) and Shifa Hospital (Gaza). He is a member of the Glia team making open medical devices

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Tarek Loubani

Tarek Loubani

Tarek is an emergency physician at London Health Sciences Centre (Canada) and Shifa Hospital (Gaza). He is a member of the Glia team making open medical devices

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