Rick Santorum's baby - a follow-up from Mehdi Hasan

Damian Thompson and others on the right are trying to demonise me for reporting a story that Santorum's baby died at childbirth.

The reaction to my recent blogpost, "10 things you didn't know about Rick Santorum...", has prompted me to write this follow-up. In my original post, I covered some of Santorum's outrageous views (he wants to bomb Iran and dismisses global warming as "junk science"), as well as semi-amusing bits of trivia: for example, he is friends with U2's Bono and he once defended the World Wrestling Federation in court.

I also included, without any supporting comment, criticism or rebuke:

8) When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, Santorum and his wife spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home where, joined by their other children, they prayed over it, cuddled with it and welcomed the baby into the family.

We live in an era of faux-outrage and Twitterstorms so, predictably, I've since been attacked by a coalition of indignant pundits and pontificators who couldn't be bothered to read what I actually wrote: from Telegraph columnists to left-wing bloggers to right-wing Republicans across the pond. The levels of outrage (outrage!) are on the rise. Anyone would think that (a) I had criticised Santorum for the way in which he handled his son's tragic death, or (b) that I was the first to introduce this story into the public domain (perhaps having rifled through his bins or having hacked into his personal email account). Neither inference is true.

For the record, Karen Santorum, Rick's wife, chronicled both the pregnancy and the wider US partial-birth abortion debate in her 1998 book, Letters to Gabriel: The True Story of Gabriel Michael Santorum. The book takes the form of letters Karen wrote to her unborn son, including the one where she writes:

When the partial-abortion vote comes to the floor of the U.S. Senate for the third time, your daddy needs to proclaim God's message for life with even more strength and devotion to the cause.

In May 2005, in a New York Times magazine profile of Santorum, entitled "The Believer", Michael Sokolove wrote:

What happened after the death is a kind of snapshot of a cultural divide. Some would find it discomforting, strange, even ghoulish -- others brave and deeply spiritual. Rick and Karen Santorum would not let the morgue take the corpse of their newborn; they slept that night in the hospital with their lifeless baby between them. The next day, they took him home. ''Your siblings could not have been more excited about you!" Karen writes in the book, which takes the form of letters to Gabriel, mostly while he is in utero.

In October 2005, in a Philadelphia City Paper profile of Santorum, headlined "The Path of the Righteous", Mike Newall wrote:

Gabriel Michael Santorum lived for only two hours. The Santorums spent the night in the hospital bed with their lifeless baby lying between them. The next morning they brought the palm-sized corpse to Karen's parent's house. They had their other children pose for pictures and cuddle with Gabriel. They sang lullabies and held a private mass.

On 2 January 2012, New York Times columnist, card-carrying conservative and Santorum sympathiser, David Brooks, wrote:

Santorum does not have a secular worldview. This is not just a matter of going to church and home-schooling his children. When his baby Gabriel died at childbirth, he and his wife, a neonatal nurse, spent the night in a hospital bed with the body and then took it home -- praying over it and welcoming it, with their other kids, into the family. This story tends to be deeply creepy to many secular people but inspiring to many of the more devout.

On 6 January 2012, ABC News published a long, online feature, on the health section of its website, headlined:

Experts: Rick Santorum Grief Is Typical, But Taking Body Home, Unusual

Yet, I'm now being pilloried and castigated for daring to mention this fact (and, that too, in passing!), which (1) has been in the public domain for more than a decade, (2) was introduced into the public domain by Santorum's wife in book form, (3) may have influenced Santorum's votes in the US Senate, and (4) has been discussed, time and again, not just in newspaper profiles of Santorum, but in recent articles by supportive, centre-right journalists (David Brooks) and neutral TV news organisations (ABC News). The whole thing is bizarre; a classic, manufactured, online controversy. As I said at the start, I went out of my way not to criticize Santorum for the way he behaved after this horrible personal tragedy in his life (despite, incidentally, others having done so); I just reported it. And I did so, you might note, in a blogpost called: "10 things you didn't know about Rick Santorum..." - not "10 bad/evil/crazy/right-wing things you didn't know about Rick Santorum"!

One last, semi-related point: oddball Telegraph blogger and columnist Damian Thompson used his piece in Saturday's paper to accuse me of "exploiting the death of [Santorum's] premature son, Gabriel, to score a political point" and of being "weird and sinister". The words pot, kettle and black come to mind. He deliberately mispresented my blogpost to score his own crude, political point against "Lefties". Oh, and it's a bit rich for Thompson, of all people, to accuse others of publishing "weird and sinister" blogposts.

How about this, from Thompson, entitled, "The Calais 'jungle' and the Islamic settlement of Britain":

How interesting that French police waited until the end of Ramadan before forcibly dismantling the Calais "jungle". That tells us something we really need to remember about a huge proportion of the illegal immigrants seeking to enter Britain: that they are pious Muslims.

Pious Muslims! Outrageous! How about this blogpost from Thompson, entitled:

Indulgence of Islam is harming society

(Btw, can you imagine a headline which read "Indulgence of Judaism is harming society" or "Indulgence of black people is harming society"?)

And in a blogpost on the supposed popularity of the BNP's odious views, Thompson wrote:

The Tories have not made immigration and Islam central to their policies. It's too early to do so, if they want to sanitise their image among middle-class voters. Also, they lack the insight or the courage to recognise that the two issues will soon be indivisible. The tragedy for this country is that it is now, not in ten years' time when our social fabric has been torn to pieces, that voters need a political party to do so.

On second thoughts, "weird and sinister" doesn't do justice to Thompson's persistent Islam-baiting.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds, but the figures in our report suggest otherwise.When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.