Labour's soppy love for America

The British government enthuses over US institutions and policies just when it is becoming clear tha

I fear that Ed Balls - or whichever buffoon it was who decided to outsource the £156m contract to mark the Sats of British schoolchildren to a New Jersey-based company called Educational Testing Service (ETS) - does not read the NS. If he (or whoever was responsible) did, they would know that the whole system of Sats that Britain copied from the US in 1991 is an increasingly discredited shambles here; and that ETS, which marks US SATs and had a turnover of $1.1bn last year, leaves teachers, schoolchildren and parents shrugging their shoulders in despair. Nobody should be remotely surprised, therefore, that the exam results of 1.2 million UK schoolchildren are in turmoil this summer.

What is so symbolic about awarding such an important task in British education to a US company, though, is the degree to which new Labour is bewitched by all things American. Whether it is Jack Straw's obsession with introducing a British "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities" based on America's 1791 Bill of Rights, the British government's willingness to allow US defence companies to fund the Queen's garden party in Washington, or the new-found enthus iasm to introduce US-style electoral primaries and caucuses in the UK, all these would-be initiatives share one glaring factor in common: British ministers become enthused by them just as it is becoming clear to anybody who lives on this side of the Atlantic that the institutions or policies are failing in the US.

But the rapid Americanisation of Britain, nonetheless, proceeds apace. There are trivial as well as deadly serious examples: just as Starbucks became all the rage in Britain, so Starbucks in the US has announced that it is being forced to close 616 of its stores.

First, though, the ETS fiasco. Few Brits (including the likes of Ed Balls?) are aware that nearly all institutionalised school tests in America, right up to college and beyond, consist of multiple-choice questions scanned and graded largely by computers. In Britain, Edexcel and other boards used human beings until this summer to mark the exam papers of schoolchildren. "When ETS took over the marking this year," the Times reported with more insight than it perhaps realised, "it embraced new technology, using online training and verification for markers and for recording results."

Exactly. ETS may have impressed British government naïfs with slick PowerPoint present ations, but the results have been all-too predictable. In the reality of the classroom, sweat from the hands of nervous children often leaves pages stuck together - meaning that at least one page easily passes by unnoticed by the computers. Pencil marks filling in the circles dilute and run and the scanners are unable to detect them properly. No wonder that no fewer than 58 children at one school in Essex were awarded with an A, for "absent", for their efforts.

If only I had known that ETS, described by Ned Johnson and Emily Warner Eskelsen in their book Conquering the SAT as "a quite profit able non-profit organisation", was going to be al lowed to run amok with the futures of British schoolchildren, I would have been happy to tell Balls of my first personal experience with it. A 14-year-old boy I know took his very first SAT in "Biology M", which meant biology with a section devoted to molecular subject matter. He re ceiv ed a disappointingly low grade and his parents paid $25 to have the paper "hand-checked", ie examined by a human. The checker quick ly saw that the computer had mistakenly marked the SAT as "Biology E" - which had an ecological rather than a molecular section - and had therefore completely ignored the molecular part.

The result? The exam was re-marked and a 14-year-old boy's grade shot up, along with his morale. This is emblematic of how the reputation of the SAT (it once stood for "Scholastic Aptitude Test" and then "Scholastic Assessment Test", but is now officially known only by its acronym) is going downhill fast. A recent study of 78,000 students in California showed SAT results correlate more closely to parental income than to later academic achievement; Wake Forest and Smith College are the latest to dump SATs altogether from application requirements.

Cultural domination

So why is 21st-century Britain spellbound by American practices, however disastrous, in a way it never has been before? The US culturally imperialised Britain via its entertainment industry long ago, and the pace has picked up so much recently that it no longer raises eyebrows to hear a BBC cricket commentator (of all people!) refer to a question as "coming out of left field" or cabinet ministers repeatedly insisting that people "must now step up to the plate". Few, I suspect, have any more clue about what the words actually mean than Balls's predecessor David Blunkett did, when he referred to "three strikes and you're out". Such expressions have direct relevance to the American way of life, but none whatsoever to Britain - yet, by some widespread instinctive osmosis, they are now being adopted daily as perfectly normal British vocabulary.

But that kind of cultural domination, I fear, has now given way to something altogether more insidious. Underlying it all is a failure to realise that the US and the UK are two very foreign countries, with entirely different histories, needs and political imperatives. There are excellent reasons why America has many of its traditions and institutions, and likewise Britain; but by becoming a mere imitative culture, Britain is inflicting ever more damage on itself.

I could barely believe the naivety of a British embassy press release here announcing a lecture by Jack Straw, for example, that trumpeted: "The United States Bill of Rights is an iconic statement of freedom. It is a powerful symbol of what the United States stands for, and a means of uniting all Americans."

In fact, Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hurriedly cobbled together the US Bill of Rights - in reality, the first ten amendments to the constitution - to bring dangerously feuding federalists and anti-federalists together and thus save the very constitution (which had been drawn up only two years before) itself. Hamilton, later a slave-owning president, showed a perspicacity that is badly needed today: "The several Bills of Rights in Great Britain form its constitution," he wrote. He knew better than anybody that much of the newly written US Constitution and Bill of Rights was, in fact, based on the 1215 Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights 1689, and other English common law.

Straw's subsequent lecture here, perpetuating the British obsequiousness, was duly confused and confusing. Besides the comic self-abasement visiting Britons feel they must dutifully serve up to Americans ("I have to dress up [as Lord Chancellor] in dress coat, frilly lace . . . breeches, shoes with buckles on them, very shiny shoes, and tights") - you would never hear that kind of self-mockery the other way round - his lecture could be summed up in seven words. He quoted FDR saying that the US constitutional system "has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced", and then added: "and our aim is to emulate that".

Enough said. It is precisely because the US has a written constitution, drawn up because it was necessary then for a brand-new country, that it has since found itself in so much domestic trouble over its interpretations. Nine politically appointed judges comprising the US Supreme Court, which Straw admires so deeply, deliberate endlessly over whether executions are "cruel and unusual punishments", for example, or what comprises a free press. "Who can give any definition which would not leave the utmost latitude for evasion?" the ever-perspicacious Hamilton argued at the time.

In the words of Paul Johnson in A History of the American People, "it may be that enacting individual rights formally has proved, especially in the 20th century, a great er source of discord than of reassurance". But the likes of Jack Straw, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - ignorant of the real America but besotted by its image - know best. After all, doesn't Gordon Brown know America intimately from the perspective of his glorious summers in Cape Cod?

Even the Queen's cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea at her embassy garden tea party here last year were underwritten by a consortium including American companies ranging from Raytheon (the world's leading producer of guided missiles, based in Massachusetts) to Electronic Data Systems (aka EDS, the $14bn Texas-based company started by Ross Perot and which the British government has employed with in fin itely more disastrous consequences than ETS has so far inflicted - its computer systems were involved in the tax credits fiasco). I wonder what Her Majesty, when she reads this, will think of her very own garden parties being subsidised by such American largesse?

Straw was visiting DC when the Democratic primaries were at their busiest, and I heard much predictable talk at the British embassy of how the UK should now introduce primaries, too. Yet politically enthralling though the Obama-Clinton tussle may have been, the 2008 campaign demonstrated how chaotic, hokey, illogical and in need of reform the US system of primaries and caucuses actually is (the cue, in other words, for British ministers to want to introduce them).

Yet Straw told his DC audience that "we can learn a great deal from . . . your enviable notion of civic duty". When I asked him what he meant by this, he referred to Americans helping their neighbours and the "obligation" they felt "to take part in the democratic system". Eh? "I've not lived in the United States . . . but at Massachusetts town hall meetings and places like that, [there is] a really greater sense of control and ownership of what happens in localities in the United States . . . than in the United Kingdom."

Tosh, Jack, tosh. The fact that you have not lived in the US is a giveaway that you, too, are besotted with America's image rather than its reality. Straw quickly shut me up when I pointed out that voter turnout is much higher in Europe than here; in Britain it averaged 76 per cent between 1960 and 1995. In the 2004 US presidential elections voter turnout was 59 per cent, and plunged to 29.7 per cent in the 2006 midterms; maybe as many as a third of all Americans do not even bother to register to vote at all. Perhaps Straw, Brown and Balls will nonetheless now call in ETS or EDS to count the votes at Britain's next general election?

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

King's 1999 mugshot

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other woman in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming like males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class