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Books of the year: politicians on their favourites of 2016

Politicians from both sides of the House share their picks of the year.

Alan Johnson

The book that I’ve most enjoyed this year is The Knives by Richard T Kelly (Faber & Faber). Its central character is an ambitious former army officer who rises through the ranks of Conservative MPs to become home secretary. I can testify to the remarkable ­accuracy of Kelly’s depiction of the job, but the thrilling adventures that this particular incumbent experiences are probably not what’s in store for Amber Rudd.

Although it’s not new, I read Olive Kitteridge (Simon & Schuster) by Elizabeth Strout this year and I doubt that I will ever read anything better. It’s about nothing very much but everything that matters.

 

George Osborne

I absolutely loved J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (William Collins). A painfully honest account of America’s white underclass by a brilliant young man who escapes his upbringing in Ohio and Kentucky for Yale and Silicon Valley, it’s a book that seeks to explain the anger in modern US politics and has echoes here. It’s not the last we have heard from these forgotten people, or this talented young man.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber) is a beautifully observed, suspenseful first novel that transports you to mid-18th-century New York. The city is at the frontier of the known world, but it’s also a small, claustrophobic society of Anglo-Dutch families, suspicious of a young man newly arrived from England with money in his pockets. It’s a gripping tale.

 

Tim Farron

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male (Orion) is one of the best books I have read this year. The main character is a fugitive fleeing the agents of a totalitarian foreign power whose leader he has unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate. The tension and excitement of the pursuit of the hero and his efforts to evade capture provide a persistent, gripping narrative. The story was written before the Second World War, and even though we might assume the foreign power is Nazi Germany, we don’t know that. In the novel, the foreign power is not at war with Britain, and so the British government cannot be associated with this assassination ­attempt, leaving the fugitive without any official support. Rogue Male is almost 80 years old; the writing style has a formality, innocence and enthusiasm about it that makes it an enthralling read.

 

Michael Howard

The novel I have enjoyed most this year is Mothering Sunday (Scribner) by Graham Swift. Erotic, emotional and very moving, it’s an enthralling tale of life, love and death in the aftermath of the First World War. I thought about it long after I had finished it. I also enjoyed Charmed Life (William Collins), the biography of one of my predecessors as MP for Folkestone and Hythe by my successor, Damian Collins. Sir Philip Sassoon was an extraordinary man whose life vividly illustrates how politics changed between 1939, when he died, and 1983, when I was elected.

 

Tom Watson

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross (Simon & Schuster) frightened and ­inspired me in equal measure. Ross is a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, and knows many of the big US tech companies: he is alive to the opportunities that automation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy will create but clear-eyed about the consequences of the new industrial revolution.

John Bew’s biography Citizen Clem (Riverrun) is a masterful portrait of a man who led the Labour Party for 20 years and arguably did more than any other UK politician to shape the postwar world. Clement Attlee assembled a team of rivals, many of whom had been fiercely critical of him in the past. Personal slights were forgotten in the interests of party unity. Attlee was a patriot who believed that tolerance was Britain’s gift to the world. Now more than ever, it is tolerance we need.

 

Rachel Reeves

I should declare an interest. Alan Bennett is from Armley in my Leeds constituency and I am a huge fan. His love for the city shows in Keeping On Keeping On (Profile Faber). In “Baffled at a Bookcase”, a celebration of the public library included in this volume, Bennett remembers his first visits to the library as a young boy in Armley: “the entrance up a flight of marble steps under open arches, through brass-railed swing doors panelled in stained glass . . . To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven.” This latest anthology of diaries and essays is a beautiful, humane and honest collection of reflections.

I picked up Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag (I B Tauris) to understand the ideology of Isis better. The most fascinating parts of the book describe the working of the Isis “state”: its welfare and education systems, taxation and other functions of government. The territory controlled by Isis has been reduced but Moubayed argues that it has built a durable structure and will be around for a long time to come. A chilling but informative read.

Books of the year: authors

Books of the year: the New Statesman team

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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White supremacists are embracing genetic testing – but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as “pure” as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."