Don’t let the superbugs bite

But don't despair - we might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

Evolution continues to be a bitch. Recently scientists gathered in Kensington, London, to have a good moan and to plan what can be done about it. “Superbugs and Superdrugs” is a great title for a meeting. Unfortunately the bugs seem to be more super than the drugs.

While that meeting went on, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning that we are entering a “nightmare” era. The CDC’s problem is a killer bacterium known as CRE, which is spreading in the US. Some strains of CRE are not only resistant to all antibiotics; they are also passing on that resistance to other bacteria, creating drug-resistant strains of E coli, for instance. On 11 March, Sally Davies, the UK government’s chief medical officer, asked the government to add the superbug problem to its “strategic risk register”, which highlights potentially catastrophic threats to the UK.

For a while, it all looked so good. When scientists discovered penicillin, then ever more weapons for our antibiotic arsenal, it seemed that bacteria had been defeated. The problem is, they fought back.

For all the worry over CRE, perhaps nowhere is this antibiotic resistance more evident than with tuberculosis. In the west, we won the war on TB so convincingly that receiving the BCG vaccine against it – once a waymark in British childhood – is no longer routine. Only in certain inner-city communities where migrant populations increase the likelihood of encountering the TB bacterium are children routinely immunised. However, in 2011, the World Health Organisation marked London out as the city with the highest TB infection rate in western Europe.

Many resistant bacteria originate in hospitals, where pharmaceutical regimes kill off the normal strains, making space in which bacteria that are naturally resistant can proliferate. Yet you can’t always blame the drugs. Research published at the end of February shows that drug resistance can arise even when the bacteria have never encountered a chemical meant to kill them.

In the study, E coli bacteria were made to suffer by exposing them to heat and restricting the nutrients in their environment. According to conventional wisdom, this should have kept proliferation in check – but it caused a spontaneous mutation that made the E coli resistant to rifampicin, one of the weapons in our antibiotic arsenal. What is worse is the observation that there was good reason for this mutation to arise: it made the stressful conditions more survivable. Bacteria with the mutation grew much faster.

Bacteria are survivors – if they can’t magic up a spontaneous mutation, they’ll pick one up in the street. A sampling of puddles in New Delhi showed that almost a third contain the genetic material that allows bacteria to produce an enzyme that destroys a swath of antibiotics. The NDM-1 gene is particularly evil. Its tricks include forcing itself into gut bacteria such as E coli that are incorporated into faeces; as a result, the resistant strains travel between hosts with ease.

Many infections involving a bacterium carrying NDM-1 are untreatable. GlaxoSmithKline is reportedly developing a drug to deal with it but it is years behind the curve. In the autumn, an EU project to mine the seabed for so far undiscovered antibiotics will start up, but it will take years for that, too, to bear fruit.

Let’s end on a positive note. Superbugs might be evolving in fiendish ways but they’re doing it blind and they’re up against evolution’s greatest invention – the human brain. We might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

The EHEC bacteria. Image: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

Roosh V via YouTube
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Men's rights activist Roosh V isn't just a sexist: he hates the modern world

Roosh and his community have seen that cultural change is chipping away at their privilege, and they're having none of it. 

When an activist known as Roosh V organised 165 “meet-ups” for like-minded men in 43 countries for this Saturday, the backlash was instantaneous. Signatures on petitions to keep Roosh away (even from countries where he wasn't planning to visit) stretched into the thousands. Police in many of the cities where meet-ups were planned said they would be keeping an eye on the events. Counter-protests were organised. And so today, Roosh announced that the meetings would be cancelled, since he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend”.

Roosh V is a prominent member of the section of the internet known as the "manosphere": he runs popular websites including Return of Kings and his own blog, and began his career by writing guide books about how to pick up women in countries from Poland (“What to do when a Polish guy inevitably tries to cockblock you”) to Colombia (including “an explanation into the Colombian prepago female (gold digger)").

Yet as demonstrated in a recent Reggie Yates documentary programme about men's rights activists, 36-year-old Roosh seems a lot more interested in his own theories about society than in handing out pick-up tips. "This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory," Yates notes at one point. 

Roosh actually distanced himself from the Men's Rights community, or MRAs (though he arguably does fight for what he sees as men's rights) in 2009, when he argued that the group was filled with men incapable of taking action or improving their "game" with women. He would be more likely to self describe as a pick-up artist, or PUA, though his writing usually focusses on issues beyond simply "how to pick up women". 

While Roosh's views are objectionable and off-the-wall, they’re also subscribed to in full or in part by what may be millions of men around the world. So what does he believe? And how did this alternate worldview develop in the mind of a well-travelled, university-educated American son of immigrants?

Roosh isn't “pro-rape”, but he thinks rape is the fault of its victims

Many headlines this week called the proposed meetings "pro-rape", with evidence taken from a single post entitled “How to Stop Rape” which Roosh wrote in February 2015 (and which he recently claimed was satire). In it, he writes that since “women are not getting raped by violent offenders . . . they are getting raped by men they already know”, then rape (or as Roosh medievally puts it, “violent taking of a woman”) on private property should be made legal. This would, he argues, force women to “take responsibility” for their conduct on dates or while alone with men.

This appeals to a popular trope within the manosphere: that men will be "falsely" accused of rape under progressive rape laws that dictate that drunk women can't give consent, or accused by women who later regret the sexual encounter. The community is particularly aerated about Califiornia’s Yes Means Yes law, which rules that silence or lack of resistence doesn’t mean someone has consented (though consent can still be non-verbal).

Roosh's bizarre “legalise rape” argument is an apt symbol of his general appraoch: it’s a kind of devil’s advocacy, mixed with a form of upside-down rationality. He takes a common complaint among men’s groups and pushes it to an extreme conclusion, to the delight of his fans.

It’s also worth noting that some of Roosh’s pick-up tactics and advice could be seen to encourage rape – it’s probably fairer to call him “pro-rape” on these grounds, rather than his blogpost. In another trope common to the MRA community, he believes women say no in order to play “hard to get”, and that any self-respecting pick-up artist would override "no" up to a certain point. In a two-hour Skype interview with feminist artist Angela Washko, he argues:

“If a girl says no, that's no. But if she's still there and she allows you to touch her again and kiss her again that's not rape. That is not.”

In "When no means yes", a post from 2010, he gives the following "tip": "‘No’ when you try to take off her panties means . . . ‘Don’t give up now!’”

He knows his audience

In some of his writing, or while speaking to certain interviewers, Roosh can seem almost harmless – misguided, yes, but intellectually engaged and cautious about offending. 

In his interview with Washko, the pair manage to agree on the idea that it’s in the economic interests of the world’s richest to force all women to both work and have families, as wages can be lower: “The more people you force into the workforce, the cheaper labor is.”

The fact that women should have the choice to raise children instead of having a career is something both can agree on. 

But elsewhere, Roosh's concerned citizen mask slips. Earlier this week, he told members of his website forum to pool the details of journalists who write mean things about him with the ominous phrase: "We're going after the root of the problem". Elsewhere, he has said he won’t be interviewed by female journalists unless they give him a blowjob, and has stated that, “my default opinion of any girl I meet is worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise”.

This dual personality is something he shares with the comedian Dapper Laughs, who appeared on Newsnight to apologise for his rape joke-heavy comedy and explain that he was satiring men’s sexism, but now tells audiences that at the time he wanted to tell interviewer Emily Maitlis to “get your f***ing gash out!”  

He’s a savvy businessman

Which raises the question: how much of Roosh’s bluster is an act? Roosh must have learned by now that his more incendiary statements earn him attention, and even money through traffic to his sites. Dapper Laughs knows he needs to undercut his earnest, turtlenecked performance on Newsnight to keep earning as a comedian. 

Roosh told Reggie Yates he receives around a million combined hits to his websites every month, but this month, the figure must be far higher. A Vice journalist has pointed out that Roosh boasts about his online metrics on Twitter, and seems to be in competition with fellow controversy-chaser Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Which brings us to another question: did Roosh ever think the meet-ups would go ahead? Was he in fact expecting a media backlash, which would then allow him to show his followers that they are victimised and under attack, just as he's told them?

The whole thing does seem built as a vehicle for media attention: the covert meetings complete with a special code ("Do you know where I can find a pet shop?") which somehow found its way into every mainstream media story about the meetings – including, of course, this one.

Roosh advertised them on public sites, despite the fact that he probably could have contacted many supporters through more private forms of social media and regularly keeps the locations of his own talks a secret. His attempt to smear journalists is playing out in a private forum – strange that he couldn't use similar channels to arrange Saturday's meetings. 

He thinks the Western world is on the verge of a “cultural collapse”

Roosh claims that his science background taught him how, as he tells Washko, “to know what is a lie . . . when someone is full of shit I can tell because they’re just using what? Emotion.”

Travelling, meanwhile, has exposed him "to different ideas, belief systems than other people – I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate”.

This, in turn, prompts this surreal exchange:

Image: Angela Washko.

This defence – of science and worldliness, in the face of closed-minded emotion on the part of feminists – is important to Roosh precisely because his worldview actually seems to rely on an emotional, kneejerk hatred of change. 

Beyond the more typical MRA beliefs, Roosh has a comprehensive argument for how feminism and other liberal, progressive attitudes are about to ruin the modern world. In a document titled “Cultural collapse theory” he outlines a world where women earn “25 per cent more than women on average”, children are taught to “respect all religions but that of their ancestors”, and the reproductive rate falls because women have careers.

Here is the progression of a “cultural collapse”:

This, of course, is a dressed-up version of the familiar dystopia imagined by those who think liberal ideas and cultural change are driving us to disaster. In this context, Roosh’s ideas about women begin to look more like a refusal to get on board with the modern world: the way he sees women would have been very familiar a few centuries ago.

His hatred also extends to other social groups who have recently gained privilege, including transgender people (“If you are genetically a man, but you all of a sudden have this need to dress up like a girl . . . you should seek help"), gay people ("they're trying to encroach on what normal humanity is”), and stay-at-home fathers (“I mean if you ever see me pushing a stroller or changing a diaper, something is wrong. I must be on drugs"). 

The best proof of Roosh’s affection for the past is his opinion on where it all went wrong: I’m pretty sure giving women the right to vote was the start.”

In one particularly pathetic plea during his interview with Washko, he cries “You can’t even have sexy babes in games anymore!” 

…so any kind of cultural change is bad

When speaking to a group of London men in Reggie Yates’ documentary, Roosh emphasises the idea that "women and gays are seen as superior to straight men", and that straight men are, effectively, an oppressed group. “Men are not allowed to speak the views that I am speaking,” he tells his rapt audience. The cancelled meetings, it seems, function as proof of this. 

Yates may think Roosh is touting a conspiracy theory, but at heart, it may be simpler than that. Roosh’s pseudo-intellectualism can be boiled down to a single point: the modern world is chipping away at his privilege, and he – and his followers – don’t like it at all. Roosh is furious that, in his eyes, the media is “encouraging” children to be gay, asking Washko: “Why is the media all of a sudden in the business of shaping the sexuality of human beings?”

As Washko writes in her transcript, she resists the urge to reply: “But it always has been!” The difference now is that the narrative (if it exists, which I’d argue it doesn’t particularly) just doesn’t favour Roosh’s demographic anymore. As one of Roosh’s fans tells Yates, “We’re losing ground.”

While equality isn’t a zero-sum game, true cultural and political change will require privileged groups to lose some ground – to give up some of that privilege. Behind the long words and cultural theory, Roosh and his followers are the men simply refusing to do so.  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.