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10 August 2017

Mary Beard takes on Twitter, the vanishing Richard Burgon and my sympathy for the baby boomers

The classicist stays polite while being assailed by people with PhDs from the University of Extreme Self-Regard.

By Helen Lewis

You know those bracelets people get that remind them to be strong in times of strife? I want one that says “WWMBD”: “What would Mary Beard do?” The Classics professor manages to stay polite after being repeatedly assailed on Twitter by people who think that she should shut up about Roman Britain. After all, they have a PhD in arguing the toss from the University of Extreme Self-Regard.

Beard’s crime was to disagree with a YouTube star called Paul Joseph Watson – whose Twitter handle is @PrisonPlanet – who became extremely vexed about a BBC cartoon that showed a dark-skinned man in Roman Britain. “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” he tweeted.

From there, a vortex of dickishness swirled ever faster, despite a former teacher called Mike Stuchbery pointing out: “Roman Britain was ethnically diverse, almost by design.” For reasons best known to himself, the public intellectual (and avid weightlifter) Nassim Nicholas Taleb became involved, presenting the intellectual upgrade of Watson’s original argument. Beard was “talking bullshit”, he averred, in a stream of tweets that included the phrases “Kapish?” and “I get more academic citations per year than you got all your life!” A stream of trolls followed in his wake.

Two threads stand out here. First, the insistence that historical diversity is merely a liberal shibboleth, without any basis in fact. Second, the way that Beard’s expertise was denigrated and she became the focus of the ensuing anger, rather than the male historians making the same case. These are alt-right tactics in a nutshell: insist that you are the lone voice of truth, merely presenting facts that the liberal establishment can’t handle. If that doesn’t work, find the nearest woman and try to bully her into silence.

Stir crazy

Labour’s unexpected success in June might have washed away doubts about Jeremy Corbyn’s electability, but other criticisms of the party are not so easily countered. For example, what the hell is Richard Burgon up to? You probably won’t recognise the name, because the shadow justice secretary is so inconspicuous that he might as well be in a witness protection scheme.

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Our prison system, which has been creaking for years, is close to breaking point. The former prisoner Eric Allison writes in the Guardian: “I have never seen the system in such a chaotic and dangerous state as it is now.” In July, the chief inspector of prisons found that not a single young offenders’ institution was safe to house children. There have been riots at four prisons in the past year and a half. Chris Grayling stuffed the probation service up so comprehensively by carving off half of it to give to private companies that no one seems to know how to fix it.

And yet, at the time of writing, the latest tweet from Labour’s leading spokesman on prisons is this bit of partisan poking: “Spirit of unity: @PeoplesMomentum activists giving up spare time in GE2017 to help candidates previously abusive to them and Labour leader.” It’s August now, Richard. The election is over. There’s work to do.

Mythological parents

A prominent Remain-supporting politician once suggested there was a strange quirk in the demographics of the EU referendum vote. He claimed that although the over-65s leaned heavily towards Brexit, the oldest in that age group were less polarised. He wondered if it might be because they remembered the horrors of the Second World War.

I thought about that when I watched Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk, which shows the casual, random nature of death in wartime and the complicated feelings of guilt and fear that it creates. But the film also left me with more sympathy for a group I have often criticised: the baby boomers.

The boomers are a strange cohort. They have experienced big gains in life expectancy; many have built up generous pensions; many have benefited from an increase in unearned wealth by acquiring a house before prices spiked. Yet they can be a bit… angry. Recent research by YouGov found that among Leave voters over 65, 71 per cent thought that “significant damage” to the British economy was a “price worth paying” to leave the EU. In the same group, 50 per cent said they would back Brexit even if it meant that they or members of their family would lose their jobs. (Of course, the majority of them don’t have jobs to lose.)

But watching Dunkirk made me think how hard it must have been to grow up with your parents’ generation so endlessly lionised. This wasn’t a war that people were ashamed to talk about once it ended; instead it became our national myth. We’re the good guys who beat the Nazis! To grow up as the child of heroes must be tough.

Speeding violations

Being beaten in his last solo 100-metre race was a sad end to Usain Bolt’s career. But what surprised me was the reason for the second drugs ban given to the man who beat him, Justin Gatlin (the first was for ADHD medication). Gatlin was suspended from competition after – he says – a physical therapist used a testosterone cream on his legs without his knowledge.

Testosterone is acknowledged to be such a potent performance-enhancing drug that its medicinal use is forbidden. Meanwhile, women’s running is tied up in knots about athletes such as Caster Semenya, who has testosterone levels much higher than the average woman. As Michael Johnson put it: “I can’t think of a single solution for this. It’s not Caster Semenya’s fault… There are some challenges where there is no solution and I think this is one of them.”

Whatever, Wilby

I’ll spare you my thoughts on Ink, the play about Rupert Murdoch’s creation of the Sun, for one reason: at the theatre, I saw Peter Wilby sitting three rows in front of me. Given my glitzy, showbiz existence (subs: please check) and his life of quiet contemplation in sleepy Loughton, it’s not fair to steal subjects from him. He’s back next week. 

This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon