Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why Meghan Markle is the princess to cheer up feminists

Prince Harry’s fiancée has had a successful career – and even stood up to Donald Trump.

When the news of the royal engagement was reported on 27 November, one headline was inevitable: “Successful actress Meghan Markle to wed former soldier”. It was on the site, whose editors had let Prince Harry off lightly. He might instead have been described as a “man living off state handouts”.

This joke is now standard whenever a successful woman marries a more famous man; it’s a subversion intended to go viral. But it still hints at a truth about the couple. As one royal commentator pompously put it, Markle “is an independent figure in society”. The 36-year-old has her own career (seven seasons in the American legal drama Suits), fame, fortune and even a “past” – otherwise known as an ex-husband.

A few fuddy-duddy stragglers stuck in 1957 still think that the prince should have opted for a duke’s daughter, someone who can hunt, shoot and fish, but I applaud this very modern royal marriage. In the official Clarence House statement, Markle’s title was “Ms”. There was no finishing school, and there’ll be no virginity test.

Trying to reform the Catholic Church has often been likened to “turning around an oil tanker”. The royal family used to be similarly resistant to change and seemed oblivious to its anachronisms; change could only come incrementally. But in the past decade, the royal tanker has proved nimble. William and Harry have hit refresh: talking about mental health, making the institution less stuffy, marrying for love. Even as a republican, I can see that the Firm is in better shape.

I watched the Charles and Diana engagement interview of 1981 after seeing Prince Harry and Markle talk to the BBC’s Mishal Husain. It is a study in contrasts. In the former, the interviewer says that Diana’s father had revealed that she would make a “very good housewife”. Diana is coy, bashful and charming, but Charles’s discomfort is evident throughout, even as he tries to deploy humour to mask it. At the end, asked if they are in love, Diana says, “Of course,” and Charles utters the infamous line: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.”

The story of their first meeting is equally revealing. “I remember thinking what a very jolly, amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was,” says Charles. Yes, they met when she was 16 and married four years later. Harry is marrying a woman aged 36, not a girl. In their BBC interview with Mishal Husain, the couple talked about humanitarian work, not housewifery. They were comfortable, laughing and in love.

As an actress, Markle is an adroit media performer – kissing babies and feigning gratitude for yet another bouquet will come easily to her. But she brings something novel to the royals: she has known relative struggle. She didn’t grow up in gangland Los Angeles – as some newspapers claimed in articles with racist undertones – but as an aspiring actress she was so poor that she couldn’t afford to fix her car doors. (Plus, the People reported in 2013 that she had to fend off the Twitter advances of the footballer and vomiting adulterer Ashley Cole.)

She and Harry are a team. A year ago, he issued an unprecedented statement in which he condemned the racism, sexism and harassment that she had endured from the press and social media. He recognises that it is his fiancée who will have to make sacrifices – her career, her country. This is still life in a gilded cage, stared at by those outside.

Harry has shown that he understands this. A previous girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, backed away from this intensely scrutinised life, reportedly because she saw the sacrifices that the Duchess of Cambridge had made. Being a full-time royal – amply rewarded though it is – is a dull job. Imagine having a thousand stilted conversations at every tedious official event. (Perhaps Prince Philip’s offensive comments were just him trying to zhuzh up the day.) Still, the “spare” gets to have more fun than the heir – not least with regards to his choice of partner.

The Duchess of Cambridge is safely dull; her major qualification for the job is that she is uncommonly good at smiling. She seems passive, defined first by her husband, now by her children. As Hilary Mantel said in a lecture for the London Review of Books: “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.”

No wonder the princess fantasy, tarnished by media intrusion, no longer holds much allure for young women. There are alternative, more exciting and accessible forms of royalty now – Hollywood, pop music, the Kardashians. As girls, many of us with feminist mothers were handed The Paperbag Princess to make us spurn the offer of a plastic tiara; in the story, a princess saves her prince from a dragon, only to realise that he’s nothing to write home about.

Markle is a feminist. A UN women’s advocate, she called Donald Trump a “misogynist” while he was running for president and wrote about “period poverty” – inadequate access to menstrual products – earlier this year. (She’s not the first feminist in the family. Her future stepmother-in-law, the Duchess of Cornwall, who once vowed not to touch royal duties “with a bargepole”, works with domestic violence charities, rape clinics and groups combatting FGM.)

The best photo from their engagement shoot didn’t even show their faces. As the couple walked back to Kensington Palace, Harry didn’t drape his arm over her shoulder in a proprietorial way; they both put their arms around the other’s back. It was symmetrical – an expression of support and equality in a family that has traditionally lacked both.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/
Show Hide image

It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.