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Don’t let the cosy stable fool you – the Virgin Mary’s story is brutal

Think oppression, displacement, refugees, genocide, anti-semitism, misogyny and abuse.

And so she makes her annual appearance on the nation’s Christmas cards and in a million crib sets. Mary, Mother of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin, demure, devoted, obedient. Invariably blue. It’s not just the churched who love her; the fiercely unchurched are more than willing to gather at the manger in December to pay their respects.

This should be a source of joy for those of us in the church business. And it is really. But allow me to play the Grinch for a moment to make a missing-the-point case – and, please, this is not the usual attack on the Black-Everyday shop-fest.

The point I want to make is a political one. Mary’s story is brutal and about as far as it is possible to be from a pretty Madonna in a cosy stable, with cute and clean farmyard animals (no dung). It is about oppression, displacement, refugees, genocide, anti-semitism, misogyny and abuse.

Consider this: though the stable and animals are never mentioned, it is utterly plausible that the frightened young Mary had been banished by her contemporary Hebraic society to the ground-floor rooms of a household, where animals were fed from mangers, just for the shame of giving birth out of wedlock.

There’s no historical record of a census that forced Jews to return to their towns of birth under Emperor Augustus, just as there is no record of a massacre of male infants under the age of one year ordered by King Herod. But these were the casual oppressions and atrocities that were typical of the occupying Romans and from which a Jewish couple and their illegitimate child would be only too fortunate to escape to safety in neighbouring Egypt.

So this is not a happy story. And it’s a theological mystery for many of us how the more shiny, evangelising kind of Christian can claim that it is. These same proselytisers will spread their arms in a beaming grin and say that, at the other end of the story, it’s great news that “Jesus died on a cross for our sins”. To which a reasonable response might be that it can’t be good news for anyone, innocent or otherwise, to be nailed to wooden beams and left to die. Nobody would suggest that it’s good news that an innocent young woman is banged up in an Iranian jail, or that terrified families pile into flimsy boats in the Adriatic to escape persecution.

Back to the Virgin Mary, just one of history’s women silenced by men. Mary Beard, in her new short book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, doesn’t evoke her immaculately conceived namesake but does record what she reckons to be the first ancient literary example of a man telling a woman to “shut up”. It’s in Homer’s Odyssey and it’s Telemachus telling his mother, Penelope, to wind her neck in: “Mother...mine is the power in this household.”

Fast-forward a mere millennium to Cana in Galilee and a wedding with an embarrassing catering crisis, at which a self-assured Jesus, entreated by his mother to assist, responds: “Woman, what is it to me? My hour has not yet come.” It’s not exactly “shut up”, but Mary is left in no doubt where the power lies in this household. 

It’s not an isolated incident of mansplaining in the gospels (or possibly messiahsplaining). Witness Jesus declaring “these are my mother and brothers”, pointing at his disciples, when Mary comes to take him home. Or the precocious “did you not know I had to be in my father’s house?” when the 12-year-old Jesus plays truant in Jerusalem. And, think back to the nativity narrative, when she’s told (no consent) by the male-named archangel Gabriel that her heavenly Father will make her pregnant through the holy spirit. Mary has to keep her own passive counsel and “ponders these things in her heart”. We bet she did.

Homer’s Telemachus is fictional, but we know Jesus to have been a historical figure. So biology tells us he had a mother. The trouble is that we lose this young woman in the demure Marian blue of Renaissance painting and the Catholic devotional branding of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nevertheless, try as they might, the male apostolic scribes can’t write women out of the gospels, which remain substantively women’s stories – the haemorrhaging woman in the crowd, the slutty Samaritan woman at the well, Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the risen Christ, to name just three of many liberational female characters.

Their appearances are tantalising, because stories weren’t written from women’s perspectives in 1st century Judea. As Beard may affirm, they were told to shut up (not least by St Paul). And yet they are present down the ages, silenced in their time maybe, but now able to speak to us through scripture as equals in our own time.

A question arises as to whether we can or should tell our own stories, in our own way, that echo scriptural themes, about what offers salvation in a dark world, about what it is to be human in a cruel world beyond our control but in which there may still be a power of redemption. I’ve had a go at that myself, with a novel about a holy but flawed woman trying to make a decent fist of it in the horrors of contemporary Africa and the Middle East. 

Maybe we’ve lost the art of telling allegorical stories as the ancients did, stories that reveal transcendent truths through base human experience. But as we re-tell the story this Christmas, we might reflect that those who first told it didn’t think they were indulging in the fantastical, far less anything as cutesy and sentimental as our Christmas-card images of poor Mary.

Their story was about a real God who engaged with the real world, with a real person, among real men and women. And, for Christians, that’s the good news.

George Pitcher is a writer and Anglican priest. His novel, A Dark Nativity, is published by Unbound.

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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.