Literal centrists at the Greenwich meridian. Photo: Getty
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Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?

We need new words to describe the political landscape, but “centrist” is deliberately vague – and therefore useless.

A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of centrism. As Anoosh Chakelian wrote last week, “centrist” has become the latest insult to enter our political vocabulary. There’s only one problem: no one can agree what it means, except that it’s bad. Centrists patronisingly explain things to women on Twitter (not a pastime limited to any particular ideology, I can assure you). They assume their beliefs are self-evidently correct (ditto). I was finding it all quite baffling, until I realised. A centrist is just a neoliberal with a fidget spinner.

Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like. “The term is frequently used somewhat indiscriminately and quite perjoratively to mean anything ‘bad’,” write the academic authors of The Handbook of Neoliberalism. “Such lack of specificity reduces its capacity as an analytic frame.” 

This argument is not popular with many on the Left, who feel that if the term is retired, or its use curtailed, something they value is being taken away. When Colin Talbot, a professor at Manchester University, wrote a blog making a similar argument in August 2016 – “everyone from moderate social democrats to the most lurid free-marketeers gets lumped together under a convenient ‘neoliberal’ label,” he noted – one of his postgraduate students wrote to three department heads demanding a retraction.

“Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist. Unsurprisingly, that’s not how everyone else sees politics. I don’t think of myself as a centrist: my position on immigration (in favour of free movement) and welfare schemes (a more progressive destination for government funds than helping middle-class graduates by axeing tuition fees) are to the left of Labour’s 2017 manifesto. I’m in favour of higher inheritance taxes than any mainstream party would dare propose. You want unpopular views? Roll up, roll up, I got ’em.

Politics is in a crazy place at the moment, so it’s not surprising that people are trying to find new ways to describe the emerging tribes. It was much simpler when class was the dividing line. But as the economics blogger Chris Dillow wrote after the election: “Corbyn’s Labour got a higher share of the well-off’s vote than Blair’s Labour got in 1997… The difference between Blair and Corbyn is that Blair did far better than Corbyn among the working class.” Education and views on Brexit are now better predictors of voting intention than “AB” or “D2”.

So, we do need new ways of framing our thoughts, and many neologisms are illuminating. “Hard Remainers” want a second EU referendum. “Re-Leavers” voted Remain but now just want the bloody exit over and done with, thank you very much. Crucially, though, these terms have straightforward, widely agreed explanations. Others have become mired in partisan disagreement: what constitutes a Hard Brexit, which could mean anything from no deal at all, to leaving the Single Market? And doesn’t “hard” itself seem perjorative? You have to feel for Brexiteers, who took inspiration from Gretchen Wieners in 2004’s Mean Girls, and tried to Make Clean Brexit Happen.

This brings me to the Guardian columnist Owen Jones. He has now uncovered a menace greater even than centrism, and that is the scourge of “centrist transphobia”, a form of this bigotry uniquely associated with people who are not like him. “Transphobia is one of the last acceptable forms of bigotry, promoted not just by the Trump right but among so-called ‘centrist’ circles, too,” he tweeted on 7 October. “There are so-called ‘centrist’ writers who, like Trumpists, wilfully mislabel trans women as ‘men’, knowing full well how distressing this.” Unhelpfully for the general understanding, but helpfully for the Guardian’s libel insurance, he declined to provide any examples. 

Because Jones had been casually rude to me the day before, I wondered if he was talking about me. But then I remembered that not only am I not a centrist, I don’t think trans women are men. I think that biological sex exists, but that it’s distinct from gender, which is a cultural phenomenon. Perhaps Jones thinks the phrase “biologically male” is offensive, because he hasn’t read any of the huge back catalogue of feminist theory on the vital difference between sex and gender? (See Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”)

Ultimately, though, we all know what he’s doing. He’s pandering to an existing discourse about “TERFs”, or “trans exclusionary radical feminists” – lumping together the entire gamut of opinion on gender that isn’t his, and condemning it in the vaguest, least-helpful terms. In this formulation, Donald Trump's vindictive transgender military ban and the Republican right's callous attempts to turn bathroom access into a culture war are lumped together with child psychologists who suggest we are too quick to seek a medical solution for gender non-conforming children, and feminists who ask how we should best balance the competing rights of two oppressed groups. (Oh, and it ignores the fact that the biggest danger to trans people is violent men, not radical feminists. Cherchez la femme. Then blame her.) Unsurprisingly, there is a rich seam of men who otherwise show very little interest in the real discrimation and violence suffered by transgender people, but take obvious glee at the news that there are bad women on the internet whose opinions need to be corrected.

As Jess Phillips noted on Twitter, this debate needs light, not heat. But to be accused of transphobia now, your views can sit anywhere from Germaine Greer – “when a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho), it is as if he murders her and gets away with it”, gulp – to the trans women who recently questioned the government's gender self-declaration plans in the Morning Star. (Classic centrist move.) Or you could be radical lesbian feminist Linda Bellos, who was banned from speaking to a feminist society at Peterhouse College, Cambridge earlier this month. Bellos was “disinvited” when she suggested discussing how some trans politics “seems to assert the power of those who were previously designated male to tell lesbians, and especially lesbian feminists, what to say and think”.

Perhaps Bellos – the first non-white lesbian in the Spare Rib collective, once named as a member of the “loony Left” by the Sun – is just another centrist transphobe, and has spent the last 40 years in deep cover. Or perhaps it’s just easier to create a boo-word and lump all your opponents together, rather than engaging with their arguments. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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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.