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On the Tube, I saw the father I’d never met – and was happy to find that I had nothing to say to him

I looked at my feet and walked past the man who had no idea that I was his son.

Being from a single-parent family is hereditary. In my case, I got it from my father, who left my mother before I was born. Like most hereditary conditions, from time to time, you’ll find yourself discussing it in circumstances you can’t control and in a manner that makes you mildly uncomfortable.

In my case, well-meaning people ask what my father does, which leaves me with the unlovely choice between honesty, which makes the questioner feel awkward, and lying, which is hard to keep up for long. 

Honesty is particularly fraught, because an eccentric minority always believes that the polite response to “I don’t know, we’ve never met” is to ask, “Why not?” and inquire whether I ever wanted to meet him.

Quite why this is considered appropriate conversation at a social event has never been clear to me. My father left because he wasn’t, at that time, interested in having either a long-term relationship or a child. We haven’t spoken since because I haven’t wanted to make contact, and neither has he.

Before the era of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, I might have wanted to meet him – to find out what he looked like, if nothing else. But thanks to Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode, I have been able to ascertain the most important detail, which is that both sides of my family boast full heads of hair well into their fifties but that, sadly, what we retain in volume we do not match in colour.

I’ve learned to enjoy the upsides of having an absent father. One is that you don’t have flaws like everyone else, merely kinks that the missing parent would have ironed out had he stuck around. Over the years, I’ve blamed him for: being bad at football, not having a girlfriend, being bad at ballet, being bad at DIY, not having written a novel, not knowing what I wanted to do after university, being short tempered and not doing my tax return on time.

The other upside is having one member of your family who can’t ring up to complain about how they’ve been treated. My mum can phone, email and even tweet if she doesn’t like something I’ve said. If my dad wants to complain, he has to fork over 18 years of unpaid child support plus interest first, which is a considerable deterrent.

Freed from the chains of journalistic accuracy, I have used my father as a creative device to write about cuts to tax credits, the presidency of Barack Obama, the correct way to cook pasta and the merits of Harry Potter. Which is not quite as valuable as child support, but it is considerably more versatile.

That said, I’ve never written anything about my father that isn’t true. It’s just that how I feel about him, on any given day, is a reflection of what’s going on inside my head rather than a comment on a real, living person. Which is why it was something of a shock when I recently met the real, living person who is my father at Blackfriars Underground Station in London.

Well, “met” is perhaps putting it too strongly. The New Statesman office is near Blackfriars and I work in parliament at Westminster, so I spend a lot of time on the Tube. On one trip from the office to Westminster, I saw someone who looked eerily familiar. If you’ve ever spent five minutes staring at someone, trying to work out which wedding you saw them at, only to realise you’ve been eyeballing a weatherman, you’ll know the feeling: I stared at him for a few moments trying to work out if he had something to do with Brexit, before clocking that I’d seen his face on LinkedIn.

Then, just as you do when you realise that a terrified semi-famous person is wondering why a stranger is peering intently at them, I looked at my feet and walked past the man who had no idea that I was his son.

Why did I do that? Why didn’t I take what is – let’s face it – probably the only chance I’ll have to talk to my father? Because in that moment, I realised I had nothing I really wanted to say to him.

And the reason for this is: I’m happy. Happy in work, in love, and surrounded by my real family: a complicated network of friends, in-laws and the mother who stuck around. I couldn’t honestly have said I was angry with him, or I wished that he hadn’t left, because I’m happy with how my life worked out in the end.

But I don’t want to absolve him. He couldn’t know, close to 30 years ago, that the child he was walking out on would have the good fortune to be born into a country about to experience close to two decades of uninterrupted, low-inflation growth, most of that presided over by a Labour government firmly committed to improving the condition of the poor. (One of Gordon Brown’s forgotten achievements is that even after the financial crisis, child poverty continued to fall, because tackling it remained the government’s central mission.)

My father couldn’t know that I would benefit from investment in schools, museums and fantastic teachers, and the world’s best mother. But I did, which means that while a number of people – the taxpayer, society, my mum – have a legitimate grievance against my father, I don’t, not really. It worked out OK.

The dispiriting truth is that it might be different today: child poverty has increased every year for the past three years, even during periods of economic growth. Changes to the child maintenance regime have made it even harder to force absent parents to pay up, while the botched introduction of Universal Credit makes it more difficult for single parents in work to stay out of poverty.

And so I walked away from the man who  was – or might have been – my father thinking this: I need to spend less time writing about an imaginary, lost parent, and more time writing about how much harder it is to be a kid like me today.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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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.