PHOTO: GETTY
Show Hide image

Toby Young’s father complex: the adolescent rebellion that never ended

At 54-years-old, the journalist seemingly still argues with his late father, the composer of Labours 1945 election manifesto, in his head.

The trouble with Toby Young – whose history of sexist and homophobic writing has forced his resignation from the Office for Students, the newly created university regulator – is that, aged 54, he still has arguments with his late father in his head. He is the son of Lord Young of Dartington (originally Michael Young) who composed the 1945 Labour election manifesto, set up the Consumers’ Association and Which? magazine, pioneered an Open University prototype, and wrote the dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young senior, quite unlike his son, was diffident, ascetic, thoughtful and averse to the media spotlight. The household was driven by such compassion and high moral purpose that several homeless people were usually invited to Christmas lunch.

The youthful Toby embarked on an adolescent rebellion that never ended. He became frivolous, amoral – at one stage, he was more or less addicted to both alcohol and pornography – obsessed with celebrity gossip and extremely right-wing. He joined the school of what he calls “journalistic provocateurs”, found mostly in newspapers and magazines such as the Daily Telegraph and Spectator. Claiming to speak for the toiling masses, these writers outrage respectable opinion by mocking and denigrating women, homosexuals, disabled people, ethnic minorities and anybody on benefits.

A few years ago, Young told me he had “retired that persona”. He was the first to get government funding to set up a free school, which has been modestly successful, and now heads the New Schools Network which helps parents, teachers and others set up more such schools. He thinks (perhaps rightly) that Michael Young would have backed free schools and, I’d guess, sees his involvement as reparation for disgracing his father’s memory. But he still writes highly provocative columns and blogs, probably because he needs the money. I’m astonished the government appointed him to the regulator’s board and even more astonished he accepted. I can’t believe that Young senior, always suspicious of the overbearing state, would think universities need a regulator at all. If the argument between the two is still going on, Young junior is losing it.

In memoriam: Peter Preston

Peter Preston, who has died at 79, presided over some of the best writing in English newspapers during nearly 20 years as Guardian editor. His own writing, however, was inelegant, elliptical and convoluted. It was a weekly chore to read the media column in the Observer that he wrote during the last years of his life. One struggled through it only because he was exceptionally well-informed and perceptive.

Yet Preston was undeniably a great editor who transformed the Guardian’s appearance and widened its appeal. The combination of brilliant editing and terrible writing is surprisingly common. Two Fleet Street editors have confided to me (separately) that “I can’t write for toffee”. Even the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, not usually prone to self-doubt, once described himself as “a good writer, but not a great writer”. Editors need many things – ideas, a sharp news sense, energy, curiosity, and an instinct for what their readers are thinking are probably essential. So, on tabloids and increasingly on broadsheets, are technical skills of presentation, layout and headline writing. Good prose style is an optional extra, perhaps even a handicap. Preston, as editor, wrote many of the Guardian’s leaders. Since their meaning was reliably opaque – to this day, nobody is sure whether he supported Labour or the breakaway SDP in the early 1980s – they offended nobody.

Fire and fury, signifying nothing

Donald Trump’s White House lurches from crisis to crisis. The president behaves like an impulsive, egotistic child. His grip on reality is weak. He cannot grasp complex issues. These “revelations” are in a newly published book by the journalist Michael Wolff. But, leaving aside marital sleeping arrangements and similar tittle-tattle, does it contain anything we didn’t know? Even if Trump’s core supporters – mostly the poor, uneducated and excluded – read Wolff’s book, they wouldn’t repent. Why should they care that the federal government isn’t functioning properly? Nothing Washington has done in the past 30 years has been of any help to them. They wanted somebody to put gelignite under the governing elite and they judged Trump the most likely to do so. They will be no more fazed by disarray in the White House than the Paris mob that stormed the Bastille was troubled by disarray in Louis XVI’s Versailles court. Disarray was exactly what they hoped for.

Rising from the Ashes

England’s 4-0 defeat in the latest Ashes series in Australia, following a 5-0 whitewash when the teams last met there four years ago, leads to demands for drastic solutions. High on the list is removing Test cricket from Sky and BT and restoring it to a free-to-view terrestrial channel so that ragged-trousered lads from impoverished inner-city families can be inspired to play the game and revitalise the national team.

Sadly, this won’t work unless international cricket can somehow be moved into a parallel socialist universe. English cricket needs the revenue from pay-TV broadcasters. Otherwise, its top players would accept the riches on offer from Twenty20 leagues around the world. Even if every country’s cricket board abolished such leagues, private promoters would step in. The England team would then be a second XI at best and even less inspiring than it is now.

Old age creeps up

A few days ago, my wife’s much younger brother drove us to Hampton Court Palace. He struggled to find a parking space and approached a hi-viz yellow figure for help. The figure peered into the back of the car and stared at us. “Elderly? Take a disabled spot.” We are both 73 and (at the time of writing) physically fit. Warning to younger readers: old age creeps up even before you feel old. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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.