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Australia feels wealthier than Europe – but has yet to reckon with its past

The “lucky country” has sailed through the global financial downturn – the only developed economy to have avoided any annual recession since 1991.

We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound.” Back in 2002-03, that was the chant of the Barmy Army, a devoted collection of travelling England cricket fans, as the team suffered a heavy Ashes defeat on Australian soil. We might lose at cricket, but what a quality of life for Englishmen, converting pounds sterling into copious flat whites and craft beers.

The cricketing results have been similar in Australia this winter, but the cost of living has changed, painfully so. Singing “We’re fat, we’re round, we can’t afford much at 1.7 dollars to the pound” doesn’t take the edge off a series defeat in quite the same way.

Australia has sailed through the global financial downturn. It is now the only developed economy to have avoided any annual recession since 1991 – a quarter of a century of uninterrupted growth. Travelling in Australia is a bit like being in Switzerland: you know it is a statistical fact that everyone cannot be well-off, but it feels that way.

Australian politics is moving towards Switzerland’s, too: exceptionally changeable and questionable in influence. Australia has had five new prime ministers in seven and a half years (if you count Kevin Rudd’s two spells separately). Recent prime ministers have suffered from low job security. Are they doing a good job for an ungrateful population? Or is Australia so lucky that it’s almost impossible to mess it up?

“Australia is a lucky country,” wrote the academic and intellectual Donald Horne in 1964, “run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” The phrase “lucky country” provided the title for Horne’s book on his homeland, and he intended it to imply criticism. As with Michael Young’s concept of “meritocracy”, however, the phrase drifted away from its critical origins. The lucky country – we’ll run with that. Australia is arguably luckier than ever, still benefiting from its substantial mineral resources: in effect, it owns the bounty of a whole continent. Luck, properly understood, cannot be earned, regardless of what self-help books may want us to believe. But it must be difficult for a country on a 27-year winning streak to distinguish between chance and skill.

Each Ashes series, I go back to a favourite cricket book, Australia 55, by the poet and literary editor Alan Ross. He travelled with Len Hutton’s touring team by boat, on what became one of the great, surprising series wins in cricket history. Ross’s book is part cricket book, part travelogue, and he makes a superb companion: hedonistic, melancholy and wry. I mostly hurry through the cricket and linger over his descriptions of Australia, especially Melbourne.

Ross’s base was the Melbourne Club, where he stayed up till the early hours playing snooker with politicians and intellectuals. He loved the cultured, cosmopolitan mood of the city. “On my way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground,” Ross wrote, “I walked up Collins Street, with its magnificent switchback of planes and elms, the only street in Australia which might be in Europe.” Indeed, Ross’s portrait of Melbourne suggests a kind of displaced Europe.

We could reverse the analogy today, given how much wealthier, better organised and more confident Australia feels than much of Europe. The next time I’m in an especially orderly European urban enclave, I’ll make a point of saying, “Things work so well here, it could be Australia.”

Enduring good fortune, however, co-exists uneasily with a sense of original sin. Must Australia confront and resolve its relationship with the people who occupied the land before it was “Australia”? Last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the proposal to consider an extra dimension to the Australian constitution – not exactly a new third house of parliament with legal powers, but a new advisory body to provide Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders with a “voice to parliament”.

The proposal, now shelved, was the recommendation of a commission led by the lawyer and Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson. In a recent speech, Pearson interpreted Australian identity as three epic journeys. The first began 72,000 years ago when Aboriginal ancestors left Africa. Pearson’s second epic is the voyage of the Endeavour, James Cook’s journey to the east coast of Australia in 1770. Finally, Pearson cites the more recent journeys that created cosmopolitan Australia today, “the epic migrations from Auschwitz, Somalia, Italy, Vietnam, Beirut and Tiananmen Square”.

Pearson’s point is that the concept of Australia has never been properly addressed, let alone resolved. Even allowing for a Western world-view, Australia was not founded in 1788 – the year the colony of New South Wales was founded. The name “Australia” only became official in the 19th century, and the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia happened in 1901. By finally inviting displaced voices into the structures of Australia, Pearson had hoped to create a new and unified “declaration of Australia”.

I read Pearson’s speech on Boxing Day. The day before, while driving out of Melbourne along the Mornington Peninsula, I noticed an intriguing change. Initially, the suburbs gave way to Australian woodland and shrubs. Then, as we approached older settlements, the flora changed again: imported European trees started to outnumber native ones. The first instinct of the early settlers, I learned, was to uproot what had previously existed. Then, realising the need for windbreaks and shelter from the sun, they began the whole process again, starting from zero, mostly forgetting what had they had destroyed.

Couldn’t they have waited and observed the value and wisdom of what had been there all along? But that is to judge history with the values of the present – a delicate balance, especially for the lucky country. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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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.