At the beginning of the Cold War, the artist wife of the physicist Alexander Langsdorf came up with the image of the “Doomsday Clock”. It appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to illustrate the fear of many physicists, including some who had been involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, that a “technology-induced catastrophe” might be terrifyingly close. Midnight on the Doomsday Clock meant nuclear armageddon.
For many years it was the bulletin’s editor, Eugene Rabinowitch, who decided where the hands on the clock stood. After his death a committee took over, meeting twice a year to adjust the clock. During the Cold War the closest it came to midnight was in the years 1953-9, when the Doomsday Clock showed two minutes before midnight. The scientists also thought the years 1984-7 were pretty hairy: it was three minutes to midnight for four straight years.
All of which goes to show how absurd such exercises are. No matter how many reputable scientists endorsed the Doomsday Clock, historians today agree that the most dangerous moment in the Cold War was the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the Doomsday Clock was at seven minutes to midnight throughout 1962 and went back to 11.48pm the following year. Rather disconcertingly, the atomic scientists currently think we are back to two minutes to armageddon today.
I have no doubt that somewhere in academia someone is busy devising an American civil war Doomsday Clock. Any day now they’ll publish it under the headline “Two minutes to Fort Sumter”. But just how close is the United States to the kind of internecine slaughter that began when Confederate forces opened fire on South Carolina’s best-known fort in April 1861?
As I’ve argued on this page before, there is a kind of cultural civil war already being fought on social media. With the mid-term elections just over a week away, that culture war gets more febrile by the day. (I especially enjoyed the latest self-flagellating ravings of the professor at Emory University who decided to denounce himself for sexist thoughtcrimes. He really would have enjoyed Mao’s Cultural Revolution.)
Of course, the culture war is no more a real war than the trade war Donald Trump has launched against China. Nevertheless, the news last week that amateurish pipe bombs had been posted to a dozen of the president’s best-known critics, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the hedge fund billionaire George Soros and the actor Robert De Niro, provided the cue for new prophecies of a second American Civil War.
The arrest on Friday of a Florida man named Cesar Sayoc, 56, was greeted with cries of “Gotcha!”. His van was covered in pro-Trump stickers including one reading “CNN sucks”.
“Trump owns this!” declared a normally sober Washington correspondent. I wonder. I don’t much like Trump’s regular criticisms of the mainstream media and occasional glorification of body-slamming. But a direct causal relationship to a nut posting a bunch of homemade bombs?
Strange how in June last year the same journalist omitted to tweet, “Sanders owns this!” after the Republican congressman Steve Scalise and three other people were shot and wounded by James Hodgkinson, a left-wing supporter of Bernie Sanders. You may say that Sanders’s rhetoric was never as inflammatory as Trump’s, but these are fine distinctions. In 2016 Sanders called Trump “particularly dangerous and un-American”, accusing him of “bigotry”. In July of this year he called Trump “our idiot president”.
Yesterday’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh makes matters much worse. Trump is no anti-semite, but some alt-right elements routinely abuse Jews. But then again, the hard left has its anti-semites too.
That people on both sides of the political divide are using intemperate language is undeniable, even if the left will always insist the other side is worse. That there is a potential for an increase in US political violence seems clear. By European standards there are terrifying numbers of lethal weapons in private hands. But civil war?
Some of the people who make this argument can be dismissed as scaremongers. When a Canadian novelist fantasises about Trump being assassinated, the United States tearing itself apart and all the nice Americans moving to Canada, it’s better to avert your gaze. Same drill when a marine turned chat show host calls for red states to secede if a future Democratic administration comes for their guns.
But when a colleague at the Hoover Institution, the historian Victor Davis Hanson, warns that we are “at the brink of a veritable civil war”, we all need to pay attention. The same goes for the National Review’s Reihan Salam, whose new book argues that without root-and-branch immigration reform, the US will come apart at the seams. I also take seriously the work of Peter Turchin, who has been arguing for some time that several leading indicators of political instability (notably inequality) are set to peak around 2020, making the US “particularly vulnerable to violent upheaval”.
Hanson’s argument is that the tensions arising from globalisation, the internet, campus leftism and illegal immigration have led to an ideological split that is also geographical. The toxic atmosphere puts him in mind not only of the 1850s but also of the 5th century BC, when “stasis” (meaning internal strife) tore apart the ancient Greek city states.
Like our colleague Morris Fiorina, I am inclined towards the optimistic view that most normal Americans find the culture war exhausting. As I argued here last week, the evidence suggests that the extreme right and extreme left are two noisy minorities. They would be lost without one another, but they turn everyone else off.
Hanson, who still sees further polarisation as avoidable, makes a crucial point, though. History repeatedly shows that “zealous and sometimes warring tiny minorities can escalate tensions, nullify opposition and bully the silenced majority to sanction — or at least not object to — violence”.
The most troubling analogy I heard last week was between the 2020 presidential election and that of 1860. My interlocutor noted that Abraham Lincoln won a four-way race in 1860. If a centrist, say the Ohio governor John Kasich, runs as an independent, if the Democrats nominate a progressive (Kamala Harris, anyone?) and if Trump seeks re-election, we could have a somewhat similar situation.
The implication is not comforting. For the election of 1860 made clear that the divisions over the issue of slavery had become unbridgeable. Lincoln’s victory was swiftly followed by the secession of seven Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy.
True, there is no single issue in today’s culture war. True, the time on the civil war Doomsday Clock looks more like 11.08 than 11.58. But when I tell you who drew the 1860 analogy to my attention, you’ll know why I’m troubled. Reader, it was Steve Bannon.
It was the week identity politics ate itself. It was the week we learnt that the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren is between 1/1,024 and 1/64 Native American Indian. It was also the week that Harvard — a bastion of American liberalism — was taken to court for discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Savour these moments. They may mean that we have reached a long overdue turning point.
By undergoing a DNA test, Warren no doubt intended to counter the taunt that she had made up, or at least exaggerated, her Native American ancestry. At some point, repeatedly being called “Pocahontas” by President Trump just became intolerable.
Yet the results of the test can only have been disappointing. To have it established scientifically that you are between 0.098% and 1.563% Native American is hardly a resounding vindication if, as Warren did, you changed your ethnicity from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and you agreed to be listed as Native American when you taught at Harvard, too.
In 2012 Warren claimed her mother and father eloped because the latter’s parents didn’t want their son marrying a woman who was “part Cherokee and . . . part Delaware”. Which two toenails were they worried about?
Looking back, you can see why Warren was tempted to turn the family lore that her great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee into a full-blown claim to minority status. She built her career as a law professor during the 1980s and 1990s, when the first great wave of political correctness was sweeping American campuses. At that time, being both a woman and a Native American suddenly became advantageous.
Similar calculations were being made by Ivy League admissions offices as they sought ways to increase the diversity of their very white student bodies. The policy of “affirmative action” was introduced, which lowered the standards expected of African-American, Hispanic and Native American applicants. The immediate and intended consequence was to deny some well-qualified white students places at Harvard and Yale they would otherwise have won.
But then admissions deans noticed a worrying trend. Each year the number of very, very well-qualified Asian and Asian-American applicants was rising. Diversity was not supposed to produce an undergraduate population that was two-fifths Chinese, if not more. The goal was a rainbow nation, not Chimerica.
As a Harvard professor, I first became aware of the issue when Ron Unz published a disturbing critique of Ivy League admissions policies. Since the mid-1990s, Unz pointed out, Asians had consistently accounted for around 16% of Harvard enrolments. At Columbia the Asian share had actually fallen from 23% in 1993 to below 16% in 2011. Yet, according to the US census, the ratio of Asians to whites aged 18-21 had more than doubled in that period. Moreover, Asians now accounted for 28% of National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists and 39% of students at CalTech, where admissions are based purely on academic merit.
Now the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action, is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian applicants. Its court filings include evidence that Harvard’s Asian applicants have better grade-point averages, higher test scores and even more extensive extracurricular involvement than their counterparts in any other ethnic group.
The way the system seems to work is that Harvard admissions officers give poorer personal ratings to Asian-American applicants. “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” was the verdict on one Asian who didn’t make the cut.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time at Harvard. The college’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, has an extraordinarily difficult task each year of selecting just 2,000 young people out of more than 42,000 applicants — which he has performed with great dedication for more than 30 years. In its way each Harvard graduating class is a work of art. But the impression has nevertheless been created that Harvard has reverted to the bad habits of the 1920s, when its president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, sought to reduce the share of Jews in the student body by introducing loaded criteria such as “character” to the admissions process.
This is where identity politics leads. Over the past three decades, self-styled progressives have insisted with fanatical zeal on the primacy of racial and sexual identities. Meanwhile, the so-called “alt-right” has responded with increasingly overt appeals to “white nationalism”.
At times it can seem as if Americans have decided to re-enact the Civil War on the internet. But in today’s culture war there are any number of sides and issues, not just two sides and one issue.
Yet, as a newly published study shows, a reassuringly large proportion of Americans think all this is nuts. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarised Landscape offers a new political typology that divides Americans into seven political categories:
1 Progressive activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry (8%)
2 Traditional liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious (11%)
3 Passive liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned (15%)
4 Politically disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial (26%)
5 Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant (15%)
6 Traditional conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic (19%)
7 Devoted conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic (6%)
On the extremes — groups 1 and 7 — life is literally as well as metaphorically black and white. Fully 99% of progressives believe that “Many white people today don’t recognise the real advantages they have.” But 82% of devoted conservatives reject this, maintaining, “Nowadays white people do not have any real advantages over others.” It’s the same polarised story on the whole suite of identity politics issues: immigration, Islamophobia, feminism.
But the picture is very different in the middle. The study characterises groups 2 to 5 as “the exhausted majority”. The striking thing is that, though they have been completely turned off politics by the shrill extremes, they still have views — and on identity politics there is no mistaking their rightward tilt.
Four-fifths of all Americans believe that political correctness has gone too far. Only 30% of progressives agree. The strongest proponents of identity politics are in fact out of sync with the great majority. And 85% of all Americans — close to 90% of the exhausted majority — also believe that race should not be considered in the college admissions process. Only 40% of progressive activists agree.
I am not saying that, at most, 1/64 of American DNA is progressive. But I am saying that identity politics is devouring itself. And, as Elizabeth Warren can testify, it tastes bitter.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
There are autocrats. Look around. According to Freedom House, a quarter of the world’s states are “not free”. More than a third of the world’s population lives in those states. From Venezuela, the least free state in the Americas, all the way to Vladivostok, an even larger share of the world’s land area is ruled by autocrats of one sort or another: presidents for life, hereditary monarchs, ayatollahs, dear leaders.
“Undemocratic regime kills journalist” is a headline that, most of the time, vies with “Dog bites man” for the bottom right-hand corner of page 5. However, the fate of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 — has become front-page news. Why?
Cynical commentators have been reminded of Stalin’s observation that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic”. After all, the Saudi regime has been killing a great many people in Yemen, where its armed forces have been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. Only on a very slow news day does that war make the front pages.
Yet this misses the real point. Democratic states also go to war from time to time and generally kill plenty of people when they do. Making war is not a peculiarity of autocrats. But democratic politicians cannot order the assassination of journalists (even if they may sometimes fantasise about doing so).
The real question here is why Khashoggi’s fate is attracting so much more attention than that of, say, Ibrahim al-Munjar, a correspondent for the Syrian news website Sy24, who was shot and killed in the city of Saida on the morning of May 17.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Khashoggi’s death would make him the 45th journalist killed this year; 27 of them were murdered. Ten of the victims were journalists working in Afghanistan, under a government that depends on US military support. I’ll bet you can’t name a single one of them.
The explanation of the storm around Khashoggi is simple. First, he worked for The Washington Post. Second, the strong suspicion that he has been murdered at the orders of the Saudi government is highly embarrassing to the administration of Donald Trump — if not to the president himself, who is of course incapable of being embarrassed — because resuscitating the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been central to its strategy in the Middle East.
It is embarrassing, too, for the very large number of western businessmen and journalists who over the past year have accepted the invitations of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). That clicking sound you hear is hundreds of emails being sent to cancel the earlier acceptances of invitations to MBS’s Future Investment Initiative (“Davos in the desert”), which is due to take place later this month.
It should go without saying that I deplore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, if that was indeed the fate that befell him. But I deplore all murders, not just the murders of journalists who work for The Washington Post. I am also quite strongly opposed to wrongful imprisonment. The government currently pointing the accusing finger at Saudi Arabia is none other than Turkey’s. Right now, 68 journalists are serving jail sentences in Turkey, with a further 169 held awaiting trial.
In Washington the chorus of the permanently indignant — after a brief pause to digest its failure to derail the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh — is now demanding that the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, join the boycott of Davos in the desert. But some Republicans are also up in arms. On Thursday the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, said America should impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia if Khashoggi has indeed been murdered.
Wait a second. The Turks say they have audio and video evidence to prove their allegation. Let’s see it first, shall we? Because I no more trust the Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, than I do MBS. And Erdogan has no shortage of motives for skulduggery of his own. He has every reason to mistrust his Russian spouse-of-convenience, Vladimir Putin, when it comes to Syria. His currency just fell off a cliff and his banks are in trouble, so he could use some help from the International Monetary Fund. Funny how the Khashoggi story broke a few days before the Turks released the US pastor Andrew Brunson this weekend.
As I said, there are autocrats — lots of them, especially in and around the Middle East. When it comes to press freedom, it’s a really close ugliness contest. Is the US supposed to have diplomatic relations only with liberal democracies? If so, that means just Israel in that part of the world. Hands up, all those in favour of that approach. (At this point Jeremy Corbyn and all those on the left who share his deep antipathy to Israel start hissing.)
The problem is not a new one: it is as old as American foreign policy. You can’t be a great power, much less a superpower, and not have dealings — and sometimes alliances — with nasty, undemocratic regimes. And the mere fact you form alliances with them won’t make them change their ways.
You would think by now this simple truth would be obvious. But no. There will always be a market for hacks wanting to write “J’accuse” articles about any president or secretary of state (so long as he’s Republican) who has “blood on his hands” because he shook the hands of dictators.
What’s more irritating is the inability of the authors of such articles ever to get the orders of magnitude right. For reasons that are hard to fathom, Henry Kissinger has been condemned over and over again for having conveyed American support to General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, yet he has been praised to the skies just as frequently for having brought Richard Nixon to China to shake the hand of Mao Tse-tung. Which dictator killed more people? There’s no contest.
I’m still waiting for the “J’accuse” about the Obama administration’s restoration of military aid to Egypt in 2015 — two years after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the bloody repression of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In 2013-14, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, eight journalists were killed in Egypt, two in crossfire. Since 2013 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has imprisoned 20 journalists. Where were the headlines when the F-16 fighters were delivered to Cairo in 2015?
In foreign policy, sad to relate, the measure of success is not the cleanness of the hands you shake; it’s how far the strategy you pursue achieves its intended goals. I still rate the Trump administration’s strategy higher than that of Obama, because confronting Iran with a broad coalition — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — makes more sense than betting on good behaviour by Tehran, which was the essence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Will this strategy make the Arab autocrats nicer people? Did the Iran deal made the ayatollahs any sweeter?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford
Rosa Klebb is back — as a hacker. In April the heirs of 007’s foe attempted to hack the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, after it had exposed Moscow’s use of chemical weapons in an attempted assassination. The Russians also tried to get into the email accounts of anti-doping organisations.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have slipped microchips into the motherboards of servers used by the Pentagon, the CIA and the US navy — not to mention dozens of companies. The servers were made by Supermicro of San Jose, California, and sold by Elemental, based in Portland, Oregon. But the pin-sized chips were inserted by agents of the People’s Liberation Army embedded with manufacturing subcontractors in China. A probe by Amazon identified the chips, which created a stealth doorway into any network connected to the Supermicro servers.
In other news, Facebook announced last month that it had suffered yet another massive hack, affecting at least 50m users. It raises the possibility that Facebook Connect — the tool that allows users to log in to other sites via Facebook — has been compromised. The attackers have yet to be identified.
Yes, my fellow netizens (or “data cows”, as you are known to the folk who milk you for your personal information, contacts list and browsing history): cyber-war is here and we are all under attack, even if most of us don’t yet know it.
Yet none of the above was the biggest hack revealed last week. Raise a glass to my new heroes, Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian. In an article published on Tuesday, Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship, the trio revealed that they had pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in the history of academia.
In the space of 10 months they dashed off 20 spoof articles and submitted them to established journals in the fields of cultural studies, identity studies and critical theory. As Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian say, their papers were all “outlandish or intentionally broken in significant ways”. Each contained “some little bit of lunacy or depravity”. The hack was devastating in its success. No fewer than seven of their articles were accepted for publication and four were actually published before the hoaxers were rumbled (by the Twitter account Real Peer Review and The Wall Street Journal).
It’s hard to choose a favourite. But let’s start with “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon”, published under the fake name Helen Wilson in Gender, Place & Culture, “a journal of feminist geography” owned by Taylor & Francis, an illustrious British brand.
The abstract gives a flavour of the authors’ genius: “This article addresses questions in . . . the geographies of sexuality by drawing upon one year of embedded in situ observations of dogs and their human companions at three public dog parks in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of this research is to uncover emerging themes in human and canine interactive behavioral patterns in urban dog parks to better understand human a-/moral decision-making in public spaces and uncover bias and emergent assumptions around gender, race, and sexuality.”
“Dr Wilson” posed three questions, each of them ludicrous:
■ How do human companions manage, contribute and respond to violence in dogs?
■ What issues surround queer performativity and human reaction to homosexual sex between and among dogs?
■ Do dogs suffer oppression based upon (perceived) gender?
The goal of the article was to “suggest practical applications that disrupts [sic] hegemonic masculinities”. But the authors’ implicit proposal was “to train men like we do dogs — to prevent rape culture”. This drivel was praised to the skies by academic peer reviewers (“a wonderful paper — incredibly innovative, rich in analysis and extremely well-written”) and recognised by the editors as one of the 12 best articles in their journal’s 25-year history.
Another article, published in Fat Studies (“an interdisciplinary journal of body weight and society”, also a Taylor & Francis title), was “Who are they to judge? Overcoming anthropometry through fat bodybuilding”. This Swiftian piece proposed “a new classification within bodybuilding, termed fat bodybuilding, as a fat-inclusive politicised performance and a new culture to be embedded within bodybuilding”.
Avid readers of Sex Roles (a Springer journal) were treated to “An ethnography of breastaurant masculinity: themes of objectification, sexual conquest, male control, and masculine toughness in a sexually objectifying restaurant”.
The journal of feminist philosophy Hypatia (Wiley) asked the fictional Dr Maria Gonzalez of the equally fictional Feminist Activist Collective for Truth (FACT) to resubmit a paper arguing that white males in college should not be allowed to speak in class, but should instead be made to sit in the floor in chains to “experience reparations”.
Sexuality & Culture (Springer) published “Going in through the back door: challenging straight male homohysteria and transphobia through receptive penetrative sex toy use”.
Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian are not professional pranksters. Pluckrose is a scholar of English literature. Lindsay is a mathematician. Boghossian is an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University. Nor are they conservatives; they are self-proclaimed “left-leaning liberals”, which makes their verdict on the whole field of what they call “grievance studies” all the more damning. The fact that they were able to get “seven shoddy, absurd, unethical and politically biased papers into respectable journals” suggests to them that “these fields of study do not continue the important and noble liberal work of the civil rights movements; they corrupt it while . . . pushing a kind of social snake oil”.
The hoax articles are, of course, very funny. Much less funny are the non-phoney articles published alongside them. Much less funny are the affiliations of the editors of these journals. For example, two of the three editors of Gender, Place & Culture hold positions at UK universities. Both have had their research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
Yes, cyber-warfare is scary. But I have long believed that our most dangerous enemies are within. The monstrous regiment of grievance studies has established bases in nearly all the universities of the western world, not merely tolerated by administrators, but enthusiastically funded by governments and credulous donors. Now that’s what I call a successful hack.
The friends of the closed society are also hard at work. The rubbish they publish is the counterpart of the rubbish they teach, and the people they teach then graduate with rubbish degrees and live among us.
You could see some of them in Washington last week, carrying signs saying “We believe all survivors” and “Respect female existence or expect our resistance” and making believe that they were the heirs of Rosa Parks — as opposed to unwitting allies of the other Rosa’s hacker heirs.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford