The British media is currently engulfed in a controversy over Boris Johnson’s adviser, Andrew Sabisky, who, it has been revealed, made a series of questionable comments on various areas of public policy in the years prior to his appointment.
British writer Ben Sixsmith writes that the furore around Sabisky is overblown, and symptomatic of a media culture of trying to make the news, rather than simply reporting on it.
This article was originally published on Ben’s website, and is re-posted here with his permission.
A defence of Andrew Sabisky
The first time I met Andrew Sabisky we walked through central London for hours and neither his energy or my interest flagged. This is a rare combination. There are people who can talk for a long time and there are people who can talk interestingly but the overlap between those categories is slim.
Some people who talk a lot are desperately self-absorbed. While I do not know Andrew well I do not think that this applies to him at all. The first thing he did last time we met was ask after my mum, who had been taken ill, and our mutual friends can attest to his great kindness.
Of course, there are a lot of kind and interesting people who should not be advising the government. But I think Sabisky has a lot to offer there. He has worked in the fascinating and important field of “superforecasting” but is also a critic of the cold excesses of the “rationalist” movement Dominic Cummings is so keen on. He has done significant research into what should be some of the Conservative government’s top priorities, like the need for more affordable housing. He has boundless energy and intellectual ambition.
It disgusts me, then, that dull-minded journalists are attempting to ruin this talented young man’s career. Hit-pieces in the Times and the Mail on Sunday are filled with quotes wrenched from their proper context and presented as being more inflammatory than they are. One comment that called media coverage of female genital mutilation a “moral panic”, for example, was presented in such a way that people could and did assume that Sabisky was excusing the act itself rather than claiming that it happens more rarely than we imagine. (The irony is that if Sabisky had been arguing that FGM is endemic, the same hacks would doubtless have been claiming that this represented anti-Muslim racism.)
Or take Sabisky’s alleged support for “eugenics”. Reading the article the quote was taken from, one can easily tell that Sabisky was talking about embryo selection. One can definitely disagree with embryo selection – and the article actually leaves it quite ambiguous to whether Sabisky himself was endorsing it – but one cannot equate it with Hitlerianism.
The Times reported that Sabisky compared women’s sports with the Paralympics, as if he was denigrating either. We know from the man himself that he was discussing the case of Caster Semenya and the need for “boundary policing” to protect women’s sports. Again, you can disagree. But it was not derisive. Hilariously, the Times also complained about Sabisky calling female politicians like Angela Rayner and Rebecca Long Bailey “dim”. Ask him for his opinion of Richard Burgon or Chuka Umunna and I guarantee that you will not receive a more respectful response.
Sabisky doubtless has ideas that would offend progressives. (He is, after all, working for a Conservative government.) But it is nonetheless true that journalists – and not even Guardian journalists but Times and Mail on Sunday journalists – have attempted to portray him in the worst light possible to stir up controversy and flex their media muscles.
We like to imagine that journalists convey the news. But journalists also create the news. A balanced piece on Sabisky would have been more honest but not as sensational. One is also reminded of the effortful manipulation of quotes from Sir Roger Scruton last year, or the recent manufactured controversy that surrounded the appearance of Daniel Kawczynski MP at the 2020 National Conservatism Conference. I am no fan of Kawczynski, thanks to his warm treatment of the Saudi regime, but he was attending a conference attended by major political figures from EU member states, like Orbán of Hungary and Legutko of Poland (the conference, incidentally, was also organised by the Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony). In an effort to create the maximum amount of fuss, journalists bombarded community leaders like the Board of Deputies with calls in order to extract condemnatory quotes and turn “MP attends international conference” into a scandal.
These journalists also want results from their meddling. Alex Wickham is a journalist who worked for Breitbart and Guido Fawkes before deciding to become an ultra-PC muckraker for BuzzFeed. Wickham hailed the disingenuous New Statesman hit piece on Roger Scruton as a “great interview”. He kicked off the campaign against Kawczynski and complained when he didn’t get enough credit for inspiring disciplinary action. He has called Sabisky a “nutter” and said that he should be “whacked”. This is not a troublemaker in the mold of Seymour Hersh. This is a troublemaker in the mold of a school tattletale.
Harry Cole, another reporter – who, coincidentally, also worked for Guido Fawkes – chimed in to salute the Mail on Sunday’s “brilliant reporting”. What part of publishing extracts from old tweets and blog-posts is “brilliant” escapes me but perhaps you need a finely tuned journalistic mind to appreciate it. Cole added that this controversy was “predictable” because the hiring process is “totally flawed”. This is like hitting someone and then blaming them for having their guard down. Whether or not they should have been more careful, you’re still hitting them. There was no essential flaw in the hiring process, or the hire, except inasmuch as it gave click-hungry, self-important hacks the chance to whip up hysterical outrage.
The tragedy is that the government is so responsive to this kind of thing. Of course, a government should be responsive to accusations of corruption or malice – at least if there is significant evidence behind them. The media’s admirable coverage of the Harry Dunn case is an example of that. But the Conservatives have been responsive to bad faith and censoriousness, which is quite different. Scruton was fired. Kawczynski was disciplined. According to Wickham, cabinet ministers are insisting that Sabisky be sacked. The sheer cowardliness of this almost defies belief. Why even give the time of day to such petty opportunism?
In his much-mocked blogpost, Dominic Cummings called for job applications for interesting, innovative and original thinkers. Of course, there are risks inherent to such a call. Mere eccentricity and contrarianism can be confused for valuable thought. But to have genuinely interesting people in government one must be prepared for them to have played with ideas that seem, or even are, outlandish and outrageous. If you are at all interested in reforming the status quo you should have some tolerance for that which is peculiar or even obnoxious as long as it is packaged along with something of value. Show me someone who has never said something that cannot be made to look scandalous and I will show you someone without an idea in their head.
Update: Sunder Katwala points to a 2014 blog comment in which Sabisky said “anyone who has researched the issue for more than 5 minutes” knows “there are excellent reasons to think the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin” and that he thinks politicians should pay attention “from the standpoint of immigration”. Now, this was from 2014, when I think Sabisky would have been 21, so he may well not believe this any more. If you had met me nine years ago when I was 21 I would have had very different opinions. With that said, I think it is obvious that Sabisky was being youthfully arrogant in this comment. Many intelligent scientists who have researched the issue for more than five years do not think there are excellent reasons to think this. As far as I can tell, most informed people would agree that IQ differs between populations and that IQ correlates with significant individual and group outcomes. Where informed people disagree is on the rigidity of IQ. Someone like Arthur Jensen would have argued that little can be done to change group differences. Someone like James Flynn would argue that being largely environmental in origin, these gaps can close.
I’m not going to give a firm opinion on this because I’m not informed enough. If you are then go ahead, but I do not believe this is a case where scientific consensus is so vast and firm that even laymen can identify a crank solely by virtue of their belief.
That said, I think Sabisky was wrong to imply – again, six years ago – that IQ should be directly relevant to immigration policy. To be sure, I am the person who has said that “immigrants don’t come from Immigrantland” but I think that source nations should be considered according to how they actually are and not according to the alleged causes underlying their condition. If, for example, a society has low social trust, high rates of violence and a great deal of religious or political radicalism, I would argue against accepting mass migration from such a place. But that is because of the conditions, not the causes. (I would also add that however significant or insignificant IQ may be, individuals can be far more and far less talented than their average countryman, but I’m sure that Mr Sabisky knows this.)
So, I think this is a valid issue to be discussed and not a misrepresentation. Do I think it is a sackable offence, though? Absolutely not. It was a comment from his younger days, but also he did not propose discriminating against British citizens, or aggressing against foreign people, and he did not impute any kind of malice to a population. Those would be my boundaries, and I think they are good ones, though the reader is free to drawn their own.