>Leeds University: Giving racism the golden boot?

>I was interested to read that Dr Frank Ellis, the Leeds University lecturer in Russian suspended after protests over his view that for black people were biologically intellectually inferior to other groups has finally departed the university. He gets an early retirement deal including an additional year’s salary and part payment of his legal bills. The Yorkshire Post termed this as ‘golden handshake’, although golden boot might be a better term and a cynic might just call it a payoff. The university management, I would imagine, were itching to get rid of someone who was a one man bad publicity machine but preferred to avoid some of the difficult legal issues – and further negative media coverage – likely to be generated by a dismissal and then a likely industrial tribunal

Lecturers, after all, have a contractual right to express and defend controversial opinions. On the other hand, there is the legal requirement upon universities not only to avoid discrimination and since 2002 – to actively promote good race relations. Even if he didn’t have any black students Ellis’s reported views that women were intellectually less able than men raised questions about how equal his treatment of his students might be.

In political terms,of course, the affair raises all the usual well rehearsed arguments about freedom of speech. As student readers of John Stuart Mill know even the most offensive, illogical or intemperate view can be seen as having a certain usefulness in making us defend and think through our opinions. Suppressing extreme views merely creates the machinery to suppress more valuable views. Moreover, as David Cesarani eloquently argued in relation to the David Irving case, Mill’s classical liberal view of the public sphere as a kind market in ideas, where rational debate uses the daft and dangerous for its own ends, then filters them out, is not credible in the post-Holocaust, internet age.

My interest, however, is more in the light thrown on the further shores of the political right as well as a puzzled interest in the oddness of the man. I was briefly taught by in the final year of my Russian degree on 1991-2. A former Army interpreter in Germany Ellis was then seen a new broom in a department that hadn’t hired new staff for a while. His penchant for setting passages from the Soviet-Jewish writer Vassily Grossman for translation in fact led me read Grossman’s Life and Fate – the last book I borrowed from Leeds University Library (Ellis later also wrote a well received book on Grossma as well as another mainstream academic book on the Russian internet). However, even the short time he was there during my final year his odd demeanour and inclination to tell Action Man-ish tales of military parachute jumps gone wrong made him something of a minor figure of fun. Fellow students quickly nicknamed him Frankly Ridiculous.

Perhaps unsurprisingly as probationary lecturer, Ellis didn’t broadcast his political views at the time. All I can remember was a rather odd remark about how men should be tougher than women. He hit the headlines only in 2000 by attending a conference of the American Renaissance, an organization which acts as a clearing house for various far-right and extreme paleo-conservative groups with an interest in race and eugenics.

His politics are to say the least well down the black end of blue. In his various media appearances he invariably described himself as to ‘unrepentant Powellite’, an honest God traditional conservative persecuted for speaking out against the strictures of political correctness. However, closer examination of the article he wrote for Leeds Student newspaper that triggered his exit – thoughtfully reproduced by his friends at American Renaissance – show an obsession with socio-biology including as well as a missionary zeal to promote The Bell Curve and de rigeur references to Jensen and Eysenck that is more National Front than Enoch Powell.

As studies of Powellism – for example, Anna Marie Smith’s excellent Race and Sexuality in the Discourse of the British New Right – show Powell like all intelligent racists sought to exclude ethnic minorities using arguments based on history and identity; ‘common sense’ and what his constituents had supposedly said or written to him, rather than pseudo-scientific arguments about IQ and biology, easily challenged and unpicked. Indeed as Prof Roger Griffin’s work shows the smartest intellectual protagonist of ethnic inequality and overtly fascist anti-democratic values, such as France’s Nouvelle Droite have long since taken a ‘cultural turn’

IQ and intelligence are easily identifiable as social and cultural constructs, as are notions of ethnicity and ethnic groups. The effects of nature and nurture (culture, society) are almost impossible to disentangle. Looking at an individual, their ethnicity – assuming, of course, that we can meaningfully assess it – tells us nothing about any abilities of any kind whatever aggregate statistical curves might say. More fundamentally, why would we want to study the distribution of ‘intelligence’ across ethnic groups? For Murray in the Bell Curve the reason seems to have been to show that the US’s (disproportionately African-American) underclass was a ‘natural’ phenomenon, making welfare programmes and other forms of state intervention unnecessary

Ellis’s agenda is harder to discern, but anyone who has dipped into Michael Billig’s classic study of the 1970s NF Fascists! will recognize the intellectual landscape of Ellis’s rambling vituperative text. His references to pseudo-academic journals of ‘scientific’ institutes of the US far right he has published in and green ink letters fired off to public figures denouncing multi-culturalism show someone deeply embroiled in a political subculture somewhere between neo-fascism and traditionalist social-authoritarian Salisbury Review Toryism. Only the anti-Semitism of the neo-fascist right – also, interestingly a feature of Russian nationalism and the Stalinism experienced by Grossman – is missing.

Ellis has also been a regular contributor to Right Now! magazine mentioned in a previous post, although here he seems to fall into line with more Spectactor-ish culturalist arguments about ‘Eurabia’ and ‘Londonistan’ whose real target is liberals and liberalism (more prominently articulated by Melanie Phillips). Bizarrely in the plugs for Ellis’s less academic political tracts on the magazine’s website also get a bit of anti-communist hyperbole warning of the ‘Sovietization of the United Kingdom’. All very 1975.

And, yes, all frankly ridiculous.

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