Cummings, Epstein, Sabisky – what fertile ground for ‘offence archaeologists’

Catherine Bennett
Cummings, Epstein, Sabisky – what fertile ground for ‘offence archaeologists’. Social media turns out to have virtues: hosting the murky comments of weirdos and misfits

You can’t say anything these days, can you? Not even online, where only a few thousand or so people were meant to see or retweet it. Whether it’s hilarious – “Actually, mate, I had my dick up her arse” – or thoughtful – “I have a thing for incest erotica myself” – some busybody will dredge it up and before you know it you’ve lost your job as a universities regulator, a government aesthete or, as has just happened to the incest erotica fancier, a policy adviser, based in Downing Street.

As Toby Young, the martyred Spectator columnist, repeatedly complains, innocent upon innocent is being hounded from publicly funded posts for making obscene, racist or otherwise mysteriously controversial comments. Him. Scruton. Now Andrew Sabisky, the professional superforecaster who failed to superforecast that his provocative statements about, among other things, sex, women and eugenics would provoke people. Do we add, to this distinguished list, Labour’s own supercreep, Jared O’Mara? Naz Shah, exposed by Guido Fawkes? Probably not, since Conservatives are, you gather, infinitely more at risk from their own words. Unless, obviously, they’re Boris Johnson.

The threat to lower-ˆstatus conservatives arrives, we learn, when they are widely read, thanks to a process of quotation that Young and his sympathisers have renamed, in a phrase intended to stop this nuisance, “offence archaeology”. And other than featuring living people, the redefinition of historical as worryingly recent, and the focus on finds that were actively designed to be discovered by as many people as possible, the comparison with conventional archaeology could scarcely be more apt.

Not that the activity is new. Long before social media, and even outside provocateur circles, ostensibly blameless people were targeted by recruiters whose word for this form of investigation was, historically, vetting.

“The media hysteria about my old stuff online is mad,” Sabisky tweeted.

If only Sabisky had been applying to be, say, a fast-track civil servant, someone might still have stumbled on his various leavings and – at a minimum – wondered what, if it wasn’t limitless exceptionalism, could have induced a serious applicant not to do a clean-up. It seems the likeliest explanation. “The media hysteria about my old stuff online is mad,” Sabisky tweeted.

Even Young, after people wondered about the fit between higher education work and the sort of middle-aged man who tweets: “Women who display a lot of cleavage shouldn’t then complain when men notice them” (2013), conceded his comments were “sophomoric and silly”. Only later was their circulation repurposed as a free speech moment, a grim warning for all salaried public officials claiming the right to openly perv, sorry, challenge “the liberal-left consensus”.

But you can see why Young might feel sore. His exceptionalism – with the help, for once, of social media – did public life a favour. What will happen when individuals like him and Sabisky, pausing to consider the perspective of people they would probably consider genetically disadvantaged, become more cunning? The next Cummings misfit may already have deleted similar evidence. With vetting clearly abandoned inside Downing Street, the more of this archaeology – or reading – the better. It’s only, after all, because Cummings, convinced of his superiority, leaves his rambling, stream-of-consciousness blogs open to view that we can be sure the country is now being run by a man, some of whose preoccupations can disconcertingly recall those of the late Jeffrey Epstein.

True, at least one similarity is glaring. The way Cummings signals his maverick dominance via jeans, hoodies and insultingly sloppy dress finds a parallel in his fellow blogger Epstein and his preference for Harvard hoodies and jeans, even with eminent individuals he planned to befriend. Epstein quit a university board, it was reported, “because he didn’t like to wear a suit to meetings”.

But anyone who has ever spent time on Cummings’s blog and Epstein’s various websites must have noticed a shared habit of scientist-name dropping, a shared interest in AI, genomics and eugenics, and an unfortunate habit, in both cases, of undermining this effortful scholarship with schoolboy showing-off.

“It’s my natural bent,” Epstein said, “to move towards the maverick and people who don’t fit in.”

Elaborating on the fab time that he – a layman! – had mixing with geniuses at a conference where subjects included genetically altered astronauts and bringing Neanderthals to life, Cummings shares, for example, his interest in the Harvard biologist George Church, creator of a potentially IQ-enhancing, genome-editing tool. Church has become yet more familiar since then for associating with another fan, Epstein, when the latter was a registered sex offender. “There was just a lot of nerd tunnel vision,” Church explained.

When not raping girls, Epstein liked to socialise with pet scientists, having them round, offering money, banging on about genetics and IQ, including a scheme to populate the world, via sex slaves, with an Epstein master race. He favoured, one interviewer concluded, researchers who “fit the old stereotype of scientists whose brilliance makes them social outcasts”. Not, perhaps, unlike the individuals to whom Cummings referred, in his “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” recruitment drive.

“It’s my natural bent,” Epstein said, “to move towards the maverick and people who don’t fit in.”

Just occasionally, Epstein’s brains became aware of passing female accessories. To a Vanity Fair profiler, in 2003, the late Murray Gell-Mann, discoverer of the quark – “rather sweetly mentions that ‘there are always pretty ladies around’ when he goes to dinner chez Epstein”. Gell-Mann invented “Odyssean Education”, a system alleged, chez Cummings, who named a pamphlet and his Twitter account after it, “to focus on humans’ biggest and most important problems and explain connections between them to train synthesisers”.

Since one social media detectorist’s ugly discoveries will strike another as priceless synthesis, Cummings’s echoes of Epstein will probably look as unremarkable to some as the same blog’s overwrought abuse (“metastising tumour”), its fondness for Nietsche. To Boris Johnson, Young offered the country “caustic wit”. But without the caustic wit/offence archaeology, how would we know? Sabisky will not need telling, with his work now quoted everywhere, that he has a bright future at the Spectator.

• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist