In a 30-year career as a columnist, memoirist, and sometime reality-television personality (seasons five and six of Top Chef), the English writer Toby Young cultivated an image as a laddish, occasionally buffoonish ne’er-do-well. His 2001 comic memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, about his many missteps in attempting to practice celebrity journalism in the employ of Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair in New York, is one of the funniest books about journalism ever written. It was such a success in Britain that Young adapted it for the London stage, where it played for several months. (The 2008 film version, with Simon Pegg as “Sidney Young” and Jeff Bridges as a Carter-like figure, was unfortunate.) The book trades heavily on self-deprecating humor about various instances when Young tried to be funny and discovered to his mortification that he was being an ass. “Based on the true story of a real idiot” and “He’s across the pond and out of his depth” were two of the film’s marketing taglines.
By 2011, though, married and with four children, Young had found a new calling in life: education. Young was a pioneer in the English “free schools” movement — we call them “charter schools” — and co-founded the West London Free School. It was the first of what are now hundreds of free schools to be greenlit in England, whose state-run schools suffer from many of the problems associated with America’s education bureaucracy. Young helped set up three more free schools. His waggish writing turned increasingly to earnest public-policy discussions.
In honor of his newfound dedication, Young was appointed by the Conservative-led government to a minor bureaucratic post: one of 15 seats on the board of a new higher-education regulator, the Office for Students. Eight days after the January 1 announcement of his appointment (he would have been one of only three Conservatives on the board), he was forced to resign. “My life completely unraveled,” he told me. A combination of the education blob, the Twitter mob, and Guardian nobs had mounted a relentless public-shaming campaign against him based on his past writings. “There was a petition with 230,000 signatures calling for my head,” he says. “There was a kind of mob of journalists on my doorstep. My 14-year-old daughter was refusing to go to school.”
The indictment against him was unsealed in the Guardian of January 3, under this classic of hysterical headline-writing: “Toby Young quotes on breasts, eugenics and working-class people.” After Young stepped away from the Office for Students and apologized, though, what happened next was even worse. As the mob kept yowling, Young was forced to resign from the U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission, where he’d served since 2013, and he lost an honorary fellowship from the University of Buckingham. Fearing that public funding for his free schools was now endangered by association with him, he also stepped down from his full-time day job working as the chief executive of the New Schools Network, a group that aids others who wish to set up free schools.
To review the controversial remarks: In 2009, Young was watching a TV special when he noticed a presenter had slimmed down: “What happened to [Claudia] Winkleman’s breasts? Put on some weight, girlie,” he tweeted. Another time, while he was watching Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament, an awkwardly framed image showed the cleavage (but not the head) of a woman wearing a low-cut top behind the then-leader of the opposition. Young tweeted, “Serious cleavage behind Ed Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to?” Twice he joked on Twitter about the breasts of his Top Chef colleague Padma Lakshmi. Once, when another Twitter user commented that in a photo shoot featuring both Young and Lakshmi, the latter looked “surprised but pleased,” Young tweeted tastelessly, “Actually, mate, I had my d*** up her arse.” Labour members of Parliament and their allies in the media characterized the above as proof that Young was a “misogynist” who had “joked about anal rape.” Young says he and Lakshmi had engaged in “a bit of ribald banter” on the show and that she never indicated she was offended by his jokes.
The “eugenics” remark Young once made was hardly a call to stamp out the unfit. It was closer to the opposite: In a 2015 article for Quadrant, an Australian journal, he wrote:
My proposal is this. Once [genetically engineered intelligence] becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite.
As for Young’s purported enmity toward the working class, all the Guardian offered was this line from the 1988 book The Oxford Myth, in which he continued the century-old Oxford tradition of mocking the scholarship students known as “stains”: “Small, vaguely deformed undergraduates would scuttle across the quad as if carrying mobile homes on their backs. Replete with acne and anoraks, they would peer up through thick pebble-glasses, pausing only to blow their noses.” This was supposed to prove that Young couldn’t be trusted on any matter pertaining to the education of working-class folk because he hated them. In fact, as a member of the Fulbright Commission, he had helped secure scholarships for hundreds of disadvantaged British students attending American universities, and 40 percent of the students at his West London Free School are from underprivileged backgrounds.
The Left disingenuously misread a 2012 column Young wrote for The Spectator to make it appear that he was mocking the disabled when it’s obvious he was instead mocking the idea of doing away with standards. Young wrote:
Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be “inclusive” these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from dyslexia to Münchausen syndrome by proxy. If [then–education secretary Michael] Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the government will have to repeal the Equalities Act because any exam that isn’t “accessible” to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be “elitist” and therefore forbidden.
Young (who has a disabled half-brother, Christopher, and is a patron of the residential-care facility where Christopher lives) clearly wasn’t calling disabled people as a class “troglodytes.” He was using comic hyperbole to question the eliding of standards.
All of this offense archaeology, as Freddie deBoer has dubbed it, required the additional tactic of misleading paraphrase to make Young’s comments sound unconscionable. In a typical smear, the Labour MP Dawn Butler eagerly led the parade of feigned outrage in the House of Commons and on the BBC program Question Time, in which she described Young as “laughing about anal rape of women, or talking about eugenics and weeding out disabled people, or complaining that schools have ramps so disabled people can get an education.” All of these charges rested on the assumption that no one would compare them with Young’s actual words. So did an even more spurious charge of Butler’s that Young was guilty of homophobia and molesting lesbians. This was a reference to a humorous piece of stunt journalism Young wrote in the late 1990s for which he dressed up as a woman with the stated intent of making out with beautiful lesbians at women-only clubs but found no takers.
What’s especially painful to Young about this public flogging is that he acknowledges that his journalism career contained an element of frivolity. “Starting the four schools and getting involved in various charities felt like a form of redemption,” he says.
I wanted to do something more useful with my life, having frittered away 25 years on self-mocking journalism. But I was effectively being told by these high priests and priestesses of the sanctimonious Left that redemption wasn’t an option for me. The things I’d written and tweeted in the past, when I was less serious, were so unspeakable that I wasn’t a fit person to be involved in schools or to serve on the board of a public regulator.
Young’s cloddish persona in his writing was always something of a put-on; he got a first in philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford and then won a Fulbright to study at Harvard. In person, he is thoughtful and measured. A few of the jokes he has made over the years were in poor taste, he admits; some were made “late at night after several glasses of wine.” But he is dumbfounded that critics are using them to nullify his laudable career in education reform. “No one said, ‘Let’s set them against all the good things he’s done in the last ten years.’ That wasn’t the calculus. It was, ‘He is not fit to serve in any capacity whatsoever regardless of anything he might have done.’
“It felt unjust. I was being judged not by my actions but for having said and written various politically incorrect things in the past.”
In today’s world, actually doing things to aid the disadvantaged counts less than making dumb jokes. If you’ve done the latter, you’re no longer allowed to do the former. As Young puts it, “Virtue-signaling is more important than being virtuous.”