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January 2011

The Penny Hasn’t Dropped

Over the past few months I have become, and remain, deeply embedded in the student movement in the UK and Europe. Many of the young people who feature in the piece – on whose activities I’ve been keeping meticulous notes, and who are of a similar age and political attitude to myself – have since become as close to personal friends as observational subjects ever can be... This has stretched my objectivity to its limits. I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait.

So says Laurie Penny, reporting from “the front line of student activism.”

Readers familiar with Ms Penny’s brand of activist journalism – in the pages of the Guardian, New Statesman and the communist Morning Star - may find her use of the words “accurate” and “objectivity” inadvertently amusing. This is the same Laurie Penny who tells us that, while “not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist,” football is nonetheless “commodified nationalism” played by “misogynist jocks” indulging in “organised sadism.” The World Cup is apparently not about football at all, but “only and always about men.” It’s a “month of corporate-sponsored quasi-xenophobia,” one that “violently excludes more than half the people.”

Like so much in Laurie’s world, it just does, okay?

Writing for Red Pepper, Ms Penny tells us that, “capitalism is built on the docile bodies of women” and that women are reduced to “reproductive labourers whose physical and sexual autonomy is relentlessly policed.” The same article rails against “US state governments [that] compete to think up ever more cruel and unusual ways to punish women for sexual self-determination.” 

It is, I think, fair to say that Laurie Penny enjoys railing against things, generally things that aren’t entirely obvious but which are framed as both terrible and somehow self-evident. A typical Laurie Penny article is long on assertion, short on facts and coherent argument, and invariably written in the highest possible gear. She rails against the Conservative Party (“hordes of drooling poshos”) and its “brutally intolerant moral agenda.” The details of this brutally intolerant agenda are, alas, somewhat vague. She rails against “the bruised superstructure of patriarchal capitalist control,” the particulars of which also remain unspecified and mysterious. She rails against a “heteronormative patriarchy that oppresses all of us.” (What, you didn’t know?) She rails against “brutal repression” by an impending police state that no-one else can see, and she rails against protestors “not being heard,” as if being heard must entail being agreed with and obeyed. Ours, she says, is a world “on fire.”

When not railing against a heteronormative police state that’s brutal, intolerant and also on fire, Ms Penny likes to share with us an extensive menu of personal miseries, along with other aspects of her fascinating self:  

It’s getting harder to stay in touch with why I write and campaign in the first place. It’s getting harder to stay angry… That terrifies me more than anything... The centre-right have taken back my country… Across the pond, the American right are winning the fight for ideological control of the world's only superpower.

Continue reading "The Penny Hasn’t Dropped" »

Friday Ephemera

Very few people surf in the dark. // This product is endorsed by the Guild of Evil. // Matchstick insects. // Tape measure tesseract. // The dog dung vacuum. // Contemporary coffins. // For cat enthusiasts. // 100 years of IBM. // The Adventures of Sexy Batman. // Heroic but avoidable film character deaths. // Shelley Duvall says hello. (h/t, MeFi) // “The membrane is tens of times thinner than a human hair.” And it’s somewhere overhead. // Destination Moon, 1950. // Make your own planet. // “The goal is to show how hard and frustrating it was for an average person to simply do their shopping.” Yes, it’s communist Monopoly.

Elsewhere (30)

Kay Hymowitz outlines the tensions between institutional / academic feminism, in which the state is pivotal and must always expand, and the “Mama Grizzly” feminism of Sarah Palin and much of the Tea Party, in which budgets and bureaucracy are major issues too:

The Palinites, then, have introduced an unfamiliar thought into American politics: maybe a trillion-dollar deficit is a woman’s issue. But where does that leave expensive, bureaucracy-heavy initiatives like universal pre-K, child care, and parental leave? Consider a recent feminist initiative, the Paycheck Fairness Act, passed in the House but scuttled in November by a few Republican Senate votes. Feminist supporters, saying that it would close loopholes in previous antidiscrimination legislation, didn’t worry about how redundant or bureaucratically tortured it might be or how many lawsuits it might unleash. But chances are that the Grizzlies, in keeping with their frontiersy individualism and their fears about ballooning deficits, would see in the act government run amok. After all, it would come on top of the 1963 Equal Pay Act; Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination; the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act; innumerable state and local laws and regulations; and a crowd of watchdogs at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The ideological tension is perhaps best summarised by this contribution from the bewildered novelist Amy Bloom:

There is no such thing as free market/anti-legislation… feminism. 

Helen Smith notes a study by Daniel John Zizzo and Andrew Oswald on the cost of malice:

Are people willing to pay to burn other people’s money? The short answer to this question is: yes. Our subjects gave up large amounts of their cash to hurt others in the laboratory. The extent of burning surprised us… Even at a price of 0.25 (meaning that to burn another person’s dollar cost me 25 cents), many people wished to destroy other individuals’ cash.

And, via Mr Eugenides, Jonathan Rauch on intellectual pluralism and its opponents:

The modern anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic campaigners are totalists, demanding not that misguided ideas and ugly expressions be corrected or criticised but that they be eradicated. They make war not on errors but on error, and like other totalists they act in the name of public safety - the safety, especially, of minorities… For lack of anything else, I will call the new anti-pluralism “purism,” since its major tenet is that society cannot be just until the last traces of invidious prejudice have been scrubbed away.

Feel free to add your own.

Reheated (16)

For newcomers, three more items from the archives.

You Are Privileged to Witness Just How Brilliant I Am.

Conceptual artists reach bottom of barrel. Omar Kholeif swoons.

Some readers may recall the ICA’s Publicness exhibition of 2003, which - in ways never quite specified - “interrogated globalisation” and “notions of the public realm.” The exhibition’s four-page press release promised the thrill of “proposals for projects that may never be realised.” In other words, the artists were so heady in their conceptualism they could short-circuit the tiresome business of actually making or finishing anything and could instead be acclaimed, and paid, simply for airing “proposals.” One almost had to admire the efficiency. After all, it saved everyone – especially the artists – a great deal of time and trouble. Though you can’t help wondering how the artists would have felt had the audience adopted a similar approach to visiting the ICA: “Let’s not bother going and just pretend we did…”

The Crushing Patriarchy, Episode 12.

Bidisha sees “cultural femicide” everywhere. A “woman-free world” will soon be upon us. 

Note the assumption that “gender balance” is the natural default in all spheres of activity and thus any deviation from gender parity is evidence of systemic discrimination or some other injustice to be corrected. One wonders, then, what Mr Lawson and Bidisha make of other areas of endeavour such as elite chess tournaments, where criteria and performance are sharply defined and where men outnumber women by about 100:1. Now it’s possible that unfair discrimination may be a factor among any number of variables but the existence of such can’t be determined just from the ratio of male and female players. Whether or not meritocratic selection has been achieved can’t be deduced from whether gender parity results, since we have no basis, except ideology, on which to say that gender parity should be the meritocratic outcome. The assumption of a ‘natural’ 1:1 gender ratio in all occupations is itself a prejudice, albeit a modish one. On what basis do we determine that there ought to be a particular ratio of male and female philosophers, or mathematicians, or engineers? At what point and on what basis do we determine that a particular gender is sufficiently “represented” in a given vocation?

Go Barefoot for Gaia.

Ecological insight from the sculptor Antony Gormley.

“Dispense with your socks,” says he. “This is a time of global warming. Through our feet we can begin to feel it.” This is no doubt because “our feet connect with our brains” and “engage with time.” And what’s more, “through our feet we can begin to be one people, standing through gravity on one Earth.” Yes, standing through gravity, united in our socklessness.

Ruminate more fully in the greatest hits.  

Great in Theory

Time, I think, for another in our series of classic sentences. Further to George Monbiot’s belief that homeowners should be punished for having spare rooms that he thinks they “don’t need,” the Guardian has invited a panel of readers to comment on homelessness. One contributor is Thierry Schaffauser, a rent boy, porn actor and president of the International Union of Sex Workers (Adult Entertainment Branch).

Mr Schaffauser tells us,

My neighbours once put together a petition to get rid of me after they saw me on TV at Paris’s annual hookers’ pride march.

When not displaying his hooker’s pride, Mr Schaffauser finds time to hold forth on matters economic:

Many buildings are empty because rich people need more money in the bank. Owners prefer to keep their property empty: this increases demand for accommodation, thus raising the cost of renting.

Any landlords reading this, rich or otherwise, may be surprised to discover that the receipt of rent is no longer necessary or desirable. An empty rental property is, it seems, a more lucrative proposition.

Mr Schaffauser then appeals to precedent:

During the French Revolution, the National Assembly imposed a law to ban wheat hoarding in order to end the starving of the people. They confiscated the goods of the church and aristocrats and abolished privileges.

Which leads him to conclude,

The best solution to end homelessness is to abolish private propertyWhat is needed is requisition. Property is theft.

Unlike actual theft. Say, by the state. Clearly, people must not be allowed to have things to call their own and use as they see fit. What is it again that Mr Schaffauser does for a living?

I don’t think the abolition of privileges is complicated to do, we just need the political will.

Apparently privileges are quite unlike the rights claimed by Mr Schaffauser – and, it seems, much easier to do away with. Once private property has been abolished, and with it the practical footing of personal autonomy, I’m sure we’d all happily adjust to a world in which where one lives, and with whom one lives, is decided for us. By people who know better.

A sympathetic Guardian reader adds,

This is great in theory but I don’t see it working in practice.

Ah, but it’s nonetheless great in theory.

Friday Ephemera

“Instant fog.” // Worms, lasers and mind control. // A map of sequels; some good, some not so. The Rage: Carrie 2 is not, it seems, a classic. // Spiders of note. // Upholstered skateboard for ladies. “It’s meant to be stroked, not ridden.” // Orson Welles’ The Stranger (1946). // A compendium of Sherlock Holmes. // Supercomputer plays Jeopardy. // The Jurassic Park theme has been slowed down enormously. // Safety in the workplace. // Sea lion. // In 20 hours a lot of snow can fall. // Parallel universe film posters. // 24 hours of global air traffic. // Wine house. // The Blub Lounge Club, Barcelona. // “Do not make cucumber.”


“The call was recorded (like all White House calls at the time), and has since become the stuff of legend. Johnson’s anatomically specific directions to Mr. Haggar are some of the most intimate words we’ve ever heard from the mouth of a President.”

Lyndon B. Johnson orders roomier trousers, August 8, 1964.

Animated by Tawd Dorenfeld. The original thirteen-minute recording can be found here. Via Anna.

Elsewhere (29)

Andrew Withers on the totalitarian roots of the Fabian Society:  

These ‘intellectuals’ regarded the working classes as something akin to livestock.

Further to this epic thread, Ann Althouse talks with Glenn Loury and notes how concern for “harsh language” and “violent metaphors” is not without class implications

I think that if we go too far in the direction of this civility and etiquette, we’re kind of privileging some people over others. We’re privileging people who are more educated, people who come from a background where politeness and niceness is the cultural style, and delegitimising people who come from a different sort of culture, where maybe exaggeration and harsh speech is the thing.

Greg Lukianoff on free speech and “dangerous speech”:

Any system that allows for censorship must place an actual, flawed human being in charge of deciding what can and cannot be said. Once the power to censor has been granted, it follows like night follows day that those in charge will be more likely to use this power to punish people with points of view that they simply dislike than those with points of view they favour.

And Jonathan Rauch, author of Kindly Inquisitors, on the same: 

[Postmodernists] say... you should put in place the political system that most advantages the weak and minorities. I think that’s the wrong answer because what happens in practice when you do that is someone’s going to have to decide who’s the weak and who’s the minority, and who isn’t. And that means the Dean of Students or whoever it is at the university is going to have to be in charge of policing the boundaries of criticism and therefore policing the boundaries of thought... The University of Illinois system, to the extent that it fires people for offending someone, says the boundary of criticism in debate is wherever the most offended student can persuade the university to put it. And of course the next thing that happens is you have a campus offendedness sweepstakes to see who can get offended the most and thus become the gatekeeper for speech. 

 By all means add your own.

Friday Ephemera

Fearsome hamster fights off humans. // Cats, calm and oranges. (h/t, Simen) // Inquisitive crow. // Makerbot Thing-O-Matic kit. (h/t, Dr Westerhaus) // The world of Bang & Olufsen. (h/t, MeFi) // The history of the Batmobile. // Animatronic Hulk not entirely successful. // Do giraffes float? // The catapult fridge. // The Fairey Delta FD1 (1951) // The Enola Gay cockpit. (h/t, Kate) // Notable dog. // Living grass sculptures. // What the Guardian finds offensive. (h/t, TDK) // Why Star Trek:Insurrection is a terrible, terrible film. // Thunderstorms and antimatter. // Edison’s other inventions. // Don’t touch that dial. // Or the octopus chair.