Friday Ephemera
Because You Would

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.

That’s what clinical depression does, you see. It takes away your anger, piece by piece... When terrible things happen - like a coalition government closing down your country piece by piece, slamming the door on the young, the poor, the sick, immigrants, women - you cease to really believe that anything can be done.

And when not feeling numbed by the horror of it all, our thrusting leftwing columnist envisions a “radical youth movement” – “a movement not just for reform but for revolution” – one that “requires direct action” and “upsetting… our parents, our future employers… and quite possibly the police.” This revolutionary uprising is needed because, “the young people of Britain are suffering brutal, insulting socio-economic oppression.” (And yes, all of this is happening “in a world that’s increasingly on fire.”)

For Ms Penny, politics must always be declared in the most inflated and operatic terms. Proportion is a hindrance and realism is irrelevant, as are minor details like facts and causality. Among which, the relationship between a higher education bubble and egalitarian beliefs remarkably like her own. Thus, Laurie regards belated cuts in public spending – cuts that merely reduce the overall increase in spending  – as “the greatest assault on social democracy in living memory.” While 13 years of overspending and unsustainable state expansion under New Labour, a consequent structural debt measured in trillions and the buying of votes with other people’s money doesn’t count as an “assault” on anything. What matters – pretty much all that matters – is the drama, the role-play, the rhetorical rush. And in Laurie’s world everything is political, no matter how small, self-indulgent or contrived.

Needless to say, the news is always grim:

The planet is boiling; the rivers are drying up; the human race may very well be about to tear itself apart.

One of Ms Penny’s readers asks,

Why do you feel it important to be angry all the time?

While we wait for an answer, perhaps we should try reversing that sequence of ideas. After all, pretending to be angry makes some people feel important all the time.

Over at Harry’s Place, Michael Ezra recently asked: “Who is there to speak up on behalf of the students?” He suggested Laurie Penny had already become “the voice for a generation”:  

Penny is… being cheered on by the youth for whom she speaks… She expresses the views of many in coherent and well thought out articles… Penny is surely one of the most vibrant young journalists that we have.

Now there’s a thing to ponder. Let it roll around your mind. The preferred mouthpiece for Britain’s youth could be someone who can practically smell “the end of everything,” and who equates a modest cap on housing benefit – £20,000 a year - with the Nazis’ Final Solution.

Objectivity, see? Just stretched to its limits.


Update: Laurie rails against the menace of pubic glitter.

Update 2: Laurie tells us that throwing heavy metal objects through someone else’s windows isn’t really violence.

Update 3: Laurie hyperventilates, pities self, loses mind.

Update 4: The modern campus is akin to a “military dictatorship.” Psychodrama ensues.

Update 5: Laurie is marginalised, “marked as other,” and also a cyborg. Says the New York Times.




I'm angry all the time because of people like Ms. Penny claiming to speak for me.

What do I get?

Patrick Brown

“in a world that’s increasingly on fire.”

What, is she pitching for Jeremy Clarkson's job?


"When not railing against a heteronormative police state that’s brutal, intolerant and also on fire..."

It's like a psych profile for Britain's most wanted. Or Britain's most stupid.

And that squeaky voice is the icing on the cake…


"It's getting harder to stay angry… That terrifies me more than anything... The centre-right have taken back my country…"

Dear Laurie Penny, it's my country too and I had to put up with 13 years of New Labour's statism and massive overspending. So did my wife. But we didn't riot or 'upset the police'. We just helped vote the socialists out.

Maybe it's a grown-up thing.


She seems to be channelling Ric from 'The Young Ones':


Anyone with any sense of reality or historical awareness would understand implicitly that todays youth in the UK are the most pampered and privileged generation in tbe history of this country. They face record low levels of mortality, their working life begins later; they do not face conscription and death in war.

The more comfortable life is, the more scope for imaginary oppression and fatalism.


...and who equates a modest cap on housing benefit – £20,000 a year - with the Nazis’ Final Solution.

£20,000 a year is nearly double my mortgage. The one I have to work to pay for.


Won't the Moslem government of England make short work of her?


"What, is she pitching for Jeremy Clarkson's job?"

As an American who's only familiar with Jeremy Clarkson from my Top Gear addiction (the real one, not the depressingly awful American knockoff), I'm not sure what that means. Could you elaborate?

I know little about the man's politics, apart from his hatred of the "war on speed" and flappy-paddle gearshifts.

carbon based lifeform

If Laurie Penny is 'the voice for a generaton', that generation is seriously screwed.

carbon based lifeform

Generation, even.


“If Laurie Penny is ‘the voice for a generation’, that generation is seriously screwed.”

Well, the prospect doesn’t inspire great hope. But it seems she has plenty of fans, including some at the BBC. And evidently there’s a market for over-revved articles that presume the reader’s agreement rather than earning it.

For example, in Ms Penny’s World Cup piece, which is fairly typical, she asserts and implies all manner of things as if they were obvious and inarguable. There’s the bizarre claim that football “violently excludes more than half the people,” (i.e. women). The nearest thing we get to evidence of any kind is a single homophobic murder in the townships of South Africa two years ago. Maybe we’re supposed to believe that this one incident somehow proves that women everywhere are being “violently excluded” from playing and watching football. Which is strange, really, as the very same article refers to female players and the Women’s Football League.

And this is the standard pattern. A barrage of lurid or tendentious claims with either an isolated anecdote or no evidence at all, some loaded associations, and at least one glaring internal contradiction. The rest is just filler and anhedonic boilerplate: “”Britain is a shuffling, dissipated nation… big business… brutal… misogyny… minorities… crisis… doom… despair…”

If you’ve a stomach for it, it’s almost funny.

Patrick Brown

Apotheosis: "Could you elaborate?"

It just reminded me of Clarkson's habit of using the phrase " the world" and setting things on fire.


I wonder what Ms Penny thought of the Women's Rugby World Cup. I thought it was rather good:

But no doubt somebody was oppressing somebody.


I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that she's a right-wing plant, deployed solely to discredit the left-wing and in particular, the protest movement.

Anything else is too incredible to believe.


"I have had to work and rework the article to make sure I was constructing an accurate portrait."

Poor dear, having to toil to make a point because otherwise it might not be at all clear what she is banging on about.

Sgt Pinback

Silly cow.


"The rivers are drying up" - Tell that to the Aussies. Oh yeah, global warming causes snow storms, everyone is equally intelligent so you're stupid to think otherwise, and freedom is slavery. When is the next edition of the OED due out? I suspect there will need to be a companion dictionary for some of us equally stupid folks to understand it.


Perhaps she should just thcweeem and thcweeem and thcweem until she is thick.....


Any mention of Laurie Penny should have a link to this.


"She expresses the views of many in coherent and well thought out articles"

That one's a keeper.


I'm surprised at Michael Ezra. His articles ARE coherent and well thought out. His ability to locate the ridiculous in the far left is one of the reason I still go to Harry’s Place. Perhaps he was being "ironic".



“I’m surprised at Michael Ezra.”

Yes, it surprised me too, and for much the same reason.

sackcloth and ashes

'Perhaps she should just thcweeem and thcweeem and thcweem until she is thick.....'


carbon based lifeform

"Any mention of Laurie Penny should have a link to this."

And this:



“Anything else is too incredible to believe.”

In a sense, that’s the nub of it.

Like Bidisha - with whose writing her own is sometimes interchangeable - Ms Penny seems to value politics by its loudness and extremity. Moderation is disdained as “near non-involvement in politics” and she likes the idea of “upsetting” people, including her parents and the police. (Bidisha dismisses those who disagree with her as “lazy, complacent” and “apolitical.”) And maybe this liking for ostentatious radicalism has consequences. Ploughing through a dozen or so Laurie Penny articles is a strange experience. As well as the relentless hyperbole and self-contradiction, there’s an air of confabulation. If the activist drama blurs into distortion, implausible anecdotes and Things That May Not Have Actually Happened, that doesn’t seem to trouble her. What matters, apparently, is that it’s radical.

Andrew Zalotocky

There's a gay rights organisation called the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The members are known for dressing up as nuns and using Catholic imagery, for the usual tiresome radical chic reasons. However, it occurs to me that the "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence" is the perfect nickname for Bidisha and Penny.

In their "activist drama" the writer is the heroic voice of truth railing against an apocalypse that the poor deluded sheeple can't even see. It's one long ego trip in which the writer is always the star of her own Manichean melodrama. Facts are merely props, and other people are just extras.

I'm ready for my close-up comrade DeMille!

Ian F4

I'm not sure if I'm a citizen of "her" country, mine has a blue sky over it.


More "Sisters of Perpetual Indignance" I would think, Andrew.


"implausible anecdotes and Things That May Not Have Actually Happened"

Being radical means you can make stuff up.

Didn’t you know?

sackcloth and ashes

Ms Penny seems to be a combination of these two characters:


Maybe she was brought up by Modern Parents?

sackcloth and ashes

Possibly, but remember that Tarquin and Guinevere have the common sense to revolt against their upbringing.


In her Twitter stream, Ms Penny writes, “Horrified to hear about police violence being reported at [the] protest in London today… Peacefully asking companies to pay their tax is now ‘extremism’, but using poisons on said protesters is clearly fine.”

Most likely she’s referring to the incident linked below, in which protestors, some of whom were masked, invaded and eventually shut down a Boots store. One protestor was arrested for suspected criminal damage, at which point other protestors tried to overpower the arresting officer in an attempt to prevent the arrest. Despite repeated instructions to step back, a scuffle ensued, during which at least three protestors ended up with CS spray in their faces. The protestors accused the police of being “violent,” “heavy-handed” and “disproportionate.” (The views of the store’s owner and customers are, sadly, unclear.)

It’s unlikely that CS spray would have been used – properly or not - if protestors hadn’t assumed they were entitled to obstruct and manhandle a policewoman. Curiously, the protestors don’t seem to regard their own actions as constituting provocation, law-breaking or a cause for physical remedy. Some of those involved may, like Ms Penny, thrill to the prospect of “direct action” and “upsetting” the police. Yet they’re taken aback when the police repay the favour.


"at which point other protestors tried to overpower the arresting officer in an attempt to prevent the arrest."

The Guardian says they only "tried to reach the arrestee". (Er... to do *what* exactly?)

Classic Graun.


> Peacefully asking companies to pay their tax is now ‘extremism’

Well it IS extortion.

Karen M

The Guardian comments are up to the usual standard.

"It is now safer to protest in Cairo than in London."

It's official then. Britain is a police state… Someone tell Laurie Penny she was right all along!


“The Guardian comments are up to the usual standard.”

Yes, I was almost hypnotised by the intense discussion of rubber door seal integrity. But if the comments are even partly representative of the broader protest movement (and judging by several activist Twitter streams they’re in the same ball park), then they don’t inspire confidence. Again, whatever the shortcoming of any particular claim or counterclaim, what stands out is the apparent inability – or unwillingness - of many commenters to see beyond their own immediate, self-justifying circle.

A similar attitude was on display during the six-day “occupation” of the NYU student centre a couple of years ago, where protestors seemed to imagine they could act with impunity. The protest organiser, Alex Lotorto, made the usual pacifist noises and announced his own heroism: “I put my body on the line for changes I want to see in the world… I am non-violent for now, but my rage is infinite.” Despite assaulting police officers and causing $80,000 worth of damage, the protestors’ first demand was for “a full legal and disciplinary amnesty,” because apparently laws, bills and responsibilities shouldn’t apply to them.

A variation of this theme is: “But the police have batons, spray and body armour. We don’t. So why are they so twitchy when they’re surrounded by a screaming, pushing mob? We should be allowed to shove and kick without retaliation.” (And yes, there is indeed a version of this one in the Guardian comment thread.)

Not the best way to cultivate sympathy.

sackcloth and ashes

I suppose the logical approach would be to have your demonstration without behaving like the Inter City Crew. But then that's just me.

I'm reminded of a scene from a not-very-successful Simon Pegg sitcom called 'Hippies', when the offices of the counter-culture newspaper 'Mouth' gets burgled. The police turn up, and all the radicals start looking embarrassed when the coppers notice the 'Smash the Pigs' posters on the walls.



“But then that’s just me.”

I suspect it’s quite a lot of people. But protest movements generally include a mix of motives; some of which are stated honestly, some not. Some of those protesting will have grievances (credible and otherwise) that are held in good faith. Others – typically the most vehement – will be keen to display their radical credentials and thus impress their peers, often by being provocative and aggressive in front of an audience.

John D

The protestors want to stop companies like Boots using *legal* means to minimize their tax liabilities. So they'll be shutting down the Guardian's offices next weekend, won't they?

"The Guardian Media Group is one of the shrewdest corporate avoiders of tax in Britain, in 2008 it made a £300 million profit and yet managed to pay no corporation tax, the following year in 2009 it still paid no corporation tax, it uses the offshore Caymans tax haven to own assets, it uses tax efficient trusts and deploys all manner of perfectly legal tax shelter strategies to avoid paying tax."

sackcloth and ashes

David, I think Nick Cohen has it nailed:


Nick Cohen can't see that the BNP is far left (with just a different group to victimise from Classic Marxism).


a movement not just for reform but for revolution” – one that “requires direct action” and “upsetting… our parents, our future employers… and quite possibly the police.”

Oh.good.lord. Isn't one 1968 enough?



Another nugget from the Guardian:

“A new kind of protest tactic… has emerged in the last few months: the ‘civic swarm’, which sees large groups of demonstrators peel off from official marching routes and instigate flashmobs at shops such as Vodafone and Topshop, but which is arguably a perfectly justifiable form of protest.”

Yes, mobs in shops. That’ll play out well. Do these terribly radical individuals not realise how their interactions with the police - and now the public - will most likely escalate in vehemence? Or do they not care? We saw this “swarm” tactic in action last week in Manchester, where around 150 “activists” broke from the agreed route, evaded the police and ran straight into traffic, hurling projectiles at several terrified drivers. Elsewhere, violent incidents were reported as “activists” tried to force their way into a number of high street stores, leading to scuffles with staff.

This, apparently, is “a perfectly justifiable form of protest.” Evidently, some people are thrilled by the prospect of a protest arms race. But if incidents like the above become a preferred tactic, I somehow doubt it will lead to a swell of public support.

sackcloth and ashes

Talking of 'Viz', the latest issue has a Student Grant story which is particularly apt.


She obviously has no sense of proportion. I bet she sports a fair ignorance of history and much of the rest of the world. After all, if that's how she describes the coalition what sort of language is left for the real bad hats?


I just think it's a trifle hypocritical to moan about police action against protesters after writing :

"You can't stop the cities. You can't stop the internet fracturing everything that was solid and safe about the priggish culture that made you. You can't stop the riot that's brewing ... you can't 'put Britain back.' You can't ever put Britain back... I'm scared as hell of what's going to happen to this country and city I love, but I'm going to enjoy watching you bleed."

PS - are you the David Thompson who's doing the cinema history of Radio Four ?

sackcloth and ashes

I should add that Penny takes an absolute shoeing here:



“I just think it’s a trifle hypocritical…”

Yes, being aghast at three protestors getting sprayed doesn’t sit too comfortably with her own articles or her comments on Twitter. A few hours earlier, Laurie had been “deeply embedded” with another group of protestors (to which she refers as “us”) and was enthusiastically charting their progress as masked “activists” broke down cordons and invaded Milbank Tower. Again, you could easily get the impression that disorder and aggression from one party is righteous and rather thrilling, but any physical attempt to resist it or repay it is outrageous. You’d think a “vibrant young journalist” would pause to reflect on this, or ask whether people in masks running amok, “tearing down cordons” and invading private property might not be an entirely good thing and might have consequences.

But this is Ms Penny’s preferred rhetorical strategy. She asserts something breathlessly, and then quickly asserts something else on top of it, then something else, and soon you have a pile of assertion that’s fatuous and incoherent but difficult to unpick. If you can assert things loudly enough and quickly enough you can simply beg the question and convince yourself you’re right. Logic and facts just get swept away in the rhetorical avalanche. It’s not an original strategy but it can work, especially if you’re surrounded by people who want to believe the same self-flattering conclusions and don’t much care how you arrive at them.

“PS - are you the David Thompson who’s doing the cinema history of Radio Four?”

Heh. No. His surname has no ‘p’. Though, oddly enough, a couple of newspapers for which we’ve both at some point written have tried to send me his fees.


She asserts something breathlessly, and then quickly asserts something else on top of it, then something else, and soon you have a pile of assertion that’s fatuous and incoherent

That Oxbridge education really paid off. Wadham College must be proud.



“Wadham College must be proud.”

Well, you’d think any staff with intellectual standards might wince a little. But I suppose it depends on whether Wadham employs academics as daring and edgy as anthropology lecturer David Graeber, whose favoured topics include “anarchism” and “magic as a tool of politics,” and who announced that he was “very proud” of the rioting students, adding: “They are going to represent us as thugs but really they are the thugs and we are representing civilisation.” (For Mr Graeber’s definition of civilisation, see the video linked below.) Or Luke Cooper, an assistant tutor and member of the “socialist youth movement” Revolution, who feels government buildings are “legitimate targets for protest and occupation.”

I’m sure Mr Cooper and his peers wouldn’t mind if, say, a mob of taxpayers repaid the favour and invaded their classrooms or trashed the faculty lounge.

Sgt Pinback

Jesus Christ. If you thought this was bad have a look at Penny's 3rd February post. I'd say it was comedy gold (the first few comments definitely are) except that the levels of egotism involved in this atrocity suggest serious mental health issues.

Patrick Brown

Just read Penny's aforementioned 3rd February post, and I have to admit I find it reassuring.I don't think comparisons with the likes of Bidisha, who seems to me to largely motivated by spite and the desire to provoke, are warranted. Penny's just an idealistic kid with a cause, and while she may be a bit self-righteous, hypocritical, incoherent or just plain wrong-headed in her columns, that kinda goes with the territory. If you can't be immature when you're young, when can you be?

Besides, higher education is the UK is a shambles, and increasing the cost of it won't improve a system whose main point is increasingly to certify what social class you belong to. Labour's introduction of tuition fees (also against an explicit manifesto commitment, but oddly breaking that promise didn't provoke the same kind of anger as the Lib Dems did, and the Lib Dems at least had the excuse of being a minority partner in a coalition and had to compromise some of their policies to get others accepted) and arbitrary increase in student numbers was part of their overall effect of stopping social mobility and productivity stone dead. As well as trapping the poor on benefits so generous they can't afford to take a job, they directed any excess money the middle classes might have away from potentially being spent in productive areas of the economy into servicing debt on education and house prices.

The Tories are showing signs of wanting to fix the benefit problem - the level they've capped benefits at is still higher than you can get on minimum wage, but hopefully they'll close that gap gradually - but they're continuing Labour's higher education policy. The student protest movement might not know what they want or how to get it, but they are reacting to a genuine problem.



“Penny’s just an idealistic kid with a cause, and while she may be a bit self-righteous, hypocritical, incoherent or just plain wrong-headed in her columns, that kinda goes with the territory.”

Sadly, idealism is cheap and one can’t act like a teenager forever. Nor can one base a “revolution” on self-righteous hypocrisy and wrong-headed incoherence. (Well, maybe technically one could, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a blueprint for utopia.) And if a person sets themselves up as an “activist journalist” and professional political commentator – one who wishes to be “objective” and yet, more importantly, “useful to the protest movement” - then it helps to have mastered at least some of the pertinent facts and to have a grasp of economics and rudimentary logic. None of which would seem to be the case. (As the Devil pointed out somewhat saltily, Ms Penny seems to live in “a fantasy world in which government spending is not the extorted product of people’s hard work, but magic fucking money that falls from the sky.”)

If higher education is the UK is “a shambles,” or at least grossly inflated, unmoored from the market and therefore unsustainable, how will this be remedied without addressing basic factors which Ms Penny seems keen to avoid, possibly due to the light it might shed on egalitarian conceits remarkably like her own?


and while she may be a bit self-righteous, hypocritical, incoherent or just plain wrong-headed...

Yeah, if we set aside everything she writes she's doing really well. ;D

Patrick Brown

"Sadly, idealism is cheap and one can’t act like a teenager forever."

True. But my point is, she is as yet unformed and her post on Thursday shows some awareness of her youth and immaturity. She's not a hardline ideologue, at least not yet. If she grows up to be Polly Toynbee, of course, you have my permission to rub my face in it.


I think it goes deeper than mere youth - she has the voice & mental horizons of a bath toy.



"If you can't be immature when you're young, when can you be?"

But she's not just immature (and self-righteous, hypocritical, incoherent, wrong-headed, etc etc) She always so bloody adamant too. She is an ideologue. She just knows it's all because of the patriarchy, sexism, bankers and the evil tories.

One whiny blog post about 'still learning the rules' doesn't cut it. There's never any doubt in her articles -she just knows she's right. She can't have it both ways.

sackcloth and ashes

'she has the voice & mental horizons of a bath toy'.

Bravo. My apologies in advance if I use this phrase without attribution.


there’s an air of confabulation. If the activist drama blurs into distortion, implausible anecdotes and Things That May Not Have Actually Happened, that doesn’t seem to trouble her.

Oops. Another one:

"But this isn't like your recorded, interview-style, on-record words being taken out of context, or mangled a bit. Laurie wasn't recording our conversation, or taking notes. I thought we were talking as activists, acquaintances, even friends. This isn't a misquote, because no original quote exists. It's a fabrication."

(Via Tim Worstall.)


Heh. Imagine my surprise.


Not saying that she's right with any other point, but does anyone else here agree with her on the notion that the fandom around football is “commodified nationalism”?

There seem to be many people for whom the achievements of their country's football team have very personal connotations. When Germany won the World Cup in 1990, the newspapers here were full of headlines like "Wir sind Weltmeister!" ("We are World Champion!"). This leads to a sense that when you inhabit a certain country, you're not only exposed to its culture, which is true, but you're an integral and essential part of it. This only strengthens the us-and-them-mentality that's such a big part of nationalistic feelings. Of course this won't lead to the Fourth Reich here or the equivalent of it anywhere else, as someone like Laurie Penny might believe. But I'm not sure if it's such a good thing either.

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