The girl who cries “racist”

In recent weeks we’ve been discussing a couple of ambitious lads who, despite their very tender ages, have already made a big name for themselves by parroting — in print, online, and on TV — the familiar grab-bag of far-left talking points about America, Israel, “neoliberalism,” Kirchnerism, chavismo, Islam, Islamophobia, and so on.

One of these kids is Ben Norton, an American writer who contributes regularly to Salon and pops up frequently at Mondoweiss, AlterNet, and the Electronic Intifada. The other is Owen Jones, a British Guardian columnist who also turns up occasionally in The Independent, The Mirror, and New Statesman.

Both of these boys are as callow as they are predictable, but that hasn’t hindered them — on the contrary, it’s almost certainly helped them — on their very fast climb up the ladder of the transatlantic commentariat.

It’s only fair to give the other sex equal time, so this week we’re going to meet a young woman who’s every bit as spectacularly successful a far-left ideologue as Ben and Owen. Her name is Laurie Penny.

Just short of thirty years old, she comes from a very privileged background. The daughter of two successful lawyers, she went to a “posh” (her word) public school — which, of course, is what the British call their fancy private schools — and studied English at Wadham College, Oxford. Like Owen, she’s been a columnist at both The Independent and New Statesman, and currently writes for the latter. She’s also published several books: Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism (2011), Penny Red: Notes from a New Age of Dissent (2011), Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Athens (2012), Cybersexism: Sex, Gender and Power on the Internet(2013), and Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (2014). Yet another book, Everything Belongs to the Future, is forthcoming in October.

We’ll get around to some of her writings shortly; first, though, by way of introduction, let’s take a look at an excerpt from a June 2012 panel about English identity on which Penny, then age 25, appeared with Professor David Starkey, C.B.E., F.S.A., R.Hist.S., who at the time was 67. A couple of words about Starkey, which (for reasons that will become obvious) are relevant here: the son of a factory foreman and cotton weaver, he suffered as a child with club feet and polio, had a nervous breakdown at age 13, and attended Cambridge on a scholarship before going on to create a splendid and substantial career for himself as a serious historian of England and a presenter of well-received television documentaries about English history. He is also openly gay, and was an outspoken champion of gay rights at a time when that was a brave and dangerous path to take.

On, then, to the June 2012 panel. As can be observed in a video, Penny stood at the lectern and accused Starkey, who is not a bigot of any kind, of “xenophobia and racial prejudice” and asked him where he was “domiciled for tax purposes.” Starkey stood up and took her place at the lectern. “As you have chosen to be personal and invidious,” he said, “let me tell you a little story.” He told the audience that he and Penny had recently been invited by an underfunded institution to debate the topic of republic vs. monarchy. (Starkey is a monarchist.)

“I was prepared to do it for free,” Starkey recalled, but Penny “insisted on trying to charge such large fee that the event had to be cancelled.” Calling her action “mean and grasping,” Starkey said, “I will not be lectured to by a jumped-up public-school girl like you. I came up from the bottom and I will not have it!” (“Jumped-up,” by the way, is perfect here: it means someone who considers herself more important than she really is, or who has “suddenly and undeservedly risen in status.”)

He would not have it — and she could not take it. The rest of the video is almost painful to watch. Penny, obviously unsettled, says at first that she wants to reply to Starkey’s charge. She then bumbles through an incoherent explanation of her fee demands, citing her financial needs and plane schedules and problems involving other invited speakers. She then says she’s changed her mind — she doesn’t want to reply to Starkey. She then changes her mind again, and says that her request for a high fee for the republic vs. monarchy debate wasn’t really about money at all but about her fear that she would be personally attacked on that panel in the way, she says, that Starkey has attacked her just now. “There’s a violence inherent in this discussion,” she maintains, and again accuses Starkey of going personal and failing to maintain civility.

“You started it!” an audience member shouts. “You called him a racist!” Penny looks out at the crowd, uncomprehending. “He is a racist,” she says.

But of course this brief glimpse of Laurie isn’t enough to get the full picture. Tune in tomorrow, when we’ll look at a longer, more revealing video of her in action.

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