Author Archives

Laurie Penny
Author, journalist, social justice bard.

Tea, Biscuits, and Empire: The Long Con of Britishness

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,360 words)

“I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”
— Winston Churchill, unpublished memorandum

“Will Mockney for food.”
— Alan Moore, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. III

This is a story about a border war. Specifically, a border war between two nations that happen, at least in theory, to be precisely the same place. One of them is Britain, a small, soggy island whose power on the world stage is declining, where poverty, inequality, and disaster nationalism are rising, where the government has mangled its response to a global pandemic so badly that it’s making some of us nostalgic for the days when all we did was panic about Brexit. The other is “Britain!” — a magical land of round tables and boy wizards and enchanted swords and moral decency, where the sun never sets on an Empire run by gentlemen, where witty people wear frocks and top hats and decide the fate of nations over tea and biscuits.

One is a real place. The other is a fascinatingly dishonest, selective statement of fact, rather like describing how beautiful the countryside was in the antebellum American South. A truth so incomplete it’s worse than a lie.

Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die. The U.K. is unique among modern states in that we not only buy our own hype, we also sell it overseas at a markup. “Britain always felt like the land where all the stories came from,” an American writer friend told me when I asked why she so often sets her novels in Britain. Over and over, writers and readers of every background — but particularly Americans — tell me that the U.K. has a unique hold on their imaginations.

Every nation-state is ninety percent fictional; there’s always a gap between the imaginary countries united by cultural coherence and collective destinies where most of us believe we live, and the actual countries where we’re born and eat breakfast and file taxes and die.

That hold is highly profitable. Britain was kept out of recession last year by one industry: entertainment. Over the past four years, the motion picture, television, and music industries have grown by almost 50 percent — the service sector, only by 6.  So many shows are currently filmed in England that productions struggle to book studio space, and even the new soundstages announced by London Mayor Sadiq Khan in 2018 will be hard-pressed to keep up with demand. As historian Dan Snow pointed out, “[O]ur future prosperity is dependent on turning ourselves into a giant theme park of Queens, detectives, spies, castles, and young wizards.”

There is hope: the statues are coming down all over Britain, starting in Bristol on June 7, 2020. Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a monument to slave trader Edward Colston, who is remembered for how he lavished his wealth on the port city and not for the murder of 19,000 men, women and children during the Middle Passage. In Oxford, students demanded the removal of monuments to Cecil Rhodes, the business magnate and “architect of apartheid” who stole vast tracts of Africa driven by his conviction in the supremacy of Anglo-Saxons. In Parliament Square, fences have been erected to protect Winston Churchill himself, the colonial administrator and war leader whose devoted acolytes include both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Young Britons are  demanding a reckoning with a history of colonial conquest, slave-trading, industrial savagery, and utter refusal to examine its own legacy.

Meanwhile, the economic disaster of a no-deal Brexit is still looming and Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, putting further pressure on an already-struggling National Health Service. Under Boris Johnson’s catastrophic leadership, or lack thereof, there are no signs of changing tactics on either. Fantasy Britain is having a boomtime. Real Britain is in deep, deep trouble. Read more…

No, I Will Not Debate You

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | September 2018 | 15 minutes (3,795 words)

“The media here is the opposition party.
They don’t understand this country.”
— Steve Bannon, to the New York Times

“A point of view can be a dangerous luxury
when substituted for insight and understanding.”
— Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

* * *

There are some stupid mistakes that only very smart people make, and one of them is the notion that a sensible argument seriously presented can compete with a really good piece of theatre.

Every day, people on the internet ask why I won’t “debate” some self-actualizing gig-economy fascist or other, as if formal, public debate were the only way to steer public conversation. If you won’t debate, the argument goes, you’re an enemy of free speech. You’re basically no better than a Nazi, and certainly far worse than any of the actual Nazis muttering about not being allowed to preach racism from prestigious pulpits. Well-meaning liberals insist that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” anti-fascists disagree, the far right orders more popcorn, and round and round we go on the haunted carousel of western liberal thought until we’re all queasy.

This bad-faith argument is a repeating refrain of this low, dishonest decade, and this month it built to another crescendo. In the U.S., The New Yorker bowed to public pressure and disinvited Steve Bannon, Trump’s neo-nationalist former chief strategist, from its literary festival. And in the U.K., The Economist chose to do the opposite.

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Peterson’s Complaint

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | July 2018 | 20 minutes (5,191 words)

“Incredible! One of the worst performances of my career, and they
never doubted it for a second!”
– Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“Now that’s a scientific fact. There’s no real evidence
for it, but it is scientific fact.”
Brass Eye, “Paedogeddon” episode

“The eternal dragon is always giving our fallen down castles
a rough time.”
Jordan Peterson, “Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority”


“We have this tree, and we have this strange serpent. That’s a dragon-like form, there—a sphinx-like form that’s associated with the tree… And so the snake has been associated with the tree for a very, very long time. The lesson the snake tells people is, you bloody better well wake up, or something you don’t like will get you. And who’s going to be most susceptible to paying attention to the snake? That’s going to be Eve.”

That’s Professor Jordan Peterson, offering the “realistic and demanding practical wisdom” endorsed by David Brooks in the New York Times.

“The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and his authority — people worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast.”

That’s the Book of Revelation.

“I could not understand why there was a half-man half-chicken statue outside. I spent the next six hours screaming. Non-stop screaming as loud as I could. I’d become convinced I was a dead body lying in a forest. I was in the afterlife, and more than that, I was in hell.”

And that’s a man from Vancouver describing a mishap with magic mushrooms in Vice. Of the three excerpts, it’s the only one that can convincingly claim to be non-fiction.

The first time I waded through the collected polemics and YouTube punditry of Professor Jordan Peterson — the unthinking man’s televangelist, inflated to the status of serious truth-seeker by respectable newspapers around the world — I was expecting to be at least slightly dazzled by his rhetoric. But no matter how long I stared at the magic-eye picture of jumbled platitudes, masturbatory nightmares about being devoured by an all-consuming mother figure, and occasional sensible tips about making your bed, it failed to resolve into a work of epoch-defining insight. Instead, it reads as if St. John the Divine of Patmos settled down and got a job selling insurance but occasionally had flashbacks to when he used to lick blue fungus off cave walls and babble about the Great Dragon. 

If every generation gets the intellectuals it deserves, we’re in serious trouble.

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Who Does She Think She Is?

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | March 2018 | 23 minutes (5,933 words)


Another day at the Telegraph and another attack on Laurie Penny.
— Nick Cohen, The Spectator, 2011

Do you think that red hair and makeup is used for anything other than attention? Her writing? Same. That bitch is a whore who needs to die choking on cocks.
— 4chan, 2016

I think that nice Laurie Penny over at the New Statesman must actually be a conservative mole dedicated to undermining leftism from within.
— Alex Massie, also at The Spectator, 2013

Hang this clown. Hang Laurie Penny.
— Urban75 (British left-wing forum), 2011

Now I don’t want to make light of her depression, but she has probably brought this on herself.
Desert Sun, “We Need to Talk about Laurie Penny,” September 2017

* * *

It’s a clammy summer night. You’re 24, and you call a suicide hotline.

The nice lady who answers is probably in her seventies. She is very understanding as you explain to her that hundreds of people, thousands of strangers, are saying awful things about you, that some of them seem to really want to hurt you. You don’t know why. You’re just a writer, and you didn’t expect this. But some of them tell you in detail their fantasies of your rape and murder.

The nice lady is very sweet as she asks you if these voices ever tell you to do things. Yes, they tell you to stop writing. You inform the nice lady about this in a creepy whisper because your family is sleeping nearby and you don’t want to wake or worry them. These strangers tell you you don’t deserve to live, let alone have a newspaper column. Do they tell you to hurt yourself? Yes, every day.

The nice lady tells you to hold the line, because if it’s alright, she’s going to transfer you to one of her colleagues with specialist training.

No, wait, you say. You’re not hearing voices. You’re not delusional.  The nice lady can Google you. This is really happening.

* * *

The internet hates women. Everyone knows that by now, and nobody precisely approves, but we’ve reached a point of collective tolerance. It’s just the way of the world, and if you can’t handle it, honey, delete your account. Stop engaging online. Cut yourself off from friends, family, and professional contacts, shut down your business, blow up your social capital, stop learning, stop talking, just stop. Or else.

The U.N. Broadband Commission tells us that one in five young women has been sexually harassed online. Amnesty International’s latest report suggested that over three-quarters of women and girls expected violence and abuse if they expressed an opinion online. “Online” is the least significant word in those sentences. I have been asked enough times if “the internet is bad for women.” And yes, there is reason enough to warn your daughter, your partner, your friend to watch out for herself online, to think twice before “putting herself out there.” You’d warn her in much the same way that you might warn her not to walk through town alone at night, not to wear a short skirt, not to let her guard down, not to relax, ever. And the message is the same: The future, like the past, is not for you. You may visit, but only if you behave.

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The Great Stink

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | February 2018 | 17 minutes (4270 words)

My heart goes out to men right now. Actually, my heart goes out to all sorts of unsavory places these days, no matter how much I warn it. My heart goes out to men most nights, wearing precarious outfits, no doubt getting exactly what it deserves. It brings back stories.

In the past weeks and months I’ve spent a lot of time sitting across tables from men who have been accused of sexual assault and rape — men who are angry, and afraid, and have no idea what to do now. Men for whom the fast-changing code of sexual and romantic conduct is not the most immediate problem: theirs is that they have been called out, condemned, and are wondering what the next months and years of their lives are going to look like. And in their bitterness I can hear a backlash coming down the tracks.

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We’re Not Done Here

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | January 2018 | 19 minutes (4,764 words)

The problem of sexual violation can not be treated as distinct from the problematic of sexuality itself. The ubiquity of sexual violations is obviously related to what is taken to be routine, everyday sex, the ‘facts’ of pleasure and desire.
— Linda MartAn Alcoff, Rape and Resistance

This kind of mania will always at some point exhaust itself.
— Andrew Sullivan, New York Magazine


Oh, girls, look what we’ve done now. We’ve gone too far. The growing backlash against the MeToo movement has finally settled on a form that can face itself in the mirror. The charge is hysteria, moral panic, hatred of sex, hatred of men. More specifically, as Andrew Sullivan complained in New York magazine this week, “the righteous exposure of hideous abuse of power had morphed into a more generalized revolution against the patriarchy.” Well, yes. That’s rather the point.

Sullivan is far from the only one to accuse the MeToo movement of becoming a moral panic about sexuality itself, and he joins a chorus of hand-wringers warning that if this continues — well, men will lose their jobs unjustly, and what could be worse than that, really? The story being put about is that women, girls, and a few presumably hoodwinked men are now so carried away by their “anger” and “temporary power” that, according to one piece in the Atlantic, they have become “dangerous.” Of course — what could be more terrifying than an angry, powerful woman, especially if you secretly care a little bit more about being comfortable than you do about justice? This was always how the counter-narrative was going to unfold: It was always going to become a meltdown about castrating feminist hellcats whipping up their followers into a Cybelian frenzy, interpreting any clumsy come-on as an attempted rape and murder. We know what happens when women get out of control, don’t we?

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The Consent of the (Un)governed

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | December 2017 | 15 minutes (3,881 words)

And when you’re a star, they let you do it.
You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy.
You can do anything.
— Donald Trump

What civilization has done to women’s bodies is no different than what
it’s done to the earth, to children, to the sick, to the proletariat;
in short, to everything that isn’t supposed to “talk.”
— Tiqqun, “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl” 

Something has snapped. In early autumn, women and men finally began to come forward to speak, in numbers too big to dismiss, about sexual harassment and abuse. It started in Hollywood. It spread, under the #metoo hashtag — first coined 10 years ago by Tarana Burke — across industries, across oceans, to the very heart of politics. Powerful men are losing their jobs. We’re having consent conversations at the highest levels, with varying degrees of retrospective panic.

Something broke, is breaking still. Not like a glass breaks or like a heart breaks, but like the shell of an egg breaks — inexorably, and from the inside. Something wet and angry is fighting its way out of the dark, and it has claws.

A great many abusers and their allies have begged us to step back and examine the context in which they may or may not have sexually intimidated or physically threatened or forcibly penetrated one or several female irrelevances who have suddenly decided to tell the world their experiences as if they mattered.

Look at the whole picture, these powerful men say. Consider the context. I agree. Context is vital. It is crucial to consider the context in which this all-out uprising against toxic male entitlement is taking place. The context being, of course, a historical moment where it has become obvious that toxic male entitlement is the greatest collective threat to the survival of the species.

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The Unforgiving Minute

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | November 2017 | 12 minutes (3,175 words)

“I’m sick of being asked to suffer so a man can grow.”

– Alexandra Petri

“Everyone. Fucking. Knew.”

– Scott Rosenberg

This is actually happening.

The so-called “revelations” about endemic male sexual aggression in Hollywood, in the media, in politics, in the tech world, and in communities large and small have not stopped, despite every conceivable effort to dismiss, discredit, shame, and belittle the survivors coming forward to demand a different world. The most uncomfortable revelation is the fact that none of this, really, was that revelatory.

A great many people knew. Maybe they didn’t know all of it, but they knew enough to feel tainted by a complicity that hobbled their compassion.

It turns out that this isn’t about individual monsters. It never was. This is about structural violence, about a culture that decided long ago that women’s agency and dignity were worth sacrificing to protect the reputation of powerful men and the institutions that enabled their entitlement. Everyone, including the “good guys,” knew it was happening. We just didn’t think it was all that wrong. At least, not wrong enough to make a fuss about, because the people groping their callous, violent way through life knew they’d get away with it, and most of the men around them were permitted the luxury of ignorance.

Except that now that seems to be changing. Now, Old Dinosaurs are wondering how to negotiate with an oncoming asteroid. Current or former Stupid Young Men are in a state of panic about their imminent introduction to the concept of “consequences,” leading to the question: what, precisely, is the age when men are expected to take responsibility for their behavior?

The answer, with any luck, is “The Digital One.”

Very few men seem sure what to do in this situation. I have been asked, repeatedly, what men and boys ought to be doing now. How should we behave differently? How guilty should we be feeling? What do women actually want?

Good. You’re finally asking. I suspect that if more of you had asked that question earlier, if you’d asked it often, and if you’d paid attention to the answers, we wouldn’t have to have this conversation — which nobody wants to be having — right now. It’s a shame, honestly, that it had to come to this. But here we are, and here we’re going to stay while powerful scumbags all over the world take a break from public life to spend more time with the police, and while people who’ve nursed private hurts for years start putting the puzzle pieces together until they recognize the shape of injustice.

I’m sorry; you’re new here. The notion that women’s agency and dignity might be more important than men’s right to act like grabby children whenever they want may feel like uncharted territory, but some of us have lived here all along. You don’t know your way around, and the whole place seems full of hidden terrors, and you’re tired and scared and being here makes you feel ignorant and powerless. You haven’t learned the language — they didn’t offer it at your school — and you wish you knew how to ask basic questions, like where is the nearest station, and how much is that sandwich, and do you know the name of a good defense lawyer? You wish you knew how to translate simple ideas, like: I’m hungry, and I’m lonely, and my entire life I’ve let my fear of women’s rejection control my behavior and that fear seemed so overwhelming that it didn’t matter who got hurt as long as I didn’t have to feel it and everyone else seemed to agree and now I don’t know who to be or how to act, or I think there’s a train leaving soon and I might need to be on it. Read more…

We’re All Mad Here: Weinstein, Women, and the Language of Lunacy

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

Laurie Penny | Longreads | October 2017 | 13 minutes (3,709 words)

We’re through the looking glass now. As women all over the world come forward to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, all our old certainties about what was and was not normal are peeling away like dead skin.

It’s not just Hollywood and it’s not just Silicon Valley. It’s not just the White House or Fox News.

It’s everywhere.

It’s happening in the art world and in mainstream political parties. It’s happening in the London radical left and in the Bay Area burner community. It’s happening in academia and in the media and in the legal profession. I recently heard that it was happening in the goddamn Lindy Hop dance scene, which I didn’t even know was a thing. Men with influence and status who have spent years or decades treating their community like an all-you-can-grope sexual-harassment buffet are suddenly being presented with the bill. Names are being named. A lot of women have realized that they were never crazy, that even if they were crazy they were also right all along, and — how shall I put this? — they (we) are pissed.

“It’s like finding out aliens exist,” said a friend of mine last night. He was two gins in and trying to process why he never spoke up, over a twenty-year period, about a mutual friend who is facing public allegations of sexual violence. “Back in the day we’d all heard stories about it, but… well, the people telling them were all a bit crazy. You know, messed up. So nobody believed them.”

I took a sip of tea to calm down, and suggested that perhaps the reason these people were messed up — if they were messed up — was because they had been, you know, sexually assaulted. I reminded him that some of us had always known. I knew. But then, what did I know? I’m just some crazy girl.

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The Horizon of Desire

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Laurie Penny | Longreads | October 2017 | 15 minutes (4,185 words)

“Man fucks woman. Man: subject. Woman: object.”

 —The Fall, Episode 3, “Insolence and Wine”

The first thing you need to understand about consent is that consent is not, strictly speaking, a thing. Not in the same way that teleportation isn’t a thing. Consent is not a thing because it is not an item, nor a possession. Consent is not an object you can hold in your hand. It is not a gift that can be given and then rudely requisitioned. Consent is a state of being. Giving someone your consent — sexually, politically, socially — is a little like giving them your attention. It’s a continuous process. It’s an interaction between two human creatures. I believe that a great many men and boys don’t understand this. I believe that lack of understanding is causing unspeakable trauma for women, men, and everyone else who is sick of how much human sexuality still hurts.

We need to talk about what consent really means, and why it matters more, not less, at a time when women’s fundamental rights to bodily autonomy are under attack across the planet, and the Hog-Emperor of Rape Culture is squatting in the White House making your neighborhood pervert look placid. We still get consent all wrong, and we have to try to get it a bit less wrong, for all our sakes.

To explain all this, I’m going to have to tell you some stories. They’re true stories, and some of them are rude stories, and I’m telling you now because the rest of this ride might get uncomfortable and I want you to have something to look forward to.

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