Notes from the New Age of Dissent: Committed, literary and stylish journalism

Carl Packman reviews Laurie Penny’s new book, and finds it to be a strong argument for the politics of passion over emotionless journalism of fact.

Virtuosos of the blogosphere – who wrote the following words?

“[Laurie] Penny is… cheered on by the youth for whom she speaks… she expresses the views of many in coherent and well thought out articles… is surely one of the most vibrant young journalists that we have [and] this country would be poorer without her.”

Was it some fawning leftie, overwhelmed by the stylishness with which Penny is expressing everything he/she thinks about the world of UK politics? Or a fellow young hack, not ashamed to show their admiration?

In fact the author is Michael Ezra, Harry’s Place blogger, anarcho-capitalist, self-confessed hedge fund guru, and someone who dedicates a good deal of time highlighting everything that is wrong about British Trotskyism and left wing movements in general.

Such is the power of Penny’s red pen – which she holds in her hand on the front cover of her new book “Notes from the New Age of Dissent”.

The volume is a collection of previously published blog entries piecing together her activism, but also writings on other topics serving as a reminder that, as well as being the “voice of a generation”, she is also a very serious writer all round.

In the heady days of student occupations before and after Christmas 2010, the Jeremy Bentham Room in the University College London (UCL) – an unofficial headquarters for much of the protest movement intelligence – had a dedicated media team drawing up pages of press copy on demand in the hope that it would reach news desks across the country, and play havoc with the bias reportage being presented in the mainstream.

For that team Laurie Penny was a gift from the heavens. Someone who has spent much of her life campaigning on issues key to students’ demands and who has a foot in the door of big press outlets.

This was not just a place where Penny could offer unique insight (though this is true) but somewhere she was really part of.

Unlike Orwell, Penny is fully incorporated into the fold of despair and pessimism for the future, in spite of her upbringing and success as a journalist, because more than the balance of material possessions, what our generation anticipates today is a bleak tomorrow – and, loath as I am to say it, this will affect everybody.

With Laurie hope is important. It’s vague, but that’s because late capitalist society breeds spectacle and inertia.

Today, the problem, as always, is systematic inequality, but it is also personal hopelessness.

Some of the old guard will tell you that in order to understand why this hopelessness will necessitate a different type of resistance than in previous times, it is vital to know the ins and outs of what put Left socialists and vanguardist Marxist-Leninists at loggerheads (see for example the argument Penny had with Alex Callinicos – not, unfortunately, included in the new collection).

This is not so. Laurie is able to put into words the angst and the anxiety that many feel today, in a way which draws on considerable empathy, not loathing or snobbery; indeed, Penny’s unique feature is not that she is young, female or politicised; it is that she is bringing back what journalism wrongly disavowed: committed, literary and stylish journalism.

Anyone who claims Laurie is an example of the “hacktivist” holds the ideological weight of one trying to tar her with the brush of bias. In fact, she is emphasising what Dennis Chase in a 1972 article referred to as “truth” over “facts”. She is the eye in the storm, not the interpreter of facts.

With this truth there is a real feeling of personability. What she does so well is draws you in to her narrative, to the point where on reading her blog posts you find yourself asking questions such as why did she giggle and say nothing? Did she ever contact the policeman on Facebook?

As author Warren Ellis says in the introduction to her book:

“Subjective journalism isn’t a crime [because] reportage needs to be a ‘living thing’.”

But not only that, her style will inevitably break down those barriers between journalist and reader – and even more importantly between activist and reader.

Unlike the conclusions to emerge from the sixties by fashionable post-structuralists, the becoming of the reader does not necessitate the death of the author. Laurie has instigated a co-existence between the two, and the political consequences of this will be crucial.

Gay Talese once said that himself, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson “were the best magazine writers going in the 1960s. They [journalism school students in the 1980s] should be better than us… Nobody is even half as good”. With Penny, may those writers – on whose work she surely styles herself – rest assured that this is no longer the case.

See also:

How we sold off the right to protest to the one per centAlex Hern, November 3rd 2011

The privatisation of public space is harming our ability to protestAlex Hern, October 30th 2011

Top five reasons why you can’t protest (according to the right)Alex Hern, October 26th 2011

Left needs to learn lessons from the StatesShelly Asquith, January 15th 2011

Beware of pushing Catholics out of the progressive clubKevin Meagher, September 18th 2010

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