Laurie Penny and her “lost boys” and the journalism we deserve

I’m writing this down because of the lump I had in my throat while reading the Laurie Penny article on Milo Yiannopoulos’ followers. It shows the limits of her wonderful way of writing within the sad state of journalism as it is: Best payed for stirring up emotions and discussions, and for setting social groups up against each other. A left feminist journo reporting from within a neo-right anti-feminist group? OMG must-read! Of course it “works”. It even stirred heated discussions up on social media long before it was published. That’s a sign of journalism that “works”, a sign of “good” journalism today. Isn’t it? And now it gets published at the perfect moment – one day after Yiannopoulos downfall. Perfect.*

The best part of that article though is not the “embedded journalism” part but the intro, her analysis of Milo’s downfall – it’s spot on and well-phrased, that mix of colourful language, cold analysis and red-hot anger that she does so well. Sadly the main part of the article doesn’t rise above platforming the neo-right followers of Milo. It is another article on the perspective of the white angry men, here put in the backfiring romantic meme-able picture of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys and Penny willingly plays their Wendy.

By describing her “lost boys” as spoilt brats being exploited Laurie Penny shifts the responsibility away from them to – well, Milo, the whole of society or some other vague place. It’s basically what most people who take the “talking to fascists” approach have ended up with: Repeating the obvious, understanding a bit too well, shifting blame etc., instead of holding them up to what they proclaim and support and what endangers a lot of people’s actual lives. It’s a fine line between trying to understand in order to work better against it on the one side and trying to understand but ending up making it sound as if the most important point is that there are non-fascist reasons for their fascist behaviour on the other side. They didn’t “mean” it, they just rode a wave, they did it for the fame, they are just little boys, etc. But hey, step back a moment and let me ask: Isn’t that what most fascists have done? And isn’t not holding them accountable by what they promote instead of what they might mean the mistake that societies so often have made in the face of a rise of fascism? I for one am tired of endless discussions if someone was a “real” fascist and if I should be allowed to call them that instead of action against the discrimination and inhumanities they promote. Is authenticity testing fascists really the best weapon our societies have against them? Poor us because that only makes them stronger.

Instead of turning only on Laurie Penny who really has done so much great work before maybe it’s worth criticising how journalism works today. It doesn’t give us what we need but what it needs and what we deserve. Do we need embedded journalism like this story to bring us the view from within or is that just sensationalist scary emotionalisation? Giving us the same effect as a horror flick, the fear from a safe distance. And in which at the end we get explained what horrible life circumstances turned the monster into a monster and somehow we end up feeling as much pity for the monster as for its victims. Bringing up victims of racist violence, bringing up how she herself was treated sexist – somehow it doesn’t get loud enough to sound through the dense fog of understanding her “lost boys”. Instead it pops up here and there in the piece as reminder that Penny is not one of the guys. But why does the piece need those reminders? And why do they feel like mere reminders? My problem with the article is that what lingers after reading is that it’s yet another explainer of “not-really-fascists playing with fascism”, another explainer of the angry white men perspective, as if that weren’t already omnipresent. And I say “men” because it is the language that holds them accountable.


*) By which of course I mean “toxic for actual information and constructive discussions”

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