What makes good commentary? I'd say that has to be topical, significant, insightful, and it has to grab attention. Laurie Penny understands how to capture attention. I keep going back to her writing despite her apparent fondness for generalisation and assumption. Perhaps the price to be paid for arresting comment is that it often swaps opinion for analysis? Take her most recent piece, which starts provocatively enough:
I have long suspected that most people who oppose same-sex marriage are just jealous that they haven't been invited to a gay wedding yet.
To some people that line would be funny, whilst that 'most' injects just enough uncertainty to avoid landing her in hot water. This is a weasel sentence that invites the reader not to take opponents of same-sex marriage seriously.
What follows is a simple enough setup of the current issues either side of the Atlantic for those in power to do with gay marriage: so far, so standard. We then get a rehearsal of Laurie's understanding of why it's politically correct for her not to like marriage, but why she sort of does anyway:
I've just about got to the age when some of my friends are planning to tie the most expensive of knots for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration, and while the queer radical socialist feminist in me is always primed with a lecture about the history of marriage as a ritual to secure property rights, protect the bloodlines of the wealthy and institutionalise the domestic slavery of women, somehow my sentimental side always lets me down.
This is the commentator as the focus of the piece: a trick Laurie pulls off nicely. After all, the personal is the political, and it comes in handy when you're making a name for yourself in a post-Angus Deayton world where nobody minds if you're capable of being the subject of satire so long as you can trend.
My personal fantasies of eventual domestic bliss currently involve large cheerful polyamorous communes full of cats, computers and kissable people of various genders, but I secretly hope that at least some of my acquaintances remain traditionalists, because I want to keep going to huge parties in ridiculous hats.
The writer celebrates her inability to consider various instincts for long enough to come down on one side, or the other. I am not a traditionalist, but at the same time I slightly am. My secrets are the ones I write about in my published column.
Laurie then rehearses some reasons why marriage might be important to other people. Writers who take up causes they don't believe in are usually quite tepid. Laurie's praise for other people's interest in marriage is as passionate and insightful as Jacob Rees-Mogg might be at extolling the virtues of Premiership Football. The agenda reveals itself when she veers suddenly into class warfare:
While prejudice is still a daily danger for transsexuals, gay school schoolchildren, sex workers and many, many others, it really is easier than ever to be gay the more one resembles the average member of the parliamentary Conservative party - white, male, wealthy and raised in privilege.
Ironically, of course, those people are also the ones for whom anti-discrimination legislation has always been least urgent. To put it plainly, you just don't need to worry about homophobic violence in the same way if your house has a moat. Scantily concealed homoeroticism has always been an easy part of the culture of British conservatism, from whispered legends of locker-room fumbles at Eton to the rash of Tory tabloid scandals in the 1990s. I am assured by gay Tory acquaintances that when one is in no real danger of violence, subterfuge is all part of the fun, and legalising gay marriage might very well spoil the salaciousness of it all.
Almost every unspecific group she can describe suffers the daily danger of prejudice, according to Laurie, except for white male Tories, because they have moats! They had homosexual encounters at school! Legislation is a game for them! This says: I am on the side of all minority groups, and am happy to swallow hook, line, and trawler every tired cliché about my opponents. I'll go further than that, I'll suggest that this is all about class - absent of proof - and propagate the sorts of slurs that I would never tolerate about others.
The piece is is tailed with this rhetorical flourish:
Conservative politics are full of convenient delusions. Right now, the most convenient delusion of all is the idea that culture wars can be summoned to distract the electorate from class issues. If senior Tories really believe that voters are abandoning the party because of equal marriage, rather than, say, because of its determination to make ordinary workers pay with their jobs and homes for the financial failings of the rich, then they truly have lost their constituency - and that should worry the old guard far more than a few gay weddings.
Laurie Penny fails to present a nuanced article on why same-sex marriage should be legalised. She derides and underestimates her opponents on an issue with which deserves a mature discussion, wielding the sword of class and culture warfare. This approach shows what's wrong with comment right now. In a serious debate over the shape of our society and our values, the starting point should be respect. If comment is the 'value add' that will continue to sell newspapers and generate revenue, it must resist easy shots: the point of comment should be to give insight, not just to produce a stream of slogans that people can 'share' as a way of expressing themselves.