Apr 122011

Let me be the first to admit that I don’t know Laurie Penny, nor have I ever met her.

I discovered tonight that she was an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford—at the same time that I was a student at Wadham.

I was not surprised to find this out, and I’ll tell you why.

Wadham is known for being the ‘left-wing’ college at Oxford. It famously hosts Queer Bop, originally a celebration of all types of sexuality, and the quad around the college bar is officially called Ho Chi Minh Quad. All Wadham bops, by college statute, conclude with the playing of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Specials. Whilst I was in attendance, the Wadham SU banned Coca-Cola products from the college on ethical grounds and forbade the serving of beverages in glass receptacles, preferring biodegradable plastic on the assumption that it was more environmentally friendly.

I have read many of Laurie Penny’s columns. They read the way many conversations at Wadham sound. People who deploy the same language, the same ideas, and the same arguments are a dime a dozen at Wadham. There is a miasma of youthful optimism about the place, somewhat at odds with its transmission of privilege and its well-preserved Jacobean splendour. Laurie Penny appears to have Wadham in her veins in the same way some Americans bleed red, white, and blue.

The funny thing is, Wadham is known for a lot of other things too. Its Canadian law students. Its South African MBAs. Its British science students. Many of these people are Rhodes Scholars, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians. They take what they learn at Wadham and use it to help victims of human rights violations, disease-stricken populations in the poorest parts of the world, and small businessmen in chaotic nations who want to improve the standard of living in their communities.

Wadham also has its complement of true socialists who, although they come from middle-class backgrounds, would never blog (‘bourgeois’), would never write for the New Statesman (‘selling out’), and would never go straight from protesting with the so-called working class to hobnobbing with media personalities at champagne receptions. Sure, they read the Guardian (for the crosswords, mostly) and fix bruschetta for starters with eggplant casserole for the main course (when they can afford it, otherwise they eat beans), but they don’t pretend to be one with the down-trodden or think there is anything glamourous about smoking roll-ups. When they can afford it, they would rather have Gauloises.

Most of these people, of whatever degree, profession, or political persuasion, go quietly off to satisfy the demands of conscience, duty, and pleasure.

Laurie Penny, whatever her conscience may demand of her, certainly represents what Wadham College is. I’m not so sure she represents what Wadham College becomes. She has certainly worked very hard to communicate a message, but I don’t know if it’s the message she intended. Like many people from Wadham, she seems to want to improve the world in a certain way. But what she seems to do is reinforce the belief that privileged people from privileged educational backgrounds can, as long as they say the right things, engender trust among the lower classes whilst taking their place among the elite.

Laurie Penny is maybe 25 years old. She is the author of widely-circulated newspaper columns, and she is the subject of them. She is a student, a protester, a squatter, and a voice for those without a voice. She is a well-known name and represents a well-known point of view amongst the nation’s intelligentsia. She is one of them, and she is one of us. But stacked against everything else that comes out of Wadham College, what is Laurie Penny really doing?

She is travelling an extremely well-trodden road bearing the placard of thoroughly-explored philosophies. And the destination, reached so many times before, has benefitted no one except the travellers themselves.