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The Divide

Posted on Apr 18, 2014

Photo by Robin Holland / Spiegel & Grau

By Peter Richardson

To see long excerpts from “The Divide” at Google Books, click here.

“The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap”
A book by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi has come a long way since the 1990s, when he co-edited a riotous expatriate newspaper in Moscow. For five years, Taibbi churned out the Gonzo, Slavic style, mixing satire and pranks with scathing opinion and analysis. Although he also played in the Mongolian Basketball Association, his time abroad wasn’t all fun and games. In the early 1990s, the Russian government began auctioning off shares of state enterprises, which Taibbi described as “the biggest thefts in the history of the human race.” He noted the calamitous effects of privatization on average Russians and scorned the American consultants who descended on Moscow to coordinate the auction. “Looking at their bright, happy faces,” Taibbi wrote, “you’d never guess that these were the people who’d had the balls to tell millions of Russians that their jobs and benefits needed to be sacrificed for the sake of ‘competitiveness.’ ”

Rather than lament the evils of neoliberalism, Taibbi chose to mock the carpetbaggers. “There was no point in fighting fair against people like this,” he claimed in his first co-authored book, “The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia” (2000). “Humorless lefties like Ralph Nader had been doing that for decades, much more effectively and with greater attention than we ever could, to very little result.” He decided to “loathe the corporate henchmen not for what they did, but for who they were.” His goal was to “embarrass them socially, pick on their looks and their mannerisms and speech, expose them as people.”

In 2002, Taibbi returned to the United States with his attitude intact. When an alternative weekly hired him to cover the 2004 Democratic primaries, he struggled to find a satisfactory way to report on the absurdities he witnessed. He began showing up for work on mushrooms or in a gorilla suit; at one point, he played the hunger artist, forgoing food for a week and taking careful notes on what the other reporters were ingesting. Toward the end of his fast, he dropped two hits of acid, donned a Viking costume and tried to interview a campaign staffer.

Again, the Gonzo influence was unmistakable. Taibbi’s first solo book, “Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail With the Democrats” (2005), was an updated version of Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” which was praised as the least factual and most accurate account of that presidential race. Taibbi even itemized the contents of his car trunk, as Thompson did at the beginning of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It was therefore fitting that Rolling Stone magazine, which helped make Thompson a cultural icon, hired Taibbi as a contributing editor.

Having documented America’s political and cultural atrocities in “Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches From a Rotting Empire” (2007) and “The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire” (2008), Taibbi turned his attention to Wall Street, whose greed, negligence and fraud helped crater the global economy. In some ways, that story was a return to the rapacity he had witnessed in Russia, but Taibbi was even more outraged by the effect of the crash on average citizens—this time, his compatriots. In July 2009, Rolling Stone published his exposé of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank that Taibbi described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” A few business press regulars challenged the story’s details, and others were put off by its extravagant style. In the end, however, their criticisms were surprisingly weak, attempts to defend Goldman Sachs were risible and subsequent reporting confirmed Taibbi’s basic claims.

Given the number of serious publications that cover Wall Street, it was remarkable that Taibbi’s piece appeared in Rolling Stone. His critics may have hoped the story’s provenance would make it easier to dismiss, but Taibbi cleaned their clocks in print and on television. It was another reminder that Rolling Stone has never been an ordinary music magazine. Before launching it in 1967, Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason worked at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker that ran high-impact stories on Vietnam and the CIA. Taibbi’s piece proved that Rolling Stone knew how to apply the old Ramparts formula, which Adam Hochschild, another alumnus of that magazine and co-founder of Mother Jones, put this way: “Find an exposé that major newspapers are afraid to touch, publish it with a big enough splash so they can’t afford to ignore it, and then publicize it in a way that plays the press off against each other.” The Goldman Sachs story helped revive Rolling Stone’s political coverage, and the magazine has been on a tear ever since, landing two George Polk Awards for investigative reporting in the last four years.

In his next book, “Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America” (2010), Taibbi broadened his attack on high finance. One of his targets was former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, whom business reporters had long revered. When the stock bubble popped in 1999, Time magazine cast Greenspan as a member of the “Committee to Save the World.” Taibbi felt no such reverence; in fact, he regarded the Fed chair’s penchant for deregulation, low interest rates and Wall Street bailouts as an important source of the bubble in the first place. Characteristically, Taibbi made his critique personal. Greenspan was a “gnomish bug-eyed party crasher” who “flattered and bullshitted his way to the top,” and then turned the Federal Reserve into “a permanent bailout mechanism for the super-rich.” But Taibbi did more than impugn his targets; he also explained the intricacies of Wall Street’s labyrinthine hustles to general readers. That combination of bombast and clear explication made his claims increasingly difficult to ignore or refute.

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