Matt Taibbi and the disappointing lack of cultural awareness


Matt Taibbi used to be one of my favorite writers, but then I learned about his ugly misogyny (which he unconvincingly claimed was made up), and I was never able to look at his work in the same way. So I cancelled him. By which I mean I stopped reading him. Apparently he has sensed the declining number of eyeballs gazing at his writing, and the fading number of tongues wagging his praises, because he is mad about it, and I had to read something new of his. I am disappointed even more.

It’s the usual spittle-flecked screed we usually see from disgruntled right-wingers, with but one message: the Left is just as bad as the Right! They’re all prudish, finger-wagging authoritarians at heart, but the Lefties are just the worst! We can’t even discuss how stupid the Left is, he says as he writes about how stupid the Left is, because they’ll descend on us with great force and crush us!

Doing so would have meant opening the floodgates on a story most everyone in media sees but no one is allowed to comment upon: that the political right and left in America have traded villainous cultural pathologies. Things we once despised about the right have been amplified a thousand-fold on the flip.

That he can claim this in the era of Trump, when badgeless cops in unmarked cars are grabbing civilians off the street, when cops are maiming citizens with rubber bullets and truncheons and pepper guns, when our president openly considers not respecting the outcome of the next election, is weird and dumb. The old Taibbi had sharp perceptions; this one seems blinded with resentment that his good ol’ boy rape fictions have damaged his reputation.

The centerpiece of his gripe with the Left is a tweet by Byron York (yeah, NRO York, far right apologist for every one of Trump’s excesses), which mocked the National Museum of African American History and Culture for producing this graphic:

Personally, I think it aimed at a bad target. It’s not about “whiteness” itself, it’s about the assumptions of the dominant culture of modern America, and as an exercise at looking at ourselves, it’s useful and insightful. Of course, it doesn’t matter anymore, because the right-wingers were so outraged and expressed the same attitude as Taibbi and the graphic was “cancelled”. Oops. They keep self-owning themselves.

Take the Smithsonian story. The museum became the latest institution to attempt to combat racism by pledging itself to “antiracism,” a quack sub-theology that in a self-clowning trick straight out of Catch-22 seeks to raise awareness about ignorant race stereotypes by reviving and amplifying them.

Oh? And how will you propose combating racism, by pretending it doesn’t exist?

It’s a shame, because look at what it highlights. This is not examining the obvious or necessary components of a successful culture, it’s pointing out unconsidered values we hold and asking us to think about them. Consider alternatives.

For instance, “rugged individualism”. You can’t doubt that this is an implicit value in American culture, and in fact many of the comments responding to York are aghast that we could even question this. But what if an alternative were “cooperative communities and mutual aid”? That would be a better solution to America’s problems, but no, we’re supposed to love the cowboy myth.

Or “family structure”, the heterosexual pairing of a dominant male breadwinner with a subservient female marital aid and housecleaner. Why is that assumed by the American culture at large to be an ideal? It has oppressed more than half our population for centuries and has done us nothing but harm.

Or take “emphasis on the scientific method”. I love the scientific method, I’m a scientist, I apply it all the time. But linear thinking often fails in complex issues with multiple contributing causes, and people are emotional animals who rarely make purely objective decisions. When you limit yourself to only one path to a solution, you’re circumscribing the range of possibilities to such a terrible degree you’re going to miss equally good or better alternatives.

“History”: oh sweet jesus, spare me the monstrous chimera of the “judeo-christian tradition”. All they have in common is the Old Testament, which is a compendium of barbarities and superstitious evils. There are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and they are making a legitimate complaint that our version of “history” is a biased collection of rationalizations for the oppression of the majority by a minority.

Or the “Protestant work ethic”, which is simply an awful way to indoctrinate labor to serve the needs of their bosses. How about work/life balance? How about about recognizing that “hard work” is usually unrewarded with anything but the bare minimum of necessities (sometimes not even that), and that the true path to riches is theft and inheritance, under our current system?

None of these are actually “white” values, although they do serve to maintain the status quo and benefit the majority, who are mostly white, and it’s unsurprising that a museum of African American history and culture would find it worthwhile to point out our biases…and for an angry mob of far-right conservative assholes to squash it. Yet somehow Taibbi finds the African American side to be the one that must be deplored and chastised, while the lunatic right-winger is his ally, and thinks this is a great example of the Left being more evil than the Right? Does he even realize that the graphic is intended to demonstrate the unthinking, implicit assumptions of the American public? This is Anthropology 101 stuff, nothing radical, it doesn’t even make any judgments on whether these are good or bad values, it simply describes the traditions of American culture. People commenting on it are all saying “great values!” and “this is the way to succeed!”, etc., etc., not even aware that they are all confirming the accuracy of the graphic.

But no, to Taibbi this just confirms that the Left (it’s not even written from a leftist perspective!) has gone insane and is worse than the Right. Apparently, questioning your values is not something anyone is supposed to do in Matt Taibbi’s America.

OK, Taibbi, this is going to hurt you a lot worse than it will me — I shall resume the cruel torture of not reading your work any more.

Comments

  1. Matt Cramp says

    I suspect Taibbi is in the same category as Glenn Greenwald – writers with very dodgy frameworks who happened to land on the right side of a story that aligned with their framework, got an undeserved reputation as an insightful thinker, and then spent the rest of their careers returning to the baseline.

    For what it’s worth, Laura Poitras seems to deserve the bulk of the credit for the Edward Snowden story.

  2. stroppy says

    I guess another one bites the dust.

    Still the immortal line, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” lives on in my heart.

  3. says

    stroppy@#2:
    Still the immortal line, “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,” lives on in my heart.

    He was always at his best when he was emulating Hunter Thompson, wasn’t he?

  4. F.O. says

    “rugged individualism”. You can’t doubt that this is an implicit value in American culture, and in fact many of the comments responding to York are aghast that we could even question this. But what if an alternative were “cooperative communities and mutual aid”?

    I don’t know how deliberate it is, but “individualism” is very effective to “divide and conquer” the lower classes.

    Also, for those actually committed to science, white people are literally destroying the planet. Just saying…

  5. Brian Wright says

    Taibi started to lose me when he opined that the book “White Fragility” was “‘pseudo-intellectual horseshit’ that is likely to have pernicious effects for race relations.” (from the Wikipedia page on the book “White Fragility”.

    Equally repulsive is the reaction of YouTuber Benjamin Boyce to the NMAAHC graphic: https://youtu.be/OYht4Lu_19w. Pretty much the same as Taibi.

    PZ – check out his channel. He’s under the delusion that anti-racism is “racist”. I guess he doesn’t like having his privileges checked. I’m sure you’ll have fun destroying him. :-)

  6. mnb0 says

    “spare me the monstrous chimera of the “judeo-christian tradition”.
    But I love it! It permits the ultimate Godwin as the Holocaust is the culimantion of that judeo-christian tradition. Do you really want to rob me from the opportunity to rub this in?

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @3:

    He [Taibbi] was always at his best when he was emulating Hunter Thompson, wasn’t he?

    Did you even read The Great American Bubble Machine (whence the immortal line)? I doubt Thompson could have written that, or would have wanted to. Two very different journalists, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

  8. mrquotidian says

    I listen to Taibbi’s podcast, but I have been disappointed in how “cancel culture” is his recent hobby-horse (thank goodness his co-host Katie Halper usually keeps him in line). I get some of what he says on the topic, but on the whole, I come down more on PZ’s side.. Taibbi’s biggest fault IMO is being too close to the subject to see the bigger picture – in other words, he sees the sins of the left as being somehow worse than the right only because he is ostensibly closer to the left. It’s like double-secret-trump-derangement-syndrome.

    That said, I think what PZ says about this particular flier is true:
    None of these are actually “white” values
    And I think this is essentially what Taibbi is trying to say, but he extrapolates way too wildly, seeing it as a marker of some massive collapse in progressive thought in general.

    I do agree with him (Taibbi) that certain reactions to racism are unhelpful, and may even exacerbate the problem (the book/concept of ‘White Fragility’ for instance seems to be a corporate, new-age version of AA for racism). But I do not see those examples as representative of the majority as he seems to. I think that a lot of people on the left are ostensibly on the same side but talking past each other on this issue… to the gains of the Trump crowd.

    IMO though, this particular flier looks pretty bad.. unless read with a very informed and critical eye, it seems to just be a list of features stereotypical to white people… I don’t think that was the intention, but it comes off that way and it’s not a helpful way to present such a complex and thorny topic. I think the flier is trying to say that it was much easier for light-skinned Americans to to adopt the predominate culture it describes, and even incorporate their own particular practices into it.. while dark-skinned Americans have been systematically excluded (and worse) from that culture for centuries… IMO, calling that process “whiteness” in big letters at the top of a flier isn’t a great tactic to bring more reluctant white Americans into the fold.. Just on the level of communication I think it doesn’t help, but rather gives ammunition to the other side. These are big, complex issues and really hard to share in meme format…

  9. springa73 says

    Yeah, I think the points on that graphic are more mainstream US culture rather than specifically white US culture. I realize there is a huge overlap between these two things, but I don’t think they are exactly the same. For one thing, a lot of non-white Americans also hold similar values and assumptions.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Is the drawing next to “Rugged Individualism” supposed to represent the legend of John Henry? The protagonist of same was indubitably rugged, but clearly neither white nor (sacrificing his life for the epitome of corporate power in his time) individualistic.

  11. Walter Solomon says

    Is the drawing next to “Rugged Individualism” supposed to represent the legend of John Henry?

    It could be Paul Bunyan with a tan.

  12. blf says

    @10/@11, I’m tempted to say hair furor as he imagines himself, except the figure is not orange and is not holding a machine-gun, Rambo-style.

  13. captainjack says

    Those ideas aren’t exclusive to America either.

    “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.” – Margaret Thatcher

  14. harryblack says

    Im really getting sick of almost every leftist outlet just whining about cancel culture for the last few weeks. The irony is that they scold about how it is not doing anything productive. How productive is using your platform to complain about it for 3 weeks?!
    And also, they wax lyrical about how it does nothing to build a broad based leftist coalition blah blah blah.

    Well first, what you mean is it puts off us fragile cis working class whites. You clearly dont mind putting off the rest of us by telling us to shut up.

    Second- As Thought Slime pointed out in a great recent video, how invested will your trans or other minority co-workers be when you tell them their issues need to wait until we overthrow capitalism and then everything will be just fine and dandy?

    And third- Our goals are not everyone elses goals. Not everyone gives a shit about our coalition, they just want people to stop disrespecting them for who they are.

    Bonus point- The dreaded ‘woke identity politics’ is what got many of us on the path to leftism when we saw the utility of it for justice so stop acting like it reduces the ranks.

    Aaaaalso- Taibi has that really fucking annoying frat bro vocal fry.

  15. says

    Over at Why Evolution is True, I characterized this poster as things that would be in a 90s American sitcom that no one would ever question (it was based on data from 1990). They could never be ‘the hook’ of the show, because Americans have internalized them as in some sense ‘the way things are expected to be’. And I think it succeeds very well in that sense. It’s WHITE American culture because the vast majority of national media is controlled by whites and it points out how at least some derive from previous white-controlled cultures that had major influence on America.

    It never says these things are bad. It never says they’re exclusive to whites. It never says that all or even most white Americans actually exhibit the traits.

    But man, did the post and comments over at WEiT ever show how White Fragility is a thing. Immediately they all assumed the traits are bad, or objected that they’re white and don’t do thing X, or thought it so clever to say “you could never get away with making this kind of poster for another culture.” Sigh.

  16. Matt G says

    Mickey@16- I gave up on WEiT 6 or so years ago when “regressive left” became a hobby horse. I used to be a regular. Another huge issue was the host’s blatant hypocrisy (and thin skin) on freeze peach. Among his buddies are some of the goons we flay here: Dawkins, Krauss, Pinker, etc.

  17. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#7:
    Did you even read The Great American Bubble Machine (whence the immortal line)? I doubt Thompson could have written that, or would have wanted to. Two very different journalists, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

    I didn’t mean that he wrote about the same things as Thompson, or took the same approach – I was referring to the gonzo-style Thompsonesque writing in the “vampire squid” bit. Thompson and Taibbi both did the “stuck on the campaign trail from hell” routine, except Thompson did it better. Taibbi even wrote the introduction for the new edition of “Fear and Loathing on The Campaign Trial, ’72” – if you can read the Bubble Machine article (I have, btw) and not hear echoes of Thompson, you may need a checkup.

  18. says

    The thing I’ve noticed about Matt Taibbi is a sort of undertone or undercurrent of negativity. It’s hard to describe, as he doesn’t seem to put out as many articles in Rolling Stone as he used to (and thus I cannot remember any specific examples off the top of my head) but I can recall my reaction to it. He seemed really jaded, to the point where I wondered why he was continuing his work. It certainly didn’t seem to bring him any joy, and it was like he was being consumed by all the bad stuff he reported on.

    It certainly made it difficult to go back to his reporting, from time to time…

  19. wzrd1 says

    @mnb0, “But I love it! It permits the ultimate Godwin as the Holocaust is the culimantion of that judeo-christian tradition. Do you really want to rob me from the opportunity to rub this in?”
    Yeah, I’m big on rubbing it in. Went to Catholic school as a youth, nothing but a hate factory against Jews, which is odd, as Jesus was officially a Jew. I guess one should hate the faith, or something.
    And I’m infamous for rubbing such bullshit raw, straight to an artery.

    As for the Entitled folks, I kindly remind them, under a condition of threat, that the only real entitlements, beyond the Constitution are air, water, survivable temperatures and clothing. And a variable number of those must be provided by themselves, otherwise it’s air and gravity are fully entitled.
    What we, as a society are what are permitted and refusing to provide the necessities of life does always eventually result in a revolt that is, eventually, successful.
    Then add, “Besides, the more people who have rights, the more secure my original rights are now and I strongly suggest cementing rights in a diamond matrix”.
    You’d be astonished how many opinions change with that last.
    I’m only moderately depressed, so many minds wasted on bullshit, rather than supporting rights.

    It only took me a decade to analyze selfishness and counter it with that last reality.
    I can’t always be a fast learner. :/

  20. mailliw says

    “linear thinking”, “quantative emphasis”.

    Made me think immediately of IQ tests and the absurd notion that something as extraordinarily complex as the human mind can be quantified on simple linear scale.

    Those intent on oppression and division are always ready to employ pseudo-scientific notions to give their authority the apparent aura of scientific truth and inevitability.

  21. lotharloo says

    I think a lot of them are actually “white culture”, e.g., “rugged individualism”. There is a lot of “community mentality” in minority cultures, at least a bit by necessity, because many of them were oppressed and needed each other for protection and safety whereas the white dominant culture doesn’t need that. Obviously and naturally, parts of the dominant culture, can spread to the minorites.

    As a side, and as a parent, whenever I receive a children’s book for my daughter, I sometimes can immediately tell whether it is translated from an American children’s book because the implicit promotion of American culture is so blatant. The emphasize on “uniqueness” (“You are a unique individual!!!!”) is also another part of American culture that nobody in America questions and everyone assumes it’s a good thing.

  22. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @18: There’s a vast yawning chasm between “echoes of Thompson” and “always at his best when he was emulating Hunter Thompson”. I was questioning the latter, not denying the former. Maybe get your reading comprehension checked.

    As for who did what better, that’s largely a matter of taste. If I’m in the mood for impressionistic, dark (and often darkly comedic, and often just sloppy) journalism without being too concerned about the details, I’ll take Thompson any day.

  23. Jado says

    I would argue that “that the true path to riches is theft and inheritance, under our current system?” is definitely a white cultural value, but only if you make it impossible for anyone not white and male to take advantage of the process.
    The simple fact of the matter is that the past actions of white male gatekeepers to grease the skids of white males and sugar the gas tanks of non-white non-males is the “historic tradition” that we are trying to convince everyone has “always been this way”, and therefore must continue. It’s not necessarily a conscious decision, but like a toddler when asked if the family should have cake for dessert, we will concoct the most convoluted arguments to justify the fact that “WE WANT IT”.
    Any dominant sub-group will want to maintain their dominance, and most liars will cite any distracting justification to keep their advantages. The single most terrifying thing for advantaged people is fair competition, especially when they never had to complete in a fair competition before.
    I am confident that we would even cite our historic advantages as a current disadvantage, with the explanation that if we never had to compete fairly, we have never developed the means to compete fairly, and this is an imposed disadvantage and therefore we should be given an advantage to compensate. After all, if I murder my parents, am I not now an orphan?
    ANYTHING to maintain the advantage. How awful will it be to be known as the white male who lost the competition? It’s like losing a winning streak. Ignominy and embarrassment. I say we cheat.

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