Matt Taibbi has a new book out now, I Can’t Breathe, about all the forces that conspired to kill Eric Garner. It’s an important story that has become part of our national conversation, as evidenced by Ryan Smith’s interview with Taibbi in this week’s Reader. But it’s also inadvertently become part of another conversation that has risen to a crescendo in the past few weeks: the Weinstein conversation. This, of course, encompasses not just Harvey Weinstein, but the misogyny and abuse of power that allowed him, and men like him, to harass and abuse women for decades with no apparent punishment.
In 2000, Taibbi and Mark Ames published The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, a memoir of their first year of editing The Exile, an alt-weekly in Moscow that took on the corrupt culture of post-Communist Russia, mercilessly attacked the expats who moved there to get rich quick, and gleefully exposed the shoddy reporting in the mainstream media. As Martha Bayne wrote then in her Reader review headlined “Beast in the East”:
Much of Ames and Taibbi’s best work is funny. The paper plays frequent practical jokes on unsuspecting Russians and fellow expats alike. . . . Some pranks are sharper—and meaner—than others, but they’re all conceived under a towering belief in the righteousness of the paper’s mission. The Exile has kept up a holy racket, railing away against stupidity, corruption, and influence peddling in hopes that someone—anyone—would pay attention. It has covered mind-numbingly complex topics like privatization in a straightforward style that’s not only comprehensible but actually interesting to a reader with no background in Russian economic history and little enthusiasm for acquiring one.
But Ames and Taibbi additionally write about how they also mercilessly sexual harassed and occasionally assaulted the women they encountered, both their colleagues in the Exile office and Russian women—some as young as 15—they met socially. Many of these passages have previously been quoted in Internet forums such as Reddit, but they took on a new life this morning on Twitter. Bayne summarized them in her review:
Most notably, the Exile nurtures a peculiarly vicious and schizoid attitude toward women. While Russian women are rhapsodically celebrated as long-legged gazelles with loose morals—”the most physically attractive women on earth, and . . . usually available to the highest bidder,” expat women are ridiculed at length as “fat-ankled” and defensively sexless. Self-hating geeky American men are encouraged to take advantage of the perception that all Americans are rich and have oodles of condomless sex (sometimes in the ass!) with drunk, nubile dyevushkas. Ex-girlfriends are held up to public ridicule—Ames at one point chronicles his threats to kill a pregnant ex if she won’t have an abortion.
More from Mark…
Now what kind of guy has friends or partners like this? pic.twitter.com/6KTYeGQ0gi
— Coug (@ImAResistor) October 27, 2017
More selections from the book have surfaced online, including the following that involves Ames and Taibbi’s first business manager, an American woman named Kara:
We’d never given her any respect or credit. We were glory hogs and obnoxious jerks. Worst of all was our sexism. Our sexism and sexual harassment of the Russian female staff, as well as the sexism in our newspaper, was too much for her. Watching us harass the young female staff had to be the most painful part—because we’d never, in a million years, have thought of harassing her.
“You know I’m not PC. But there’s a limit. You go too far. You’re always trying to force Masha and Sveta under the table to give you blow jobs. It’s not funny. They don’t think it’s funny,” Kara complained.
“But . . . it is funny,” Matt said.
We have been pretty rough on our girls. We’d ask our Russian staff to flash their asses or breasts for us. We’d tell them that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they’d have to perform unprotected anal sex with us. Nearly every day, we asked our female staff if they approved of anal sex. That was a fixation of ours. “Can I fuck you in the ass? Huh? I mean, without a rubber? Is that okay?” It was all part of the fun. Fun that Kara was no part of.
NPR’s Robin Young asked Taibbi about these passages at an event on October 25 at the Harvard Bookstore, and Taibbi took to Facebook to acknowledge them, while also claiming that a lot of material in the book The Exile was satire and exaggerated and meant to be funny.
“there is no truth to those stories we wrote about our experiences & then published w/ a note explicitly stating they were non-fiction” pic.twitter.com/OAtE9QTmgP
— Owen Ellickson (@onlxn) October 27, 2017
This morning the story got a new life on Twitter, with many posters resharing Bayne’s original article and pointing out the note at the beginning of the book that claimed it was nonfiction, with names changed.
Does this diminish the reporting Taibbi has done on the Garner case? Taibbi is a human being, like the rest of us, a mixture of good and bad. Twenty years ago, in Moscow, he was a misogynist asshole, and possibly worse. No one has come forward to publicly accuse him and Ames of assault. But it would be disingenuous for us to fail to acknowledge the Reader‘s previous writing about Taibbi—and Bayne’s excellent article in particular—especially at a time when every day in this country there’s a new story about a prominent man exploiting his power to harass and humiliate a woman. This is what Taibbi and Ames so proudly bragged about in their book, like this behavior made them real American men.
This is also a time when women are reading these stories and saying, “Me too”—including every single female member of the Reader staff. (Yes, every single one of us.) Some of us woke up to the Exile excerpts this morning. We still feel sick. To fail to acknowledge Taibbi’s earlier work is to say that what he and Ames wrote about doing didn’t matter, how those women felt didn’t matter, and, by extension, to say we don’t matter, and you, our female readers, don’t matter.
But we do. And you do. Taibbi is still speaking here tomorrow as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Go ahead and ask if he agrees.