Reading Matt Taibbi

A reader recommended that I read some stuff by Matt Taibbi, a podcaster, writer, and contributing editor for Rolling Stone. I was advised that I might find Taibbi ideologically compatible (indeed, he appears to specialize in calling out the excesses of the Left), although you’ll have to pay if you want to subscribe to his site.  In particular, I was urged to read the piece below (click on the screenshot), and while I found it intriguing and in line with my own views, I also found it a bit incoherent, and so haven’t been enthused by this single specimen of his writing.

Taibbi’s thesis, embodied in the title, is that the Authoritarian Left has become as humorless, hectoring, and Pecksniffian as the Right has been for a while, and I agree with that. But the article is curiously disjointed, beginning with a long and largely irrelevant discussion of Taibbi’s coverage of the Dover Intelligent-Design suit, which the Dover School District lost. Taibbi’s point is that the Left is now guilty of Doverism:

Fifteen years later, America is a thousand Dovers, and the press response is silence. This time it’s not a few Podunk school boards under assault by junk science and crackpot theologies, but Princeton University, the New York Times, the Smithsonian, and a hundred other institutions.

When the absurdity factor rocketed past Dover levels this week, the nation’s leading press organs barely commented, much less laughed. 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.

The thing is, Dover was about the Right ignoring established science to foist a creationist scenario on its schoolchildren, while many of the examples Taibbi gives have at best a tangential connection with science. Rather, they’re about Cancel Culture, and we get a parade of familiar examples: the “white culture” posters at the Smithsonian’s  National Museum of African American History & Culture, recent articles on Robin DiAngelo and her anti-racism seminars, blind auditions rethought for orchestra members, the elimination of standardized tests for college admission, and so on.  Most of this doesn’t have to do with science, although empirical evidence does apply in some cases. (Remember, though, that the Cancel Culture, heavily marinated in postmodernism, generally eschews evidence in favor of “lived experience.”) However, there are a few gems in Taibbi’s list that I either didn’t know about or didn’t write about. Here’s one I knew about but didn’t write about—a recent fracas at Princeton University:

At Princeton, the situation was even more bizarre. On July 4th, hundreds of faculty members and staff at Princeton University signed a group letter calling for radical changes.

Some demands seem reasonable, like requests to remedy University-wide underrepresentation among faculty members of color. Much of the rest of the letter read like someone drunk-tweeting their way through a Critical Theory seminar. [JAC: that’s a good sentence!] Signatories asked the University to establish differing compensation levels according to race, demanding “course relief,” “summer salary,” “one additional semester of sabbatical,” and “additional human resources” for “faculty of color,” a term left undefined. That this would be grossly illegal didn’t seem to bother the 300-plus signatories of one of America’s most prestigious learning institutions.

The Princeton letter didn’t make much news until a Classics professor named Joshua Katz wrote a public “Declaration of Independence” from the letterPlaying the same role as the Dover science teacher who feebly warned that teaching Intelligent Design would put the district at odds with a long list of Supreme Court decisions, Katz said it boggled his mind that anyone could ask for compensation “perks” based on race, especially for “extraordinarily privileged people already, let me point out: Princeton professors.”

Katz also complained about the letter’s support for a group called the Black Justice League, which he described as a “local terrorist organization” that had recently engaged in an Instagram Live version of a kind of struggle session involving two students accused of an ancient racist conversation. Katz called it “one of the most evil things I have ever witnessed.” The video appears to have been deleted, though I spoke with another Princeton faculty member who described seeing the same event in roughly the same terms.

In response, University President Christopher Eisengruber “personally” denounced Katz for using the word “terrorist.” Katz was also denounced by his Classics department, which in a statement on the department web page insisted his act had “heedlessly put our Black colleagues, students, and alums at serious risk,” while hastening to add “we gratefully acknowledge all the forms of anti-racist work that members of our community have done.”

That statement was only [sic] signed by four people, though there are twenty faculty members in the Classics department, but the signees all had titles: department Chair, Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Undergraduate Studies, head of the Diversity and Equity Committee. The pattern of administrative leaders not only not rejecting but adopting the preposterous infantilizing language of new activism – I am physically threatened by your mild disagreement – held once again. Not one institutional leader in America, it seems, has summoned the courage to laugh in this argument’s face.

It’s unthinkable that the President of the University of Chicago would denounce a faculty member in this way, though our school is becoming increasingly woke, pondering statements on departmental web pages that violate the University’s pledge to remain ideologically neutral as an institution.

To Taibbi, all these examples show (and I agree) that this isn’t about the Democratic party moving to the Right, becoming censorious like Republicans, but “about a change in the personality profile of the party’s most animated, engaged followers.” But we already knew that: it’s called “cancel culture.” And who disagrees that the CC set is humorless, hectoring, and annoying, and is putting classical liberals like me in a bind?

Now that same inconsolable paranoiac [he’s referring to Republicans of yore] comes at you with left politics, and isn’t content with ruining the odd holiday dinner, blind date, or shared cab. He or she does this infuriating interrogating at the office, in school, and in government agencies, in places where you can’t fake a headache and quietly leave the table.

This is all taking place at a time when the only organized opposition to such thinking also supports federal troops rounding up protesters for open-ended detention, going maskless to own the libs, and other equivalent madnesses. If you’re not a Trump fan and can’t reason with the other thing either, what’s left?

What’s Left, indeed? It’s up to the Left to criticize our own side lest Fox News and Trump do it, making centrists and Republicans think that Democrats are all a bunch of bowdlerizing loons.

Taibbi’s article is good for catching up on the latest malfeasances of the misnamed Progressive Left, but others have pointed out before the “horseshoe” convergence of Left and Right in this way. I’ll move along, but will read some more Taibbi to see if he can challenge me to think.

27 thoughts on “Reading Matt Taibbi

  1. You may recall that Andrew Sullivan gave a thumbs-up to Taibbi in his “Farewell Letter”:

    The Weekly Dish will be hosted by Substack, a fantastic company that hosts an increasingly impressive number of individual free thinkers, like Jesse Singal and Matt Taibbi.

  2. Taibbi was the successor to Hunter Thompson at Rolling Stone‘s National Affairs Desk. That’s where I first started reading him years ago.

    1. Taibbi is great at digging up under-reported and unreported facts. At putting it all together, not too great, but that’s much more easily remedied.

  3. “Much of the rest of the letter read like someone drunk-tweeting their way through a Critical Theory seminar.” [JAC: that’s a good sentence!]

    Taibbi can turn a phrase. He’s the one, in a piece about the 2008 financial collapse, who called Goldman Sachs “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

  4. Just for anybody too young maybe or otherwise not remembering, perhaps the so-far most famous metaphor of English 21st century writing seems to be:

    ‘Taibbi described Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” ‘

  5. Taibbi asserts:

    “This is about a change in the personality profile of the party’s most animated, engaged followers.”

    This sentence borders on the meaningless. The Woke folks may be animated and engaged in what they are fighting for, but whether most consider themselves Democrats would require some evidence. I doubt that most, unlike AOC, would even contemplate working within the Democratic Party. My guess is that most of them consider Biden as bad as Trump.

    The Woke may someday capture the Democratic Party, but that is not going to happen this year. A party that has nominated Joe Biden can only be described as center-left at best. Trump has tried to associate the Woke with the Democratic Party. So far, the effort has failed and Trump lags badly badly in the polls.

    1. “A party that has nominated Joe Biden can only be described as center-left at best.”

      Yes, by USian standards.

      But I think centre-right by those of ‘western’ democracies in general.

    2. Yeah, his gaffes notwithstanding, Biden exudes the aura of calm caretaker the majority of Americans now yearn for. The anti-Trump.

      This persona presents Trump no potent lines of attack against Biden. Trump knew this, which is why he tried to deal the Biden campaign a death blow with the attempted Ukraine shakedown — a plot that might have succeeded had it not been for a conscientious whistle-blower and the patriotic public servants who came forward to testify (and who, like Alexander Vindman and Masha Yovanovitch, have been punished by Trump for their honest efforts).

      1. It might have succeeded to the extent that Trump wasn’t caught and impeached, However, I doubt it would have made a dent in Biden’s campaign even if Trump had successfully forced Ukraine to investigate the Bidens,

        1. It might not have made a difference, given Trump’s botching of the current crises.

          But, at the time, Trump anticipated he could knock Biden out of the Democratic primary race by clanging that bell for the crowd every time he waddled onto the podium at his Nuremberg rallies.

    3. I agree that it is amazingly sloppy to conflate the Democrats with the Woke Left. Biden is just one example of many politicians, including many senators and governors, who are solid Democrats that no one would mistake for being Woke Left.

    4. “most of them consider Biden as bad as Trump”

      That’s certainly the impression I got when I made the mistake of ambling over to Ph*r*ng*l* around Super Tuesday. The degree of disconnection from reality in the comments was impressive. Several people stated that Bernie Sanders was their “compromise candidate.”

  6. I for some reason had thought Taibbi was uncongenial, but I’ve recently read several of his pieces which I’ve agreed with. This was good one, too.

  7. Matt Taibbi spent several years in Russia, where I believe he wrote for and edited an English language paper, and in Uzbekistan, from which he was deported for critical reporting on the dictatorship. These experiences, and his knowledge of Russian history, may explain his attention to the behavior of our regressive Left, with its Leninist zealotry and, now, close connection with administrative bureaucracies. The latter, under the Diversity/Inclusion label, have come increasingly to resemble the Department for Agitation and Propaganda (отдел агитации и пропаганды) in the Bolshevik Party of fond memory.

    An interesting sociological question is how this model of behavior became so commonplace seemingly spontaneously in the USA’s academic structures. One suspects that a particular personality type rises to dominant positions in human institutions, across various cultures, and can use the verbiage of the Left as handily as any other verbiage.
    In Uzbekistan and the other ‘stans, the rule
    by apparatchiks transitioned smoothly from
    Communism to crony capitalism without missing a beat—a process Mr. Taibbi was able to observe at first hand.

    1. “An interesting sociological question is how this model of behavior became so commonplace seemingly spontaneously in the USA’s academic structures.

      I think it is something that has been happening gradually for decades.

  8. Yes, others have made these points before, but they were mostly centrists or conservatives. The fact that a writer with solid left credentials is finally doing so when most leftists have (and continue to be) apologists for Cancel Culture aka censorship is a positive development and could even be seen as a turning point of sorts.
    Also, “who disagrees?” Many people in the leftist circles in which Taibbi travels. The fact that he’s willing to challenge them should be applauded.

  9. I’e been following Matt since the early 2000’s reading his work in the New York Press and Rolling Stone. And I’ve read about some of his crazy exploits during the Exile days in Russia. At times his work is vaguely reminiscent of Hunter Thompson (with the requisite drug use) and his writing on the subprime mortgage loan crisis was the most concise account of it on record. He’s definitely a refreshing voice and someone to follow.

  10. “An interesting sociological question is how this model of behavior became so commonplace seemingly spontaneously in the USA’s academic structures. One suspects that a particular personality type rises to dominant positions in human institutions, across various cultures, and can use the verbiage of the Left as handily as any other verbiage.”

    Excellent point.

    Someone addressing this question well would be the paper/essay of the decade.

  11. Is this the same Matt Taibbi who co-hosts the Useful Idiots podcast, which has a history of inviting war crime deniers and Assadist chemical weapon truthers on to it?

    I believe it is. I will give him a miss. Thnx.

    1. Taibbi can be good, but also very silly. I remember the article that of his came out directly after Barr gave his wholly dishonest account of the Mueller Report, in which he (Taibbi) said, basically, so far as I can recall, that this showed the whole investigation of the Ukraine business and Russian meddling was a waste of time and a put-up job. I think his account was welcomed here at the time, though my memory may be at fault.

  12. It’s up to the Left to criticize our own side

    Definitely we have to criticize the Cancelers, and we’re off to a great start with the Harper’s letter. I have a bit of problem calling them “my side” even though if you force everything down to a 1-dimensional spectrum, they would map out close to me.

    I have to admit, I was surprised the Cancel Culture got this far. I figured they’d run into an unwelcoming audience long before now. This tempest has gotten way beyond the teapot in which it should have fizzled out.

    1. It really is mostly a Twitter phenomenon, but since that’s the most popular social media platform for people who work in media, academic, and cultural institutions, it feels bigger than it really is. Major accounts, in other words those who are big names from these institutions, know how to get their political or social enemies removed from the platform, which is why you see such little pushback to CC; many of the big accounts that pushed back against “cancelling” earlier (including some really unsavory characters who were genuine white supremacists, misogynists, and homophobes) were banned from the platform in 2015 and 2016 when everyone was concerned about trolls ruining the internet.

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