When I was a sophomore in college, I learned about Dadaism —the art form that challenged the very structure and purpose of art— and I thought it sounded like the coolest thing ever. I still do. However, our professor went on to tell us about the “dadaist” way to see a movie: “They would go to one cinema in Paris, make a lot of noise, run around, grab women’s breasts, and then move on to the next theater and do the same thing all over again.” What? They were sexually assaulting women? You mean there weren’t women dadaists? I can’t be one? What does attacking women have to do with challenging societal norms and reinventing artistic paradigms? How were women, a marginalized, maligned group, and definitely victims of the early twentieth century oppression the dadaists opposing, the problem? It was then that I realized that, according to these rebellious men, women were outlaws even among outlaws when it came to opposing the harsh constraints of society.

I was reminded of this lesson when I read the news that Matt Taibbi had written blatantly misogynistic pieces as a younger man in his publication The eXile, sometimes with his co-writer Mark Ames and within the context of satire, sometimes not. Currently, Matt Taibbi is one of the most potent critics of the ruling class we have. He skillfully dissects the lies of the elite and holds politicians and pundits, like the bombastic and irresponsible Thomas Friedman, accountable for their shoddy writing and willingness to faun over the corporations that pay them huge sums. He is the journalist who coined the epithet “great vampire squid” to describe Goldman Sachs. And he has been merciless in his critique of Trump.

In his twenties and thirties, as a writer covering post-Communist Russia for The eXile, Taibbi gleefully skewered the haughty arrogance of American expats who looked down on the Russians and touted American exceptionalism. However, at the same time, Taibbi and Ames’ satire was laced with misogynistic ravings. Several examples of their over-the-top, victim-shaming satire are provided here. There is no evidence that these tales of harassment and abuse were anything other than satire. But even articles that were presented as serious critiques contain fear and loathing of the second sex. In a 1999 article entitled “Of Hacks and Wars,” Taibbi criticizes the writings of Times of London correspondent Anna Blundy who, for her part, criticized Russian women for not being sufficiently feminist. Taibbi accuses Blundy of being jealous of the hot Russian women and contrasts their sexually appealing beauty with unappetizing, ugly, western feminists. He writes:

Look, Anna, I hate to break this to you but, as a man who appreciates a good conversationalist as much as the next guy and given a choice between sleeping with Alice B. Toklas and a brainless bimbo with a shaved snapper and melon-sized tits, I’d take the bimbo any day. And ya know what? So will every other man in the entire world. I mean it, all of us. One hundred fucking percent. Call us shallow, but that’s the deal. 

A few sentences later, he states:

The fact is, Russian women–with their tight skirts, blowjob-ready lips, and swinging, meaty chests–scare the hell out of Western women. They know that if large numbers of them were ever to invade the placid, polite, lesbian-literature-and-designer-coffee dating scene of their home countries, they’d be priced right out of the market.

So can Taibbi possibly claim this was meant to be satire? In The eXile the line between joke and reality was often blurred allowing the writers to use the tactic men often employ of making sexist comments and then saying, “Just kidding” or “I didn’t meant be sexist” if someone objects. And either way, though Taibbi and Ames often lampooned the wealthy and powerful, Taibbi’s critique of feminism in the above paragraph reinforces the unjust power system he was ostensibly trying to take down. True, Anna Blundy served a mainstream corporate publication and some western feminists tend toward condescension and narrow-mindedness in defining the “acceptable” way to be a woman. But feminism is about recalibrating the inequality between women and men in society, and, in this article, Taibbi doesn’t make any sort of nuanced distinction between what he claims is the self-righteous, condescending feminism of these journalists and a basic belief in equal rights for women. The Russian women he is talking about were surely victims of sexism and classism, but Taibbi is in no way protecting or uplifting them. He is reducing them to a stereotype as well. He is exploiting both the Russian women and the western feminists in an extremely patriarchal attempt at making himself the arbiter of what constitutes gender equity. And his bimodal approach to defining women as either willing, desirable babes or uptight, ugly feminists is beyond cringe worthy.

As I consider Taibbi’s behavior, the brilliance of his recent writings, and the trajectory of his highly successful journalistic career, I realize there are three different ways of looking at this story and they start to wind around each other in a confused melange of analysis, anger, and jealousy. I want to sort them out. The first way to look at the uproar over The eXile l is to focus on Taibbi himself. Taibbi has offered two apologies since the press started reporting on his past writings. The first one, though it falls far short, is still better than most apologies of its kind and infinitely better than anything Ames has written so far. The second one is longer and demonstrates the nuance, thoughtfulness, and attention to the rights of the vulnerable that are hallmarks of the writing he has done in recent years. He apologizes sincerely and insists that he realizes he has a lot more to understand about his own misogyny. However, I still think he is missing an important point. In this second apology, published on November 1st on Facebook, he writes:

I have always believed that living forever with the dumb and failed things that you publish is how a writer apologizes. Ongoing embarrassment and loss of audience is the price of offensive work. You get readers back by growing and being better, not by apologizing. This merciless meritocratic system is a major incentive for literary restraint in most cases, especially in the Internet age.

So now, for instance, if people go back and look at the offensive things that I wrote 18 or 20 years ago, and decide never to read my columns in Rolling Stone or buy I Can’t Breathe, that is completely just. It’s how this business works.

The world of journalism is a meritocracy? Really, Matt? In a world where only 35 percent of journalists are women and the vast majority of news organizations are controlled by wealthy white men? This is the same system that made Thomas Friedman a star. You know him. The guy whose incompetence you have so brilliantly, hilariously, and justly exposed. You really believe in a system that celebrates Friedman (in spite of your criticisms) for spreading his ill-conceived and poorly executed nonsense? You really believe that a system that allowed you to become a great writer and a successful journalist blaming and shaming women is going to work its justice on you? Do you think that you and Friedman are in different systems? You’re not.

Taibbi, for all his courage to head dead-on toward the truth where others avoid it, is ignoring the fact that he became successful precisely because of his misogyny. The fact that Taibbi used sexism and misogyny when he was coming up and making a name for himself is not an accident. Misogyny and sexism sell. They make people laugh. They reinforce the culturally reinforced male need to feel powerful, empty though the feeling may be. They allow men to bond with one another. Powerful, successful women who tell them what to do are as scary as hot babes who might reject them. Sexism and misogyny allow men to feel safe from these threats by Until perhaps now—as a tidal wave of survivors of sexual harassment and assault have come forward against producer Harvey Weinstein, director James Toback, journalist Mark Halperin, actor Kevin Spacey, and others—neither Taibbi nor Ames have been forced to reckon with the fact that they ascended to journalistic stardom, at least in part, by writing, often in the first-person and often proudly about sexual harassment and assault. In fact, for years, some of their peers in the media celebrated this sexism.

Taibbi is successful because he is a great writer. He really is. But it is not the only reason. There are many great writers, who are persistent and hard-working and assertive but don’t have the reach of Taibbi and are barely scraping by. And the majority of those writers who are successful are white men. When he wrote those sexist pieces all those years ago, he was not only exploiting the women he wrote about, he was contributing to and reinforcing a paradigm whereby women are consigned to the role of oppressive bitch or bodacious slut. He was using the power of the patriarchy to get ahead in the world and effectively contributing to the machinations that keep women from ascending the ladder of success. Whether or not he knew it. And I’m pretty sure he didn’t. As the oft-repeated quote by Michael Kimmel goes, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.”

And this brings me to the second way I found of looking at the Taibbi story: through the lens of my own struggles with sexism as a woman artist. And it makes me feel like I’m stepping into a minefield where jealousy and my own privilege as a white woman with limitless educational opportunity could explode in my face at any moment. But it’s by navigating these minefields, that we learn about our relationship to the terrain and develop our battle skills.

When I was a twenty-four year old graduate student in film school, a male actor in the film I was helping to create told me a joke that had something to do with a vagina. I’ve since blocked the joke out, but I know I protested on the grounds that it was sexist. Later that day, his male friend who had brought him into our student film said, “I heard he was telling you dirty jokes.” But I had no problem with the joke being “dirty.” I had a problem with it being exploitative, and I had a problem with the fact that it made me feel unwelcome, disrespected, and frankly, ugly and icky. But this is a common tactic men use to excuse their behavior when they’re called out. They suggest that we are asexual prudes if we don’t appreciate their humor. I remember that feeling to this day. I also remember the way the other woman in the group and I were systematically excluded from the process of having any real impact on the film we were making. That actor is now a fairly successful journalistic personality himself, while I am struggling to create a career where I can make my livelihood as an artist. Throughout the development of my career as a filmmaker, singer-songwriter, and film composer, I, like all women, have had to contend with the patriarchy in a way Taibbi (and that actor) never had to. Taibbi and I are the same age, so while I was in my twenties and thirties being excluded, disrespected, and hit-on, he was making a career for himself mocking women. He contributed to the cultural and social exclusion of women. And I take it personally. In short, he worked to keep me out. He doesn’t write out of a place of misogyny anymore, but he really needs to get over the idea that his success or his recent bad press have anything to do with merit. The sins of his past did not come back to haunt him until Harvey Weinstein and the resulting “me toos” on social media pointed out that sexual harassment is, well, bad, and really prevalent. Now Taibbi has to contend with it.

The reason it is so painful to know that Taibbi went down this road is that he is supposed to be one of the good guys. He really does take serious whacks at the power structure, and there are only a handful of other writers who do so as effectively. But, you know what? Most of those other writers are also men. So this brings me to the third way of looking at the Taibbi debacle: in terms of its relationship to the sexism of the far left.

Now, at this point, I could be misunderstood. I don’t mean to say that there isn’t horrible sexism among the right and among neoliberals. There is. But why are the men who are supposed to be upending the hierarchy still so subservient to the hierarchy? And this brings me back to the dadaists. They saw their attack on women as a form of rebellion against the forces of oppression. They did not need to justify their behavior because they saw women as belonging to men and because dadaism was being defined by a chaotic inattentiveness to rules or morays of any kind. The women were folded into the patriarchy. The dadaists were proclaiming their own sexual freedom by taking what they were told could not be theirs and by behaving in a way that the oppressive forces of aristocracy and capitalism could not allow. But the idea that the women had any rights or agency themselves never entered their minds, because the patriarchy was and is so ingrained in every aspect of our culture, our society, and our individual thought processes that we can’t get away from it. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn refers to women as “the intimately oppressed.” And it is because of the closeness of the oppression of women that we as a culture have difficulty identifying it.

And I suspect that this is at least part of Taibbi’s problem. In a 2010 article in Vanity Fair, James Verini quotes Taibbi’s co-editor Mark Ames:

He wasn’t ever comfortable with his own anger. Matt’s fate all along was to end up in a privileged space. He knew that and realized that if he could take an unconventional route there it would make him much more interesting once he arrived.

So Ames is suggesting that Taibbi knew all along that the wildness and misogyny would not be a part of his life forever but that it would help him to get where he was going. I’ll buy that, but I disagree that it makes him interesting now that he has arrived. Sexism and white male privilege are boring as all get-out. A real apology where he acknowledges the ways he wielded sexism, whether or not he was aware of it, to get where he is would be a good start. And if he wants to prove himself through action as he stated in his apology, then he should find ways of opening the door to women writers and especially women writers of color. Find the most disenfranchised unknown journalists you can find and enfranchise them, Matt. You have the skills and you have the reach. You can use your power for good.

 

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