Few journalists have tossed more hand grenades or built more of a reputation for themselves than Matt Taibbi, who covers politics and culture for Rolling Stone when not writing bestselling books, such as Griftopia, Insane Clown President, and most recently I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, a powerful account of the death of Eric Garner, who died in police custody after being arrested for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. In 2008, Taibbi won a National Magazine Award for his columns and commentary at Rolling Stone.
With fame comes controversy. A 2005 piece for the defunct free weekly The New York Press was titled "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope." It was denounced by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Matt Drudge to Michael Bloomberg to that paragon of good taste, Anthony Weiner. With the publication of I Can't Breathe last fall, Taibbi has come under attack in a wide array of places ranging from Twitter to Facebook to The Washington Post for work that critics say is flat out misogynistic and sexist.
Taibbi has published at least two apologies about past work (much of which appeared in The eXile), but the firestorm has barely abated. He says that his support for Bernie Sanders throughout the 2016 campaign—even after Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination—is part of what's motivating the attacks on him, and is leading to something approaching a media blackout on his book about Eric Garner.
Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Taibbi about his new book, free speech and the left, the recent negative attention that his work has received, and issues on which progressives and libertarians overlap in powerful, if always uneasy, ways.
1:48—I Can't Breathe and the Eric Garner case
9:55—Cell phone videos and their effect on criminal justice reform
11:43—New York City and the origin of "stop and frisk" policing
18:37—George Kelling and the origin of "broken windows" policing
22:44—Crime reduction since the 90s
32:15—Erica Garner's activism and death
34:56—How libertarians and progressives can work together
37:29—Journalism and "the new anti-speech movement on the left"
44:04—Political tribalism and third party candidates
48:23—Russian politics and U.S. election interference
51:49—The sexual harassment allegations against Taibbi and his view of #MeToo
1:00:35—How to promote heterodox, independent thinking
Edited by Justin Monticello and Todd Krainin. Camera by Jim Epstein and Andrew Heaton.
"Blammo" by Podington Bear used under a Creative Commons license.
Erica Garner, credit: Raffe Lazarian/ZUMA Press/Newscom
George Kelling Photo, credit: David Swanson/MCT/Newscom DIEGO OGAVE Notimex/Newscom
George Kelling Photo, credit: David Swanson/MCT/Newscom
This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: So let's start with I Can't Breathe, which is immensely moving, powerful, and comprehensively reported account of the various social, cultural, legal, and law enforcement forces that left Eric Garner dead at the hands of the police in July 2014. Remind us of who Eric Garner was and why he was being hassled by the police on the day he died.
Matt Taibbi: Eric Garner was this really interesting guy. He was an ex-con who was known in the neighborhood in Staten Island, not far from here, a place called Tompkinsville. He was a little bit older. He was 43 years old. He had a number of children, and he was for a living selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. Obviously, we have the highest consumption taxes in the universe-
Gillespie: This is part of Bloomberg, right?
Taibbi: Yeah, exactly.
Gillespie: Bloomberg's legacy of 'I hate smoking, I'm going to raise taxes.' And Garner was part of a large group of people who were bringing lower or untaxed cigarettes from Virginia, from Indian reservations.
Taibbi: Exactly, yeah. Bloomberg sort of single-handedly created this whole subculture of arbitrageurs, basically, who would go to these other places, buy cigarettes for 4 or $5 a pack, put them in the backs of cars, drive them up to New York, and then they would sell them for 8 or $9 a pack, where if you buy them in a store here they would be 13 bucks. And that's what Garner was doing. He was one of these guys.
Gillespie: And then sometimes he would break them down, this is something … My father, who grew up in New York during the depression, he used to talk about 'loosies,' where it's illegal to sell cigarettes individually, but Garner and people like him would break down a pack, because you could make even more money by selling—
Taibbi: Yeah, it upped the profit margin slightly, and incidentally, the practice of selling loosies, you can find it pretty much everywhere in the city. You go to any subway station, you'll find a loosie dealer, but also, if you go to expensive nightclubs in New York, you'll find people selling loosies. There's always a person around the bar.
Gillespie: And it's amazing that the prohibitionists don't think people … if people want a product, they're not going to come up with a way to get it.
Taibbi: Exactly, yeah.
Gillespie: So Garner's selling loose cigarettes. It's against the law. He has been arrested multiple times, I mean he's both been beaten and robbed by other street criminals, but he's been arrested multiple times for this.
Taibbi: Right. Yeah, and obviously, this all takes place within the nexus of the broken windows policing strategy, which is this thing, this idea that was created here in New York City, which is basically you focus on minor crime, you go after people who jump turnstiles, who ride bicycles the wrong way down the street, you drink out of open containers.
Gillespie: Catching somebody graffitiing.
Taibbi: Graffiti, exactly.
Gillespie: This is like visible crime, visible disorder.
Taibbi: The visible signs of disorder is what they call them. Quality of life arrests. So in the context of that, the whole idea is if you go after enough of those people, it will eventually cause a decrease in serious crime, because people will be less likely to go outside with a gun, they'll be afraid of being caught for something stupid. The practical result of all this is just that they had enormous numbers of summonses written for really, really minor offenses, and people like Eric Garner who did things that weren't even misdemeanors in many cases … selling a loosie doesn't even rise to the level of a misdemeanor.
Gillespie: He should get a ticket, right? Something like that, and then you pay a summons.
Taibbi: Yeah, exactly. But they become very, very visible targets, and he had been … he was a big guy. He was 6'3″, 350 pounds, and whenever the police wanted to hassle somebody or get their numbers up, they would go after this guy.
Gillespie: Talk a bit about … Let's talk a little bit about Garner and then go back to the origins of broken windows, because I think one of the most interesting parts of the book is that you actually look at what broken windows, and you talk to one of the main theoreticians of it, and what it becomes. So Garner is … and this is something that's also fascinating … this is caught on video by a guy-
Taibbi: Ramsey Orta.
Gillespie: Yeah, who is what, in jail now, right?
Taibbi: Yeah, he's in Upstate.
Gillespie: And he was arrested originally basically for filming the police doing this, but this is where the line, 'I can't breathe.' And Garner, before the police take him into custody, he's like, 'Hey, man, why are you hassling me? Leave me alone.'
Gillespie: So what did the cops actually do to Garner?
Taibbi: The timeline of what happened that day is really strange. From what we can piece together, somebody from the precinct who is of higher rank, like a lieutenant, had driven by the spot, seen Garner on a corner, and then instructed the sort of crime squad detectives to go back and pick him up. The problem was, Garner wasn't actually selling cigarettes that day, and this was one of the weird things that I found out when I first started researching the book. I talked to almost everybody who was there that day, did like a minute-by-minute timeline. He had an argument with somebody in the street because they thought he had been snitching the night before. Then he felt unwell. He went into a bathroom. He came out. He broke up a fight. He's leaning up against the wall, catching his breath, when the police approach him.
Here's where you get into the whole problem of how policing works and why it can sometimes have tragic consequences when bureaucracies are set up the wrong way. I talked to a bunch of cops, and basically they told me if your superior officer, if your lieutenant tells you to go clean a corner, you can't come back to him and say we just moved the guy around the block. You needed a number. You need to show him that you did something, which for these two detectives meant getting Eric Garner physically into a car, arrested, and charged with something. So here's Eric Garner, this 350-pound man who's already had a long history with the police, who's leaning up against the wall.
Gillespie: Who's in terrible health, or deteriorating health, for all sorts of reasons.
Taibbi: Deteriorating health, right. He's got asthma, he's got diabetes. He's just broken up a fight, and he's wondering why the police didn't do anything about that, and they tell him he's got to go to a police station. And you can see in the video that it just doesn't register in his head, like 'Why me, why now?' and he refuses. There's this paradox, like what do you do. These guys have a bureaucratic imperative. They've got to bring him to the station, but he's thinking, 'I didn't do anything, and I'm not going to go.' So this results in this decision, I think it was a fateful decision that they made, which was that they were going to bring him in no matter what. Instead of letting it go, they put their hands on him, this melee ensues, and they use a chokehold, which is a forbidden technique, and he dies.
Gillespie: And he's laying on the ground for something like eight minutes before they offer any kind of medical assistance.
Taibbi: Yeah, they thought he was faking at first. There was a store owner. He sort of fell into a beauty salon, and the owner of that store asked one of the police officers, 'Why aren't you doing anything?' And they're like, 'Ah, he'll be fine.' If you've covered a lot of these stories, and I know that Reason does cover a lot of these stories, this is a consistent feature of a lot of these cases, is the sort of medical inattention that happens afterwards. The ambulance that either comes a little bit too late. You know, the old Public Enemy song, "911 Is a Joke", it actually is true. It turns out that they're often lax. They leave the person unattended for a long period of time. Who knows what would have happened, because Garner technically didn't die until he was in the ambulance about 20 minutes later, I think. So that's another key aspect of the story.
Gillespie: How important is it that this was captured on video, by a cell phone?
Gillespie: And how is that changing, because the book … and this is something that, obviously, at a certain level, I think to the extent that the Reason audience knows you, it's because you're saying that Goldman Sachs is a multi-tentacled octopus sucking the life blood out of humans, the Koch Brothers are whores, all of this kind of stuff. But for people who are interested in criminal justice reform, how important is it that we're now seeing police brutality? It isn't eyewitness accounts, it's actual video accounts.
Taibbi: Yeah, I think it's critically important. I mean, that entire year that really began with the Garner incident, but was a succession of them. There was Freddie Gray, Michael Brown. There was the young woman in Texas who was knocked down by police. Like the Rodney King beating back in the 90s, all of these had a de-mystifying effect, I think, largely on upscale white voters in cities, who just don't see this stuff. I think if you live in the pink houses here in East New York or if you live in Harlem, you've seen all this stuff before. It's no surprise to you. But if you live in another kind of environment, seeing it and seeing how it all plays out and seeing how the interactions actually go, not just in snippets but in huge long scenes, I think that's critically important, because otherwise legends grow around these things, and the police very quickly turn around the narrative as they've done countless times in the past, and it becomes something else.
Gillespie: Let's talk about stop-and-frisk and work back from that towards broken windows, because part of the book … and the Garner arrest isn't quite stop-and-frisk, but it's related to it, and stop-and-frisk was a policy that was in place for years in New York, which essentially allowed the police to say, 'You know, I've got a hunch about somebody, so I'm going to stop them, and I'm going to frisk them.' What was stop-and-frisk? You post some unbelievable numbers about how many stops were being made and who was being stopped.
Taibbi: Stop-and-frisk grew out of a case in Cleveland, Ohio, I think it was 1961, I think was the original incident. The Supreme Court case didn't happen until '68. It was called Ohio v. Terry, and basically what it said … The incident was a police officer who saw some people on the street that he felt were acting suspiciously. Part of his suspicion was just that it was white people hanging out with black people.
Gillespie: I mean, you're either in a doo wop group or you're buying drugs.
Taibbi: Right, exactly, and so he … The question was whether it was legitimate for a people officer, just on the basis of a hunch, to go and start (A) questioning people and then (B) in this incident, he ultimately ended up patting people down, finding weapons on some of the people in the group. And that left us with this standard that we have, that survives till today, which says that police can stop and question anybody that they have a quote-unquote 'articulable suspicion' are about to commit a crime.
Gillespie: One of the ironies that you point out in the book is that decision was made by Earl Warren, who any of us who remember 'Dirty Harry', Earl Warren is the pussy judge who let criminals go free. But by the end of his era, he was feeling the heat, so he actually was like, 'Oh yeah, yeah.' I think the way you talk about it, he essentially says, 'We're not really going to stop the police from doing this anyway, so we might as well make it usable.'
Taibbi: Basically, yeah. There's a very strange passage in the opinion of Ohio v. Terry, and you're absolutely right. Judge Warren had been under a lot of criticism from sort of Beltway society that he had, through the Miranda law, through Mapp v. Ohio, which sort of prevented unlawful searches and seizures and all that … Everybody thought these were coddling criminals laws, and Warren wanted to give police a tool, maybe perhaps to restore his reputation with that crowd. In the decision, what he basically says is, 'There's nothing really that we can do at the Supreme Court level to stop police abuse, but we can do something to fight crime.' And so that very strange passage, with that he gives police this extraordinary tool, which now puts probable cause in the heads of police officers, and it's entirely subjective. The standard isn't a real standard. It's just if you think something's up, then you go ahead, put your hands on someone.
Gillespie: I guess to give Warren, who is forever burning in hell for pushing to intern Japanese Americans during World War II, I mean there was a tripling of crime going on. In the post-war era, in every city people thought this was it. But it leads to this. And then in stop-and-frisk, there were early moments in New York City where stop-and-frisk was pulled back, right? Or there was a civilian review board that was put into place to kind of make sure the police weren't abusing this. But that had no real effect on anything, did it?
Taibbi: Well, for a long period of time, stop-and-frisk … they didn't even have a word for it originally. They just called them Terry stops for a long time, and that's what they're called in most cities. There was really just one squad that used this technique, and they were a special unit of detectives who would go around the city and just sort of randomly put people up against the wall and search them. It wasn't until the late '80s and early '90s when this new idea of 'Let's use all the available legal tools that we have to start doing something about the crime rate in New York.' Because New York had this terrible reputation, if you remember. If you watch movies like Quick Change and Warriors.
Gillespie: That's almost the end of them, but yeah, it's like The Taking of Pelham 123. You mentioned Warriors. Even Escape from New York, which was kind of a fantastic … but from about 1968, maybe, to about whenever Quick Change, every movie about New York was what a shithole it was, and we've got to get the fuck out of here.
Taibbi: Yeah, exactly, and it's an epic journey to get home.
Gillespie: Crime. The Out-of-Towners was like a Neil Simon comedy, was about this.
Taibbi: Right, right. Exactly.
Gillespie: And you can't even get out of the city, because it's so dysfunctional. That's Quick Change.
Taibbi: Right, yeah. Exactly. And so the first thing they did was they went after the graffiti on the subways, which was a very visible symbol of how things had gotten out of the control of the authorities, and it took them a long time to do this. There was this really actually long interesting subterranean war between the graffiti artists and the police. When they finally got the last dirty subway car offline, then they started implementing what they called 'stop, question and frisk' on the street. Originally, in the conception of the people who designed these ideas, it was supposed to be used very selectively. It was supposed to engender a feeling of safety among civilians, but wasn't supposed to be particularly aggressive.
What ended up happening was under the leadership of Bill Bratton, who is again the Commissioner, they created this very stats-heavy regime in which officers were encouraged to do as many of these stops as possible, and by the time the mid-2000s rolled around, they were stopping in this city about 600,000 people a year. Somewhere between 80 and 90% of those people were black and Hispanic, and this city is more than half white. So there was clearly an issue that had developed over time.
Gillespie: Well, this is coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement and out of Ferguson and whatnot, there's a plausible case there that merely being a black man in particular, or Hispanic man, is a criminal act in New York. That's the feeling among the minority community, for sure.
Taibbi: And they have a very good reason for thinking that, because one of the key theories behind the whole broken windows movement is this idea that people who are afraid are already victims of crime. The sort of progenitor of broken windows is a very interesting guy named George Kelling, who I think is kind of a tragic figure in a lot of ways. He had this idea that if you are afraid to go outside, if you're elderly and you don't want to go to the store, you are already victimized. The problem is, a lot of people in New York City are afraid of black people. So it's like a syllogism. People who are afraid are already victims. A lot of people here are afraid of black people. Therefore, being black is a crime. And that's kind of the way this worked out in the end.
Gillespie: Let's talk about Kelling a bit, who I believe ended his career as a criminology professor, a professor at Rutgers. He's still around. But shortly after Garner's death, he wrote and he told The New York Times that while stop-and-frisk had clearly been abused by police, he said the fact that blacks and Hispanics were arrested at higher rates made sense. It's not the police's fault, he said, it's not whites that are terrorizing those neighborhoods, it's African Americans. How is he wrong about that, because this is the conservative complaint about like stop-and-frisk, 'you do that, of course they're going to stop blacks, because blacks commit all the crimes?'
Taibbi: Okay. Well, there's a couple of things I would say in response to that.
Gillespie: And then we'll come back to Kelling, because he's absolutely not a racist. He is a tragic figure, I think.
Taibbi: Yeah, I think his theories were … they went in a direction that he didn't expect. I would have two responses to that. Number one is I think if you went to Wall Street and you started aggressively throwing everybody up against the wall and going through pockets and tearing open briefcases, you'd find an enormous number of drug cases. The statistics say that 71% of illegal drug use in New York City involves white people. So a lot of that is selective. I've been living in this city since 2003, and I've never been stopped randomly on the street. Never had any problem.
Gillespie: And you are probably carrying right now.
Taibbi: Right, exactly, or I would have been.
Gillespie: One of the ironies of stop-and-frisk too is that possession of pot, for instance, had been decriminalized, but showing it in public was a crime, and so cops would say, 'Hey, would you show us what's in your pockets?' If a guy complies and has a joint, he's committed a crime.
Taibbi: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Gillespie: I mean, it gets kind of weird really quickly.
Taibbi: That was something I learned about for a previous book that I was writing, that we have theoretically decriminalized marijuana in New York City, and yet we have 50,000 arrests a year for possession. How does that work? It works in exactly the manner you described. The police will stop somebody, they empty their pockets, and suddenly the private consumption of a legal amount of marijuana becomes openly displaying it in public, and that's different, and that's a crime. So that's one thing.
The other thing I would say is the answer that of course there are more stops in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, that's where the crime is, is not a defense against the accusation that you're profiling people. The charge in all of these cases is you can't stop somebody on the basis of whether they're black or what their age is or whatever it is. Just to say that it works and it's logical is not a defense against profiling. It's actually an excuse for profiling. I would say two things. I would say if they employed the same techniques that they employed in these other neighborhoods, they would find plenty of crime, and two, unfortunately, that actually makes the case for the lawyers who were taking on stop-and-frisk.
Gillespie: And I guess also since stop-and-frisk, because it has been … it's been officially stopped or reduced substantially, crime is still low. So you can also make the … I mean, people everywhere in the country, because there has been a massive decline in violent crime and virtually all forms of crime since the mid-'90s that nobody was expecting. One of the co-authors of the broken windows theory, James Q. Wilson, he was one of the sources for Hillary Clinton talking about the rise of 'super-predators' in the mid-'90s. Every criminologist, almost, was predicting a massive and ongoing crime wave from a '90s peak, and it just bottomed out. So clearly, we're not quite understanding what's causing crime to go up or down that well.
Taibbi: Sure, and that drop took place in cities that employed these strategies and cities that didn't employ these strategies, so if you talk to criminologists about this, it's funny. You'll actually get a lot of people who will say, 'I have no idea,' which is pretty rare for an academic. Usually, they have a clue.
Gillespie: As an aside, the most interesting theory about that … and part of it, and I know some people, particularly people who are even filming this interview, are big believers in Compstat, and there's a strong case to be made for that, but one of the most novel arguments I've read is that consumer goods, the type of stuff that was common, that people would steal for, like they would break into a window in a car because they saw something, stuff has become so cheap, there's less need to … That impulse is gone.
Taibbi: That makes sense.
Gillespie: I don't know. And then, of course, aging, demographics, because most crime tends to be committed by younger people, as we get older, etc. There's a real discussion about why are we in such a crime-free era, because-
Taibbi: And then, of course, there's a very kind of key question that you have to ask: if we have this continually declining crime rate, why is the rate of incarceration going up so fast?
Gillespie: In some ways it's leveled off.
Taibbi: It's leveled off lately, yeah.
Gillespie: And of course, again, you get these arguments where it's like 'that's why crime went down, because even if those people weren't criminals, we swept up a bunch of criminals,' but then you get to that question of what kind of country are we living in.
Taibbi: Right. Yeah, exactly. The numbers are just so crazy.
Gillespie: Talk a little bit more about Kelling, because in an early '80s article with Jame Q. Wilson, the sociologist and criminologist, in The Atlantic, that's where broken windows came from. You talked extensively with Kelling. How was he dismayed by what he was talking about originally, how it kind of transformed over time?
Taibbi: I found Kelling fascinating, because the origin of all these theories came from an experience that he had as an administrator of a home for troubled youth in rural Minnesota in the early '60s. Race is not an issue here at all. He's like basically the warden of a mental health facility, and he sees that the people who are running the place are allowing the kids to do all kinds of crazy things. If they start tearing the tiles out of the ceiling, they just let them do it. If they break glass, they leave the glass on the floor. And Kelling's observation was let's clean up the surroundings a little bit, and maybe that will turn the temperature down on some of the neuroses. But everybody was strictly Freudian. They wanted to sort of observe everybody.
Gillespie: It's amazing sections of the book, because he's like Pat O'Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces or Dead End, the old Humphrey Bogart movie, of he's kind of the kind-hearted priest who just starts calling bullshit and saying, 'You know, you've got to clean up after yourself. If you want to do this, you've got to do that.' And it had good effects.
Taibbi: It's simple, logical. It would be something that any parent would do. If somebody's acting out, you set boundaries for them, set rules for them, don't allow them to be messy all the time. These aren't difficult theories to understand, but out of this group grew this idea that when people see disorder, it gives them psychological permission to act out more. This germinated in his mind over and over again, and he began to think about it in terms of what its applications possibly might be for helping prevent crime. As there was other research in this, like Philip Zimbardo at Stanford did some research on this.
Gillespie: Zimbardo is most famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment. You talk about getting the most mileage out of a two-week experiment that only lasted a few days. You talk about it in the book, where he took two cars that were clearly not functioning, and he put one in, what was it, the Bronx or in a Boston neighborhood.
Taibbi: Yeah, I think it was the Bronx.
Gillespie: In a crime neighborhood, and it was skeletonized within hours. But then he put it in a kind of nice neighborhood …
Taibbi: Palo Alto.
Gillespie: … yeah, and nobody touched it. But then he went back and broke a window, and then …
Taibbi: Instantly. He used a very strange term to describe the people who did the skeletonizing of the car. Basically the idea was until people saw the disorder, they felt like they didn't have permission to go destroy the car. So this becomes the basis of this policing strategy, which is it may not actually decrease crime, but if we don't see people drinking openly in the middle of the median strip, if we don't see people riding their bike the wrong way on the sidewalk or peeing in an alley, maybe they'll be less something. Less disorder, people feel less afraid. That was certainly one of their early conclusions.
But even Kelling understood early on that there was potential for this to go in a bad direction. He remembered talking to people in Southie in Boston, my home town, and basically their idea of disorder was letting black people in the neighborhood. So this idea of affirmatively imposing order or trying to create order, it had a subjective meaning, it could result in all kinds of eventualities, and you were leaving it in the hands of individual police who probably would have different ideas about that from city to city and from precinct to precinct. They even wrote about that in the original broken windows article, and they said we don't have a solution for this. We don't know how to prevent it, but it could be a problem.
Gillespie: And it obviously turned into one, in many ways. Where does Kelling come down ultimately on … I mean, he told the [New York] Times shortly after Garner's death, he was like, 'I'm not sure, should selling loose cigarettes be the type of thing that you clean up or not?' Where do you come down on that, because there is a certain logic to it, and we do want to have … and I say this as a libertarian, where I think cigarettes should be legal, and smoke them wherever anybody lets you, and sell them by the half, I don't care … but do you need to impose order? I think it was Rand Paul might have been the … and he was widely made fun of on, like, MSNBC for saying something like, 'Nobody should die for selling loose cigarettes.' And it's kind of like yeah, everybody can agree with that, but then if you start working backwards, where do you end up?
Taibbi: Well, it's certainly not an easy thing to unravel, but I think where I came down on this ultimately was … Obviously, I'm a white journalist. I didn't grow up in this world. I didn't have a bad experience with the police growing up. I didn't have grandparents telling me about what they'd been through. But in black communities, they do, and they'll tell you that the kinds of laws that were developed to make these policies possible are very similar to the laws that existed in Jim Crow and after the Civil War, the vagrancy laws. Basically, if you can arrest somebody for obstructing pedestrian traffic or refusal to obey a lawful police order, which can mean anything, like 'We want you to stand over there,' and you don't do it fast enough. I think you create an enormous possibility for mischief and misfortune when it just becomes too easy to arrest people.
The other problem with this policy, as far as I can see, is if you have a policy that's based on creating a statistically high number of contacts between police and the population over things that aren't that important, a percentage of those are going to go sideways. If you think about a lot of the incidents that were famous in the recent years, they weren't over very much. They weren't like shootouts at the OK Corral over something very meaningful.
Gillespie: Yeah, this isn't the Symbionese Liberation Army exchanging 10,000 rounds with the LAPD over a parked car.
Taibbi: Yeah, exactly.
Gillespie: I've read about studies that have shown that actually in each individual police contact, blacks and whites are not more likely to have a bad outcome, but blacks have many more contacts, so that's part of what's going on here.
Taibbi: Right, right.
Gillespie: Eric Garner's daughter, Erica, and you write very movingly about her in the book, she recently, very recently died, and you eulogized her. She became a force for reform in the wake of her father's death. You eulogized her just recently, saying, 'She tried everything. She held rally, held marches, spoke constantly on television and radio, met with officials from the city and the federal government, pushing not just for results in her father's case but for wider reforms like the creation of an independent prosecutor to investigate police killings. There were some successes, but mostly what she heard were promises that went unfulfilled.' What are the things that she accomplished, and what is the most pressing reform, really, going forward, do you think?
Taibbi: Well, they did manage to successfully lobby Governor Cuomo to temporarily create a prosecutor who would look at police abuse cases. They wanted to make that permanent. They didn't succeed in doing that. I think she was instrumental in probably leading some of the protests in December of that year, in 2014, but by and large she was very disappointed in a lot of the outcomes. I think what she found over time, and this is something that I wrote about in the book, is that the system is really designed to respond to families in her situation really in just one of two ways. We either give them money, or we don't give them money.
Beyond that, sort of institutional fixes, finding out what happened inside a grand jury room, federal civil rights cases. They're fairly rare, and she wasn't … A lot of people said as soon as they got the money, they should have been happy with that. The money didn't mean anything to her. She was just as mad the day after, I remember, as she was the day before. She was just a really interesting person, very different. I expected something totally different. I expected her to sort of insist that her father be portrayed in this kind of heroic light, and she was completely different from that. She wanted things to be real, and she had high expectations for … she thought for herself. She got a lot of attention from politicians in both parties, and that didn't impress her so much. She sat down and she thought about who she wanted to side with and why. She was just an interesting person.
Gillespie: So, over-criminalization of everyday life, the war on drugs, sentencing reform, cash bail reform, these are all issues where a good chunk of progressives and libertarians overlap a lot. It's kind of fascinating when you see somebody like Rand Paul and Cory Booker in the Senate talking about sentencing reform and a variety of things, because they don't seem to have much else in common. What do you think are the best ways forward on these kind of interesting, ad hoc overlaps. What are the best ways forward to actually produce real change?
Taibbi: Well, I think one thing that's important is to make people aware of their shared views on some of these things. I think there are a lot of people who don't realize that they agree with each other about a lot of these things. All the things you mentioned are absolutely true. I think there are a lot of Americans who would agree with the cash bail reform system, who don't like the idea of private prison profiteering. I mean, there's a lot of areas where the-
Gillespie: My next question was what are the roadblocks to coalition building, and I'm about to show one. Enough with the private prisons, they represent 10% of the population. The problem are prison guard unions and public unions.
Taibbi: That's probably true, too.
Gillespie: But I agree. I guess actually talking about issues rather than talking about tribal affiliations.
Taibbi: Well, I mean, this is the whole problem with American politics in general, is that it's become this gigantic ongoing screaming match, and we just don't have dialog about things. It's totally non-productive. It generates an enormous amount of rancor and anxiety. On issues where things could get done, like in this space, where I think, particularly in the area of things like the drug war, I think there's widespread agreement about the ridiculousness.
Gillespie: Well, the Attorney General, as we're talking, has just come out with a new thing saying, 'Hey, states, don't even think about going along like as if marijuana isn't a federal crime.'
Taibbi: Right, yeah. He might just be protecting institutional turf there, you know what I mean?
Taibbi: But in terms of the population, I think people widely agree about a lot of this stuff, and it would be great if we could talk a little bit more about the areas where we agree of things.
Gillespie: Another place where I think there's a substantial overlap between libertarians and not all, but a lot of progressives or liberals … and I realize there's meaningful distinctions between kind of centrists, liberals, leftists, progressives, socialists.
Taibbi: I don't know what any of those words mean anymore.
Gillespie: Yeah, but one thing is an absolute defense of freedom of speech or of heterodoxy. Maybe even a better word, of independent thinking. You've expressed serious concerns to me privately that there's something approaching what you called a new anti-speech movement on the left, and part of it is you've experienced it that you're being kicked out of a kind of liberal media club for the crimes of not being a good party Democrat, for opposing Hillary Clinton, even after Rolling Stone endorsed her and then you wrote a counter-endorsement of no, Bernie is really the guy that we should be backing. For being skeptical, the idea that Russia is calling all the shots in America, and even for saying that economic anxiety is a real thing.
Taibbi: I kind of check all the boxes of things that, yeah…
Gillespie: Let's talk about this. What are the signs for you, what are the signs that you've been blackballed or that you're getting squeezed on this?
Taibbi: I mean, it's not so much about my case. I understand I've been through some stuff this year. A lot of it is stuff that I'm angry about, because I was accused of sexual harassment, basically, by people who didn't look into the case. I have the weirdest case of all, because there's no accuser. Fortunately, I think that's sort of unraveling, but people are going back through and reading some stuff from an old paper that I co-wrote with a guy named Mark Ames 20 years ago. And that's certainly legitimate for people to go back and reread earlier work.
Gillespie: So this is The eXile, the Moscow-based, English language Russian newspaper.
Taibbi: Which was an exercise in absolute pure free speech. We were trying to blow the doors off it.
Gillespie: This is nihilism. It reminds me in many ways … and I've got to say, I didn't particularly care for it … but of Suck and a couple of early websites. The whole point was to be as grotesque as possible. This was like dark black humor to the extreme. But to keep it focused, and this stuff, there was a reexamination of your eXile stuff and some of your New York Press stuff when I Can't Breathe came out. It's kind of interesting. The Weinstein stuff was happening. #metoo came about. Do you sense that your politics bother people who think you should be a fall-in-line Hillary Clinton supporter, or that the Democratic Party is the good thing? Is that what's motivating this exhuming of your corpus?
Taibbi: I think I'm just sort of accidental collateral damage to a larger thing that's going on. I started to worry in the summer of 2016, right around the time, I guess, that the primaries ended and the conventions were happening. There started to be discussions within the journalism business about maybe we should rethink how we do our jobs. The idea was that Donald Trump was so bad that we had to rethink balance, objectivity, and there started to be this creation of all these terms that appear: 'both sides-ism', 'neo-Naderism'. And if you got one of these labels, it was really bad. You didn't want to be labeled a both sides-ist.
And then there started to be openly editorials in some of the major news organizations. I think particularly of a piece by Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times, who said that we have to rethink our jobs, and one of his points was that our new idea of how we measure truth in journalism should be we should be true to the judgment of history, which to me meant let's get on board with Hillary Clinton and help her win her campaign. I want to be really clear about this. It's not because I like Donald Trump or that I dislike Hillary Clinton.
Gillespie: Although you do.
Taibbi: I do. I am not a fan of Hillary, but the issue here for me is the disenfranchisement of the press. When the press jumps on board with a political party, when we essentially volunteer to become an agent of a political party, we're giving up our institutional power. We derive all of our power from the perception, at least, that we're independent, and so just sort of willy-nilly saying we've got to help this person get elected, we've got to stop this person from getting elected, everybody join in and let's all be on the same team, for me that's almost like giving up and ceding our power.
What I had seen on the Republican side during the primary season was that when outlets like the National Review tried to write things about Trump, they were completely tuned out by audiences, because audiences perceived all of these outlets to be tools of the Republican Party already, because for decades they essentially, I think, had been. That's when I think the media has to zag when everybody wants them to zig. We have to make an effort, even if it doesn't always make sense, we have to make an effort to kind of be on the sidelines. But it became kind of de rigueur that journalism has to be in service of something, and it has to have agency, and it has to have a political purpose that's very specific. I thought that was a very dangerous idea.
Gillespie: How much of it do you think that … At Reason, we write a lot about kind of the proliferation of choices and options. Bernie Sanders famously, and I think really stupidly, denounced at an early interview, I think it was with John Harwood, where it was like oh, you know, there's like 36 flavors of deodorant, and there's two dozen types of sneakers. Nobody needs that much choice. I actually really dig choice. I like choice. But politically, the coalitions that form the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, these are things that kind of came into their modern form in the '70s. Those groups don't exist anymore, but the Democrats are saying you have to be a Hillary supporter. You can't be … There is no progressive caucus in the Democratic Party anymore that's worth a damn, or fall in line when you have to.
And the Republicans, in a way, are going through a more fascinating crack-up, because Trump is not really a Republican. It's clear, he doesn't give a shit about the Republican Party. He cares about himself. How much of it is just that our political institutions have not caught up to the variety of political experience or political expression that people want?
Taibbi: Sure. I mean, that's definitely part of it, and there's, I think, a new or, I would say, an enhanced hostility towards fringe parties. One of the consequences of Trump's election was this idea that if you don't have a serious chance of winning, you should never, ever run. Somebody like Jill Stein.
Gillespie: You're talking to somebody who voted for Gary Johnson, so I hear you.
Taibbi: Right, but there was an unbelievable outpouring of hostility from journalists about this. Not only should they not have run, they shouldn't have the right to run. It's morally wrong to do this. To me, Trump is living proof-
Gillespie: Anybody can win.
Taibbi: Anybody can win, right? And that political parties, they are often susceptible to challenges because they underperform. And so the whole idea of having coalitions, of having a Green Party that has its own set of beliefs, but maybe votes Democratic in the end. Who knows, whatever it is. That's kind of gone out the window now. The new reality is we don't even want you having this other thought. We want you completely on board, and along with that, we want you to have a whole set of ancillary beliefs. You can't say negative things about the Democratic Party, because that's false balance, etc., etc. I think all that's very, very dangerous. It creates this idea that … For me, it started with journalism being directed toward a purpose. Then it becomes humor has to be directed toward a purpose. Tina Fey gets lambasted for making a joke that's not totally in the right direction. Then it's art has to be in a certain purpose. This is a radical idea.
Gillespie: Do you see it mostly emanating from the left at this point? And as a man of the left, that's got to bug you, right?
Taibbi: I think what's happening now, I think there's always been that kind of instinct on the right.
Gillespie: Of course. Well, conservatives don't even hide it, right?
Taibbi: Exactly. It's completely out in the open, the whole idea of sort of disciplining people who have unorthodox beliefs. What, do you love the terrorists? That sort of thing. But this is a new technique on our side of the aisle, and yeah, it worries me a lot, because it's illiberal. Then you saw after Charlottesville, there's this incredible letter from people within the ACLU talking about how they shouldn't have done the case in support of free speech rights and that sort of thing, and that speech is now equated with racism. When even the ACLU is rethinking these ideas, it just gets back to the idea for me that when people are scared, they start throwing their rights overboard. It's the same thing that happened in 9/11. We can't afford to have habeas corpus and due process.
Gillespie: The Constitution is not a suicide pact.
Taibbi: Yeah, exactly.
Gillespie: Especially if my guy might lose. One of the things, and this is a phenomenal … we touched on it briefly … but a phenomenal reversal in contemporary American politics, where Democrats are now saying that we have to be very afraid of Russia. The Republicans, of all people, or Donald Trump and conservatives, are like come on, Putin's not so bad. You obviously lived in Russia. You were a super-critic of the Yeltsin regime as just kind of corrupt and bubbling, and also Putin. What is your sense? Is Putin a mastermind who can reach 500 people on Facebook with a shitty ad, and make Hillary Clinton lose? Or what is the reality of that threat to American democracy?
Taibbi: I found this story very confusing from the very beginning. I've been more troubled by the way it's been reported than I have been by anything else. Getting back to the idea that journalism has to produce a political result, when I first voiced some concerns about this story, I got all sorts of letters and tweets from people saying, 'If you were a real investigative journalist, you'd go out and find the proof.'
Gillespie: It's got to be there.
Taibbi: Yeah, we work the other way, right? We follow where it goes and whatever it leads. I don't know. There's an old joke in Russia about Gorbachev. He gets up late for work one day because he's hungover. He goes to his limousine. His driver's hung over. He throws him in the back, gets in the car, starts to drive to work, gets pulled over by the police. They let him go. Cop goes back to the car, and the other cop says, 'Who was that?' He says, 'I don't know, but Gorbachev was his driver.' The joke is that in Russia, you never know who's in charge of what, what's going on, are things being directed from on high, are there people freelancing? Even something like the hack of the DNC emails or Podesta, there's a huge range of possibilities of what happened there. Was it part of a larger plan? Was it somebody at one agency trying to outdo another agency? We don't know the specifics of it, but narratives formed before we had concrete—
Gillespie: And it does seem, in the current moment, all of the Russia-is-evil narratives are in the service of Hillary didn't really lose because she was a terrible candidate.
Taibbi: Right. I mean, that's certainly one way that I look at it. I think that the Russia story has definitely had utility to the Democratic Party in the sense that it's been a distraction from a reckoning that I thought was going to come immediately after the election, like how could we possibly lose to this? I thought they would sit down and immediately put their heads together and say we have to completely rethink what we're doing.
Gillespie: Well, you know, recent political party autopsies haven't gone well, because the Republicans did that in 2012, and then they cough up Trump. We need to reach out to minorities, we need to be younger, etc. One of the sharpest attacks, and this is in specific the attacks on you really have focused kind of coming out of the broad-based #metoo movement. The Washington Post ran an article calling attention to your work in The eXile. And The eXile had articles, and I guess people debate whether it was satire or retroactively defined as satire, but about sex with underage prostitutes, rape, workplace sexual harassment. You've denied that such accounts were factual, and Paste magazine actually did one of those rare things where they called up two of the people who were in a story, and they both said no, Matt Taibbi was a gentleman. You were in a relationship with one of them, and it was like this is all bullshit.
But then in a 1999 eXile piece, and I guess what I want to talk about now is in the broader context of #metoo, what has changed since 1999 or 2000. You wrote in a piece, 'Progress hasn't caused men to back away even slightly from viewing women purely as sex objects. Sure, we'll let you pay for half of the sushi, and we've learned to avoid staring at your asses as blatantly as our fathers and grandfathers did, but that doesn't mean we actually prefer to see you dressed in painter's pants and sneakers or listen to you deconstruct Incan folk tales. No, we actually prefer Russian women who embrace their roles as sex objects, and that won't change, no matter how many times you insist you don't envy Russian women for being—.'
Taibbi: God, did I write that?
Gillespie: Yeah. And then in your 2006 book about the 2004 election, Spanking the Donkey, you called The Washington Post reporter, Karen Tumulty, 'mannish,' 'a pre-op version of Dave Barry,' and 'a female impersonator.' So those are some of like the bad things. And then in one of the Facebook apologies you write, you say, 'I have regrets about many of the editorial decisions made in those years. I wish I could go back to my younger self and say, "What you are doing is wrong, stupid, and hurtful to women."' So talk a little bit about what's changed in you as a person, especially regarding your depiction and treatment of women, in just the terms that you use, but also what's changed in society and why. Are you comfortable with those changes?
Taibbi: I think for me personally, I originally had this idea that I was an equal opportunity offender. I mean, if you look at the things that I've written about men over the years, there's always a savage physical description of pretty much everybody.
Gillespie: Yeah, you're very much out of a kind of Rabelaisian or Chaucerian physiognomic, that you read the values of the person, particularly if you dislike them, into features.
Taibbi: Yeah, it's caricature, it's a trick that you use to try to get people to pay attention to sometimes a more difficult subject. So for instance, I spent eight years writing about banking and credit default swaps, and people, their eyes will glaze over unless you have the juicy description of somebody. You have to caricaturize, make characters for people. For years, I kind of labored under the idea that … 'labored' is the wrong word … I operated under the idea that it was okay to write the same way about women that I wrote about men and be as insulting and caustic. I think it took a long while. People pulled me aside and said things like, 'Look, women have to deal with being judged on their appearance far more than men do. It's a different set of parameters.'
I'm embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to come around on that issue, but it did. The reason that I did purely had to do with I had this sort of fierce belief that writing had to be pure and separate from those kinds of political ideas. But I was wrong, I think, ultimately, and society's changed in a lot of ways in terms of its attitudes about a lot of these things. There are a lot of things that were considered fodder for jokes, that were acceptable back in the '80s and '90s that would be totally crazy today. You think about Sam Kinison routines and some of Eddie Murphy's stuff.
Gillespie: All of Eddie Murphy's. I mean, there's a reason he hasn't had a hit, other than The Klumps or Doctor Doolittle.
Gillespie: It's stunning, and I wouldn't recommend anybody do this, but if you watch episodes of Three's Company from the '80s, they're still making Tinkerbell jokes that I guess at the time were funny or even kind of edgy, that are now you're like kind of what's going on. But do you think … How do you distinguish between good evolution of social mores where we're more inclusive and less kind of douchey to people, and just like the worst kind of political correctness, where it's like somebody in the corner can always just be like, 'That's not funny. That's not funny.'
Taibbi: Right. It's tough. It's a difficult question. I think for me the dividing line is when the requirement is not just that you avoid certain kinds of things but that you actively push forward a certain line of thinking, and then that be in your writing. That to me is a huge difference from we shouldn't use the word 'retarded' anymore. It just hits the ear wrong now, and it should, I think.
Gillespie: That might explain why Johnny Knoxville never made it out of The Ringer. Post-Ringer, it's been kind of a tough sled for him. You've alluded to this before. You're not going to let other people off the hook for the stupid things they wrote in the past, so it's kind of like turnabout is fair game, and I'm thinking I know … Journalists, we always do this to the people we want to kind of get under … so Robert Byrd was always a member of the KKK. And you still hear, that's the first thing that anybody mentions about him who despises him. Joe Biden plagiarized his life story. Hillary Clinton lied about being under fire. So you're kind of stuck with this.
Taibbi: Of course, yeah.
Gillespie: And you're just going to have to kind of work through it, I guess.
Taibbi: The only thing I can hope is that people go back and look at The eXile and at what I mostly did at that job, which was work actually very similar to what I do today. I spent a lot of time at that job essentially doing a kind of fact-checking work, where journalist A would say there's an emerging middle class in Russia, and then I would go out and I would work as a bricklayer somewhere for a couple of weeks and find out is there an emerging … I wrote probably a million words' worth of that stuff back during that time.
Gillespie: Can we also, because the stuff that gets most remembered from The eXile is stuff like pasting people with pies made out of horse semen.
Taibbi: Horse sperm, yeah, exactly.
Gillespie: That's pretty much in the past for Matt Taibbi, you think?
Taibbi: Absolutely. I am 47 years old. I have three kids.
Gillespie: And horse semen is very difficult to get, even in New York.
Taibbi: Even in New York.
Gillespie: With stop-and-frisk. I guess to finish up, apart from the validity regarding your personal case … and you have a pretty strong argument against, or a case that you're being singled out. You wrote some reprehensible things. That's in the past, and I must say, as somebody reading I Can't Breathe, it is not a book that in any way … it does not traffic in cheap stereotypes, either of the good people or the bad people. It's like a really spectacularly reported and written book. And there are parts of is that I don't fully agree with, but there's that. How dangerous and widespread do you think the emerging anti-speech left is? What are the best ways to push back against it, not just from a progressive perspective but more broadly, because in a world where everybody has their own printing press now, to reverse the A.J. Liebling quote, who said, 'The only people who have a free press are those who own them.' We all own a printing press now. How do we kind of valorize the idea of heterodox independent thinking, particularly in journalism?
Taibbi: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, it's very difficult, because journalists are people. They are human.
Gillespie: Some of them.
Taibbi: Some of them, yeah. They go on Twitter, and when you see yourself described as a racist or a traitor or a KGB spy or any of these terms that get thrown around, the instant you cross certain lines now, Twitter lets you know. Whether they're real people or bots or whatever they are, the parameters of what acceptable thought are within that world are pretty clearly defined, and they let you know what subjects are okay to talk about and which ones aren't. I started keeping a list in 2016 of things that apparently people didn't want me to talk about. You have to just resist that and be willing to take the criticism, and not be afraid to talk. I know a lot of journalists who are afraid to weigh in, for instance, on the Russia story. I know people who are more prominent and famous than me by significant degrees who are afraid to weigh in, just because they don't want to deal with the hassle.
Gillespie: Can you name a name?
Taibbi: I can't.
Gillespie: So you're part of the problem?
Taibbi: I am part of the problem. It's become a thing where nobody wants to deal with what Glenn Greenwald goes through every day on Twitter. He's got a gazillion people out there telling him that he's this, that, and the other thing. It becomes hard after a while, and it convinces people to not weigh in with ideas, and that's just bad. It's a negative idea for everybody to be all on board and afraid to say something different. We used to really celebrate the diversity of our opinions and our ideas, even on the left. I remember just right outside this door, there was march in 2004 during the Republican Convention, which was here, and they had flyers that told you to dress differently, to voice your opinions on things differently, to engage in discussions. That was actually an element of the march, was to be different from everybody else, and we just have different values now. It's weird, and I don't know what the solution is, but I think we've got to start talking about it.
Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. Thank you so much, Matt Taibbi. We've been talking with Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone writer and the author most recently of a fantastic book about Eric Garner's death, called I Can't Breathe. Thanks again.
Taibbi: Thank you very much.
Gillespie: For Reason, I'm Nick Gillespie.