Writers Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames Serviced No One But Themselves With Their 'Satire'Latest
Journalist and bestselling author Matt Taibbi is well known for his acerbic takedowns of politicians and corporations like Goldman Sachs and political commentary and dispatches from the 2016 election. But last week, while on tour to promote his new book about the death of Eric Garner, I Can’t Breathe, Taibbi became known for something else when was asked to publicly reckon with a series of deeply misogynistic pieces that helped establish his career as a writer nearly two decades ago. During a talk at Harvard’s bookstore, NPR’s Robin Young confronted Taibbi with a disturbing passage from a book that he co-wrote with Mark Ames in 2010. The paragraphs, written by Ames, describe their business manager, Kara, objecting to him and Taibbi sexually harassing their female employees at the office for the tabloid they co-edited in Russia in the 1990s, the eXile:
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.
The book, eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, is about the decade they spent running an irreverent biweekly tabloid in Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s of the same name. The eXile was a controversial, part-satirical, part-investigative gonzo look at Moscow and Russian life in the 1990s through the eyes of American expats. Ames and Taibbi played pranks on Russian officials then wrote about it and loaded up on drugs and went to clubs and wrote about that, too. They said they received death-threats for their work. The tabloid eventually shut down in 2008 after the Russian government opened an investigation on grounds that they had violated Russian law by “encouraging extremism, spreading pornography, or promoting drug use,” according to a 2010 Vanity Fair profile mourning the tabloid’s shuttering. The website then moved online to a blog, the eXiled, maintained by Ames. It also shifted its focus to cover US politics and culture. The Vanity Fair profile described it as “the bastard progeny of Spy magazine and an X-rated version of Poor Richard’s Almanack” that “had pilloried, in the foulest terms possible, almost everyone of importance, and no importance, in Russia.”
But one of the hallmarks of the eXile, both in its life as a tabloid and a book, was its misogyny. In the Chicago Reader in 2010, book reviewer Martha Bayne described the eXile as “breathtakingly misogynist” and observed that, while Taibbi and Ames took aim at worthy targets in Russian government and society, “the moral high ground feels a little soggy when it’s claimed by two guys who use the front of the paper to champion the pleasures of teenage virgins, run ads for ‘models’ in the back, and regularly eat for free at restaurants because the owners are scared of a bad review.”
She called attention to several disturbing passages, in which Ames writes what is presented as a first-person account of him threatening to kill his pregnant ex-girlfriend if she doesn’t have an abortion:
In that same chapter, Ames describes approaching a 15-year-old girl, specifically because he learned how young she was:
Later, he describes sex with that girl:
Ames also had a column called “Whore-R stories,” in which he claims he slept with sex workers and wrote about his experiences, presented as non-fictional accounts. The column was sometimes accompanied by photos of the women, details about their bodies, their performances, and their personalities. (The column is a favorite among some Men’s Rights Activists). The paper also ran club reviews written by a fictional misogynistic character, Johnny Chen, that ranked clubs based on three criteria, including how likely an American expat was to get laid. (Taibbi recently revealed in a Facebook post that Chen was written by Ames.)
Here’s one passage from a “Johnny Chen” review in which he describes what seems like raping a drunk teen who was “bleeding and crying” and contemplating throwing her off his balcony:
Literally within four minutes of arriving, some teenager with a face like Muttley’s from Laff-A-Lympics fell off the bar and onto my shoulders. I carried her almost straight out to the coat check, then hurried her down to a taxi, ran her home, up my stairs, and into my apartment. The whole time she was begging me to take her back, to be careful, she was drunk, bla-bla-blah… After we were through, I had no idea what to do with her. She was bleeding and crying. As for me, I was depressed. I’d just shot a load large enough to repopulate North Korea. So I walked her over to my balcony, and held her in my arm, leaning her over the ledge.
“Throw her over,” Johnny Jr. advised me.
“You know you want to,” he said. “Just pick her up and throw her over. You’ll feel better, I promise.”
But I didn’t have the energy. Instead, I passed out on the floor, and woke up the next morning, with Muttley beside me. It took me a long time to get rid of her, but I did. You know how that is. It always works out that you have horrible poo cramps the morning after, and all you want to do is dump a huge shit, but you’ve got this humiliated, skanky bitch tagging around. Girls, if I can give you one piece of advice to win a man’s heart, it’s to get up bright and early the morning after, and leave before he even wakes up. Because despite what the song says, There Ain’t No Morning After.
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. In the Moscow Times, book reviewer Owen Mathews calls the passage above, in which Chen rapes a girl, “hilarious.” When Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the book, they glossed over the depictions of rape and sexual harassment, writing, “Only those with a National Lampoon mentality will enjoy the descriptions of the editors’ sexual conquests and their comparisons of Russian and American women. Like much of the paper itself, the book, which recounts the newspaper’s history, is tasteless.” The book even earned high praise from infamous men’s rights activist and pick-up artist Roosh V, who wrote in 2010, “I highly recommend The Exile, one of those rare books that makes me want to be a part of the story,” and wrote that the book convinced him, “I have no choice but to visit, sooner than later.” And, while the tabloid was billed as satire, the book’s back cover described it as “the inside story of how the tabloid came to be.” Publisher’s Weekly categorized the book as non-fiction, as did a note at the beginning of the book that read, in part, “This is a work of nonfiction.”
In the aftermath of Young’s questioning, last week Taibbi wrote an apology to his readers on Facebook, where he described the actions as “reprehensible” and added that it was, “like a lot of things in the eXile, fictional and not true—I have never made advances or sexually suggestive comments to any co-worker in any office, here or in Russia.”
He went on:
While the events described are not a biographical reality, this is not to say I don’t have regrets about the eXile, which was conceived as a giant satire, whose purpose was to be an ongoing embarrassment to the expatriates who came to Russia to spread the American way. In my younger mind this sounded like a good idea, a cross of Andrew Dice Clay, The Ugly American and Charlie Hebdo. But in practice it was often stupid, cruel, gratuitous, and mean-spirited. I regret many editorial decisions that I made back then, and putting my name as a co-author on a book that used cruel and misogynistic language to describe many people and women in particular. I hope readers can forgive my poor judgment at that time.
The next day, on October 27, Ames also published a response to journalists asking about the alleged acts of sexual harassment and assault, which he called “smears.” He denied the claims that he himself had set forth in a work of supposed “non-fiction,” and, like Taibbi, insisted the incidents depicted were fictional, servicing satire. “So let me state clearly: It is not true that that The eXile work was not satirical. It is not true that I was an actual ‘serial rapist’ or rapist or harasser or assaulter of any sort,” Ames wrote on the eXiled online blog last week.“I never raped, harassed, assaulted anyone, and it sickens me that I’m dragged into having to make this sort of denial. All of those ‘accusations’ come from me. They come from my own satirical work. I’m the self-accuser, the only accuser—as absurd and meta as this is.” (Ames also responded to allegations against him in 2011 by asserting the eXile was satire).
While Taibbi shows more empathy for survivors of sexual assault than Ames does, both argue that the entire book itself is a work of satire, something not to be taken seriously and something that was fictional. “As I said, we did not keep a simple boundary between satire and journalism, and the aesthetic approach to everything was satirical, which is why the newspaper and book looked like they did,” Ames continued. “Our satire was not the sort of facile parody brand of satire that Americans tend to think of as a synonym for satire. We didn’t put up giant signposts like The Onion and Colbert, deliberately so. But it was satirical. If you’re seriously trying to find out if we were a satirical publication and our work was satirical, and you’re relying entirely on some small print in the front of the book and ignoring everything else, then there’s not much I can do here.”
But if we are to take Ames’s claim of satire at face value, then what, exactly, is being satirized when he describes the rape of a 15-year-old girl? Who is the target, if not victims of sexual violence and girls, of a gleeful recounting of the coercion of a former partner into an abortion? If it was meant to satirize debaucherous, fratty ex-pats, why were the women, and not the men themselves, the butt of the joke? Satire isn’t carte blanche to say whatever one wants to say without repercussions, it’s a tool to take down powerful figures and institutions—a weapon that Ames and Taibbi wielded effectively over and over again against demagogues. They also, whether meaning to or not, gave their readers license to delight in violence against women.
Based on other interviews and writings by Ames and Taibbi, it could be inferred that both viewed women as a target ripe for mockery because of the power they seemingly held over men like them: “I note this to illustrate my point: that my ‘misogyny,’ if that’s the right word for it, comes not from ice-cold, cinematic antisocial tendencies, but rather, from fear. Fear and pain. Way too much fear and pain. I ain’t like those other assholes, the axle-grease-on-the-arms misogynists,” Ames wrote in “Meditations of a Misogynist” in the eXiled blog in 2003.
And in an interview with the Observer in 2000, Ames described being a “loser” who had become a “white god” in Russia. “It was the first two weeks of my life that I’d lived really,” he said of moving to Russia. “It was pretty much just fuck whoever you wanted to. It was just very epic.” (If the attitude Ames describes here is familiar, it may because similar arguments are pervasive in the Men’s Rights Activist community, a group that generally believes that feminism has gone too far.) In the same interview, Ames was open and unapologetic about his predatory behavior. “Tens of millions of people live in dire circumstances, stranded in the center of the world’s largest continent, with little hope of going anywhere,” he told the Observer. “Which means–sexual opportunity for me.”
He went on:
He spoke about his sex life in Moscow. “Russian women, especially on the first date, expect you to rape them,” said Mr. Ames. “They’ll go back home with you and say, ‘No, no, no,’ and if you’re an American, you’ve been trained to respect the ‘No,’ because you’re afraid of sexual harassment or date rape, and so you fail over and over. But it took me a while to learn you really have to force Russian girls, and that’s what they want, it’s like a mock rape. And then you come back here and you’re really freaked out–because you don’t know if that actually exists deep in all women’s psyches, that that’s what they all want. All relations between guys and girls is basically violent, I think. It’s all war.”
Ames felt safe articulating such misogynistic, violent views to a mainstream newspaper, even in 2003. But unlike the weak defense he offers for mocking women in the eXile, it’s much harder to hide behind the claim of satire in an interview. When discussing the book with journalists, by originally marketing the book as non-fiction, and repeatedly making girls and women their punchlines, it’s clear their bleak views about women actively contributed to their success as writers.
Both Ames and Taibbi have denied committing any of the violent, demeaning acts they depicted. But unlike Weinstein and other alleged predators, their apparent crime is not physical, then, it’s an intellectual one—what do we do with men who have, for years, profited by promoting misogyny and violence against women, and what do we want from them now?
While Taibbi’s original apology fell short, after another canceled appearance, Taibbi himself canceled a talk and issued a longer, more detailed apology, also on Facebook, at last addressing the decades-old concerns about the misogyny in his and Ames’s writing. This time, he took responsibility for his writing and acknowledged “in fact we had pretty quickly become the very people we were supposedly satirizing.” He also admitted that Ames’s misogyny never concerned him, writing, “As for Mark Ames and his columns: I will confess right now that I never confronted him about their misogyny. Our arguments ran in a different direction.”
This time, he offered a thoughtful, unequivocal apology to women, contextualizing himself among the Weinsteins and the Tobacks, and admitted, “I know the list of revealed harassers is growing, but I am not on that list, nor should I be. I belong to a much bigger group. I was young once, and a jerk. And I am sorry for that.” It may not sound like a profound admission to simply dismiss himself as a jerk, but it’s true that Taibbi’s success didn’t exist in a vacuum. For years, the media and American culture validating his writing, including his sexism. He may have peddled misogyny, but American culture happily tolerated it, normalized it, and encouraged it, and exalted him in the process.
Taibbi also offered a statement from the book’s publisher, Grove Press, which said that “the copyright page is incorrect”:
Some Internet observers believe this denial is belied by the book jacket, which describes the eXIle as non-fiction. As to that, the publisher of the book, Grove Press, has issued a statement:
“The statement on the copyright page is incorrect. This book combines exaggerated, invented satire and nonfiction reporting and was categorized as nonfiction because there is no category for a book that is both.”
I don’t recommend reading the book, but it opens with an interview in one of Mark’s chapters with a fictional character named Johnny Chen. Chen is a fake person. He is, in fact, Mark Ames. And he is actually listed as a contributor right underneath the supposed smoking-gun disclaimer about the book’s non-fiction-ness. Even the book jacket, in other words, was spoofed.
This is not to defend the book, its message, or its use of language. I merely point out that it is not biographical reality.
If this is true, then it means that for years, Ames and Taibbi benefitted by allowing readers, reviewers, and journalists to think that the eXile was mostly non-fiction, and that the incidents described in it, particularly the ones involving sex and drugs (as the title highlights) were part of their reality of creating and running the tabloid. Ames and Taibbi did little to clarify their intentions; the eXile no doubt helped bolster a sexual fantasy for a generation of men. If indeed the misogyny in the eXile was satire, and the gruesome acts—like child rape, forced abortions, and death threats against women—were a form of dark comedy, then it was in service of nothing but the careers of the people writing it.