The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Michael Maiello's picture

    Social Media Sucks and Taibbi and Ames Are Not Rapists

    In 2000, Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames wrote a book called The Exile, about their time in the 1990s running an English-speaking alternative newspaper in Moscow, after the fall of the Soviet Union and during what we now look back on as the rise of oligarchs and Vladimir Putin.  The Exile crashed together the ethos of gonzo journalism from the Hunter Thompson years (still ongoing) with the style of the self-published Zine movement (not yet displaced by blogs) with what we might still recognize as "regular journalism" (which no longer exists, I kid.)

    Matt and Mark describe outrages, including their persistent sexual harassment and debasement of their locally hired staff and Mark raping a teenage girl. I read the book when it came out because a friend introduced me to the editor and he gave me a copy. I had no idea what The Exile was and found the tale of its founding and downfall thrilling, inspiring and hilarious. I was 25 when I read it and deeply enthralled with Thompson, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and (of course) everything Jazz Age. I remember loving that book, as a kind of journalistic bridge between the turn of the century and the literary brat pack era of the 1980s and 90s led by Bret Easton Ellis and Jay Mcinerney. Which is to say, I remember loving the book, loving other stuff that happened within decades of the book, and not a lot else.

    I want to say that I followed their careers after that, but I didn’t.  We just did have encounters.  In 2005, Mark Ames wrote an excellent book that I reviewed called Going Postal. Google is what linked him to the book on my shelf.  Taibbi emerged for me after his “Vampire Squid” star turn.  I thought it was awesome that a guy who had left a middle class American life behind to take a chance at running his own publication in Moscow during a time of known turmoil and uncertainty could really both make it and make a difference and questioned my own life choices. I did briefly meet Matt in the lobby after we “debated” each other for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.  I was from Forbes and he was from Rolling Stone. I think we were supposed to argue as partisans but we agreed about everything. The lack of combat was probably fine for Canadian viewers.

    Last night, while out with Dagblog’s proprietor and benefactor, Michael Wolraich, I said that Mark Ames was a confessed child rapist, based on The Exile, without any caveats.  

    How did I get to the point where I'd tell a friend something like that, even though I'd once read the book in context?

    Well, recently, a friend of mine was "outed" by Buzzfeed as having sent emails to Milo Yiannopoulos, back when the Neo-Nazi boytoy was technology editor of Breitbart.  My friend had quipped to Milo that the subject of an online dispute ("Gamergate") looked like a transsexual.

    My friend has written best selling books, edited prominent websites and wrote for a television series that we all probably watch. I'm not hiding him, I'm just not giving SEO so that we can have a civil conversation. He's a reasonably sized deal. My friend found himself attacked as a misogynist and transphobic. He isn’t.  I’ve known him since 1999.

    I got into a bit of a Twitter fight on his behalf.  He’s had a history in technology journalism and I found myself arguing with people who have had beefs with him for years. Whatever the merits of their arguments, they were intense. So I went to the Google to arm up. I found that the two people most vehemently against my friend had prominently employed Mark Ames, and so I went back to Googling him and found, on social media, the excerpt from The Exile where he said he raped a child in Russia.

    I never associated the passages I read online with the book I’d read earlier. Any gun in a fight.  Fortunately, our Twitter duel fizzled before I pulled this one. But it was in my head afterwards that Mark Ames was a teeager rapist and I said so, without qualification, to a friend, just last night.

    But it’s wrong.

    I take that book off my shelf and its pages are yellowing, and I flip through it and read bits and pieces and, all together, you get the sense of an unmoored Moscow in transition, and a lawless place.  No doubt what was exaggerated or fabricated in The Exile was happening elsewhere, unavailable to traditional reportage. The book is true, but not every bit in it is factual.

    That's life.

    A couple of things to finish:

    • It has been suggested that Taibbi and Ames must have done everything in the memoir because of a New York Observer piece about them, from 2000, where the two "talk the talk."  But I think the writer, George Gurley, is in on it.  The article starts with the two subjects and the reporter, gathering in an apartment to do drugs. The subjects snort speed off a CD while the reporter takes a muscle relaxer (Soma, of course, from Brave New World). Seems like a set up from the get-go.

    • Thing wrong with social media: None of our other mutual friends defended my friend.  People are  scared to voice unpopular opinions.

    • The Exile was published by Grove. I saw Grove described dismissively on Twitter as “a small press, now known as Grove/Atlantic.”

      • Grove publishes Samuel Beckett, bitches.



    Okay, Ames is not a rapist but he is deeply misogynistic and a bully. His misogyny is interesting and ironic given his working relationship with Sarah Lacy. 

    FYI I watched that entire thing take place on Twitter, it was fascinating to watch by the way, and it did make me realize we are tarring folks with the term misogyny when it isn't appropriate and as liberals/progressives maybe we should stop throwing that at everyone who opposes us.

    edited to add: You stay up way too late!

    edited to add: You stay up way too late!

    A little insomnia last night!

    As to the other points, I gather Ames in an online bully, as are the Pando people (which might be why they get along). I guess what I'm really concerned with is how playing around too much on social affects our ability to read and understand longform creative work.  I'd say it's not helping and that in this case, it led me to misread the obvious.

    Also, our shared cause: we need Gawker back.

      Watching "Fight Club" - insomnia is good. You get shit done. Just don't talk about it. 

      we need Gawker back

      Yes! You got it exactly, sarcasm and wit is an excellent solution to the purity test problem and the P.C. policers and morals policers. Always has been. Almost strange how that works, enters people's minds from a different route, makes them see complexities? I am talking centuries, think like: Moliere or Mark Twain.

      Nobody watches Bart Simpson any more either?

      Well in some sense you are probably correct that too much time spent on social media twists the way we think about individuals because we have more exposure to them personally, which tends to alter what we think of their work. I don't know for sure but I tend to think this is probably true.

      we are tarring folks with the term misogyny when it isn't appropriate and as liberals/progressives maybe we should stop throwing that at everyone who opposes us.

      FWIW I have been feeling this too.

      One bad affect I see the whole media frenzy happening, at least to men my age, of the type who have always respected and even adored women, it is making them afraid to interact. They see it happen, they fear that any interaction much less a flirtation will be considered sexist. Precisely because there are no rules to this game, because the label is being applied too broadly. As in "gee, I don't even know if I should talk to women anymore, could get me into trouble." (Comes to mind Mike Pence has already decided on this route long ago!)

      Throw into the mix that young people are not interacting in person as much as they used to, but doing it through devices, where they can't learn emotional reactions through facial expressions and gestures. Many guys growing up before the device thing was part of our life were deathly afraid to approach a woman and didn't know how to do that.  The way I see it is that the effect will be worse now. Throw the labels at too many, and it will be counterproductive, as the only ones who will be left interacting are the true sexual harassers who are actually personality types who like to harass and misuse power against others in myriad ways.

      In the end, It's the purity test problem? Successful human interaction requires finesse. The label feminazi stuck for a long time for a reason.

      The label feminazi stuck for a long time for a reason.

      I disagree with this, while I think we should be more thoughtful when we tell people they are being misogynists, feminazi was a term created by Rush Limbaugh during the Anita Hill debacle. Why did it stick? Because Rush Limbaugh used it on his fucking show every single day, he had an army of talk radio listening white guys who not only thought it was funny but played into the stereotype of feminists as ugly lesbians and I have no issue with yelling misogynist at these guys, in fact, I think it should be done every single day right to their faces. That entire example is the best example of what deeply embedded misogyny is, and it is precisely why it is we are where we are right now as a society because we believe it is okay for a faction of our society to actively be bullies and be excused for it, because hey, those other people are making me do it.  

      ok, probably not the best example on my part, but clearly from what you write, you get what I meant.

      You pegged it by headlining it 'social media sucks" and then attaching a lengthy tome.

      One cannot deal with complex issues adequately with 80 characters or less zingers unless one is an incredibly talented thinker and writer. You end up instead with: misunderstandings and blowback.

      This is why social media is like high school, where people are first learning to communicate on their own.

      I saw this clearly when I recently met a guy who wanted to conduct a relationship through texting. He had gotten addicted to texting because he was in a job, installing computer hardware systems and getting them up and running, where texting was more efficient than a gazillion irritating phone calls. Ok fine, but applying "efficiency" to a human relationship, that does not work! Everything we said to each other was misunderstood, everything. And he wouldn't give up the texting. I said: this is it, this is not working: you either call so I can hear your voice inflections or you email complete paragraphs or this is going nowhere. Big damn waste of time, hours and hours of miscommunication. Remember IRC chat? Just like junior high school in the olden pre-cellular days, when you were first learning to use the telephone.

      At least on Facebook people post pictures, there is some complexity therein, pictures are a different language. (But head shots on dating sites are not, they are like texts.)

      One thing I like about Linked In: no one even attempts to be "social", they know better.

      Of course, the women in that story were roundly attacked on twitter even though some of them succeeded in getting punishments overturned. That decisions were reversed implies there’s more nuance than any “believe the accuser” ethos can hope to accommodate.

      I disagree. I think it shows the difficulty of proving rape in a he said she said situation. I think it's likely that most of the decisions that were reversed, or not even acknowledged, investigated or charged, were rapes. One of the problems with proving rape is our portrayal of rape as a violent act. I can see why it's portrayed that way and I'm not arguing against that. But most rapes are date rapes where a larger man simply over powers the woman. There are often no blows, punches, bruising or tearing with no evidence of violence, of rape as opposed to consensual sex, beyond the woman's word. That doesn't make it any less of a rape. It just makes it harder to prove.

      Another problem is that we don’t seem to allow for the possibility of exoneration...

      Sure, that does happen. I've argued here that it's most likely that Woody Allen didn't molest Dylan. We had a long debate on the subject. But he will never be exonerated in the court of public opinion.

      What do you think happens more often? A falsely accused man never gets exonerated in the court of public opinion or a rapist gets away with no punishment for rape?

      I definitely think it's more common that rapists and other harassers get away with their behavior. No doubt.

      But I have also always believed that it is better to let a million guilty people go unpunished than it is to unjustly punish an innocent. I think that about all crimes, by the way, not just what we're talking about here. I apply the same moral framework to murder as I would tax evasion. The absolute worst thing is to punish an innocent.

      That worked in Oliver Wendell Holmes' day, but it seems like a tilt that's likely to be abused in 2017.

      So be it?

      But even if we were to be so lucky as to get more sensible law about sex offenders, social media won't allow for exoneration, it's the rule of the mob (more politely called small town morés or community standards). That's the whyfore of all the anti-bullying movements and the anti-shaming campaigners.

      I have naive hope that Trump's excesses will eventually sicken everyone as in: I can't stand another damn nasty tweet, let's be nicer to each other, and overall the culture will turn away from that some. For a while. It will never go away totally, it's human nature and it's why we have: rule of law. (I note that even lots of Trump fans wish he would stop tweeting. I.E., think of ramifications before you communicate.)

      People are being labeled within virtual communities where they know each other, re-visiting the well known horrors of olden-daze small-town life where you better watch yourself or Ernestine the telephone operator will make sure your name is Mudd.

      This is exactly why I get all up in arms when people start talking about getting rid of anonymous commenting on the internet to solve this. That won't work! Let's take it out of the political blogosophere for an example: attacks hurt less when you can hang on the belief that those anonymous comments on the net calling you fatso or slut are from people you don't know rather than knowing they are coming from a guy that sits next to you in your high school homeroom. Likewise, you feel freer to defend a friend and to say what you really think when you are anonymous.

      Along those lines, even the practice of sock puppeting from olden internet days sometimes helped to get people to stop thinking like tribal idiots. When they don't know who is saying it, and can't even ascribe it to a pseudonym, they think about: the content alone and not their opinion of the writer.

      I love your notion of social media as a provincial town when it thinks it’s so worldly.

      But it was in my head afterwards that Mark Ames was a teeager rapist and I said so, without qualification, to a friend, just last night.

      But it’s wrong.

      Are you sure?  Have you read her account anywhere?  Was there a "her"?  Have the authors ever acknowledged that they fabricated or exaggerated the material?  I remember the hubub when the book came out, and the general noncommittal comments - would the response be the same if it were published today?

      Well, Ames and Taibbi both said they never actually did those things and no women have emerged to say otherwise so, as Ames says, Ames is his only accuser.

      Ames and Taibbi wrote a book where they claimed they did many awful things, mostly to women. Then they claimed they never did the things they said they did, that it was all satire.

      Occasionally some Onion or other publication's satirical article fools some people. They think the article is factual rather than satirical. In the past I always got a good laugh at those people because when I read the article I thought it was so clearly satirical. I have to admit this time is different. Ames and Taibbi got me. I totally missed the satire. I like satire. I've been reading it for over 50 years. My earliest memory of getting excited by satire was when I read Mark Anthony's eulogy of Cesar in Shakespeare's play when I was 9. But this time I was the one fooled. For the first time in my life I totally missed the satire. I didn't get the joke in the Ames and Taibbi book.

      Unless Ames and Taibbi actually did what they claimed they did in the book and the the claim that it was satire is just an attempt to avoid the backlash for their self described abuse and harassment of women.

      Well, there's James Frey's "Million Little Pieces" as reference bullshit. Who knows. Me, I.m Tyler Durden, honest.

      You have to read the whole book in context and also to realize that the satire in the Exile wasn't really aimed at an American audience, or even a contemporary Russian audience. This was all about a very specific scene in Moscow around the time that western entrepreneurs and fortune seekers were working with Russian oligarchs to make fortunes as Putin rose to power. It was a huge frontier market where the rhetoric from the west was all about the virtues of capitalism as these guys saw a kleptocracy rise around them...

      Suffice it to say, it'd be easier to recognize the satireif we were the Exile's target audience, but the joke seems to be that they were lampooning a western stereotype of sexually available Russian women who were also looked down on be western women in and outside of Moscow, who Ames and Taibbi described with much contempt.

      Look, I can't defend the quality of the satire. I've certainly read better comedy, but I can understand the intent.

      Fox News to the rescue: Trump critic Matt Taibbi facing backlash over Russia memoir

      PS Public outrage is always selective and often hypocritical. That's why public outrage sucks.

      PPS I told Mark what you said about him, and boy is he pissed.

      Oh, I don’t care what Mark thinks. Thumb to the eye, figure four, and it’s over. Whooooo!

      Fascinating. I'm awed by the consistently reasonable ,thought- provoking exchanges.

      Congratulations to all. 

      (Pretentious I know but  just calling a spade a spade.)

      Love you, Flavor Flavius!

      Mho, Kathy Lally's Dec. 15 WaPo piece has got the real goods on Taibbi being a gross sexist pig and bully back then. Yeah, he apologized, and it has nothing to so with sexual assault and rape. But I'm all for shaming men about this kind of behavior, no matter how long ago it happened, and to have them disavow it now in public. (Especially figures that play male role models of some kind, which really doesn't fit Taibbi.) May they teach their sons to act different because they have shame about their youth...

      I think I've figured out how to make money with a club for boorish behavior. Sounds quaint, like 1890's parlor society.

      Isn't that what he basically did? That's sort of how I see it. I.E., there's a big young male boor audience, let's capture and feed it with these Russian wild west stories.

      Go ahead with your adventure stories, just leave humiliation of women out of it.

      It reminded me of member Emma Zahn here once describing to me of the "wolf pack" over at Kevin Drum's place in the early blogosphere descending upon her because of something she said and tying it all into her being female.

      I see wolf pack behavior as sharing the basis of what leads to high school gang rapes, not kidding. The internet bully stories do resound with me.

      No, I mean Jekyll & Hyde late Victorian Londontown ruffians, not some yuppie wannabe post-wall types. Bonus points for old style opium dens.

      [PS - reading the 1 female Moscow journalist's description of how Taibbi & primarily his partner (Ames?) took her down is quite disconcerting - at some point this wild wild west fun stuff takes real live victims, and afaik Taibbi hasn't done very well in owning this, and a lot of people on the left credit him as beng some poet genius cause his articles confirm much of their preferred stance, even though the specific biases show.]

      [PPS - the humiliation of women is an ongoing thing that will take lifetimes to figure out and partly correct. Putting young ladies in bunny outfits is infantilizing, but men's great works are often achieved through dragging along some unempowered female. "Eyes Wide Shut" or "Story of O" as male playground, or "Apocalypse Now" where women appear just to be some icing & eye candy... The list of women you provided earlier "involved" in politics were all pretty much as compromised or bit players, secretaries sleeping with bosses, occasionally promoted to 2nd or 3rd wife, or the Profumo model Keeler sleeping with both Russian & UK officials as part of sex parties held for the most powerful dudes... aside from a handful of women, some in key positions, you might say overall females aren't playing a too impressive role in the scheme of things, and despite all the clamoring, it's not clear that a majority actually want to...]

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