Taibbi’s reporting drips with caustic humor and intelligence. I picked up several of his books and worked through them and found an account of current history from the Kerry Bush election up until now through the lens of that reporting. Elections, the financial crisis, war, Katrina, immigration, stop and frisk, and corruption of our political order and imbalance of our legal system are all given a review. We can see the transition from a democracy to an oligarchy. People may find Taibbi’s voice cynical and anarchist, but I find it mostly refreshing as he takes no prisoners and finds both parties at equal fault.
The Divide is the most current and the most important as it shows, to crudely paraphrase Taibbi’s thesis, the move of America towards a dystopia. An oligarchy that is criminalizing being poor by intertwining the social safety net with law enforcement and at the same time refusing to prosecute financial crimes criminally (only seeking fines). Taibbi gives us a tour of the bureaucracy of welfare, stop and frisk, immigration laws of Georgia, and other idiocy. He uses situations that seem worthy of the fiction of Heller and Kafka, a largely computer and statistical model referencing bureaucracy gone amuck, serving only its illogical needs. Then he counters this with the inadequate prosecuting of financial crimes. HSBC bank can launder $100 million for the mass murders in the Sinaloa cartel without a single person going to jail but a homeless man caught with a single joint gets to serve 40 days in jail. The grotesque onslaught of short sellers on Fairfax Financial is particular bizarre episode. Case by case Taibbi goes through this surreal tilting of justice. A country where violent crime is on the downswing but prison populations are exploding. Those who suffer mostly are blacks and Latinos and some whites, but main the trend is towards the poor being the brunt of this upside down world of justice where crime is only prosecuted for one population. a population without a voice, a population the majority of Americans despise and fear. Fear that they will be there soon. Whole communities are turned into occupied territory where the stupidest little mistakes that all kids make during adolescence, can pull you into a system that can grind you into nothing.
Griftopia is Taibbi’s sour take on the financial crisis and its aftermath. He reviews what he calls the “grifter era” where everyone in government and business have moved towards seeking a fast buck instead of long term planning. Pennsylvania attempts to sell its turnpike, and Chicago does sell its parking meters to fill a one year budget gap(for a 75 year lease) This resembles the sacking of a crumbling empire rather than a plan for continued business. He treats the bailouts, the Tea Party, Affordable Care Act(which has done nothing to break up the insurance cartels and is many ways a gift to them) with scorn, disgust and also compassion. The consensus between the two parties to back up business at every turn while keeping people squabbling over social issues is creating a culture of cynicism and corruption, truly alienated from democratic impulse.
The Derangement is about the loss of a collective public narrative during the Bush era. People on the right and left started to use Taibbi's wonderful term “reality shopping” to find their own narrative. He explores and infiltrates Pastor Hagee’s megachurch and the 9/11 truth movement. He finds an America disenchanted with its political options, seeking easy superhero narratives (the Matrix and V for vendetta being common touchstones), and mostly very lonely. I found this book deeply sad, the optimism of the conspiracy theorist (even though they think they are facing a truly evil and murderous foe) versus the cynicism, disinterest and shabbiness of reality is deeply depressing. Taibbi finds humanity in both of these camps and avoids easy humor, even though he exposes some troubling beliefs and subtexts in the current era of popular movements.
Episodes or dispatches from the disasters of Bush’s second term. Taibbi retains interest whether reporting on the corrupt do nothing congress, or reporting from where the thin veneer of civilization is wiped away to reveal the uncaring face of reality. For these later parts his trip into post-Katrina New Orleans with Sean Penn is a piece of reporting worthy of Heller or Thompson, a piece of apocalyptic comedy equal parts satire and deadly serious, and three surreal days in Abu Ghraib.
This earlier work covering the 2004 election is his busiest writing, filled with skits, jokes and lots of gonzo antics like drug taking and wearing silly outfits. Its thesis, that Taibbi delivers in more nuanced fashion in later books is of the presidential election as an elaborate version of the third world military parade. He heaps endless scorn on all the candidates and both parties, and the reporters who give it such an air of importance. The only politicos he retains any love for are Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders, which seems about right. This book is cynical and disgusted, but in the end whom is more cynical, the pageantry or the one who exposes it.