The Divide by Matt Taibbi Review

American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

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<i>The Divide</i> by Matt Taibbi Review

The Divide, as a title, strikes me as something of a misnomer.

Really, Matt Taibbi, Journalist—here embellished with the capital J to acknowledge those classic journalistic ideals, e.g., castigating the powerful, throwing bright lights down black halls, providing voice to the voiceless and, refreshingly in this work, not adhering cravenly to objectivity—outlines something far less benign, a beast with many names. (Taibbi knows his beasts. He created the “vampire squid” moniker for financial giant Goldman Sachs in a July 2009 Rolling Stone article, “The Great American Bubble Machine.” This reviewer will honor such ingenuity by sharing a few beastly names in the same fashion.)

The wealth gap has become less a gulf dividing the upper echelons of society and those toiling near or beneath the poverty line and turned into more a maw, an infernal mouth, a massive, institutionalized pit dug into America and stocked with perhaps the most vicious and awesome beast known to man: The System. The pit waits for a savage bureaucracy to push erstwhile victims into its ant-lion mandibles. It sucks them dry before tossing aside the shell.

A condensed form of Taibbi’s conceit: The wealth gap turns out to be about far, far more than allocations of wealth. It results inevitably from two separate bureaucratic systems—Taibbi characterizes them as two different actions of one system, but they may be easier seen as two. The two systems, Taibbi writes, run “...on bureaucratic autopilot—and autopilot turns out to be a steel trap for the losers and a greased pipeline to money, power, and impunity for winners.”

That most gentle characterization of the Divide comes well over halfway into the book, in a section that draws together all Taibbi has discussed before. He begins with tales from the Wall Street crash and white collar crime, and moves on to stop-and-frisk (so called “broken windows”) statistical policing, then into the cruel banality and Sisyphean toil of urban courtrooms and finally to the nearly unfathomable riches of financial pillagers and the definitely unfathomable complexity of their crimes. The author synthesizes all of this into one tentacled, beaked monstrosity. He drags his beast up from the depths like Tennyson’s kraken.

A case has been made for Taibbi being a more overtly socially conscious (and slightly less Gonzo) version of Hunter S. Thompson. I never bought the comparisons. To Taibbi’s credit, he tends to see people, even if they’re animalistic people, where the Good Doctor saw only animals. Taibbi also seems less beholden to the crippling parabolas of Thompson’s canon. (He does not suffer the lows, never quite hits the highs.) One section of the book, however, pages nestled into the chapter “Little Frauds,” brims over with Thompsonesque rapier wit and vivisector knowledge. Taibbi finely diagrams complex social constructs, describes them in an admirably understandable (yet rhetorically pleasing) way and soaks it all in gasoline. Then—and this is the best part—he leaves us to strike the match.

Even so, his build to a glorious conflagration feels long and uneven. As noted, Taibbi describes systems inherently complex and insidiously invisible … an invisibility achieved through pervasiveness, what Taibbi deems a “shadow government,” one “fueled by the irrepressibly rising vapor of our darkest hidden values.”

He means that America only loves a winner, and a winner that the majority of The Divide readers, or Paste readers, or Rolling Stone (where Taibbi worked as a contributing editor) readers, all being, ostensibly, winners themselves, will recognize. Even those such as myself, hubristically and pointlessly claiming to understand the Janus-like faces of our nation, may be mostly blind to a) just how fucking pervasive the Divide is and b) how incredibly perverse it becomes. For the scales to fall off, for the “Little Frauds” Damascus moment to hit, Taibbi must first expose disparate pieces, causalities, casualties, and protectorates of the Divide.

Taibbi first takes us back to the Divide’s Skynet moment: the “Holder memo.” Written by current Attorney General Eric Holder while a mere nobody in the Clinton administration, the memo concerned prosecution of white-collar crimes. Tough, on the one hand—a section encourages prosecutors to file charges merely if the corporation refuses to waive its attorney-client privilege or picks up the tab for employees’ legal fees—the memo also contains the Divide’s DNA, like the fateful chip that would eventually beget the Terminators.

Holder’s memo urged prosecutors to take into consideration the impacts a lawsuit could have on the holistic capitalistic picture: loss of jobs, economic instability, etc. Dubbed “collateral consequences,” these seemingly conscientious concerns, bastardized since, would eventually form the basis for toothless efforts by Holder’s Department of Justice in the wake of the Wall Street crash. We have here the genesis of “too big to fail.”

Collateral consequences? The former corporate thugs who now stock the Justice Department indicted tiny, immigrant-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank rather than the giants, the various financial vampires, squids and krakens, the true criminals. Journalists, Taibbi notably excepted, lapped up the thin blood. Justice!

Speaking of criminals: Violent crime … you know, crime crime … plummeted after the 1990s. But, as Taibbi tells us, incomes also went down. These two facts together fly in the face of conventional wisdom. To add to the perplexity, the prison population grows by the day. Taibbi: “Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization.”

We face a complete and total mess of a question: How can this be?

The answer, Taibbi writes, lies in the psychological roots of the Divide, in those “irrepressible vapors.” Taibbi makes clear their source: Our voracious love for winners, for the American Dream, Horatio Alger, the Shining City on the Hill. Our desire to shine bright like a Dimon, Taibbi argues, turned upon us, becoming a hatred for losers.

It surrounds us. The young and not-so-young neocons on Facebook and social media constantly blast “socialized” healthcare and demand drug testing and draconian law enforcement. God forbid, they cry, that we be bled dry by the fraud of ethnic Welfare Queens and Ghetto Khans.

Let’s be honest. The Randian acolytes picture these people (ahem, those people) a certain way, and one can bet it’s not white. Meanwhile, they ignore the billions of dollars of fraud committed by those gleaming winners atop the Hill.

We see it in Mitt Romney’s notorious “47%” remarks, in police stop-and-frisk, in the drone-scarred lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have before us a massive dehumanization of the poor, a civil rights spectrum increasingly akin to the Dangerous Classes in Victorian England, one of the most famous examples of a disproportionately wealthy society in history. We treat losers, our lesser, needy people, as figures to be derided and mowed down without a second thought, obstacles, ticks, leeches, parasites. (Taibbi does a fine job of identifying need as the mark of Cain … the needy akin to video game enemies and, in the drone war’s case, literally so.)

This black ichor flows through the hydraulic machinery of the system, ever pushing the poor towards the ant-lion. And note that poor need be the only descriptor really required here: Class is the new race. Occupy seemed to possibly know it, but could not articulate it. One quick trip to the other side of the gap—say, by losing your life’s savings to Wall Street criminals—leaves you just as susceptible as the others who have always been vulnerable in America.

These critical reveals alone could constitute a very fine, glossy-paged feature for Taibbi. They merely hint, though, at the terrible fathoms contained in The Divide’s 400 or so pages.

Indeed, a proportion of the book’s appeal, at least for this reviewer, lay beyond its pages. The Divide is a cigarette book, the kind of work that lingers long after its fires have been extinguished. This brings us to the other major component of The Divide’s enjoyability: Taibbi examines in-depth some particularly egregious/illustrative cases to explain his admittedly complex and frightfully large ideas. He takes us up close to the leviathan’s rib, where we may understand fear on a personal scale.

Immigrants and welfare recipients face Orwellian existences. Taibbi describes the police state that the NYPD created in the very shadows of the Shining City on the Hill, where stop-and-frisk mentality actually boils down to dragnet fishing: Catch em’ all, and let the system sort ‘em out. This very system requires the needy in the first place, or it wouldn’t exist. The byzantine construction demands a legion to conquer it. Taibbi writes, “… in other words, you need to be a bureaucracy in order to survive one.”

All of this could easily drown in society’s frothing hate for the needy, of course. But Taibbi is canny enough to locate cases outside of the stereotypical norm. (Two white guys suffer from stop-and-frisk; immigrants living here legally due to domestic violence amnesty facing scrutiny.) The author admits that cases of welfare fraud do exist, giving these examples not so much as bold strategy as a play to the neocon need-hater’s logic, juxtaposing meager welfare infractions with the massive, swamping losses of the financial sector.

Taibbi paints a world where welfare “investigators” burst into homes, blame and deception foremost in their minds, and tear through the private belongings of recipients in search of discrepancies that could get them booted off the rolls. One single woman had her underwear thrust accusingly before her, the scanties in question obviously too sexy for a woman who allegedly lived alone. Another woman—they seem to be women, more often than not, many with children or expecting—received a visit from her inspector at 10:30 in the morning. The bureaucrat removed the woman from welfare rolls for lying about living with a school-aged child. The child was not home. On a school day.

Do we call these Fourth Amendment violations? Of course not. The courts, Taibbi explains, have found that the state holds a right to search taxpayers to protect taxpayer money. (Unless you mean for bailouts that big banks received for the Great Recession.) Oh, and a final, delicious twist of the knife: Inspections can be unannounced … and a failure to be at home when inspectors arrive means an instant rejection of benefits. So instead of looking for jobs or working the menial ones they already have, the needy must sit at home and wait to be expected. The Kafkaesque system forces them to become cruel pantomimes of the lay-abouts we imagine them to be.

So while the government kicks down doors, searches private property, and pursues welfare fraud with the relentlessness of a tiger shark in a blood slick—We have to protect the taxpayers! Cheaters and frauds must be found!— billions of public dollars for too-big-to-fail banks flap out into the unseen night like a cloud of bats. We see the systemic, international, near-apocalyptic fraud that comprised the great Wall Street crash of 2008 punished only by a few fines (except for little Abacus, of course; someone must hang, but it’s apparently not a very big noose). Those punishments constitute mere drops in the bucket to banks, which often do not even need to publicly admit wrongdoing.

Through no fault of Taibbi’s own, the financially focused sections of The Divide (chapters mostly alternate between one side of the Divide and the other) tend to be the more arresting … figuratively, of course. We hear a constant, numbing media drone about the plight of the poor and alien; perhaps exsanguinated hearts beat in our chests, or maybe these stories hit too close to home. Most of us don’t want to think of neighbors collaborating with the ant-lion or about EBT cards in the grocery checkout line or of foreclosures to friends or family. (Or self.) Whatever the reason, Taibbi writes with most authority about the sordid tales of the boardroom and ledger sheet. He tells stories in the same important lane he carved at Rolling Stone, elucidating without boring, lacerating without hatcheting. The man has a gift for describing those massive, money-devouring leviathans drifting about the American landscape.

White-collar incidents feel lurid, extravagant, pornographic. Want to defraud? Short? Crush, kill, rape, pillage, laugh, fuck, all the way to the bank? Then do it. The only crime in a country that worships winners has a name: Failing.

Taibbi presents various transcripts of emails and text messages that show the virtues of men who thrive in this environment: poor spelling, rampant vulgarity, an obsession with sodomy, childish behavior. (To have the most stuff may be the ultimate childish desire.) In one Taibbi episode, some of the most acerbic, rich and worshiped hedge fund heroes hire a slick confidence man to whack a Canadian insurance company. Seeing these intelligent, highly educated men devolve into thugs reveals the heart of a merciless and ludicrous problem.

With such cases, Taibbi lays out the beneficiaries of the Divide on one side and its victims on the other. The bureaucracies run down and described in “Little Frauds,” the indispensable soul of the book, may best be imagined with a shift to a new metaphor: the Labyrinth.

Bureaucracy as a maze will not be, of course, a terribly original idea. Still, parallels with the mythological Labyrinth seem too obvious to avoid.

The winners of American society, the billionaires, captains of industries whether concrete or (more importantly) invisible, i.e., the financial industry, plus the politicians and lawmakers … well, think of these as Daedalus and Minos both, the constructors and primary beneficiaries of the Labyrinth.

Then think of the losers in society (those on welfare, immigrants illegal and non-, residents of America’s urban battlefields, victims of the financial crash, anyone who needs) as the Athenian sacrifices, doomed to be devoured by Minos’ Minotaur.

The Minotaur can be considered as CCA and other private correctional companies that incarcerate the needy trapped in the winner’s bureaucracies. These prison-keepers see their businesses flourish. Their publicly traded stocks get snapped up by the winners, an un-virtuous cycle. And here’s the key reason the bureaucracies thrive: No one with the power to dismantle them has the motivation.

A near perfect analogy, save one thing: There is no Theseus.

B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/music/art critic currently based in Chicago. His work can be seen in VICE, Sports on Earth, The Classical, The Myrtle Beach Sun News and Newcity, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter.