Matt Taibbi is a cancel culture hypocrite

Here’s what Matt hopes you don't remember: When the cancel mob came for him, he was the "upper class Twitter Robespierre" ratting on his colleagues.

Between the pandemic, the economic collapse, the fires and the toxic fumes, and the fact that I’m currently fighting an eviction, I know there are much more pressing issues to get worked up about these days. But as someone who got his start in journalism at The eXile and who has been on the receiving end of our “cancel culture” so many times I lost count, I can’t let it go. 

This summer you probably saw Matt Taibbi lighting up the Internet with his moral crusade against America’s “cancel culture.” He’s been praised by bluechecks on the left, the center, the right, and the alt-right for having the courage to go against the grain and to “tell it like it is” — courage, I’d like to point out, he seems to have discovered only after a bunch of celebrity centrists got together (to widespread acclaim) to wage a coordinated insurgency against cancel culture in the pages of respected establishment pubs like HarpersNew York Mag, and the New York Times

We can talk about the strength of Matt’s arguments and his rhetorical skills, and maybe I’ll get into it in greater detail later. But if you ask me, his constant sucking up to gross establishment pundits, his constant cliches, his angry dad takes snarling about “kids these days” and how everything was better and purer back in the 1960s, and his rants about the glorious Rational Enlightenment threatened by the dastardly radical left — it’s all been very embarrassing. Matt went from helping set up what is probably the most radical and avant-garde American literary experiment of his generation to sounding like a caricature of a reactionary boomer, all this at the tender age of 50. 

I mean, just look at how Matt talks about cancel culture with that alt-right weirdo Bret Weinstein. Dialing in from his office, which is decked out with a cool drum kit and framed Rolling Stone covers, Matt explains that cancel culture is actually a Bolshevik-like bacillus. It’s infecting our institutions! We gotta get it out! 

I think because people just don't know recognize how serious it is. Again it’s similar to what happened in Russian history — people thought that this little clan of you know super-motivated Bolsheviks were never going to go anywhere because even within the relatively small minority of socialists who were very active they were considered nuts. But they had a way of thinking that was very difficult to counter in an institutional setting. This is kind of a similar thing I think and people are seeing this that once this gets into an institution it's just really difficult to oppose.

B-B-Bolsheviks? That’s what things like that New York Times Tom Cotton op-ed “cancellation” event are all about? It makes no sense. Hell, Matt doesn’t even get his basic Russian history right. 

But, like I said, I want to put aside issues of substance and style for now and get at something that is a lot more basic — something about Matt that everyone seems to have forgotten. 

Matt might be full of zest and anti-cancel courage now, when most of America’s establishment is already fighting the same fight right there along with him. But when taking a stand against politicized smear campaigns and cancel culture actually mattered — when it affected him and those around him personally — he didn’t stand on principle nor did he fight the cancel mob. 

What Matt did do was this: he lied, blamed someone else for things that he actually did, and then tried to get someone else cancelled instead of him. That’s what Matt doesn’t want you to remember: Not that long ago, he took part in cancel culture — all in an attempt to save his own skin.

To understand what I’m talking about, you gotta go back to 2017. 

That year, Matt was on the receiving end of a nasty online smear campaign in which he was painted as a rapist and a dangerous sexual harasser. The smears were total bullshit. They were based on some highly decontextualized satire that he and Mark Ames put out when they were editing The eXile, a cult satirical newspaper that they ran back in Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s. 

The smears had no basis in fact. But that didn’t really matter. The campaign was being whipped up by a bunch of Democratic Party hacks and activists, and their suggestible dupes still reeling from the shock of Trump’s victory. They had been hating on Matt because of his skeptical reporting on Russiagate and on the Dem party’s cynical embrace of xenophobia and conspiracy mongering as a way of deflecting blame for Hillary Clinton’s spectacular failure in 2016. Matt had a big audience and a lot of credibility — probably the most mainstream credibility of any Russiagate critic. He was effective and people listened to him, and the Dem Party nomenklatura absolutely hated him for it.

The stuff that they were hurling at Matt on Twitter and on Reddit was gross and ugly, and downright libelous. I remember it all very well. In fact, I defended him at the time, and was myself attacked because of it — called a rapist apologist and worse. My book Surveillance Valley was about to come out then and I knew that coming to his defense could easily get me and my book cancelled, but I did so anyway. I did it on principle and in solidarity — even though I barely knew Matt personally. 

This campaign against Matt kept circulating for months. Then, in October 2017, just when Matt’s new book was getting a lot of good press and he went on a book tour, the smears got ramped up — and that’s when they finally hit their target. His book tour was scrapped, a popular podcast he had just started running with a former Gawker writer got canned. Matt managed to hold on to his job at Rolling Stone, but other than that he turned into an untouchable ghoul. It was brutal to watch how quickly so many of his colleagues turned their backs on him publicly.

ReutersOctober 2017

The ridiculous thing about it is that, despite all the articles accusing Matt of sexual harassment, no one had actually bothered to do any real reporting on these “accusations.” Journalists had simply recycled the same few offending screengrabs from Mark and Matt’s own satirical writing. If they had done the reporting, they would’ve discovered that there were no accusations, nor were there any actual accusers. They didn’t exist, as subsequent reporting by Walker Bragman has demonstrated. Well, maybe one victim did exist: New York Times journalist Michael Wines, who at the time was based in Moscow and who Matt had tagged in the face with a horse sperm pie back in 2001 for being a reactionary hack whose final offense was writing puff pieces on Putin and his KGB background. I guess getting horse sperm squished all over your face could technically count as a kind of sexual harassment? 

I repeat: there was never a victim or an accuser — there was only the satirical material, cartoonishly offensive at times, as everyone expected of The eXile back when it was written. The attacks against Matt were so blatantly dishonest, failing to follow even basic J-school source-checking, that, if you look at those same articles today, you’ll see that a good number of them have already been corrected to remove any reference to these supposed harassment charges — including outlets like NewsweekThe Nation, and the Guardian.

As Mark Ames explained at the peak of smear campaign back in 2017, these “accusations” came from his own writing — over-to-top satire that was meant to be as offensive as possible: “It is not true that The eXile work was not satirical,” he wrote. “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.”

And then he tried to put The eXile’s purposefully offensive satire into context: 

The eXile was produced in a very different world and context, Boris Yeltsin’s Russia of the 1990s, when virtuous neoliberals oversaw and ran propaganda cover for one of the most horrific and disastrous experiments on a country in modern times. Millions of Russians went to their graves early in the 1990s; it was the complete degradation of a people and region. We covered the story in the opposite way that everyone else around us did — satirical rather than “objective”. The Clinton missionaries propagandizing for Yeltsin were publicly virtuous while lying and looting and laying waste. So we were publicly grotesque immoral idiots, but we got the story right. The dominant metaphors for the American colonial project in Russia were rape and prostitution; we took those metaphors as fundamental to what was really going on, and tried to make our readers as uncomfortable as possible. We approached this shocking appalling reality — with a shocking offensive satirical aesthetic.

I’ll admit that it’s probably very hard for someone in today’s America to understand the type of satire that Mark is trying to explain here — without being there in Russia at the time and experiencing that world directly. 

I remember first reading The eXile back when I was a college kid in Berkeley around 2001 or 2002 — and it totally blew my mind. 

I had emigrated to America with my family from the Soviet Union in 1989, right before the whole thing came crashing down. We knew it was bad. My uncle and aunt and a bunch of cousins and a few other distant pockets of family still lived there. My parents kept in constant touch with them and sent them money. We knew that the new Russia was poor, collapsing, full of crime, and corruption, and that people were struggling just to survive. One of my cousins, a single mother with a young kid, desperately wanted to get out. She did what countless desperate Russian women did at the time: she signed up for one of those mail order bride services — a form of soft, socially acceptable prostitution and sex trafficking — and married a poor public school wood shop teacher in Connecticut. He was a nice guy, but couldn’t get a woman in his own society. Lucky for him, even a poor American loser had the resources to pick a Russian woman out of catalogue. For my cousin, the trade was obvious: sex and life with a guy you don’t really like in return for a life in America and material support. But in the end, he got more than he bargained for. Not only did my cousin move in with him, but so did her young son, and her parents. The guy got the whole package!

So I knew things were bad in Russia, but I never really thought about this stuff too deeply or carefully. I was still too young and had my own immigrant issues to deal with in America. What was happening back in the old country, it seemed too far away from me to care. When I did start thinking about it and started reading The eXile at the recommendation of my Russian buddy, it blew me away.

The eXile described a bleak and horrific landscape: a rapacious oligarchy, looting and criminality on an industrial scale, starvation and exploitation, utter poverty everywhere you looked, and over it all — a band of corrupt western politicians, journalists, and experts whitewashing and cheering the horror as a beautiful thing. And parallel to it all was debauchery and sexual exploitation on an epic scale: a city flooded with western advisors, con men, failures, and NGO hacks who treated Russia and its people — and particularly its women — as spoils to be ravaged, enjoyed, and thrown in the trash. I didn’t quite get that a lot of the material was satirical. And I sure didn’t know what to make of the world The eXile depicted. This wasn’t the Russia that I read about in the news or heard about through the Soviet immigrant grapevine. No one I knew talked about it this way. It was like reading Sade. I was titillated and disgusted. No way could this world be real. 

Well, as I found when I went back to Russia a few years later, it was real. The eXile was describing Russia as it was. Once I had lived in and experienced that context, I realized that through this weird and very avant-garde blend of straight reporting and exaggerated satire, The eXile had produced the most accurate portrait of life in Russia that I had read anywhere. It was a kind of newspaper-centered performance art. It didn’t simply transmit facts, it transmitted what it felt like to be there. It captured the spirit of that time and place.

But that’s all in the past. When someone today screenshots a blurb of Mark or Matt saying or writing outrageous and offensive things from that time and posts it on Twitter, well, that’s easy enough to understand. Stripped of all context, these guys must be real fucking monsters! So it’s easy to see how the smears against Matt were able to go viral — especially because they were being pushed without context by just about every liberal media outlet there is.

What’s interesting is that the campaign to recast The eXile’s political satire as some kind of documentary non-fiction and an open admission of guilt wasn’t new, nor was it originally deployed against Matt.

It had been first spun up almost a decade earlier by a guy named Jim Goad, an alt-right Koch-funded white nationalist who had done time for assaulting and kidnapping his girlfriend and breaking her eye socket. Jim had it in for Mark over an article Mark wrote mocking Goad and his handler, Gavin McInnis, who’s nowadays known as the founder of the alt-right Proud Boys goons. Jim responded by taking to Twitter and his blog to try to smear Mark as a confessed rapist — using decontextualized screenshots of Mark’s own satire. Jim by himself didn’t gain any traction with his smear campaign, so in 2011, he teamed up with Breitbart.com’s Joel Pollak to run the same thing through a much bigger rightwing platform. This was back when Breitbart.com was still run by its loathsome and bloated-with-bile founder, Andrew Breitbart.

Why did Breitbart pick this crap up? Well, it had to do with Charles Koch, the most powerful oligarch in America. 

Back in early 2009, not long after coming back to America after the Kremlin shut down The eXile, Mark and I were the first journalists to break one of the biggest political stories of the Obama Era: that powerful rightwing Koch clan — mostly ignored by political journalism at the time — had secretly created a new astroturf Tea Party campaign to counter President Obama’s proposed homeowner bailout. Our exposé caused a huge scandal—including a hilarious public apologia to Obama by CNBC’s Rick Santelli, who canceled his Daily Show appearance in response to our article. We followed it up over the next few years with other investigations into the history of the Koch family, the clan’s rise to power, and the incredible influence these oligarchs have had over American politics. Mark went on to do some pioneering work on the history of libertarianism, and Charles Koch’s role in turning that debased ideology into something that had real cultural power

The entire Koch-funded world absolutely hated us, and its lackeys were looking for some way to neutralize our reporting. That’s where Breitbart.com came in. The outlet smeared Mark as a rapist, using his eXile satire as if it was objective nonfiction confessional reporting. It was an old ad hominem trick, wrapped up in a lie, meant to discredit his reporting on the Koch brothers by making him out to be an immoral criminal. In other words, Breitbart tried to get Mark canceled.

Joel — the failed Tea Party pol who was assigned to write the ridiculous hit piece — didn’t exactly hide what he was trying to do. Among other things, he told his rightwing readers that Mark and I glorified gay sex and drug abuse, as if that discredited us even more! 

Look at the degenerate trying to tar Master Koch. He’s a saint! 

Joel of course didn’t mean a thing he wrote — it was a smear, a day’s work, that was all. A few years later, he was publicly defending Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore from very real child molestation accusations by very real victims with names, all while smiling and smirking for CNN cameras

The ridiculous Breitbart story didn’t have any real effect. But it did propel Jim Goad and the alt-right’s smear campaign out of the scummy low orbit of the Koch-funded right, injecting it closer into the mainstream. From then on, anytime Mark or I published something that challenged power or pissed people off, these alt-right smears would invariably pop up on Facebook, Reddit, Tumbler, and Twitter. As time went on, the smears eventually began to stick, and they started to be picked up and recycled by anyone who wanted to discredit our reporting and turn people away from our work: libertarians, Republicans, Democratic Party hacks, spy-funded crypto activists, angry DSA types, neocons, disgraced anarchist hacks hunting for that elusive Red-Brown alliance.

So it wasn’t surprising that eventually these alt-right smears got weaponized against Matt, too.

I think this bears repeating: The smears that were used by the liberal press against Matt Taibbi were first cooked up and then mainlined into mainstream media by an alt-right Koch propaganda operation. That’s where they began.

So what did Matt do when the cancel mob came for him? 

Well, let’s start with what he didn’t do.

He didn’t try to inform his readers about the origins of the smear — that it had been spawned by the Koch far-right, and had been picked up by the liberal center as a way of discrediting his reporting. He didn’t defend his right to do political satire. He didn’t talk about the importance of free political speech. And he sure as hell didn’t screech about cancel culture “Bolshevism” and “Twitter Robespierres,” as he’s constantly doing these days.

Nah, Matt didn’t do any of that. He did the opposite. 

In the years that the smears affected only Mark and me and some other former eXilewriters, Matt maintained courageous silence — so long as the smears didn’t directly affect him. But the minute they came for him, he groveled and conceded everything to what he now derides as the “cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts.”

It all came out in a contorted and embarrassing Facebook post — a post that zoomed around the world and even got its own Reuters wire dispatch.

First Matt made a very weak attempt at self-defense, explaining that the stuff he was being accused of never happened, that The eXile was meant as political satire that made sense in the context of 1990s Russia, and that many of the things in it were either total fabrications or vastly exaggerated for comedic effect. But that didn’t make the problem go away, so he quickly abandoned that position and took to self-debasing and apologizing and lashing himself for having written — or being associated with — anything offensive in the first place. He blamed his thought-crimes on anything he could think of: his youth, his depression, his drug addiction, his ambition to be noticed as an up-and-coming writer. 

If Matt hadn’t done anything wrong and it was all political satire, why was he apologizing for it? It didn’t make any sense. But it didn’t matter. He plunged right into, pleading and begging for forgiveness.

“I was strung out on heroin all those years, though that does not excuse me,” he wrote. “I deeply regret I how I behaved, and I have tried to be a better person since then.”

“We wrote a lot of terrible things back then, for which I feel deep regret,” he continued. “Since leaving Russia memories of the paper’s gratuitous viciousness, its often demeaning and misogynistic content, and its generally mean-spirited tone over the years have haunted me.”

“I have regrets about many of the editorial decisions made in those years,” he continued. “It pains me to think of one of my three young sons reading some of this material. As I wrote here last week, I am genuinely sorry for my bad judgment and insensitivity in those years.”

The children! O mercy, think about the children!

This kind of self-flagellation and debasement went on and on, thousands of words long. For the full effect, you gotta read it as if you’re sobbing and desperately trying hold back your tears:

People who read any of those articles now will find the tone and style the same as the articles and books I’ve written in the last few years. It took all those years at the eXile to learn that this unvarnished, on-the-ground reporting style was where I had something to contribute, while in other areas – like trying to be cool, or offering commentary on sex or gender relations, or being a public personality – it was clear I had nothing to offer to anyone.

This is why, if you scan YouTube, you will not find video of me hanging with actors, or partying at nightclubs, or really doing anything at all outside the confines of my job. I have a beautiful family, three young children and a brilliant and caring wife, whom I love boundlessly and as best I can. If you read my work you know the rest, because writing is pretty much the only other thing I do.

This wasn’t the fearless slayer of cancel culture and the defender of all speech — no matter how offensive and racist and vile — that Matt has morphed into today. This was Matt channeling James Frey and getting ready for his Oprah moment. 

It was painful to watch Matt — the supposed heir to Hunter S. Thompson — groveling like this in real time. But I could sort of understand why he went that way. 

He comes from a New York media family — his dad was a big-shot NBC television journalist — so it must have been frightening for him to stare into the void. He was looking at the possibility of being ejected from a privileged world that he had been born into as his own. There would be no more invitations to go on NPR. No more glowing reviews in the New York Times every time his new book came out, no more public fawning by ambitious media careerists. Maybe no more lucrative book deals with big reputable publishers at all. It must have been frightening. So his impulse — to repent, to say your Hail Marys, to take your lashes, and, eventually, with time, you’d be allowed back into polite society. It made sense. It was a solid plan. And you know what? He was right. Eventually, it worked. I mean, look at Matt now. He’s more successful than ever! 

If he had simply gone through with his public humiliation and stopped there, then, well, alright. You gotta do what you can to survive. It’s a brutal world. But Matt went further. He turned rat.

After begging for forgiveness for things that supposedly needed no forgiveness because they were satirical in the first place, Matt tried to make it seem like the things he was apologizing for…well, they were things that he hadn’t actually done. That’s right. All that horrible, vicious, mean-spirited, misogynistic satire that he said he was sorry for writing? Well, reading his Facebook statement, you get a very real sense that while Matt had co-edited the newspaper, he didn’t really write any of the bad stuff. Mark was the monster, while Matt was the decent reporter who was led briefly astray. It was all his Mark’s fault for corrupting him — blame him. Go cancel him.

Matt didn’t push the point explicitly. He couldn’t because it would have been a straight up lie. I mean, The eXile wasn’t something that Matt sort of stumbled into and out of almost by accident. He lived and breathed The eXile for five years — half of the newspaper’s life. But he strongly implied that Mark was the guy to blame for everything, and he did it in a very weaselly way.

To show his uptight liberal readership that Mark really was a moral leper, Matt offered an amazing bit of Victorian Era reasoning: In the eXile years, he himself was in a “committed relationship,” while Mark was an “unapologetic libertine.” That’s right, Mark — who was in his 30s at the time — had multiple sexual partners. What more proof do you need?

The basic division of labor was that Mark would write about the nightlife side while I wrote about the daytime exploitation. My reporting in Moscow on the mob-style machinations of the Yeltsin government and the missives I sent in from the provinces were meant, I thought back then, to show the true face of the oligarchical society we Americans were helping create.

But as I reflected back years later, mostly what I was doing with that reporting was giving the eXile legitimacy as social criticism…

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. In many ways, Mark and I were very different people. Among other things, he was an unapologetic libertine, while I was in a committed relationship throughout that period (though I failed at that as well).

But we had one thing in common, which is that we both desperately wanted to be writers. Our final split was more about how to accomplish that than it was about anything else. Mark felt we were on the right track at the eXile. I did not, and left. 

And then he finished off the letter with this:

I’ve done a lot of wrong things in my life. As a young man, I wrote and said some very dumb and hurtful things. I also made questionable decisions about my professional relationships. I’m sorry for all of this, and I’m sure as I look back I will continue to see, and be told, more reasons to be sorry. 

Reading his apology, you’d think that Matt was the one who was doing the hard-hitting reporting and that Mark was just riding his serious journo coattails, while only being interested in partying and sex and violence and misogyny. 

And this Facebook apology wasn’t the only time he’s tried to pin all the bad stuff in The eXile on Mark. It was pretty clear that Matt had been going around telling his colleagues the same thing in private: That he didn’t write the bad stuff. He simply made the bad decision of attaching his name to it. 

I mean, this is the guy who is supposed to be Gonzo reincarnated. Can you imagine Hunter acting this way? Lashing himself and renouncing his satire and trying to snitch on old friends in the hopes of saving his own skin? The whole thing is so pathetic it pains me to write about it. 

So why do I bring it up now? Well, why not? 

For months, I’ve been watching in shock as Matt has transformed himself into a courageous, principled crusader against literary cowardice and the evils of America’s cancel culture. He’s acting like this giant cancel embarrassment had never happened — as if he had never capitulated to the cancel mob or tried to rat out his old friend in an attempt to salvage his own top-shelf media career. And all these months I’ve been thinking: Has Matt gotten a lobotomy? How else can someone have such a stunning lack of self-awareness?

I mean, compare the cancel culture gutlessness that Matt displayed in 2017 with the anti-cancel culture screeds that Substack Matt pumps out these days about America’s media class:

On the other side of the political aisle, among self-described liberals, we’re watching an intellectual revolution. It feels liberating to say after years of tiptoeing around the fact, but the American left has lost its mind. It’s become a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.

The leaders of this new movement are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry, and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats, and intimidation. They are counting on the guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves, and will walk to the Razor voluntarily.

They’ve conned organization after organization into empowering panels to search out thoughtcrime, and it’s established now that anything can be an offense…

A “cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts”? The “guilt-ridden, self-flagellating nature of traditional American progressives, who will not stand up for themselves”? Geeeeee, sure does remind me of someone.

Speaking of cowards and upper-class social media addicts. It’s important to put Matt’s newfound courage into its proper historical…

This is a preview of a full letter that is only available to subscribers. To get the rest, sign up and read it here.

—Yasha Levine


Want to know more? America and Russia in the 1990s: This is what real meddling looks like.