Rolling Stone and Taibbi's Dilemma
By Staff News & Analysis - October 04, 2010

Tea & Crackers … How corporate interests and Republican insiders built the Tea Party monster … It's taken three trips to Kentucky, but I'm finally getting my Tea Party epiphany exactly where you'd expect: at a Sarah Palin rally. The red-hot mama of American exceptionalism has flown in to speak at something called the National Quartet Convention in Louisville, a gospel-music hoedown in a giant convention center filled with thousands of elderly white Southerners. Palin — who earlier this morning held a closed-door fundraiser for Rand Paul, the Tea Party champion running for the U.S. Senate — is railing against a GOP establishment that has just seen Tea Partiers oust entrenched Republican hacks in Delaware and New York. The dingbat revolution, it seems, is nigh … The bad news is that the Tea Party's political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day. That's the reality; the rest of this is just noise. It's just that it's a lot of noise, and there's no telling when it's ever going to end. – Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone

Dominant Social Theme: The Tea Party is a joke and along with me you're in on the gag.

Free-Market Analysis: Human beings, above all, are metaphorical creatures and here at the Bell we are no exception to this rule. Thus it is, we sometimes see certain cultural excrescences as symbolic of larger economic and sociopolitical trends. Matt Taibbi, bless him, is one such working metaphor. Sub dominant social theme: "The Crackers are crazy and the rest of it doesn't compute."

Before we go further, we should add that as a rule we try not to write about individual people unless they are very high up within the media food chain. But in a sense Taibbi is a very important person, someone who somehow is seen to occupy the Hunter Thompson chair at Rolling Stone. And if you are interested in writing and ideas – and their manipulation by the power elite – then you have to track this sort of thing. Or at least be aware of it.

A word about thought magazines (and Rolling Stone is a "thought magazine" for a certain generation). We have on several occasions received push-back regarding our fascination with thought magazines. But to us thought magazines are a primary way that the Anglo-American power elite controls the larger sociopolitical conversation. You have to go back in time to understand this.

In Britain, when the Gutenberg press was becoming ubiquitous, writing was an upper class avocation. Many of the nobility wrote poetry and other kinds of compositions and circulated them to family and friends. After a while it became fashionable for the nobility to sponsor itinerant scholars. Of course the system didn't always work smoothly. Our favorite man-of-letters wrote to his patron on the occasion of the publication of his dictionary:

'Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

'The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks. 'Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and, when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Publick should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

'Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my Lord, your Lordship's most humble, most obedient servant, 'SAM JOHNSON.'

You see? Literature among the upper classes was a big deal – and Johnson, having had the expectation of support was most embittered by the lack of it and responded in his wonderful, surly way. As broadsheets turned into magazines, the upper classes gravitated to certain publications. The Economist and Punch in Britain (among others); eventually, the Atlantic and the New Yorker in the USA. These were very important publications because they organized the prejudices of society's "movers and shakers" in a way that think tanks, political leaders and others could not.

In the 20th century, the thought magazines were taken over by the power elite and turned hard left, which was a pretty good paradigm for the elite. The dialectic was to be between popular culture that relied on the state for "freedom" and the intellectual position that wanted the state to move toward socialism and even communism. (The solution was always more statism, not less.)

Late 20th century all this fell apart. Free-market thinkers Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul spearheaded a movement that was not beholden to the elite or particularly manipulated by it. The air went out of the elite (right/left) dialectic and the New Yorker and Atlantic, especially, hit on hard times. Much of the thought leadership began to transfer itself to various libertarian-oriented Internet publications. Not only that but such overtly political (thought-oriented) publications as Reason and Buckley's National Review, which had been in our view created as an alternative to "hard" libertarian publications, lost out as well. The conversation moved on, leaving them effectively beached.

Yet we knew the elite could not and would not let the matter rest. We watched as the Atlantic established a considerable Internet presence and as the New Yorker was re-established as well in the 2000s. (Even Reason became a bit more topical.) What didn't change was the leftist approach, though it has been blurred somewhat. Nowadays, the rhetorical reality demands that the state (government) be "acknowledged" within a larger free-market paradigm. This is not a very successful solution for the elite families who want to control the Anglo-American dialogue but it is the best they can do at the moment.

This is why we say Matt Taibbi is an important writer. Part of the brief of thought magazines has been to build up certain "intellectuals." These thought leaders will then influence others. Within the context of Baby Boomers, Rolling Stone is a kind of thought magazine and writers such as Hunter Thompson, (with soft-left sympathies) were held up as artistic and intellectual icons. It was all part of the larger socio-political thought process. It is this mantle that Taibbi is apparently inheriting.

Of course, initially Rolling Stone was a genuine cultural artifact and Hunter Thompson was a genuine prose artist. The way he wrote, the sparkling non-sequitors and general "outlaw" sense of humor, complemented his outsider status. The trouble Taibbi has is that these sorts of things cannot be manufactured. Rolling Stone at this point is an entirely co-opted publication. And there is not much of the outlaw about Taibbi. What we have therefore is a magazine imitating itself and a star writer who is an unsatisfying simulacrum of what has gone before. Casual curse words and an informal writing style are not enough to conjure Rolling Stone's halcyon days.

But the problems go beyond this. What free-market thinking represents in the 21st century is a genuine history of human thought. The power elite, by dint of conscientious scrubbing, had managed to create almost out of whole cloth a historical narrative that ran forward from Karl Marx. Entire statist-oriented reading lists of hundreds of books of famous authors and philosophers could be compiled (and were) showing the inevitability of the leftist "intellectual" paradigm.

But the muscular narrative of free-markets has shoved aside the work of two centuries of power-elite plotting and planning. Today, there are plenty of free-market reading lists that trace humanity's real intellectual history. The "great conversation" it turns out was not a socialist/statist one but a libertarian one after all. The verities of the state collapse under scrutiny. The whole elaborate charade has been pulled aside. Of course, much of this is unspoken – but even people who cannot verbalize what is going on are still aware of it on some conscious or subconscious level. The elite has lost control of the conversation. Their thought magazines, revivified, still cannot recapture the stage.

Perhaps this is why Taibbi's articles, and especially this one on the Tea Party, are so unconvincing. He claims that the Tea Party has been taken over by elderly white racists. But even so, one waits for a summation that makes sense of his argument, and it never occurs. Here is his conclusion (see also above in the article excerpted at the beginning of this analysis):

The bad news is that the Tea Party's political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day. That's the reality; the rest of this is just noise. It's just that it's a lot of noise, and there's no telling when it's ever going to end.

We've read this statement over and over and we must confess we still don't understand it. He's obviously not endorsing the Tea Party, nor is endorsing Goldman or BP. But what exactly is he concluding? If it were Hunter Thompson by the way we would understand. Thompson in our view was something of a nihilist in his mature writings. So if Thompson closed with a non-sequitor, it would make sense to us. It would be his way of restating his nihilistic tendencies.

But Taibbi is not a nihilist so far as we can make it. His viewpoints seem pretty much standard leftist fare. He even wrote articles praising Barack Obama (prior to election) and he certainly reserves his ire for the private sector versus the public one. The "Taibbi dilemma" as we have pointed out in the past is actually part of the larger problem faced by the elite. The elite narrative has been damaged by the twin forces of the truth-telling of the Internet and the larger financial crisis (perhaps fueled by the conscious awakening spawned by the 'Net?). The one substituted a new narrative for the old leftist one and the other basically injured the credibility of the sociopolitical paradigm that the elite had managed to build up over the past century or so.

The new narrative is one that features free-market thinking and makes the unapologetic case that less government is better than more. It draws on diverse influences going back 4,000 years or more to show that war has always been the "health of the state" and that free-market money is very likely gold and silver. It actually is constructed of the same narrative fiber that Thomas Jefferson drew upon, the accumulated wisdom of humankind regarding the creation and maintenance of civil societies. Once people are fully exposed to it, other narratives are far less persuasive in our view. (What's going on today seems to bear that out.)

Editor's Note: In rereading this article, we decided we were likely overly harsh on Mr. Taibbi while trying to make a point, which is the trouble with using people to illustrate polemics. He is actually a good prose stylist in his own way and has made good points out about the Anglo-American power structure in the past. But we do find his point of view overly simplistic and would hope at some point he would investigate the $US3 trillion public sector with the same furious enthusiasm that he approaches what is left of American private enterprise.

After Thoughts

We referred to the Taibbi phenomenon as a metaphor at the beginning of this article. He is (himself) a kind of metaphor in the sense that he is inheritor of the mantle of "Countercultural Auteur" bestowed on him by the "Baby Boomer thought magazine" Rolling Stone. But just as Rolling Stone is from our point of view an exhausted quantity, so Taibbi's output is not what might be expected either. There is no sense of the sweep of history in his texts and no intimation of erudition, humorous or otherwise. He has inherited a literary tradition, but unfortunately it is threadbare – and he is not wise enough, literate enough or innovative enough to make it new again. This is not his dilemma alone!

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