the Exile guys have a lot to answer for

And, frankly, I’m sick of pretending that they don’t.

You will likely have seen that Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media has parted ways with Matt Taibbi, the longtime Rolling Stone writer and former co-editor of Moscow’s The Exile, a tabloid newspaper that he co-edited with former NSFW Corp, current Pando Media writer  Mark Ames. In a very long piece, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and John Cook discuss the reasons for Taibbi’s leaving, which includes both conflicts with First Look leadership and allegations of undue criticism of a female staffer. It’s complex and multifaceted; the allegations of gender-based abusive treatment, the post suggests, are unfounded. Clearly, there’s a lot going on there, and it would not surprise me in the least if Omidyar and his leadership structure are imposing undue influence on the editorial process of First Look sites. For me, it’s all speculation. I know nothing about the conditions at First Look Media. I know nothing about the behind-the-scenes realities at the Racket, the site Taibbi was starting. I have no idea, nor do I care, whether Pierre Omidyar is, as some lefties claim, a libertarian puppet master pulling all the strings of the various people involved in his company. I certainly don’t know if, as alleged, Taibbi was overly critical or harsh with a female staff member.

I do know, however, that Taibbi and Ames have a lot to answer for, specifically about the workplace environment they created for women at The Exile, which they’ve never explained or apologized for, and that a lot of leftists stand in the way of holding them accountable for what they’ve written in the past, out of misguided hero worship and the petty corruption of personal friendships.

What do they have to answer for? A long history of fucked-up things written about women, that’s what. Unlike seemingly the entirety of the New York lefty media scene that worships them, I have actually read their book, The Exile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia. And it’s an immensely disturbing book on multiple levels. In part,  that’s because both of them really are remarkable writers and reporters. The book shows a really interesting side of post-Soviet Russia, managing to critique the conditions there without falling into typical American jingoism. Both have done valuable reporting and commentary since its publication.  It sucks that there’s this grimy underside of sexual predation to their book. But, I’m sorry– it’s not irrelevant to the discussion of what happened at First Look Media. I’m not saying that anything ever happened there, and I’m not saying that Pierre Omidyar or his outfit aren’t to blame in this situation. I am saying that there is, in fact, reason to question whether Taibbi would be aggressive towards a female staffer, and that reason is his own words, written with Mark Ames.

I want to preface these quotes by saying: I have been repeatedly, angrily harangued by various people who have tried to protect them from scrutiny by arguing that the book is “satirical.” Speaking, again, as someone who actually read the book: there is absolutely nothing — nothing at all — in the text of the  book to indicate that it is anything else than a work of nonfiction. The copyright page, in fact, merely calls it a work of nonfiction. If it’s satirical, I would like for those claiming so to demonstrate textual evidence that supports this reading. Because I’ve see absolutely nothing in the book itself that says so. I’ve only heard “Matt and Mark are good dudes, what are you, some sort of Koch operative, blah blah blah.”

So here are some quotes that describe the work environment for women at the Exile.

Page 132:

[Paul] started off by trying to charm [Yulia], and she led him on with her inviting laugh, one hand on her chin, big green eyes looking up…. Within a month, he was literally chasing Yulia down the hallway to try to get her to kiss him…. Kara and Marcus had to watch this every day: eXile guys chasing women in the office up the walls, into stalls…. Paul fucked the first sales girl he hired, Lyuba, a silicon-lipped 19-year-old blonde. She quit a few weeks later. He fucked [everyone] but his ex, Kara. With her you just asked for money.

Page 134:

We have been pretty rough on our girls. We’d ask our Russian staff to flash their asses or breasts for us. We’d tell them that if they wanted to keep their jobs, they’d have to perform unprotected anal sex with us. Nearly every day, we asked our female staff if they approved of anal sex. That was a fixation of ours. “Can I fuck you in the ass? Huh? I mean, without a rubber? Is that okay?” It was all part of the fun

Page 153, written from Ames’s perspective:

..Katya sat on my lap and told me she had some exciting news: she was pregnant, and I was the father!

I panicked. Children are my worst nightmare–worse than worst…

“No, Katya, you don’t understand. I cannot have a child. I do not like children. I hatethem. They disgust me, physically.”

“But I can’t have an abortion,” she pleaded. “I was told that if I did, I’d never be able to have a child.”

I knew she was bluffing, so I countered with the RU-486 pill. I offered to fly to France, pick one up, and bring it back for her. “It’s totally safe,” I cheerily offered.

“I can’t do that,” she said. ‘I can’t kill our child.”

Right then, I stared at Katya with a look–I’m not sure how it appeared to her, but in my mind, I was starting to contemplate two courses of action: murder, or AWOL.

“What will you do, kill me?” she said, laughing nervously.

“Maybe, yeah,” I replied. “I’ll throw you off my balcony. I’ll make it look like an accident.”

She started to cry, but I was relentless. I told her that if she had the child, she would be killing me, so it was an act of self-defense. And if I didn’t kill her, then I would flee Moscow and she’d never find me….I was relentless. I attacked her the Russian way: I wore her down for hours during the KGB interrogation-style…

At 5:30 the next morning, Katya, acting the martyr, quietly slipped out of my apartment, made a beeline to the abortion clinic, and sucked the little fucker out.”

I would call all of this a hostile work environment, personally.

In case you think this is all just from one text, I would point you in the direction of this blog post, which aptly summarizes both the journalistic value and reeking misogyny of the old Exile. For example:

A columnist for the Moscow Times (a rival expat paper) who wrote about lifestyle and domestic issues came under frequent attack from Taibbi and Ames.  She was certainly guilty of the false piety and moralizing that infected so much of the American attitude toward Russia at the time, but The eXile’s reaction to her was telling.  The columnist was derided for being unattractive, not sufficiently feminine, with added speculation about her malformed teeth and malodorous vagina.

Ames, for his part, has never missed an opportunity to dig the hole deeper. He wrote a piece acknowledging that he was a misogynist, just a misogynist of a certain kind. He deleted the original piece, but it’s been archived at… the RooshV Forums, the internet’s greatest repository of women-hating. He also said, in an interview, that “Russian women, especially on the first date, expect you to rape them. They’ll go back home with you and say, ‘No, no, no,’ and if you’re an American, you’ve been trained to respect the ‘No,’ because you’re afraid of sexual harassment or date rape, and so you fail over and over. But it took me a while to learn you really have to force Russian girls, and that’s what they want.” Again, there is no indication here — none — that this is meant to be taken as a joke.

Taibbi and Ames, of course, are not the same person. And I am not the movement police. I do not want Taibbi or Ames to be read out of whatever you might call this sad spectacle of a left-wing movement we’re in. I don’t think people should stop linking to their work. I don’t think people should stop hiring  them. I read everything they write. I believe that people can change, and that you can be forgiven.

But you have to ask to be forgiven first. I do think that they should talk about this stuff. If they regret it, they should say so. If it really was all satire, they should explain why they represented it as the truth. They should say explicitly that they don’t think sexual aggression is OK or that it’s alright to have a sexualized work atmosphere. And fundamentally, I think that when there’s an accusation of sexism against a guy who wrote in a nonfiction book that he and his co-editor constantly made demands of anal sex of staffers at risk of being fired, among a host of other bad behavior, then maybe that accusation deserves to be taken at least a little bit seriously.  Instead, the entire New York media scene is dismissing it out of hand, because that’s what they do — circle the wagons for each other.

All I want is explanation and,  where appropriate, apology.

But I can tell you for a fact that the many fanboys and defenders of these guys are going to descend like locusts on me, which has happened every time I’ve brought this issue up. I have been told more times than I can count that it’s some sort of horrible crime to point out what adults wrote in a professionally-published book. I’m prepared to be accused of a lot of awful things, because that’s generally in the cards whenever you make the mildest criticism of Ames or Taibbi. (Spoiler: I’m guessing “secret libertarian!” is going to crop up.) It’s alright. I’m a big boy. This isn’t my first  rodeo. But it’s indicative of how bizarre things are now, where you can, say, link to a Tweet in a magazine article and end up the center of a month-long Twitter storm, but when I say “hey you know, Taibbi’s book had a lot of fucked up sexism in it, maybe big media types shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss this,” I’m attacked for somehow breaking the code of silence that protects people who are seen as  cool by the right insidery types. That’s exactly the shit I’ve been fighting about ever since I started to write online, and it has to stop. I’m just asking: what the hell is with the stuff in this book you wrote, you guys?  I’m reasonable, I’ll listen. But… what the hell? If people want to string me up for asking that, they can go ahead.