Matt Taibbi
The cover of "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" and author Matt Taibbi.(Robin Holland / Spiegel & Grau)
Matt Taibbi begins his sixth book, "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap," with a simple formulation: "Poverty goes up; Crime goes down; Prison population doubles." It's a snapshot, a way to represent what Taibbi sees as the through-the-looking-glass reality of contemporary America, where rule of law has been subverted by, on the one hand, corporate greed and, on the other, a kind of institutionalized abuse of the poor.
Such a landscape, he suggests, brings to mind the last days of the Soviet Union, which operated out of a similar sort of mass hypocrisy until, in 1990 and '91, "people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, [and] it was like the whole country woke up from a dream, and the system fell apart in a matter of months."
Not that Taibbi is particularly optimistic about such a revolution (of either justice or perception) happening here. Rather, he feels "like I'm living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one."
"The Divide," then, is — like other recent books, including George Packer's "The Unwinding" and Thomas Pikkety's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" — an attempt to map the slippage, to identify, through reporting and analysis, just what has happened to America and how it operates. Taibbi is well suited for such an endeavor; a longtime contributor for Rolling Stone — he left this year to start an online magazine for First Look Media — he's been writing about American political and economic life for better than a decade, especially the 2008 financial meltdown and its aftermath.
In that regard, "The Divide" can be read as a sequel of sorts to his last book, 2011's "Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History" or even to "The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion," which came out in 2009. What all three share is a sense (to borrow a phrase from Leonard Cohen) "that the deal is rotten," that we as a nation have turned our backs on our ideals.
"For a country founded on the idea that rights are inalienable and inherent from birth," Taibbi writes, "we've developed a high tolerance for conditional rights and conditional citizenship. And the one condition, it turns out, is money. If you have a lot of it, the legal road you get to travel is well lit and beautifully maintained. If you don't, it's a dark alley and most Americans would be shocked to find out what's at the end of it."
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