Matt Taibbi Talks About Criminalized Poverty and Why Wall St. Is Above the Law
It’s not exactly breaking news that the American criminal justice system is wildly unfair. Thewar on drugs sends thousands of black and Hispanic kids to prison for using the same illegal substances that their white peers can more often get away with smoking or snorting; meanwhile, the Wall Street bankers responsible for the financial crisis get off with zero punishment and huge bonuses. These gross disparities in how the rich and poor are treated by the police and courts are the subject of The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a book illustrated by VICE columnist Molly Crabapple and written by Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone investigative journalist who has made a career of lampooning our entitled upper class (and just left that magazine to start a new website about political corruption).
I called Taibbi to chat about how America got to this terrible, dystopian place and where we should go from here.
VICE: The core theme of the book is that we’ve seen two parallel, and very different, systems of criminal justice emerge in this country—one for the wealthy and powerful, another for the poor and brown. That concept in and of itself might not totally shock people, but the timeframe—just how novel that phenomenon is in our democracy—should, right? Matt Taibbi: Obviously it’s not a new story that the rich get off and poor people get screwed. I think that’s a narrative that probably couldn’t be more obvious, but there are some new developments that have made this situation worse. There are these parallel policy and political developments that happened in the early 90s that mirrored each other, with the Democrats coming over on the issue of welfare reform and also deciding to follow the Republicans in terms of courting money from the financial services and hopping on board with deregulation. I think what both of those decisions meant was that, basically, poor people no longer had a lobby in Washington consistently, and the very wealthy now had a consensus behind them. So we started to have this phenomenon of much more aggressive law enforcement against the poor. On the other side, it begins with deregulation of white-collar commerce, and then it kind of ends in non-enforcement of white-collar crime. That also seems to be a political consensus. It’s not just the same old story that has gone back to the beginning of time… This is also a new political development that has to do with the alignment of the two political parties in this country and how they’ve changed recently.
The FBI Is Trying to Recruit Muslims As Snitches by Putting Them on No-Fly Lists
Dr Rahinah Ibrahim is not a national security threat.
The federal government even said so.
It took a lawsuit that has stretched for eight years for the feds to yield that admission. It is one answer in a case that opened up many more questions: How did an innocent Malaysian architectural scholar remain on a terrorism no fly-list—effectively branded a terrorist—for years after a FBI paperwork screw up put her there? The answer to that question, to paraphrase a particularly hawkish former Secretary of Defense, may be unknowable.
Last week, there was a depressing development in the case. A judge’s decision was made public and it revealed that the White House has created at least one “secret exception” to the legal standard that federal authorities use to place people on such lists. This should trouble anyone who cares about niggling things like legal due process or the US Constitution. No one is clear what the exception is, because it’s secret—duh—meaning government is basically placing people on terror watchlists that can ruin their lives without explaining why or how they landed on those lists in the first place.
This flies in the face of what the government has told Congress and the American public. Previously, federal officials said that in order to land on one of these terror watchlists, someone has to meet a “reasonable suspicion standard.” That means there have to be clear facts supporting the government’s assertion that the individual in question is, you know, doing some terrorist shit. Which seems like a good idea.
The look on the receptionist’s face told me I had said something wrong. It was a maternal expression, like that of an elderly woman who has found her grandkid outside in the cold with a runny nose but no jacket. There was genuine concern in her eyes, but her pursed lips suggested a certain annoyed disbelief: Just what were you thinking, if you were thinking at all?
“You don’t have a car?” she asked, accusingly.
“I don’t have a car,” I replied.
It was my first day at a new job, and I had taken the bus that morning. That bus took me to a subway—a futuristic train that goes underneath Los Angeles in order to get from one place to another—so I didn’t need a car, just like I didn’t need the people’s history of the local parking situation she had graciously given me. Seriously, the subway is, like, right over there.
She nodded her head and forced a smile the way tourists do when they don’t understand a word you are saying.
This happens almost daily: We, the car-less of Los Angeles, must confess our lack of an automobile as if it were a character defect on par with betting on dogfighting. You risk being judged not only at your workplace but at the supermarket, where the teenage bagger asks if you need any help carrying those boxes of generic cereal out to your four-wheeled expression of self. Having a car shows that you have the financial means to own a car. Not having a car makes people assume you live at home and have an unhealthy relationship with your mother—and as sexy local singles say, that’s a deal-breaker.
So it’s a bit heretical when I say I like not having a car. It’s actually rather nice to leave the driving to someone else and not have to worry about steering your personal air-conditioned death box at 70 miles an hour on a freeway full of idiots—and hundreds of thousands of people in the LA metro region agree with me on this. Sure, it takes a bit longer to get somewhere—30 minutes instead of 15—but you also don’t have to spend 20 minutes circling the block for parking whenever you go out. And there are buses and trains that go almost anywhere, and by taking them you free yourself from worry about car payments, parking tickets, and DUIs.
You also don’t need to worry about getting mutilated in a horrific car accident. According to the US government, more than 2.3 million people were injured and 33,500 died on America’s roads in 2012. For people in the US between the ages of one and 44, motor vehicles are the leading cause of death. Avoid driving on a freeway and you significantly reduce your chance of being injured or killed on one.
Ex-Soldiers Are Being Given MDMA to Help Them with PTSD
If hanging out with a bunch of strangers in a foreign country, shooting at other strangers for a living wasn’t damaging enough, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is always there to prolong the trauma once combat soldiers return from war. Around 25 percent discharged American soldiers suffer from the disorder.
Tony Macie, an Iraq veteran, is one of those soldiers. Traumatized by the deaths of two of his friends in a truck bomb attack, Macie was prescribed conventional medication to treat his PTSD after returning to the US. When that wasn’t working out for him, he started to research alternative remedies and came across the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which was offering an experimental treatment with MDMA.
I gave Tony a call and spoke to him about using the drug to try to overcome his post-Iraq trauma.
VICE: Hi, Tony. Can you tell me about your experience of serving in Iraq? Tony Macie: I was there for 15 months. A lot of the time I was clearing roads, and there was a constant fear of being ambushed. I think it was six months into my tour. I wasn’t there when it happened, but a petrol base got hit by a truck bomb and killed a couple of my buddies. That was really upsetting; it was the point when I was like, “This is real. This is war.”
Do you think you were suffering more than your colleagues? Or was everyone in the same boat? I think everyone was suffering. At times we didn’t realize it, though, because we were so focused on staying alive.
Were there any points when you felt particularly afraid for your life? Probably just after the car bomb went off. We were there for three days straight guarding the road, just waiting for another car bomb to come. There was a point when we were sitting in the Humvee and we thought there was going to be an attack. Nothing happened in the end, but I was out there for three days, on night duty, just waiting for something to happen. Over there, death could have happened at any point. I was always expecting an ambush or a fire fight.
How did you feel when you got back to America? At first, there was a lot of relief. I was glad to be back and felt kind of safe. But after a couple of days I couldn’t really sleep and I started overheating. After a couple of weeks I started drinking to go to sleep, and a month or two after that I started to have anxiety and panic attacks. That’s when I decided to go to the doctors.
Is America Finally Ready to Abandon the Electoral College and Embrace the Popular Vote
US presidential elections are frequently the butt of jokes worldwide, and deservedly so. Between the eye-popping fundraising totals, the awkward pandering to billionaires, and the shameless jockeying for the support of key interest groups in weird places like Iowa and New Hampshire, there’s a lot to hate.
Much of this can be blamed on the electoral college. Instead of simply counting votes nationwide and giving the Oval Office to the guy or gal with the most ballots, America holds 50 statewide elections, then awards points called “electors” to the winner of each election. It’s a confusing system that makes winning 51 percent of the votes in California more than ten times as valuable as winning 100 percent of the votes in Nebraska, and gives special status to the few swing states that could go either way. Standard practice nowadays is for candidates to camp out in the dozen or so of these key states, which enjoy special status because their cities are surrounded by dense, conservative suburbs that balance out the votes of liberal urbanites. This means millions of voters are effectively stuck on the margins of political life, and thanks to our system we risk disaster every four years.
George W. Bush’s incredible non-victory in 2000—which came, of course, thanks to an assist from his dad’s pals on the Supreme Court—may be the the most recent example, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the twisted intrigue that the electoral college has encouraged over the years. After the 1876 election saw the electors go one way and the popular vote the other, the “compromise” that was reached set the stage for a flood of Jim Crow laws and racial terrorism into the American South, as a key concession from the Republicans was to remove occupying federal troops that had been in the former Confederate states since the Civil War.
We Asked an Expert How London Could Gain Independence from the UK
Declaring independence is all the rage in international politics. Recently, Venice voted overwhelmingly in favor of becoming an independent city-state, while over in the UK, the Scots are debating whether to consign the Union Jack to the dust bin of history. And ever since the whole Crimea incident, rumors have been flying around that Taiwan will formally attempt to declare independence from China, and that Misrata will attempt to do the same in Libya.
What if the next big independence movement happened closer to, say, Britain’s capital? With a booming population and established trading links with the rest of the world, could London’s people go to it alone?
It’s an idea that’s been mooted a few times, not least by former Mayor Ken Livingstone. When asked what he wanted for London during the 2012 elections, he claimed he wanted a “Republic of London,” and that the city could be improved if other areas of the UK weren’t so busy sucking all the blood out of it. According to Ken, London generates £10–£20 billion (about $15–$30 billion) more in tax for the UK than it receives in public expenditure, making it the cashcow of the UK’s feckless regions.
How feasible would London’s independence claim be? After convincing him this wasn’t a joke, I spoke to Dr. James Ker-Lindsay, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics who specializes in secession movements.
VICE: Hi, James. What would London have to do to prepare a claim to independence? James Ker-Lindsay: First of all, if it were to have any hope of success—by which I mean it would receive widespread international support—a formal process would have to be agreed. With Scotland, for example, there’s an agreed process by which it must prepare its independence claim, which will have been negotiated through democratic and legal processes. With London, the same would have to happen.
What are those processes? It would have to start with a referendum. The wish for independence would have to be expressed. To do this, the central government is usually expected to agree to such a vote; it could take place without permission, but it would have no real effect and would probably just be ignored. In the case of London, this seems a very unlikely prospect. Unlike Scotland or Wales, which have their own historical character, London’s always been an integral part of England. Moreover, considering how interwoven London is with the rest of England, and its wealth, it just seems difficult to see how any government would ever agree to such a vote.
The Bundy Ranch Standoff Was Only the Beginning for America’s Right-Wing Militias
For two decades the US government has tried to get Cliven Bundy to remove his cows from federal land, and for two decades the Nevada rancher has steadfastly refused, defying court orders and attempts to negotiate a settlement for the $1.1 million he owes in federal grazing fees. Finally, last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took matters into its own hands and started seizing cattle that had been illegally grazing on government property. Things went downhill from there.
For right-wing militias and paramilitary groups founded around a collective paranoid belief that the federal government is just looking for an excuse to impose martial law, images of armed federal agents forcibly seizing cows basically means it’s DEFCON 1. By Saturday, as many as 1,000 anti-BLM protestors from as far away as Virginia, New Hampshire, and Georgia had set up camp in Bunkerville, an arid patch of land where the BLM was rounding up the Bundy cattle. Packing handguns and assault rifles, the protesters carried signs featuring slogans like “Tyranny Is Alive,” “Where’s the Justice?” and “Militia Sighn In [sic],” and many said they were prepared for a shoot-out with the federal government. The mood was such that even Glenn Beck was wary of the crowd, announcing on his show that “there’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people who are talking about this online that are truly frightening.”
Last time we checked in on British Jihadists, they were posting snaps of themselves messing about in swimming pools, hoarding Cadbury’s chocolates from home, and generally having a good time. Everything has changed.