is a classically hyper-polite Brit, of the sort who is liable
to speak of an utter disaster as if it were nothing at all,
a smudge on one’s ascot. I expected him to respond in the
hushed, only mildly embarrassed voice of an MP who has just
been caught screwing a chicken in a public restroom by a Daily
Mail photographer. You know—yes, heh heh, what a shame,
quite a thing, that...
yes," he said. "The release day is in May. But
you see, we shipped it already, and they just put it out
on the shelves willynilly. These things happen. Incidentally,
if it doesn’t sell, they’re pulling it from the New Releases
table in a week..."
there’s no publicity!" I screeched.
some publicity would help, yes," he agreed. "Do
you know anyone?"
same afternoon, I received an email from Lakshmi Chaudry,
the editor at Alternet. org. In it, Lakshmi kindly informed
me that Alternet was planning some publicity for my book.
The catch was, she wanted me to write the review myself.
I immediately thought of the scene in Casino where
the blackjack cheat is caught by Joe Pesci and
a choice—he gets to keep his ill-gotten winnings and get
his hand smashed by a hammer, or he gets to walk with empty
pockets and both hands intact. It was that kind of choice.
downside to not accepting this offer was pretty clear.
Most of Spanking the Donkey is a collection of vicious
tirades directed at various politicians and journalists
during the last campaign season. It would therefore be the
most egregious copout if I were to spare myself that same
here it is—my review of Spanking the Donkey, list
price a ridiculous $24.95, publisher the aforementioned
New Press. Release date: May, 2005.
talk for a moment about what this book was supposed to be,
and then let’s talk about what it is. This is probably the
best way to get at the failure of Spanking the Donkey.
someone who has followed Matt Taibbi’s work for a number
of years, there are a few things I can say about this writer.
The first, and perhaps most important, is that he is not
a deep thinker. He knows almost nothing about politics or
anything else, and this is borne out in his reading habits;
he consumes about five hours of sportswriting
day, stopping only when he is forced to go to work.
remains employed as a journalist only due to a genetic accident.
Some writers bring a variety of skills to the
when they work: a broad knowledge base, a burning inner
idealism, a joyous gift for language, a keen sense of audience.
Taibbi, on the other hand, possesses exactly one trick,
which he uses over and over again to collect paychecks in
between Patriots games. Thrust into any situation, he describes
in morbid detail the most negative
of every thing, act and person he encounters.
this is amusing. This also occasionally makes his work read
like principled iconoclasm, although the true motivation
is probably closer to simple laziness and a kind of cowardly,
masturbatory psychosis. Because he does not like to work
very hard, Taibbi just blasts everything he sees as quickly
as he can, and then retreats back immediately into the empty
hole of his barren personal life. But this is irrelevant;
the point is that the marriage of
particular writer to the subject of the American presidential
election should have made for very interesting reading.
American presidential election, after all, is a disgusting,
shameful spectacle that just begs for the kind of fevered,
blind shitpounding that is this writer’s ostensible expertise.
Unfortunately, however, the election’s peculiar qualities
also played directly into this writer’s most serious weakness—his
lack of broad intellectual vision. Charging head first into
the campaign trail with his fangs bared, Taibbi quickly
found that the fraud of the American electoral system existed
on a level far beyond his immediate animal understanding.
What was most vile about the campaign process was something
ethereal, obscure, extremely complex, and mostly invisible
to the naked eye.
involved subtleties in the behavior of the campaign press
corps—which consigned certain candidates and their ideas
to the margins, mainly through careful inattention at the
right times, scarcely detectable strategies of word choice
in questioning candidates, and a cheerful willingness to
be trapped in the isolated, incestuous chamber
the campaign trail. It had something to do with geography;
by the time Taibbi noticed that the campaign never visited
"real" America, the election was almost over.
And it had to do with a false storyline involving the left-right
battle, a pure media concoction that very early on created
a compelling narrative of a "hopelessly divided"
America, and then wrote about it as fact when relentless
propaganda along these lines actually brought this about
as an electoral result.
of this was very complicated, and difficult to detect from
inside the media fish tank of the campaign, which Taibbi
dips in and out of throughout the book: on the plane with
then-frontrunner Howard Dean in summer 2003, in New Hampshire
in the months leading up to the primary, on the trail with
eventual nominee John Kerry as a
for Rolling Stone in the months after Iowa. The reporter
never really figures out what the hell he’s doing during
these journeys, and as a result, most of the book’s narrative
reads like a bad imitation of a Buster Keaton comedy, with
Taibbi literally tripping over his dick for months at a
time as he searches for a fruitful angle.
book’s most hilarious moments come when Taibbi, having emptied
whole clipfuls of blanks at the campaign story, resorts
to shameless schtickery in desperate attempts to squeeze
something out of his assignment.
you get scenes like the one at a Kerry event in Jackson,
Mississippi, when Taibbi, certain that he is about to be
fired by Rolling Stone, decides to go to work in
a Viking suit. No one at the event finds this very funny,
neither do his editors, and neither, probably, will readers
of this book. As unintentional humor goes, it is priceless—
like watching Kirstie Alley confess to sucking off a moose
in a last-ditch attempt to get three minutes of coverage
on the E! network— but that is exactly what it is,
political journalism goes, Spanking the Donkey is
probably limited to a voyeuristic curiosity. At some level,
it is extremely funny to watch this low-rent brute flail
around and slowly lose his mind under the glare of the campaign
lights. Taibbi gets nothing from the campaign story, and
it just might be that there is nothing to get—a funny thing
for us to consider now, but a horror tale to an idiot stuck
in the middle of it. If you enjoy failure as a spectacle,
Taibbi at least made sure this is rich reading. But that
is a big if, especially at $24.95.