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On Pissing Contests

Published by marco on

I read an article called on Matt Taibbi, Gogol, and Cancel Culture by Evgenia Kovda (Immigrants as a Weapon), which I’d gotten to because it’s actually Yasha Levine’s SubStack and his wife is sharing it with him. She wrote about Matt Taibbi,

“Makes one think about all this cancel culture outrage that you’re manically producing these days. You constantly write about how dangerous this new wave of censorship is to art and culture and speech and self-expression, and how stifling it is. But Gogol — your literary hero — proves the exact opposite of your argument: writers have been able to publish radical political novels while under heavy censorship.”

That’s the “art is suffering” argument, I guess? I’m almost certain that the point isn’t that we should stop complaining about censorship because Gogol managed to write sublime texts despite censorship—or is the argument that he was pushed to dizzying heights of sublime prose because of censorship? That it was the barrier of censorship that made him write the way he did? It’s possible, I suppose. I wonder how he would have written without censorship? Would his text have been banal and lazy, formulated in the first way that came to mind, rather than squeezed through several tortured filters designed to evade censors, transforming it into a diamond of wit and erudition?

Her riposte that “proves the exact opposite” doesn’t do that at all. It just shows that censorship isn’t total, which no-one is arguing. Perhaps Gogol could have written even better works if he hadn’t had to expend so much effort evading the censors. Perhaps there were hundreds of other Gogols lurking in Russia at the time who never wrote a word out of fear. That Gogol existed despite the censors doesn’t prove that censors … are good? I’m honestly not sure what the actual point was of the argument—other than Matt Taibbi is wrong and I’m the one to point it out to him.

She even writes that she started off writing a private mail to him, but then thought it more important for her brilliant takedown be published publicly. Perhaps she did it for the same reason Taibbi published his musings: they both need to feed the content beast—at least a little bit—because they have subscribers now. Content that would, in the past, have gone unpublished—or reconsidered—is thrown out as a first draft for the world to see. This, in order to keep up “engagement” and online presence. Far better to let it sit for a day or two or a week and see if you still feel that virulently about it.

I’m not certain why Evgenia has such an axe to grind with Matt Taibbi—she writes at the beginning that she signed up for his newsletter. But she immediately accuses him of “manically producing” his topics—which has, to my ear, negative connotations—instead of, say, “passionately pursuing”, which is, if nothing else, neutral. She calls him “a bourgeois armchair journalist”, which is plainly inaccurate, considering how many decades of his career he spent actually on the road being a journalist. If you’ve read his books, he spends a seemingly inordinate time in courtrooms and not in an armchair.

He may be bourgeois, but that’s just a snarky way of saying “middle class”, which most of us are—or wish we were, if only for the financial security and accompanying peace of mind. Unless she meant one of the other definitions, like “marked by a concern for material interests and respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity” or “dominated by commercial and industrial interests”, neither of which is, in any way, an accurate description of Matt Taibbi. Bourgeois seems to be a casual and evidence-free smear. even if you choose the most generous definition.

This constant oneupmanship between people who have no reason to be in opposition to one another is tedious—it’s as if they think that the online audience is a zero-sum game or that there is some way of “winning” the act of writing. It seems there is no place in amateur online critique for empathy or trying to gently help one another. There is only “darn the torpedos” and “in for the kill”. It’s a weird and off-putting way of doing things and can’t be very pleasant for anyone involved.

Instead of two people who clearly love Gogol coming together, to the initial plaudit “I really like Gogol for these reasons!”, the riposte is “everything you know about Gogol is wrong and it’s unlikely you’ve even read him in the correct language and, if you have, you misunderstood him to a degree where lobotomization can be the only explanation and you are so bad at writing about these things that you should never try again.”

To recap: she subscribed to Taibbi, but doesn’t want to read about “cancel culture” or his literary pretensions. Does she think that a blog is like a restaurant? That you can just order what you want? Don’t people just write about what comes naturally to them? I know I do, to a large degree. I have projects that I’d like to work on—and I do, when the mood takes me—but mostly my writing consists of screeds inspired by something I’d just read (like this ever-growing essay). But this level of complaining is like subscribing to Glenn Greenwald and then immediately telling him to stop writing in run-on sentences.

I imagine that Matt is the same—and he has a subscriber base to which to cater. When he’s planning on writing something he considers to be salient to the feed, but gets distracted by thoughts of Gogol, then why not just write about Gogol? Perhaps it inspires someone to actually read Gogol—even if, in Evgenia’s opinion, they would be doing so for all the wrong reasons—which would be a nigh-miracle in this age of tweets and clickbait. I don’t think of a SubStack as a newspaper—not really—but more as a blog, where a writer writes. It’s going to be a mixed bag.

Instead of writing “nice try, but…”, she went with a brutal takedown that seems to think that Matt is not only a traitor to everything worth believing in, but also a terrible writer who barely understands anything he reads. Why this scorched-earth approach? Is there no room for actually considering a writer’s oeuvre and not assuming the worst? Not assuming that they’ve capitulated 25 years of writing? Perhaps to assume that you might have missed something? Or that they had a bad day?

I can’t say whether Evgenia is more authoritative than Matt. She makes it sound like it, but that’s the intent of a know-it-all—not to learn or even to impart knowledge, but to do an end-zone dance. There is information in her essay that I found interesting, but you have to look past the tone and past all of the parts that are clambering over the corpse of an unnecessarily slain “enemy” in order to get to it. Writing and discussion really shouldn’t be like Highlander

I came to that website because I’m a long-time fan of Yasha Levine’s writing (Evgenia is, I think, his wife) and I’d just listened to an interview with him on the Moderate Rebels podcast. He’d made some excellent points (and some more-rambling, hand-waving ones about how the app Signal is compromised because “your phone can still be hacked”, but, hey, it was a long interview and he couldn’t go into detail about everything), so I came here to see what else he’s writing. The top of his SubStack is this essay by his wife and birth announcements and, when the first comment on his wife’s screed against Matt Taibbi’s literary pretensions—a rare deviation from his journalistic output—reads as follows: “I’m so… disappointed, I guess, with the direction Matt seems to have taken. Professionally and personally. Meh.”, Levine “liked” it.

The tone, so far, is pretty bitchy and kind of “king of the mountain”. I don’t defend everything Taibbi writes, but it’s kind of a “glass houses” moment when the guy who writes about nothing but government secrets and infiltration into all ways of life (Levine) thinks that the guy who writes about censorship and the class war in books like The Divide or I Can’t Breathe is too obsessed with censorship. It’s a mystery how Yasha and Evgenia manage to produce the distinct impression that there is no common ground between them and Taibbi. I suppose this is how “the man” always manages to drag us down: it’s just way too easy to get clear allies squabbling amongst themselves.

The second comment, by Boris Petrov, expresses the same sentiments I’ve expressed here, though he goes so far as to posit that this tension is due to “a bit of envy to Matt’s success, recognition and his wide span of topics”.

I wouldn’t pretend to know what the reason is, but it’s a shame nonetheless, that this sort of purity test and jostling for position has to occur among what should otherwise be allies, if not friends. Maybe our culture has been broken by the Internet and its latest excrescence “social media” to the point where people really can’t help themselves anymore. It’s nice to see someone like “Boris Petrov” is able to make a balanced and diplomatic plea for sanity.

Maybe Evgenia had a bad day and just had to dump on someone. That’s too bad, but it’s also out there now. Taibbi wrote an essay about a favorite writer of his (which, as a subscriber, I found to be a nice departure from his other work) and she wrote back to tell him that he likes the writer for all the wrong reasons and should himself probably stop writing altogether. Considering he’d done nothing to shoot across anyone else’s bow, it’s hard to see how she’s justified in torpedoing him for that.