Some Thoughts on Conspiracy, Owls and Blue Humor in Taibbi’s New Griftopia

Outside of a few elections here and there, the most important thing that happened to the United States of America yesterday was the release of Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, a book-length version of his iconic Goldman-Sachs-as-vampire-squid Rolling Stone extravaganza. (The secret AIG book was big, too.) Mr. Taibbi, whom The Observer interviewed for a profile last month–“It just works better when you make a villain,” he said, “like a James Bond-style villain”–is already getting some good reviews. Bookforum, in fact, declares he’s become “the best polemical journalist in America.”

“I guess you’d have to say he’s our star writer at the moment,” Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone‘s publisher, said in a brief interview, praising his reporter’s “metaphors and similes and imagery,” but also his “sense of outrage.”

Mr. Taibbi, though, says he doesn’t love the idea of stardom. “I hate doing television. I have to–it’s part of the job. Look, this is a cut-throat business now; you have to publicize your work as much as possible. If you’re not on television–the difference between selling magazines and selling books and not doing it is basically all about how much television you get on.”

When he was on Keith Olbermann last month, he scored fine points with his host by making an obscure sports reference. “Rolling Stone has given me some media training, they brought in somebody. It was helpful,” he said. “I think I had two different ones over the years, just a couple of sessions.”

The book, as its publicity material says, tells the story of Wall Street’s audacious grab for power. Is it conspiratorial? “What does the word conspire even mean?” Mr. Taibbi said. “It’s breathe together, that’s what the Latin comes from, right? But it’s open! I think the fantasy that a lot of Americans have about conspiracy is that it’s people who are hidden in back rooms making these marionette-like decisions, but the Wall Street stuff is there for everybody to see. It’s just that people don’t take the time to look at it.”

But the book’s tone isn’t so much conspiratorial as perpetually outraged, a trait certain critics tend to mock. The odd thing about that rage, though, is its nonpartisan aim: In Griftopia, he veers right sporadically but nonchalantly. For example, he defends what environmentalists would call the “piggish American consumer” from complaints about SUVs, because he blames 2008’s spike in oil prices on a commodity bubble, not cars. For some reason, he also calls critics of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “dickwads who were always sacrificing American jobs on the altar of the spotted owl.” He also spends a chapter arguing that health care reform was about Obama trading “billions in subsidies and the premiums from millions of involuntary customers” for a couple of cycles of campaign contributions.

But outside of the “dickwads” line and a few others like it, Mr. Taibbi doesn’t really work blue in the new book, and you sort of find yourself missing it. “With that design,” one paragraph begins, “the commodities market became a highly useful method of determining what is called the spot price of commodities.”

Some Thoughts on Conspiracy, Owls and Blue Humor in Taibbi’s New Griftopia