Damaging, insidious and difficult to root out

And then there’s Matt Taibbi.

There’s more than one way to harass women. A raft of men in recent weeks have paid for accusations of sexual harassment with their companies, their jobs, their plum political posts. But one point has been overlooked in the scandals: Men can be belittling, cruel and deeply damaging without demanding sex. (Try sloughing off heaps of contempt with your self-esteem intact.) We have no consensus — and hardly any discussion — about how we should treat behaviors that are misogynist and bullying but fall short of breaking the law.

Short of breaking the law but not short of a reason to say Go away and don’t come back. Misogynist bullying is not a trivial matter.

Twenty years ago the author of the piece, Kathy Lally, was Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames ran an Anglophone tabloid there called the eXile. Their self-presentation was the usual bad boy convention-defying crap.

A better description is this: The eXile was juvenile, stunt-obsessed and pornographic, titillating for high school boys. It is back in the news because Taibbi just wrote a new book, and interviewers are asking him why he and Ames acted so boorishly back then. The eXile’s distinguishing feature, more than anything else, was its blinding sexism — which often targeted me.

We can imagine what it was like all too easily, after so many years of seeing the kind of thing clogging up Twitter like hair in the bathtub drain. There were male reporters around who were happy to say it was misogynist and also awesome. Easy for them.

Taibbi still writes for Rolling Stone; Ames, too, works in journalism, running a podcast on war and conflict.

I remember the eXile as a mishmash of nightclub listings (rated on how easily a man could get sex), articles on lurid escapades (sex with a 15-year-old girl, an account Ames now says was a joke), political pieces (“Why Our Military Shopping Spree Has Russia Pissed Off”) and press reviews savaging mainstream Western journalists. It ridiculed one female reporter as a “star spinster columnist” and mentioned women’s “anger lines” and fat ankles. The paper even had a cartoon called the Fat Ankle News , about a woman who tweezes her nose hairs and gorges on doughnuts while editing a story. Some male reporters came in for scorn as toadies or morons or liars. But their outrages concerned their minds and not their bodies.

What I’m saying. It’s so drearily familiar.

She didn’t admire the eXile and once said so in public, so they went after her in the way guys like them do go after women.

When I wrote an article about advertisements that used sex to sell cigarettes — new for Russia — Taibbi addressed my Baltimore Sun editors in his eXile column: “Lally’s article is pathological, illogical, inaccurate, makes no point, and is insulting and hypocritical besides. . . . Lally’s gaffes may be comic, the wild meanderings of an aging woman nearing derangement.” Once, the eXile declared me the winner of its “Gnarliest Elephantine Ass on a Journalist With No Ethics Award.” Another time, it published a cartoon showing me in bed with my editor.

I wondered if I should write a story about the eXile, and I started asking Western correspondents what they knew about it. Taibbi had accused a friend of mine of being paid by Russian oligarchs to write favorable stories, so I thought it was worth asking about the eXile’s connections. Do you think any oligarchs are financing them? As a reader, can you tell the difference between what they are making up and what they are not? Are they here on journalist visas? Who are their journalistic role models? I never pursued it, but Taibbi found out about my queries. In the eXile, he described “a full frontal attack by, of all things, a matronly middle-aged American print journalist.”

Middle-aged – why had no one had her euthanized yet?

When “The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia” came out, the memoir had a few more surprises in store. “We dragged . . . Lally’s charred [corpse] through the dust-and-fly-infested streets of our newspaper for all to have a laugh,” Ames wrote. In the most unexpected anecdote, Taibbi said that another reporter, Fred Weir, described in great detail how the eXile had made me cry. “Good!” Taibbi describes himself shouting. I was aware of Weir; probably we had bumped into each other at news conferences. But I didn’t know him. I couldn’t imagine why I would ever have wept in front of him.

They’d be right at home with darling Milo, not to mention Steve Bannon.

I didn’t think about Taibbi and Ames for years; my self-esteem remained intact and my life moved along. Then, just as more and more men were being drummed out of public life for long-ago behavior, Taibbi landed in the news, bringing Ames along with him. Taibbi recently published a book about the death of Eric Garner, “I Can’t Breathe,” and in an interview about it, an NPR host asked him about the eXile years and a passage, written by Ames, in their memoir that described routine sexual harassment of women.

He apologized; he wrote a couple of Facebook posts apologizing (sort of). But, you know, once you know that kind of shit is in someone’s head, apologies don’t really do anything. They don’t have the power to persuade you that the someone doesn’t still think that way.

It doesn’t work to say oh that was then. Yes, it was then, it was twenty years ago, but they were like that then. Being like that is, frankly, about the worst way people can be. It doesn’t go away even if they later repudiate it.

Ames recently told reporters that the eXile was obviously satire and complained that he is being smeared for that satire.

But so many of their sins were real. Taibbi once wrote in the eXile that women had no business wearing “painter’s pants and sneakers” when they ought to be more like Russian women, with “their tight skirts, blowjob-ready lips, and swinging, meaty chests.” Ames described going to the senior prom of an international high school with a 17-year-old date he called his “Jew-broad”; he was 34. Back home she would be “jailbait,” he wrote in the eXile , but Russia “permits sex with a fourteen-year-old, so long as you had reason to believe she was sixteen, the legal statutory age.” A photo shows Ames in the front row with his date.

They told lies about another woman reporter, saying she relied on a translator when she didn’t.

I got in touch with Taibbi and Ames, neither of whom has ever met or spoken to me. Ames did not reply to requests for comment. He has, however, described his stories of sex with 15-year-olds as satire. In a Facebook exchange with me, Taibbi gave some ground. “I certainly would not go about things now the way I did back then,” he wrote. “And I apologize for the physical descriptions. That was gratuitous and uncalled for.” But before he stopped answering my questions, he took some jabs, complaining about the “efforts to get us removed from the Johnson’s list.”

Finally, we are confronting men who have abused and sexually harassed women for years. That reckoning has been too long coming. But you don’t have to grope a woman or force a kiss on her to humiliate her, to make her doubt herself, to silence and diminish her. Bullying, treating women with contempt, freezing them out of the lunches and meetings that build networks and authority: All are damaging, insidious and difficult to root out. That will take time — and more women who call men out. That’s why I’m saying #MeToo.

Damn right.

6 Responses to “Damaging, insidious and difficult to root out”

Leave a Comment

Subscribe without commenting