Smells like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire

| November 22, 2007
Book cover, "Smells Like Dead Elephants"
Book cover, "Smells Like Dead Elephants"
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Book by Matt Taibbi.
Published by Black Cat Books.

There are only two reasons to read the otherwise decrepit Rolling Stone magazine these days, and neither of them have anything to do with music. One is David Rees' pissed-off clip art comic strip Get Your War On, and the other is the stiletto sharp journalism of Matt Taibbi.

In 2002 Taibbi returned from a long stint in Russia as editor of the eXile, a satirical English-language paper based in Moscow that read like a cross between The Onion and Vice magazine. When he returned to the States he found his experience living in a country where the line between gangsterism and crony capitalism was blurred served him in good stead, covering the arrogant rise and precipitous decline of the Bush/Cheney gang. His savage humor and taste for invective obviously recall a more lucid Hunter S. Thompson, though Taibbi claims H.L. Mencken as a bigger influence. This new book collects his stories for Rolling Stoneover the last two years.

Bismarck once said "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." In "Four Amendments and a Funeral," Taibbi proves that adage ever true as independent Vermont congressman Bernie Sanders leads him step by step through the soul-crushing process by which worthy amendments to four bills — an energy bill, a highway bill, the CAFTA free trade bill and an updated version of the draconian Patriot Act — are stuffed with pork, steamrollered and bought off by the highest bidders. In this self-described "evil, adult version of Schoolhouse Rock," he methodically sketches out the hard details of big money power politics, and shreds any illusions of idealism in the process. Taibbi is cynical, but for good reason — he's seen the legislative machinery of democracy up close and finds it to be mostly a sham.

As implied in the title of his earlier book Spanking the Donkey, he doesn't have much hope that craven Democrats will come to the rescue either (and recent months have proved his skepticism to be valid). But he's also no knee jerk lefty — his piece on Cindy Sheehan basically supports her anti-war position but questions the relevancy of '60s-style mass protest in the context of today's mediascape.

"Apocalypse There" is perhaps the book's most interesting and empathetic piece because the enormity of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina forces Taibbi to tone down his sometimes facile insults and attitude and simply listen to the voices of the afflicted and the angry. He helps to rescue people with Sean Penn (who comes off here a lot better than his typical media caricature) and historian Douglas Brinkley (who's since written a definitive history of Katrina, "The Great Deluge.") Unlike many other reporters, he returned to New Orleans six months later to see how little help was given to the people who really need it, and reports on real estate speculators planning for condos to permanently displace the mostly black refugees now scattered across the country ("How to Steal a Coastline").

Taibbi does deliver a scathing evisceration of the body politic, and he's a clever comic writer. He's not above stunts like spending three nights in Abu Ghraib or posing as a lobbyist proposing to drill for oil in the Grand Canyon, but his bitter humor masks a sense of despair. He really doesn't see too much hope on the horizon, just the fleeting sense that only by taking a clear-eyed skeptical look at the true state of the nation and its costly delusions will it be possible to veer away from the dangerous drift of the last seven years.

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