Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (2014) — Book Review

© 2014 Peter Free


22 April 2014



Brilliantly insightful book — marred by three significant flaws


Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap memorably portrays America’s oligarchical society with anecdotes showing how we indulge:



(a) no rules at all for the financially powerful — who actively prey on everybody else




(b) prison sentences and incomprehensibly disproportionate fines for trivial offenses committed by the powerless.


The book is badly weakened by its complete lack of footnotes (including attributions of any kind) and an index — as well as arguably being unnecessarily long.


More attention to scholarship, rather than only (justifiably) angry journalism, would have elevated Divide into a potentially worthy historical source.


As written, The Divide is likely to be considered only a moving, but quickly forgotten expression of too easily dismissed passing mood.  It should not have opened itself up to such criticism by being scholarly sloppy.


Best parts


The most coherent part of the The Divide is its introduction, where Matt Taibbi lays out his indictment of America’s autocratic plutocracy:



It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth.


[Yet] [w]e have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.


What deserves a bigger punishment — someone with a college degree education who knowingly helps a gangster or terrorist open a bank account?  Or a high school dropout who falls asleep on the F-train?


The new America says it’s the latter.  It’s come around to the point of view at the end of a long evolutionary process, in which the rule of law has slowly been replaced by giant idiosyncratic bureaucracies that are designed to criminalize failure, poverty, and weakness on the one hand, and to immunize strength, wealth, and success on the other.


This is where the new despotism is hidden, in these thousands of arbitrary decisions that surround our otherwise transparent system of real jury trials and carefully enumerated suspects’ rights.  This vast extrademocratic mechanism, it turns out, is made up of injustices big and small, from sweeping national concepts like [Attorney General] Eric Holder’s Collateral Consequences plan, granting institutional leniency to “systemically important” companies, to smaller, more localized outrages like New York City prosecutors subverting speedy trial rules in order to extract guilty pleas from poor defendants who can’t make bail.


© 2014 Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Spiegel & Grau, 2014) (at Introduction, pages xix-xxii) (extracts)



An easy case to make — at least to a jury comprised of the “awake”


Those who have kept up with America’s decline into autocratic oligarchy will not be surprised by Taibbi’s legitimate indictment of prevailing American culture.  Those more insulated in cocoons of comfort and denial might be.  The author’s personally collected anecdotal evidence could bring glimmers of light even to some of the latter.


The book has 9 chapters.  I view 1 through 6 as the most compelling.  These alternate between demonstrating the lack of consequences for enormous crimes committed by the rich and powerful, as opposed to incomprehensibly harsh ones for trivial offenses committed by the powerless.


The oppressed group is divided between ordinary poor Americans (particularly blacks and Hispanics) and illegal aliens.  Here, the institutionalized torture of the underclass will be eye-opening for those who have not been there.


In this latter regard, Taibbi is correct in pointing out that comfort and white skin color insulates people from witnessing what our vicious culture actively does to millions upon millions of people.



The persuasive power of extended anecdotes


Although anecdotal evidence is often attacked for being statistically unrepresentative, Taibbi’s extended and chronologically detailed examples are emotionally piercing and experientially too common to be disregarded, except of course by the bigoted.


The chapters entitled “Frisk and Stop” and “Border Trouble (Parts I and II)” are emotionally slicing.  I use the word torture in regard to these people’s tales advisedly.  Taibbi’s numerous examples demonstrate that intentional cruelties are practiced on a scale that only bigoted bureaucracies can achieve.  This is institutionalized gulagism.  I label it such, having been a cop and state assistant attorney general.



In contrast — how the powerful are intentionally boosted into committing even more remunerative and unpunished crimes against the whole nation


The first chapter (“Unintended Consequences”) and the fourth (“The Greatest Bank Robbery You Never Heard of”) capably lay out Taibbi’s irreproachable case against the plutocracy’s power to steal from us, with the Government’s blessing.


President Obama and Eric Holder-haters will get raw flesh here.  This pusillanimous duo may go down in history as the most reprehensibly spineless among America’s modern leaders.  Perhaps more accurately viewed, these are just two more Fat Cats feeding at the trough of plutocratic largesse.



Too long a book?


I lost interest in the concluding 3 chapters of the book.  They seemed less coherently presented and too much like diluted overkill.  In fairness to Taibbi, perhaps I had already read enough to reach a “case made” verdict.





The Divide’s main virtue is Taibbi’s idea that America has institutionalized laissez faire-predatory plutocracy in conjunction with an ethically indefensible vicious attack on the powerless.  Having been for years of the same mind, I cannot say that the author’s conclusion surprised me.


I doubt that The Divide will change many readers’ perspectives.  Too many among us are stalwartly blind to the consequences of our votes and actions.  It is easier to be self-righteous than thoughtful.


The Divide makes clear that the United States is no longer a striving expression of enlightened freedom.  Somewhere along the way, we became symbol for predatory and prejudiced greed.


If you were not angry before reading the book, you should be afterward.  Which was undoubtedly Taibbi’s purpose in writing it and why I recommend it.