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Friday, November 29, 2002

Running Away From Home
I’m off to Moscow in a week’s time. Instead of heading to Thanksgiving-weekend-bloated stores to get the things I still need—long underwear, warm boots, some gloves—I’ve been lying in bed reading. Nothing useful, like a guidebook or my Russian textbook, but bulky nonfiction accounts of life in post-1991 Russia.

Currently, I’m breezing through David Remnick’s Resurrection—standard New Yorker-style profile journalism done exceedingly well. Before that, though, I read a disturbing (in good and bad ways) book by two strapping young men who fled their upper-middle-class American lives so they could live anti-bourgeois existences in Moscow. This wasn’t a political move—there’s nothing remotely socialist or lefty about either of the authors—but they both wanted to get away from the dull conformity of the United States and do the thing that usually drives people to go live in another country: get out of competition with people they grew up with or went to school/university with, and do something “special.”

Speaking as someone who’s done this on more than one occasion (I crammed my things into a duffle bag and went to live in Spain for two years, and I’ve spent about 18 years in the States), I recognize the urge to flee and to stand out both in the country you leave (not getting the jobs/chicks you feel you deserve?—make a splash by running away to a smaller pond) and in your destination (Ooh, what’s your accent? Say, could you teach me to speak English/offer me a ticket out of this crummy country?). Of course, this only works if you’re moving laterally in the hierarchy of nations—Mexicans in the U.S. and Africans in Britain somehow never qualify as “expats.” But, if you’re a native English speaker, there’s almost always an advantage to trading countries.

Matt Taibbi and Mark Ames both went to Russia because they felt an irresistible attraction to the place. They loved the literature, enjoyed the freedom it offered in the early ‘90s, and they wanted to be writers. They also wanted to live in a place where they could indulge their taste for drugs and casual sex with skinny teenage girls with no negative consequences. Where they could be journalists without having to toe a corporate line. In short, they wanted to get away from the responsibilities of home—being a dutiful son/brother/grandson/boyfriend/father, doing the dull but necessary jobs/tasks that life demands, thinking about other people besides yourself.

Identifying as a writer is very important to Taibbi and Ames, and judging from the very readable The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, they’re both talented (Taibbi much more than Ames). They’re good thinkers—albeit with more of a gift for pointing out flaws and weaknesses than for offering alternatives—and they’re clearly creative. When they come together to edit a new Moscow expat paper, the eXile, they take advantage of their freedom to put out a gonzo publication—a mixture, judging from the samples reproduced in the book, of scurrilous character assassination, uncontrolled impulses, the realization of revenge fantasies, and some important straight journalism, breaking stories other papers are too nervous or too compromised to touch. This book shows just how ugly a truly free press can be.

T & A are refreshingly free of the careerism that silences a lot of journos, and they make some good points: The logistics of newspaper publishing encourage journalists to be lazy; newspaper proprietors censor their papers to protect advertising revenues, and they’re often contemptuous of their readers. The foreign correspondent system, which theoretically means that talented, smart writers with good journalistic instincts move from country to country and are expected to develop an instant understanding of the complex political, social, and cultural factors at work, and become fluent in the native language wherever they go, is obviously flawed. T & A are well-placed to show the failings of Moscow correspondents because they do speak Russian and are aware of at least some of the complexities of the place. They seem to have lost their touch with other places, though. When dissing New York Times (now New Yorker) writer Michael Specter, Taibbi notes Specter’s victory in “an online contest called the ‘Hackathion' which was sponsored by Slate Press." It was the “Hackathlon” in Slate, an online magazine that has never been known as “Slate Press.”

T & A admit they’re motivated by “vanity and spleen,” but admitting something doesn’t make it OK. The book—and the eXile itself—is full of misogynist woman-hating. Teenage Russian dyevushki are acceptable to the lads, because they’re skinny and wear lots of makeup and tiny miniskirts and have an apocalyptic urge to screw drugged-out, hairy American men. American and British women, however, are never mentioned without being described in terms of some physical “flaw”—a huge ass, “saggy tits,” fat ankles, whatever. T & A are proud that they’ve overcome the PC training of the soul-deadened West. As Vladimir Ilich himself might have put it: That’s false consciousness, boys.

After all the revelations of psychoses, sexual exploitation, and general “every woman adores a fascist” confessionals, I left the book seeing it as one long evocation of an excuse I used to make myself. When a big exam was coming up, I would fail to prepare for it on a superhuman level—I wouldn’t read the set books, for example. Meanwhile, I’d make every effort to show how smart and erudite I was. This way, when the test came and I did poorly, I could hope other people would think to themselves, “Just think how well she could’ve done if she’d tried.” That way, you never actually fail—until you see the error of your ways.

By putting out a magazine that publishes revealing investigative journalism and righteous indictments of a corrupt system alongside “death porn,” club reports that turn into rape fantasies, first-person stories about threatening to kill a sex partner unless she agrees to get an abortion, or pages of speed-fueled nonsense, T & A got to convince themselves, “Man, just imagine how great our paper would be and how much everyone would respect us if we weren’t such honest, freedom-loving fuck-ups.”

My advice to Matt and Mark would be: If you hate expats so much, just ignore them. It’s worked for me. When I’m “abroad,” (i.e., not in England), English people set me off. If I overhear their accents in restaurants or meet them at work, I have a visceral reaction that borders on blind hatred. This is insane and without doubt a manifestation of deep-seated self-loathing, but there it is. I’ve learned to deal with it in a calming, sane way: I just ignore the Brits. I change seats, or I accentuate the American component of my mid-Atlantic accent. (And, of course, there are many more times that it suits me to ham up the Englishness and trigger that “special” reaction.)

England’s a great country, and I’m really glad I grew up there. It’s just not for me. That’s why I left, and it’s also why I became a U.S. citizen. I’m not an expat, I’m an American. Taibbi and Ames might consider making a similar move.