Book review: “The Divide”

Los Angeles TimesApril 12, 2014 

  • Nonfiction

    The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap

    Matt Taibbi

    Spiegel & Grau, 448 pages

Matt Taibbi begins “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap,” with a simple formulation: “Poverty goes up; Crime goes down; Prison population doubles.” It’s a way to represent what he sees as today’s America, where rule of law has been subverted by corporate greed and an institutionalized abuse of the poor.

Such a landscape, he suggests, brings to mind the former Soviet Union, which operated out of a similar mass hypocrisy until the early 1990s when “people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, (and) it was like the whole country woke up from a dream, and the system fell apart in a matter of months.” Taibbi says he feels like he’s watching America “fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one.”

“The Divide,” then, is an attempt to identify just what has happened to America.

“For a country founded on the idea that rights are inalienable and inherent from birth,” Taibbi writes, “we’ve developed a high tolerance for conditional rights and conditional citizenship. And the one condition, it turns out, is money. If you have a lot of it, the legal road you get to travel is well lit and beautifully maintained. If you don’t, it’s a dark alley and most Americans would be shocked to find out what’s at the end of it.”

To make the case, Taibbi juxtaposes two distinct, and separated, worlds. He begins with Wall Street, which has yet to pay in any real sense for its part in the financial crisis: “a Ponzi scheme, no different than the Bernie Madoff caper, only executed on an exponentially huger scale.”

The heart of “The Divide” emerges on the streets of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy and Riverside County and Gainesville, Ga., where an overlapping matrix of police initiatives, immigration laws and an “Obama-era initiative bearing the Bush-Orwellian catch-phrase ‘Secure Communities’ ” has made going to work or applying for assistance a source of persecution and anxiety.

. There’s pseudonymous Alvaro Fernandez, a Colombian living illegally in Georgia, who was deported to Mexico after being stopped at a roadside checkpoint, despite owning a successful construction business. Or bus driver Andrew Brown of Brooklyn, who has been arrested repeatedly because, as a black man, he “fits the description.”

Such situations are bad enough, but even worse is how they fit into a growing legal framework by which the underclass is effectively criminalized. Taibbi describes a San Diego County program called P100, an outgrowth of Clinton-era welfare reform. The idea is that all assistance claims must be investigated. A woman named Markisha Powell, a former meth addict and prostitute, was denied benefits because the investigator who came to the room she was renting refused to believe she lived there with her son. “You can always score political points,” Taibbi writes, “banging on black welfare moms on meth.”

If that makes you angry, you’re not alone – Taibbi is angry too. And yet, he argues, the only option is to fight. That’s what Alvaro and Brown have done, battling to maintain their status, and it’s also what some of Chase’s credit card clients did when sued for money they didn’t owe; “when credit card holders actually contest the lawsuits filed against them,” Taibbi notes, “the plaintiff in the vast majority of cases … simply drops the case.”

In that sense, “The Divide” is not just a report from the new America; it is advocacy journalism at its finest, an attempt to stir us up. “Just trying to do the right thing,” Taibbi writes, “legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

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