Two weeks ago, Phil Mushnick, a respected veteran sports writer for the New York Post, published a column about the Brooklyn Nets’ new brand identity, as designed with the help of Jay-Z. The team—previously known as the New Jersey Nets—had switched their colors to black and white. “Why not have him apply the full Jay-Z treatment?” Mushnick suggested, referring to the team’s part-owner. “Why the Brooklyn Nets when they can be the New York N——s. The cheerleaders could be the Brooklyn B—hes or Hoes …”
Once upon a time, a remark like that would have led to a call for Mushnick’s head—or at least a resignation. And while several media outlets picked up the story on their websites, the “scandal” was a non-starter. The Post did not reprimand Mushnick. Forbes even defended him.
If the story of Mushnick seemed novel, though, it was only because it didn’t happen on Twitter. At times, it seems as if the microblogging platform was designed to ease the glide path of users’ feet directly into their mouths as they dash off unthinking, offensive commentary: Cee Lo Green calling a fan of The Voice “gay”; CNN commentator Roland Martin’s homophobic Tweets after the Super Bowl; Chris Brown being Chris Brown (his response to a hater: “Grow up n——a!!! Dick in da ass lil boy.”)
Nearly four years after the election of a black man as president, intolerant attitudes are having a cultural moment. And one inspiration may well be President Obama himself, whose occupation of the White House seems to have been misinterpreted as a signal that the country has overcome the ugliness of its racist past and we are now all free to air our most contemptible prejudices. Of course, not all racists, sexists, anti-Semites and homophobes are created equal. There’s the bilious misogyny of a Rush Limbaugh and the unhinged anti-Semitism of a John Galliano or a Mel Gibson. There’s the mass-stupidity of all of those Hunger Games fans outraged by the casting of an African-American actor as a character they thought was white and the semi-ironic, hipster racism displayed by Lesley Arfin, a writer for the HBO show Girls.
The latter form was dubbed “ironic racism” after Arfin responded on Twitter to criticisms that the show didn’t feature enough women of color, cracking, “What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.” The Tweet, quickly deleted, spurred bloggers to uncover other damning evidence of Arfin’s racist attitudes—including a 2007 interview on the Huffington Post, in which she noted the n-word “was a great word. It packs so much punch.” Gavin McInnes, Arfin’s former employer at VICE, jumped to her defense—not that he’s an especially respected authority on tolerance.
It seems that with the rigid speak-no-evil precepts of political correctness now as out of fashion as stonewashed jeans, the rules have become a little fuzzy. It’s interesting to see just what sort of parochialism is forgiven and what is not. The hit Comedy Central series Tosh.0 includes a segment called “Is It Racist?” that is itself, arguably, racist. Meanwhile, ESPN employee Anthony Federico was fired for headlining a story about Jeremy Lin “A Chink in the Armor,” though he later claimed the implication was inadvertent. There was Ashton Kutcher’s controversial “brown face” ad for PopChips and Jon Hamm’s not-that-controversial blackface in a special episode of 30 Rock.
It seemed an auspicious time for lunch with Taki Theodoracopulos, the charismatic 75-year-old Greek socialite, pundit and founder of The American Conservative, who has been making racist remarks—and getting away with it—for decades now. Despite a reputation for venomous rhetoric, his byline has graced the pages of Hamptons, Vanity Fair, New York Press, The Spectator, The Sunday Times, Esquire and Newsweek.
More recently, Theodoracopulos has been writing mostly for his own website, Taki’s Magazine. While the site bears the tagline: “Cocktails, Countesses & Mental Caviar,” it is perhaps better known for a collection of race-baiting essays and blog posts by a rogue’s gallery of politically incorrect luminaries, including Pat Buchanan, McInnes and Redneck Manifesto author Jim Goad. In early April, the site posted an essay by John Derbyshire called “The Talk: Nonblack Version,” about what children should know about African-Americans (“Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally … Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods”). Derbyshire was also a contributor to National Review, but not for long. The Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, quickly cut him loose, writing that the post “constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.”
Derbyshire quickly retreated from the public stage, and the news that he was undergoing chemotherapy for chronic lymphocytic leukemia may have even garnered him some sympathy points. But just a month later, Derbyshire landed a new gig on VDare.com, an anti-immigration site. His first article extolled the virtues of white supremacy.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center wasn’t surprised by the development. “More often than not, real racism lies right below the surface, and what holds it back is fear of criticism or fear of losing one’s career,” he said, noting that the center considers VDare a hate site.
Such outspoken racism is increasing, he said. “At a macro-level, what we’re seeing is a lot of white people feeling like they are losing their country … that after Obama’s election, they’re drowning in a tide of color.”
Naturally, Derbyshire is still writing for Taki, who a few weeks after the notorious blog post was sitting in the Midtown restaurant Cognac, spooning up pink lobster bisque and chasing it with two large glasses of pinot grigio. Between bites, Theodoracopulos gossiped about his time working for—where else?—The New York Observer.
“I called A.M. Rosenthal from The New York Times ‘Abie,’ and his wife thought that was anti-Semitic,” he recalled in his languidly aristocratic European accent. “How is that anti-Semitic?”
A genial man in a dapper blue suit and sparkling cuff links, Theodoracopulos bore a strong resemblance to Anthony Hopkins. He remembered being called into the office of then-owner Arthur Carter after Rosenthal’s wife, Shirley Lord, called to complain.
“Arthur would say, ‘What is the problem, Taki?’” Theodoracopulos laughed. “I’d tell him, ‘The problem is that I’ve run out of shoe polish, Arthur. Would you mind if I took some from your hair?’”
“You get it?” Theodoracopulos asked. “Because his hair always looked like he rubbed it with shoe polish!”
When Fraser Nelson took over as editor of The Spectator, where Taki contributed a regular column, he jokingly told the columnist he would be fired. “He said, ‘No one is complaining about you anymore, Taki, so why are we paying you?’” Theodoracopulos recalled, snickering like a man who was having the last laugh. And perhaps he is.
In his inaugural editor’s “diary,” Nelson noted a change in the air. “It’s not that Taki is conforming to the world,” he wrote. “The world, I think, is finally conforming to him.”
Racial resentment seems especially uncharitable coming from someone like Theodoracopulos, a jet-setting playboy of good standing. His father, in addition to being an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, was a shipping baron. His grandfather, Panagiotis Poulitsas, was briefly the prime minister of Greece. After a career as a professional tennis player, and a short stint working in his father’s offices, Taki was recruited by Arnaud de Borchgrave, then senior editor of Newsweek, to go to Vietnam as a photographer.
“I didn’t want to work for my father, I didn’t want to be a shipper, or a tycoon’s son,” Theodoracopulos said of his beginnings in journalism.
He’s been married twice, currently to his wife of 31 years, Princess Alexandra Carlota Sophy von Schoenburg-Hartenstein, and has two children, “who have never disappointed me,” he said. His son, J.T., is a bike messenger; his daughter, Mandolyna, runs Taki’s Magazine. “She is actually the brains behind the site, because I don’t really read the Internet,” Theodoracopulos said proudly.
The idea for the website came about after Theodoracopulos ceased his involvement with The American Conservative in 2007.
“At a certain time, I had to take a step back and say ‘Do I want to keep giving millions of dollars to magazines that no one reads, or something else?’” he recalled. Mandolyna, who spent the ’90s working for publications such as Hamptons and, yes, The New York Observer (as a fact-checker under Graydon Carter, who then hired her for Vanity Fair), went on to become an interior designer before returning to journalism.
“I made peace with my dad years ago,” the London-based Mandolyna Theodoracopulos told us over the phone. “It’s really nice to have a family business.”
The only area where she and her father disagree, she told us, was the Middle East. (“I’m not saying Israel shouldn’t exist,” he said, “but they need to give back the occupied territories.”)
“Be nice to my dad,” Mandolyna warned before hanging up. “He’s one of the nicest, sweetest men you’ll ever meet.”
Theodoracopulos can be charming in person, which might explain how he’s been able to maintain some of his social cachet despite his disreputable opinions. Though he credits William Buckley at the National Review with giving him his first job, it wasn’t until he started his High Life social column in The Spectator that he found his niche. “I was a natural,” Theodoracopulos said. “People couldn’t believe what I wrote in High Life, but I didn’t care about access, I already had access. I knew what was going on. You have to get your foot in the door writing what you know about, and this was what I knew.”
That particular beat has shrunk with time. “Society doesn’t exist anymore … or if it does, it doesn’t go out,” Taki sniffed. He is ditching his London home because, he explained, the city is “becoming overcrowded with Arabs.” He is more often found in his apartment on East 71st Street and is plotting a sailing trip to Cannes, where, he said, he will be shooting a movie with Norman Mailer’s son Michael.
During lunch, Theodoracopulos employed a number of epithets for various ethnic and racial groups. The n-word rolled off his tongue. He was unapologetic about his use of such terms, and made us uncomfortably complicit by leaning in conspiratorially and smiling while saying some of the more horrific things we’ve ever heard outside of a Quentin Tarantino film. He expressed disgust for professional athletes: “They have 12 kids and beat up on their wives, and she can’t go to court because she’s black and doesn’t have an education.” He praised Robert E. Lee and condemned Abraham Lincoln as “a murdering traitor.” He chuckled as he told us the story of a controversial Sunday Times editorial he once wrote: “I said that I thought I saw a gorilla once at Wimbledon. It was Venus Williams.”
Asked if he considered himself racist, Theodoracopulos shrugged. “It was very bad taste, but blacks make fun of us, why can’t we make fun of them?”
Unsurprisingly, Theodoracopulos’s mouth has gotten him into trouble over the years. “In this country, there are tremendous libel suits … I’ve lost five libel cases myself,” he said proudly. “Not four. Five.”
He sat silently while we probed him about his xenophobia, then worked himself into a lather about the Saudis. “They are the ones who finance all the terror,” he said. “They eat their own shit. And we’re supposed to call them royals? These are not royal families … I call them ‘ruling towelheads.’”
But even as he flaunted his most noxious opinions, Theodoracopulos was oddly eager to clear the record on at least one charge against him. Asked about an article in which he referred to himself as a “soi-disant anti-Semite,” he bristled.
“No! Everyone gets that quote wrong, because they don’t speak French. Soi-disant means ‘so-called.’ I am saying that everyone else calls me an anti-Semite!”
As in most matters, his opinion on this differs from that of the media. As The Guardian wrote, in fact, the term is generally translated as “self-styled.” Theodoracopulos indignantly told us that he had spoken French for most of his life and knew better than journalists what the translation was.
As if to prove that he had nothing against Jews, he continued, “All my WASP friends in America say, ‘What happened to our money, Taki?’ And I tell them, ‘You drank it all away, and the Jews and n—ers were able to get it.”
It seemed like a good time to mention we were Jewish.
“And you don’t drink a lot, do you?” Theodoracopulos replied with a smile. “You can’t ever say that the Jews are drunks. The WASPS are drunks.”
With that, the Greek socialite motioned for the waiter and ordered us a second glass of white wine. As it turned out, Theodoracopulos was right about one thing: We spent the rest of the day nursing a massive headache.