Tom Engelhardt Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Taking Back the Word: Conversation with Tom Engelhardt, Editor and Writer, April 23, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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Changing the World

Do you bring from your radical period a hope that books that you're working with will change the world in a way that everyone thought the ideas of the sixties would change the world?

That is why I started writing my novel, The Last Days of Publishing, because I started to feel that books no longer had the capability to change the world. It was a period I went through. I'm feeling differently now, because, looking back at history, it seems to me that the real revolution of the sixties, the successful one, was the one on the right.

You're talking about the right wing?

The right wing. Nobody noticed at the time except them. The first thing they did was they took the Word. They were people of the Word. Of course, they had billionaire beer manufacturers to help them, but they formed think tanks, they put out project papers, they ran seminars, they started publishing books -- just pouring the words out. This was the essence of the right: they captured the Word. And the left (what was left of the left after those years), kind of ... a lot of people who thought of themselves as radical or on the left went into daily life and did wonderful things, and led normal lives.Engelhardt with Chalmers Johnson, 2003 But the more vocal part went on campus and began to speak in an incomprehensible, priestly language.

What's given me a much different feeling in recent years is that I feel like I'm a small part of the beginning of a process of taking back the word. It's a long process, but it's happening on the Internet, where I am now. I'm involved as a coeditor of a book project called the American Empire Project, which is part of Metropolitan Books, where I work, which is part of one of these mainstream publishing houses.

And there you published Chalmers Johnson; you're going to publish Michael Klare ...

I'm publishing a Mexican cartoonist on globalization. I'm going to be publishing James Carroll's columns from the Boston Globe on Bush's "crusade," and so on and so forth.

Before we talk about this renaissance of the left, let's go back a minute to this discussion of the conservatives and the right wing. Why were they better able to do that? Why were they successful? Was it just the money, or was it that the founding group, which included people who, in some sense, had been liberals before, and who became neoconservatives -- what was the ignition in making this victory possible for them? And for them to run with ideas, to make ideas matter, and have an effect on policy?

You're the political scientist; you know this better than I do. I'm honestly not sure. All I can observe is that it happened, that they were successful, and that a major part of it was that they made themselves into the people of the Word. Nobody has ever poured out more pages.

This would be in the seventies and the eighties ?

Well, for the right, it really started in the sixties. It started with tiny pamphlets in the sixties -- mimeoed stuff. But in the seventies and eighties, obviously Reagan had come along. I was at Pantheon Books, which was kind of the left of mainstream publishing, and in the early eighties, liberal-to-left books started to not sell in quantity, and the rightist books just took off. First, these right-wing houses were on the periphery, and then they moved into the mainstream, and we all know that for twenty years, those were the books that sold.

Now, anybody who has followed the bestseller list for the last two years knows that this has changed. It's not that right-wing books have stopped (I mean, left and right -- I'm not even sure about these categories anymore), but after twenty years, books that once would have been called left, like Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire or Noam Chomsky's new book, Hegemony or Survival, Barbara Ehrenreich's book Nickel and Dimed, Michael Moore or Al Franken -- I can begin to name them. It's quite fascinating; if you look at the Times bestseller list, say, this week, you will find that, right and left, ten of the fifteen books, including the kiss-and-tell-all books about this administration, ten of the fifteen best-sellers are, in some sense, political books. That wasn't true for I don't know how long -- maybe not ever, I'm not sure.

The only comparison that one can make is that the right found an audience in opposition to government policy, and that seems to be what's going on right now.

Yes, that's right.

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© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California

See the American Empire Project at www.americanempireproject.com

See also the interviews with Chalmers Johnson (2004) and Noam Chomsky (2002)