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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Going Online

One of the interesting things about that right-wing audience right now is that categories are being scrambled. I feel this on my TomDispatch website. In the sixties (not that there could have been a website, but if I had done whatever the equivalent would have been), I would have had one specific, relatively narrow audience, a so-called left audience. Now, the people who write in are often genuine conservatives, Southern conservatives, people who just are anti-imperial. Libertarians, conservatives -- there's a lot of overlap between certain parts of the left and right. Fear of big government and genuine anti-imperial feelings, the fear of loss of liberties. The difference is, of course, you're getting into bed with someone who is packing a pistol, if you're me. And I don't mind doing that, I don't mind!

Just to change things ...

Yeah. Yeah, I'm very ecumenical. Some of my stuff from TomDispatch now gets put up at LewRockwell.com or libertarian sites. It's quite fascinating. I feel like we're in a new world.

Let's have our audience understanding better what it is you're now doing online. You produce several times a week an online newsletter of opinion, commentary; some of it from the opinion columns of others, but a lot of it your own writing. It is an online item, which you do yourself. Tell us a little about your goal, what you're trying to achieve.

It's www.TomDispatch.com. What I should really tell you is how it happened, because I stumbled into it. I mean, I'm fifty-nine years old, I'm much too old for the world I'm in.

The world of computers ...

The world of computers, the internet. At the point when 9/11 happened, I had barely gotten on e-mail. I did not know you could go and read magazines or newspapers from anywhere in the world online; I really knew nothing. But I had a very naïve reaction to 9/11. Given who I am, looking back, it was a very naïve reaction. I felt that perhaps the horror of 9/11 might actually open Americans up to the state of things in the rest of the world. After two months of watching what to my mind added up to endless rites in which we were the world's greatest survivor, victim, and dominator, and left only the role of evil to the rest of the world, and watching the mainstream media coverage around this, I suddenly stumbled online and discovered that you could go and read the Manchester Guardian or Asian Times, that there were all these voices out there, like the voices I had been publishing for years, voices from elsewhere, and that they had different stories to tell. Without even knowing what I was doing, I started sending out to a little e-list. You know, a few friends ...

So a clipping service, almost.

Yes, it was a clipping service, exactly, with one line on the top, "You should read this," to a few friends and relatives -- most of my relatives jumped off, either bored or angry, very fast. But I kept doing it. I've been working for so many years with interesting people, I've been thinking about this a lot, I've written about the Cold War in America and triumphalism. I had a bunch to say. I started writing at the top of these articles I was passing out, and people started jumping on. Journalists started jumping on.

Onto the mail list ...

Onto the mailing list. They would just write in. I never did anything.

Hamilton Fish runs the Nation Institute, which is connected to The Nation magazine; he suggested that this be put online as a service. At that point, I was sending it out to 350 or 400 people, and it's now a service I use. Chalmers Johnson and a lot of authors I work with write pieces for me. Various people I've stumbled across: Rebecca Solnit sent in a wonderful piece; she writes like an angel, and now she writes for me on globalization and other issues; John Dower, Mike Davis, names that you would know, they write pieces for me. I do introductions. And then also, a couple of times a week, I do my own dispatches, where I wander the web daily for hours, and I put together, in essence, another view of the world ... how Iraq is dissolving, or the Bush assault on the environment, or whatever it might be, with a lot of places you can go to check it out. It's kind of like doing large op-eds with suggested links. It's an antidote to the mainstream media.

What kind of audience do you have now, do you know?

This is the fascinating thing about the internet. I now have over 8,000 subscribers who get these dispatches every couple of days. But [you can] visit it without subscribing. There are endless send-ons from it. This is part of taking back the Word. It's a very powerful thing. People don't want to introduce their friends to my website, they want to take something I've written and three other things, and send them on to their own list of friends, so this is a very powerful thing. I think it's wonderful. So you can't even count. I have a historian friend, for instance, who passes my stuff on to eighty to a hundred people regularly.

My stuff now gets posted all over the web, and sometimes it even gets printed up in the mainstream press. Although a lot of journalists read the site now, there's a real disjuncture between what's happening on the web and what's happening in the media. I was at a media conference on Iraq recently. I was the only person there representing the internet, and people kept saying, "Colin Powell gave his UN speech, and one year later you get your first critique in the New York Times. " And I would say, unless you've been on the internet, in which case if you went to Foreign Policy in Focus (that's a website), Steven Zunes did it one month later. Or the Niger yellowcake story: I had it before the war because Congressman Waxman had posted it at his website, and nobody was paying any attention except me. So on the web there's an increasing world of sites which are maintaining a different view of the world -- and it's a better informed view of the world, largely -- on a shoestring.

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© Copyright 2004, Regents of the University of California

See Tom Engelhardt's website/weblog: TomDispatch.com

See also the interview with Ambassador Joseph Wilson (2004) for his thoughts on the alleged Niger "yellowcake" uranium shipment to Iraq