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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News, Entertainment, and Books

Help us understand what's going on in the world of publishing news and the link to entertainment. On one level, you have to say things are very bad these days -- the dumbing down of information, Fox News. We've gone from Eric Sevareid and Edward R. Murrow to O'Reilly and Company.

Or put another way, the latest poll on American attitudes toward al Qaeda and WMD in Iraq shows that no fewer people believe today that WMD were found in Iraq and that al Qaeda was linked to Saddam Hussein.

So they still believe it?

Yes, and at in almost exactly the same numbers as before the war.

Now, earlier you had offered a positive note, which is that books are getting published. So we have two elements on the table. How do these balance each other out, the very bad and the hopeful signs that you pointed to?

There's a complicated set of answers to this. The first thing is that if we were in normal times, I would be completely optimistic. I would say, "Look, as with the right, maybe it takes twenty, thirty years -- it takes a long time for something to build." But the real problem is the time in this world. Without being too apocalyptic (despite the title, The Last Days of Publishing, I'm only half an apocalypt), I think we have a limited amount of time to get ourselves together. I fear what a second Bush administration could do at every level. Normally, I would be optimistic. I would say things are developing in an interesting way, politically, for what I care about, particularly for an anti-imperial point of view on the world. On the other hand, they're not developing fast enough.

As far as books go, what I would say is this is an interesting development in the world of books, but one of the contradictions in the book world itself is that books are not a major entertainment media. Even a pop writer like Steven King -- you sell 3 million copies; that's a failed movie. And that's the top of the line. You start down that best-seller list, and you're very fast at 300,000, 200,000, 100,000. The problem is that these giant corporations would like books to be a major entertainment medium, and the problem with a book is that it's always a very difficult code to break.

I'm always reminded of a day when my wife and I were entertaining a friend, and our son walked in. He was maybe five or six. He said he wanted to read a book. He hadn't been reading at that point. We said, "Oh, yes, very nice." He had a little sixteen-page, four-line-a-page thing, and so we said, "Sure." And, by gosh, he sat down and he started reading this thing. Well, very charming for three minutes, but, you know, it took him ... we kept trying to stop him, and he wouldn't stop. It took him like twenty-five minutes to read this book, while our poor friend was sitting there! It was very educational for me because I realized by the time he was done, he looked like somebody who had gotten to the top of Everest without oxygen. And I realized reading is like birth, like labor. It's calisthenics. Your brain is like an Olympic gymnast.

We get so used to reading we don't think of what's involved, but it's an incredibly labor-intensive activity. It just can't be a mass phenomenon like turning on the TV. I'm a TV watcher, and even a sitcom you've got to watch a few times to get the rhythm, but with each book, except a series, you have to break the code. It might take a page or 300 pages, but you've got to literally break a code to get in; it's very labor-intensive. It makes it hard for books to compete in a certain way in this world.

Your other book is called The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation, book coverwhich is a descriptive account of how popular culture began to erode around certain themes of war and victory and so on, in part because of the Vietnam War and events after that. It would seem that 9/11 has brought us to a new place that doesn't reflect a lot of the positive movement that we had thought we achieved. Do you agree with that? And why do you think that happened? Was it the nature of the attack that we experienced, or the ability of the administration and its supporters to manipulate our understanding of what's going on?

I would say all of the above. And I would say, in addition, that what I find strange about this administration is that, with the exception of Colin Powell who was in the Vietnam War, almost all these guys -- the president, the vice president, who said he had better things to do during the Vietnam period, and most of the rest of them managed to avoid it. It's not just avoiding service in the war, they managed to avoid the period in some fashion.

My own feeling is that, like the president, they came out of that same experience I had in childhood of the post-World War II triumphalist, movie-theater glory of American war experience, which was powerful. (If I watch one of those movies it still sends chills up my spine when the Marines advance, and so on and so forth.) They arrived in office with those feelings still shining bright. They had missed everything that would have given a ballast to that story. So they're not just replicating what I came to call victory culture; there's almost something archaic about them, except, of course, they're running our government, you know? They would be very retro if they weren't there doing what they're doing. That's what I think, anyway; I don't know if that makes sense to you.

It does. And so the question becomes what, then, turns things around? You've indicated that we don't have a lot of time. There is some hope out there, but don't these ideas, these books, have to take the form of a real political opposition?

I don't think books, themselves, can take the form of a political opposition.

All I can do is speak for myself. In those months after 9/11, what I decided in my own mind, before I even knew what I was going to do ... I mean, I had been doing good works, and I felt good about my publishing and writing work over the years, but I've got two kids, and I couldn't bear the thought that I was passing this world on to my children without doing something more. So, first, I just had the urge to do almost anything. That resulted in TomDispatch by happenstance.

In addition, as I saw these guys setting these horrific agendas for the world, I had a small urge to just jump in myself, and I did this with a friend. Another editor and I had the same urge, we just thought, "Well, why shouldn't we set an agenda, too?" Of course, we're not megalomaniacs, we just thought, "Why shouldn't we make the attempt?" So we decided to create a book series called The American Empire Project, which is very specifically political. It's aimed at the American imperial stance in the world, which is the crucial thing we have to deal with, and it will be there whether it's Bush or Kerry. With homemade sign at an antiwar march, 2004I mean those 700 bases that Chalmers Johnson writes about in The Sorrows of Empires, and so forth.

I kind of do my thing. It keeps my spirits up. I try my damnedest. But can I tell you what we should do? I'll go out in the streets to demonstrate if it's an anti-war demonstration, I'll do whatever. I'm doing my small bit to help set an agenda, but can I claim that I honestly know what we should be doing? I know one very simple thing, which is right now, we have the greatest gamblers in American history in power. A second term for this administration would be terribly, terribly dangerous, and they do have to go. But whether they will go is another question. There's no question about that in my mind, that they are an immediate, immediate danger. And four more years could be truly disastrous.

How do you go about with this series? Do you go looking for authors, or do the authors come to you to implement this agenda?

We started off by looking. For me, there was some synergy with TomDispatch. An author I love is the Boston Globe columnist James Carroll. I had been sending around his outraged columns on Bush's "crusade," as he calls it, in the world, for quite a long time, and finally I contacted him and convinced him that he should, in fact, collect the columns, do a book, organize it, and so on and so forth. So one thing came out of another.

We're at the point now, we're at this moment, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for an editor like me, with these books. The first couple of books turned out to be ragingly successful. I've had successful books over the years, but they tended to be slowly successful. These couple have been ragingly successful, so it's interesting. If a salesman from our company calls me and says, "A book you just did sold 300 copies this week in hardcover," I go, "Oh, that's really wonderful." When people call and say that it sold 3,000, or 4,000, or 5,000, you go, "Oh ... !" So this has been an interesting experience.

So at this point, we're starting to have people coming to us, because already the series has a certain ... maybe some cachet or something.

So even in this media that has come to be dominated by companies that have huge conglomerates, even their making the buck allows for an opening to sell books. That as we're seeing that with the Clark book, the O'Neill book, and the Woodward book...

John Dean's new book.... The Woodward -- well, Woodward always does this, but, yes. So there's an opening. But the truth is that it wasn't so clear, when Holt took a chance on us, that this opening was there. Obviously, they hoped it was, because the point for them (not the point for me) is to make money.

So is the key here that the book resonates with the public and its confusion, or is it that your authors are getting on television and being reported? What is making the difference?

It's pretty clear what's making the difference: the Bush administration has mobilized its opposite -- or if not its opposite, it's mobilized a force in the nation. Again, you don't have to sell a lot of books to be successful, relatively speaking, but there are a growing number of people post - 9/11, a minority, but a growing minority, who are deeply disturbed, deeply unnerved, and want to understand how the world works. Books can offer frameworks for understanding the world in a new way.

If you think about this administration and our press, in the Cold War, in press terms, everything was globalized, everything was connected to everything else at an almost absurd level. So if there was a strike in Albania or an uprising in Uruguay, it was all connected to the Soviet Union, the United States, and the Cold War. Right? Now, here we are, and we have an administration that actually does connect all the dots. Their strategic thinking is sweeping. They see much of the world as a giant so-called "arc of instability," and running through that arc of lands, they see the energy lines.

They are an energy administration -- we have a national security advisor who had an oil tanker named after her! This is how they think, it's just second nature to them. They're thinking about energy flows -- not about taking Iraqi oil, but about how to manage the energy flows of the world. So they're connecting the dots. I mean, how many times has Donald Rumsfeld appeared in Kazakhstan? They're moving from place to place. At the same time, our press, in these same two years, has been almost completely demobilized, in the literal sense that you can read, until very recently, day by day, and not find an article in the United States in, say, the New York Times, one of the imperial papers, in which three countries are even mentioned together -- Iraq, but not Iraq and Iran; or Iraq and Iran, but don't mention Afghanistan and other countries. In the British press or other presses, people are trying to put the world together geopolitically. You can't find that here. Even in round-ups at the end of the year, you couldn't find this sort of thinking.

So we've had a demobilized press, and we've had an extremely geopolitically mobilized administration. What I see myself doing in a very, very teeny way, and also our book series doing, is trying to connect some of the dots that aren't being connected here, so you can possibly see how the world fits together in various ways.

Next page: Conclusion: Thoughts on Writing

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