"I think my main motivation was my children. By November 2001, I could see disaster coming. I thought of them and wanted to do something. The urge was to not pass this disaster on to my children. And it kind of took off from there.
"In the beginning I did sign 'Love, Tom' and still do when I send to web sites. That was always a natural way for me to sign things."
- Tom Engelhardt in the interview below
Readers of Truthout will be familiar with the well-constructed, finely edited, more expansive than "byte-sized truth" essays produced a few times a week by the "cooperative venture of friends, colleagues, and e-acquaintances" that TomDispatch has become. In a bloviating world, Tom Engelhardt eschews "endless yak and insult" to promote the creation of context, to "connect the dots" in an elegant, factually rich way so that readers can see "how this imperial globe of ours actually works."
But you may not be aware that those essays come to Truthout signed "Love, Tom" or that the initial impetus for the enterprise was also love: that urge to leave a better world for his children than the one he finds himself in, to create a better world through the tool he knows and loves and respects, the written word.
Against a "faith-based administration," [of which] "the most fundamental belief [is] the efficacy of force," Tom and his colleagues and cohorts deploy the weapons of careful research, telling anecdote, counter-factual thought experiments, discrimination in the best sense of the term, insight and synthesis. While Tom Engelhardt eschews the sound bite, the essays he pilots abound in the telling formula, the poetic, heuristic, or just plain hilarious phrase that brilliantly illuminates some dark and mostly unexamined corner of our universe.
(Photo: Regents of the University of California)
Last week, a collection of thirty-three of those essays originally published on the TomDispatch site between 2004 and 2007 was published by Verso as "The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire." The quondam dispatches are grouped under wonderful topical headings that highlight what Tom Engelhardt cheerfully calls his "obsessions:"
â€¢ How It All Began - two mind-bending perspectives on 9/11.
â€¢ Imperial Planet - a series of essays on the theme of empire snatched and almost-simultaneously squandered.
â€¢ Invisible Victims of the "War on Terror" - articles that chronicle the suffering of the people who do not count for the US mainstream media and have not been counted.
â€¢ Under the Bombs - a few essays deconstructing the myth of "surgical strikes."
â€¢ The Petro-Industrial Complex and Its Discontents - several pieces on our unsustainable addiction to oil, including one of my personal favorites, Chad Heeter's arresting "My Saudi Arabian Breakfast," which counts up the oil content of typical yuppie morning fare, as well as powerful offerings by Michael Schwartz, Michael Klare, Mike Davis and Bill McKibben.
â€¢ Name That War - a trio of brilliantly ironic pieces on "George Bush's War of Words" that includes Mark Danner's entertainingly grim, "Words in a Time of War: Taking the Measure of the First Rhetoric-Major President."
â€¢ Bringing It All Back Home - a stark look at the result of this administration's policies domestically.
â€¢ Back to the Future? - "Katrina Started At Ground Zero" and "On Not Forgetting New Orleans," a pair of suggestive essays from, respectively, David Rosner and Gerald Merkowitz and Rebecca Solnit that remind us (in Solnit's words) that "The spectacle of suffering and squalor of crowds trapped without food, water, or sanitation in sweltering heat that so transfixed the nation was the result, not just of incompetence, but of malice." Malice we can expect to continue to harm Americans as well as hapless foreigners as long as a deliberately ineffective federal administration is in place.
(Although I had already read almost all of these essays over the last four years plus, rereading them in this format really clarified the contours of those missing stories for me, providing an unsettling chronicle of the last five years I want to share with my children and grandchildren, and reminding me of how much of my own worldview I have come to owe to Tom Engelhardt and his friends. It is a treasury of insight and an enduring collection of peculiar and unsettling love letters. - TO/lt.)
(All quotes not otherwise attributed in this review are from Tom Engelhardt himself in his book, "The World According to TomDispatch.")
Text of June 9, 2008, interview with Tom Englehardt:
Truthout: I love your description of TomDispatch as "the sideline that ate my life." Could you describe how that happened? And am I mistaken or did you not sign all your early dispatches "Love, Tom?"
Tom Engelhardt: The site started a few months after 9/11 and although I consider myself a reasonably sophisticated human being, I had a relatively naive response to 9/11. I was hoping; I thought, "Maybe this will open us up to the rest of the world?" And it took me a little while to grasp that it had done the opposite, that it had closed us down, that there were these repetitive rites in which we celebrated ourselves as the ultimate victims, survivors and dominators, rites that left no role for anyone else in the world but ultimate evildoer. And then the Bush administration grabbed the event and began to run with it in a catastrophic way. I'm a news jockey; I've read the newspapers carefully my whole life and was horrified by the mainstream media reporting and its failure to connect the dots.
Now I'm almost 64; seven years ago I was remarkably techno-ignorant. I sent a piece about what it meant to bomb rubble - because that's what Afghanistan already was when we invaded in 2001 - to about 12 friends and family with a "You must read this" subject line. I was so unfamiliar with the Internet, I didn't even know how to shield the names. I began to send more pieces, more of my own commentary, and through the magic of the Internet, more and more people wanted to get on my list and at that point Ham Fish of The Nation Institute suggested we put my unnamed e-list up as a web site, as, in fact, TomDispatch.com.
Even as a book editor, which is what I've been for 30-odd years, I always looked for what I liked to say were "voices from elsewhere - even when the elsewhere was here." The same was true as I began posting original pieces at TomDispatch that offered insight into those subjects that form my own obsessions.
I think my main motivation was my children. By November 2001, I could see disaster coming. I thought of them and wanted to do something. The urge was to not pass this disaster on to my children. And it kind of took off from there.
In the beginning I did sign "Love, Tom" and still do when I send to web sites. That was always a natural way for me to sign things.
Truthout: The introduction to "The World According to TomDispatch" sets the goal for the book, as well as for your web site, of reframing "a familiar, if shook-up world that was being presented in a particularly limited way by the mainstream media." Later, it refers to a "running catalogue of missing stories." Would you review what you think the biggest of those missing stories is now and how those stories have changed over time?
Tom Engelhardt: These are the TomDispatch obsessions. One example, without which the whole Iraq story makes absolutely no sense and which has barely been covered in the mainstream media apart from one big New York Times story back in April 2003, are the five to six mega-bases we've built in Iraq. These bases are 15-20 miles around, contain 20,000-40,000 soldiers, military contractors, service personnel and other people. They have PXs and big-name fast-food franchises. They're multibillion-dollar small American towns, created through state-of-the-art engineering. One early source for me was an issue of an engineering magazine from October 2003 in which the Army Corps of Engineers officer tasked with overseeing the bases proudly talked about how the Pentagon had already spent several billion dollars on them. This issue is very germane today because Bush is trying to organize a Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq - essentially a treaty, but they won't call it that because they don't want to send it to the Senate for ratification - enshrining American control of these bases more or less permanently. If you don't grasp the permanence of what we've already done in Iraq, you can't talk about what our realistic options are in the future.
Another missing story is this canard that is now current that people of goodwill could not have foreseen the catastrophe that was coming with the Iraq war. Paul Bremer, Richard Perle and the rest of the crew that instigated the war and occupation were asked by The New York Times to reconsider what had gone wrong on the fifth anniversary of the invasion; that was The Times's "answer" five years later: "No one could have known." But plenty of people foresaw what was coming, an estimated 11-30 million people poured into streets around the world to protest the invasion before it was launched. They might not have been able to articulate the particulars, but they sensed that there was going to be a catastrophe. Remember those people holding up signs: "No blood for oil." They were mocked at the time and, right as they were, they're largely forgotten in the mainstream today.
Iraq's oil is, of course, another missing story. It was somehow so embarrassing to mention in the days before and immediately after the invasion, that doing so would undermine a media outlet's credibility. I used to like to say that if Iraq's major product had been video games, there would have been scores of front-page stories fretting about the implications of our invasion on the US video game market and of Iraqi video games' effects on American teenagers, but about oil there was this curious, embarrassed silence.
Of course, the Iraq invasion was an overdetermined event. There wasn't just one reason for it, but can there be any question that oil was a significant part of the equation? TomDispatch has been covering the oil story from the beginning.
Truthout: What were your principles for selection and the order of presentation for the current anthology?
Tom Engelhardt: When I was going through the pieces, what really surprised me was how well all these essays held up - and this is sad, really - because so many of the stories TomDispatch took up remain painfully underreported. When it was decided to publish the book, I made a list of maybe 20 stories off the top of my head. Basically, my impulse was to indicate how many missing stories remain in our world.
I wanted to show as well - I'm not a journalist; in what passes for real life I'm actually a book editor; In TomDispatch terms, I'm really just a guy in a room - that there are genuine advantages to being just that, and so not subject to the journalists' equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome. I wanted to show how using all sorts of sites on the Internet, and, of course, also stories that appear in the mainstream press, and with the help of your pals, you could avoid getting lost tree by tree in the forest and, instead, see it as a whole.
The pieces I selected present a partial history of these sad times and represent my own obsessions. I see the book as a little first-run alternate history of this period.
And if I were to say TomDispatch was any one thing, I would say it was anti-Empire, anti-imperial.
As it happened, it also has turned out to be about the decline of American power, about how the fervent, fundamentalist blindness of the Bush administration, their misreading of the nature of power in our world, has actually accelerated our decline and the rise of a more multi-polar world. How the greatest, most shock-and-awesome military machine on the planet was stopped in its Humvee tracks by ragtag insurgencies in two wretchedly poor countries.
Truthout: With respect to this over-arching theme of Imperial America and unipolarity, I would hope we are preaching to the choir, but could you nonetheless expound briefly on what's wrong with empire and imperial thinking?
Tom Engelhardt: To be an empire means to have the urge to dominate, to make other people lesser. Throughout modern history, there have been a few imperial mindsets in which the imperial power wanted to dominate and made no bones about it - the Nazis, for example. The urge to dominate is debilitating. It means you're acting in relatively horrific ways. Generally people want to think well of themselves. So most empires, notably including our own, are characterized by a series of terrible acts of domination covered up with a series of beautiful words - in our case, the freedom and democracy we are supposedly bringing to the world - in the case of the Bush administration, at the point of a sword. And I have absolutely no doubt that Bush and others believed that they were indeed bringing democracy to the world and when the voting didn't turn out the way they wanted it to, well, that wasn't really democracy, so they made the necessary adjustments.
If empire were a cigarette pack, I'd put a huge surgeon general's warning on it: "Empire is bad for your health." Empire and democracy, empire and justice, empire and - dare I say it - freedom, just don't go together.
Truthout: So how do we get away with one-way thinking? So many of the book's essays, like Noam Chomsky's delightful, "What If Iran Had Invaded Mexico?" are exercises in imagination, thought-experiments to allow Americans to see things from other people's perspectives. When and how do you think we went from rooting for the underdog to being a bully? How is it that we do not understand "coercive democracy" as an oxymoron?
Tom Engelhardt: I think I'll have to skip this one because it would require a complete, telescoped American history lesson, including the initial urge to expand, Manifest Destiny, etc. When any empire writes its accounts of itself, there will always be rationalizations.
Of course, in our case, there's always been another part of the American tradition. After all, we started off, in part, as anti-imperialists against one King George, even if we ended up under another in our own time.
Even though we began garrisoning the world in a major way after World War II, I still grew up in the 1950s with a sense of another possible America. Generally, I suspect, young people have much less sense than they used to of the more democratic idea of America, and so much less faith in the very idea of government. It's not surprising. After all, we remain in the heart of an empire on an only slightly less one-way planet.
One of the problems with one-way thinking is that we absolutely need these thought-experiments you refer to: Most of us don't even think about what it means to send Predators or Reapers (what a name!) - unmanned aerial vehicles - over various places to shoot off their Hellfire missiles at what's below. And even when the story comes out that it's some peasant you've hit, not the "terrorist" you theoretically aimed at, well that's "just collateral damage." And we always "regret" that. When you reverse that scenario and imagine it happening to us, Iranian pilotless drones over Southern California towns, you can see it's a nightmare and people are horrified. The US would declare war if such a thing happened to us.
Unfortunately, in our world, that reversal just doesn't work most of the time. It seems too unimaginable. You can't imagine the reverse of CIA Director Michael Hayden - as was reported last year - testifying before a Congressional committee and saying, "Good news! We're finally having some success infiltrating our spies into Iran." You can't imagine Ahmadinejad or the head of the Iranian secret services announcing to the Iranian press: "Good news! We've finally got our guys inside the power corridors of Washington!" Yet, when Hayden does just that in reverse, nobody blinks. Nobody thinks it's strange. And that's the degree to which our imperial view of how the world works is embedded in our national consciousness.
Truthout: In your interview with Sari Gelzer in December 2006, you talked about the impact of "not just TomDispatch.com, but Truthout, CommonDreams, AlterNet, Juan Cole's Informed Comment, and Antiwar.com, among many others" in informing people of facts and events not covered by the mainstream media, in creating context for what was reported. Do you never get discouraged that we-the-people who now have all this information seem to have done so little with it?
Tom Engelhardt: Well, I think I would answer that in a couple of ways. In my work as an editor, I edited some of the later books of Studs Terkel, especially his oral history of hope, "Hope Dies Last." It was really an oral history of activists. In bad times, to feel hopeful, after all, you have to act. That's what I learned from Studs. That act can be very small - you just have to take a step in a certain direction - and you create a feeling of hope, and for me, TomDispatch was that act. I find that the act of doing TomDispatch makes me more hopeful, and I assume doing things for Truthout makes you more hopeful.
I'm very influenced by the writers I post at the site, and the writer who has written about hope for TomDispatch is Rebecca Solnit. She first got to me - and changed the way I think about the world - with a piece written just over a month after the Bush administration had launched its invasion of Iraq and the huge antiwar protesters had packed their bags and gone home in despair. It was called "Acts of Hope" and ultimately became her book, "Hope in the Dark." In that piece, she argued that history isn't like a game of checkers, but like the weather: only years later can you see what impact acts of protest may have had. You never know what your effect is and so, rather than being too discouraged, it's simply better to act. If you do nothing, after all, you're more or less guaranteed no effect.
I've written at great length about why more Americans aren't out in the street. Perhaps, I've speculated, in this age of outsourcing and privatization, even protest is outsourced. But at some level, I just refuse to be discouraged. I could offer you as gloomy a set of scenarios as you can imagine, especially since the issue underlying all others is climate change and the linked crises of food and fuel. The world as we know it could disappear within our children's or grandchildren's lifetimes, but I do my part.
Truthout: How do we make this administration and our rulers generally less impermeable to outside pressure? How did they achieve this extraordinary impermeability?
Tom Engelhardt: In the sixties, we still thought that an American government should be listening to us and, in fact, we now know that, secretly, they actually were. Nixon, even holed up in the White House, was listening, but these guys simply are not and we no longer believe that they listen to us and that belief has had a role in essentially emptying the streets.
Truthout: You introduce the book with an anecdote about a satirical piece you ran that readers responded to as though it were real and you comment, "You couldn't out-absurd this administration." We have had similar experience with satire at Truthout and I wonder what's going on. Have Americans lost their sense of humor or have we lost a common language?
Tom Engelhardt: All you have to do is watch Jon Stewart at night to know that we've done anything but lose our sense of humor. And his "Daily Show" actually manages at the same time to give you more real news than the real news.
I wrote that phrase apropos of a little imaginary alphabet book I had put together modeled on Maurice Sendak's "Alligators All Around." I claimed, absurdly enough, that George W. had actually written it and I introduced it as a leaked manuscript. I was trying to use this conceit to make some comments about what the Bush administration was doing. I was stunned when some perfectly sensible people took it seriously and wrote that it was a forgery or that George Bush couldn't possibly have written it, it had been done by the CIA, and so on My conclusion from the episode was that the Bush administration was so extreme in its acts, you almost couldn't suggest anything - however extreme - (unless you'd labeled your whole site "satire") that some people wouldn't mistake for reality - and, given George W., you couldn't exactly blame them.
When you read TomDispatch, even though I no longer do full-scale satirical pieces, I do use humor. Everything that happens in this world is an exchange of energy, and no matter how grim your subject, writing is a particularly weird and powerful exchange of energy. Part of what draws you through something written about a particularly grim subject is pleasure, the electricity, in the experience of reading. I don't write grimly about grim subjects.
Another thing about TomDispatch is that I would hope you would never walk away from a TomDispatch piece without some new information. It's not just idle opinion. In every piece, our goal is to add some new and significant information.
Truthout: I thought it was wonderfully gracious that you referred to your readers' letters as "the university of my later life ..."
Tom Engelhardt: The fabulous part of the Internet for me is that people write me from all over the world, from places that you wouldn't imagine, people you wouldn't imagine: federal prosecutors, State Department officials, soldiers, a convoy commander in Iraq, people from small towns across America. People proofread my pieces just after the fact and save me from stupidities; write me about their life stories; send links to articles they think I should read. People let me into their lives. On and off, I've corresponded with an Iraqi woman in exile. It's just an enormous privilege to be let into worlds I would never have thought about, into perspectives I would never have imagined. I cannot answer everything I receive, though I try when not swept away, but I do read everything and am deeply honored that people write me.
Truthout: My background is in economics and I am particularly concerned about the decoupling of democracy and "free" markets we see now in China, and in the US. If capitalists believe they can thrive without democracy, they will dispense with it. And the world of no-bid cost-plus is not a free-market world even, but replicates the crony capitalism we criticized in newly "free" Russia or even pre-revolutionary tax farming and monopoly dispensation in France. The basis for competition becomes the ruler's favor and not competence. How do we stop the looting? It seems like it's out in plain view.
Tom Engelhardt: I'm decent at offering a framework for looking at the world, but I tend not to like to suggest what should be done. I don't think my response has any particular value in this context. Of course, we document the looting at TomDispatch. It's up to you (and to me) to figure out what to do about it.
Truthout: You and Nick Turse have described the DoD's infiltration of daily life over and over again - advance planning for the future, high-tech gadgetry - but then there is this complete disconnect between this kind of planning for the future and an armed forces that uses 16 gallons of oil per soldier per day. Are we getting any value for all the money and resources being poured into "defense?"
Tom Engelhardt: One focus of TomDispatch has been the wholesale, but strange, militarization of our society. And that's a big missing story in itself. It's too recent to be in the book, but I asked Frida Berrigan and Bill Hartung, who are military experts at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, to look into what we're getting for our money. I've long been worried about the future, about the Bush dream of a Pax Americana abroad and Pax Republicana at home, which has, in fact, achieved quite the reverse. In their dream of an ascendant US in the world and an ascendant Republican Party at home they have, in essence, failed. However, what the Bush administration didn't fail to do was to embed certain things in our lives it will be almost impossible to unbuild, such as the second DoD, the Department of Homeland Security. I'm 63 and I don't expect to see a United States without it in my lifetime. I don't even think it will be easy for the next president to do something as apparently simple as close Guantanamo. So one of the largest things George W. and his wrecking crew have done in our world is create this bloated Department of Defense. As part of a series we'll be running on the Pentagon, Frida wrote a piece on seven aspects of Pentagon expansion in the last seven-plus years. The DoD has essentially taken over what passes for diplomacy; it's a major arms dealer; it's taken over much of intelligence, etc. Every major paper in the United States has a correspondent or two at the Pentagon, but the militarization of our society and garrisoning of the planet are only reported piecemeal. You won't find the sort of overview that I've posted at TomDispatch, even though it seems the most obvious of Bush legacy stories to me. Frida Berrigan's piece, I think, was probably the first full-scale look at the major aspects of the Pentagon's expansion. You can't find a front page story, let alone a television report, on this subject and yet it's the most obvious thing the Bush administration will leave us with and, ultimately, it will prove to be one of the most debilitating.
Truthout: The use and abuse of language is one of the overarching themes of both your site and "The World According to TomDispatch" and you refer to the ancient Chinese practice of the rectification of names in the October 2006 piece, "Bush's War of the Words." What do you see as the power - and the powerlessness - of language?
Tom Engelhardt: I've always said that, as with the infamous torture memos that came out of the Bush Justice Department, this administration always reached for its dictionaries first (and then its six guns). Possibly the worst of all the many dreadful coinages of the Bush years is this awful word "homeland," with its many dubious connotations and un-American resonance.
I fear it may never be banished from our language, but that would be a good start in the rectification of names.
But ultimately, how much can happen? This is just one book from a small press. How much can it do to push things along?
Whatever happens, though, I'll just keep chugging along.