Then you have people like our President who apparently actually says that God spoke to him, called him George, and said: ‘George, go invade Afghanistan.’ And God was apparently so happy with that he called him again and said: ‘George, go liberate Iraq.’ If you look at the facts of the case, you have to say either God was a terrible tactician or the President is a loony tune.
-- Larry Beinhart, Author of Salvation Boulevard and the book on which "Wag the Dog" is based.
We are great admirers of Larry Beinhart’s writing, including American Hero, which was reissued with the name of the movie that was made out of it, "Wag the Dog." ("Wag the Dog," is -- along with "The Candidate" –one of our favorite American political films.)
Beinhart generally writes fiction, but he also wrote the illuminating non-fiction commentary on the new alternative reality of "factoids," in a tome called Fog Facts. Fog Facts reflects on the issue of truth versus image, truth versus the repetition of lies that then is perceived as truth, truth versus personality – and all this ends up as the Fog Facts that we receive through the corporate media.
But in this interview, we talk about Beinhart’s ambitious mystery novel, Salvation Boulevard. We find it gripping, but with the twist that it’s a bit like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe in the midst of an investigation into the nature of how individuals of different faiths navigate their way through a murder.
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BuzzFlash: I’m talking with Larry Beinhart, author of Salvation Boulevard, which just came out. We last interviewed Larry in July of 2007.
Larry, my first question to you is what do you think about the McCain campaign so brazenly saying that the campaign is about image, not issues. What’s your reaction to what’s happening right now?
Larry Beinhart: Well, going back to "Wag the Dog," it’s reissued. It has a new introduction. The book is about reality as fiction.
I was watching Gulf War One on TV, the one that Bush the Elder did. And it looked to me like a made for TV movie. Real missiles were being fired, real people were dying, but the whole event seemed scripted.
So I wrote a book, as if someone like Spielberg had been hired to create a war that America could love so as to distract us from our domestic political issues. If you compare the narrative in the book, side by side with the narrative that we watched on TV, the one in the book makes more sense that the story that we were told was the reality.
By the way, one of the scenarios the director considers and discards in the book is a "War on Terror," with that title.
Then came the movie, "Wag the Dog."
The movie was about a fictional president creating the illusion of a war with media fakery. It’s very different from the book, but it was a terrific movie. It has aged very well. It put a whole new level of insight about narrative and war used as a political distraction into the world’s dialogue about war and politics. Yet, in the ten years since the book and the seven years since the movie, the gullibility and the credulity of the media and the public has only grown.
Along came Bush the Lesser; he wanted a war with Iraq. The reasons he gave were transparently bogus. Astonishingly easy to discredit. But the media, the congress, and the public, all stood up and cried, "Hoo-ah, Hoo-ah!" and off we went.
First there was a war.
Then there was a book.
Then there was a movie.
Now there is a war again. And at each step, we’ve gone further and further into fiction.
BuzzFlash: What we’re seeing happening now is what we’ve seen before. The McCain campaign is going to keep repeating the lie, figuring that in time, the corporate media will accept lies as truth. So if – let’s take on this bridge to nowhere issue, which has got some nuances. But basically does not reinforce the concept, when you look at the truth, that Sarah Palin is any sort of reformer or anti-earmark. She just – she was for the project and only dumped the project when the federal taxpayers weren’t going to pay for it. And she didn’t want Alaskan payers to pay for it. So she really just said if you’re not going to give us the welfare from the federal funding that the other 49 states – residents of the other 49 states will pay for it, I don’t want my people to pay for it. I want you to pay for it. That’s when she finally dropped it. But the McCain campaign is going to keep saying that she was always opposed to the Bridge to Nowhere.Larry Beinhart: What I think you have to do is to regard the media as a playing field. And like any other field, it’s essentially neutral. It has no opinions. It has no standards. Two teams come out and they put on whatever plays they can.
Larry Beinhart: If one side wants to play lies and the other side wants to play truth, they have to keep looking at the scoreboard and see what’s winning.
If lies are winning over truth, the people playing truth have got to figure out what to put on that playing field to alter it, to counter the lies. The field is not going to do it for you.
Part of the reason is that the way "objective journalism" is taught and practiced – and I know this because I took Journalism 101 when I was in college – you’re taught that what you’re supposed to do is you go out and get quotes from a member of team A and a member of team B.
Then you go A, B, A, B, A, B.
If you yourself decide that team A is lying, you as a reporter have no authority to say so. The most you can do is go out and find a member of team B to say that team A is lying. It’s as if there are no independent facts, no actual reality, just quotes from authoritative sources.
That’s beginning to change.
The NY Times won’t use the word lie. Just as they won’t use the word torture. But they ran a piece that said the McCain campaign was being genuinely inaccurate and misleading. Barbara Walters, on the View, stepped up to the plate, and used the "L" word, God bless her. She said that McCain’s ads, with, "I’m John McCain and I approved this message," were spreading lies, said it to his face and asked him why he was doing it.
Joe Klein in Time magazine called McCain sleazy. Andrea Mitchell on NBC, said one claim was "genuinely not true."
From what I know of journalism, they’re not really capable of doing that themselves. The Obama people – and there’s been some discussion of this – have been going to the media and saying this, that and the other is not true, here are the facts, and it is your job, emphasis on both your, and job, to say so.
The McCain campaign essentially has turned the Obama campaign inside out, all right? Running as candidates for change, which should be a joke. But they say it with fervor and enthusiasm. They present themselves as populists, people of the people. Stylistically they are. I think Palin genuinely is a Wal-Mart person. And if John McCain were broke, and not married to an heiress, he’d be a Wal-Mart person.
BuzzFlash: He’d probably be a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Larry Beinhart: That’s a lovely image.
In any case, they took over this change thing. They took over the let’s get someone who’s not an old white male into a position of almost political power, with Palin.
But they got a hell of a lot more out of that.
So Obama has got to come up with something to change their campaign to regain the advantage. He’s got a tough road to hoe because he’s got to overcome the, you know, 5-10-15% -- whatever that thing is – who will vote against him because he’s African American, which is something else we’re pretending to ignore.
So, yeah, to expect truth to speak for itself and to separate itself out of untruth and wrongs all by itself is ridiculous in the real world.
BuzzFlash: Let’s move on to Salvation Boulevard. First of all, I think that, in prepping for this interview, and even though I’ve interviewed you before and read your stuff, I didn’t realize that your first time out with a book, you won an Edgar Award, which is the most prestigious award for mystery writers.
What attracted you to the mystery genre?
Larry Beinhart: I enjoyed it. I used to read a whole lot of it. And so when I started writing – two things motivated me.
Number one. I read two mysteries in the same day. They were both really dreadful. And I had a revelation. The revelation was that if I wrote a book even if it was as bad as those were, I could get paid for it. I needed money at the time, so I said, hey, I can do that.
And secondly, a really fun thing about a mystery is that you can write about anything you want to. If you kill somebody on the first page and tell the reader that on the last page, you can tell them who done it, they’re saying, okay, I’ll take that trip with you. And then you can go anywhere you want. You can go horse racing; to ancient Rome, behind the Iron Curtain; with pirates in the Caribbean. You can go into a megachurch [as in Salvation Boulevard].
So between those two things – needing money and understanding that this was a vehicle that I could use to write about anything that interested me at the moment. And the third thing is I really enjoyed mysteries.
BuzzFlash: Often the best mysteries hook you from the beginning. And your first two sentences sure do. "Ahman looked like hell. He also looked like a kid." That’s a very good hook. In addition to Salvation Boulevard being a mystery, and clearly this is something you excel in, it’s a mystery that involves protagonists who each represent a major religion. How did you come to the idea to do that?
Larry Beinhart: Actually, this is my second pass at this book. I’d written it once before. And it didn’t really work. And it didn’t really work because the main character, the detective, was a neutral observer, watching other people’s issues about religion, other people caring about religion, other people’s anger at religion, other people’s arguments about religion.
And at some point, I realized that in order to make it work, I had to put a person of faith at the center of the book.
The narrator of the book is a born-again Christian and he is somebody who’s experienced that moment where he gives himself to Jesus. And that moment saves him from a life of despair and self-destruction and excess. And he feels that he owes this to a megachurch pastor, who is the kind of person secularists and atheists love to hate and ridicule.
To me, the mystery, the real mystery is about that – what does faith mean?
Why do people have it? Why would people kill and die for it? It is also about morality. Does faith make you a better person? You know, we have lots and lots of testimony that faith makes you a better person. And at the same time, we have lots and lots of scandals among people who are religious leaders. They sleep with their parishioners, lie, cheat and steal.
And we also have even more dramatically and more significantly, I think, people with religious faith who are willing to kill themselves just for the opportunity to kill people of another faith.
Then you have people like our President who apparently actually says that God spoke to him, called him George, and said: "George, go invade Afghanistan." And God was apparently so happy with that he called him again and said: "George, go liberate Iraq." If you look at the facts of the case, you have to say either God was a terrible tactician or the President is a loony tune.
BuzzFlash: Now the murder victim in Salvation Boulevard is an atheist.BuzzFlash:
The defendant is of the Islamic faith, and the defense attorney –
Larry Beinhart: Is Jewish.
BuzzFlash: You’ve got all the dynamics of the basic mystery. But here, you attach a religion to each of the main characters. It takes a lot of courage to do that as a writer, because it could easily just collapse like a soufflé because of the very ambitious notion.
Larry Beinhart: The book happens on two levels.
There’s an intellectual and theological level, and then there’s an action level.
I spent a long time on the intellectual and theological stuff, long before I actually, wrote this book – certainly before I wrote this version of the book.
But then when you sit down to write the book, there are imperatives of the craft that you have to respect, and you have to say to reduce all those thoughts and research to just enough to be clear, and include only that which motivates and shapes the actions.
Also, you can’t make the people cardboard cutouts who simply illustrate the theories. They have to be real people who are driven by certain ideas, ideologies and outlooks.
As a writer you have to sit there and work through what it would really be like to be a 21-year-old kid who was raised kind of lackadaisical Islam. And I’m at an American University, and there are cute blondes here, and I really want to be an American kid going out with those cute blondes, and suddenly I get arrested as an Islamic terrorist.
Who am I? What am I going to do?
I’m a Jew who happens to be a hot defense attorney with a bent for doing pro bono criminal cases because part of me is saying that the obscene amount of money I make defending drug dealers and gangsters does not satisfy my moral appetite. So I’m looking for something to work out the balance.
And there has to be some level in which the superstructure of your world view, which in – to many places, is religion – to many people, is religion – makes you do that, makes you that person who is going to behave in those kinds of ways.
There are really two stories here.
One story is the mystery tale about the case – that somebody’s accused. Did he really do it? If he didn’t do it, who really did? How are we going to find out? When we find out, what are we going to do about it? Okay, that’s one story that’s the main superstructure.
The other story is almost Biblical in the sense that we have two people – the atheist who happens to be dead, but he’s left a book. He’s left his words behind him. One thing we can learn from the Bible is that the words left behind by dead people have a great deal of power.
The other is the pastor who is a political and financial powerhouse. They see themselves as being in a war for souls.
In the book, they’re really fighting over one soul: That of the detective, the narrator. He’s the Job in the book.
They’re battling. Who is going to win the soul of this one guy?
He’s just trying to solve this murder case. But what’s happening is that he’s being drawn into what I regard as the great mysteries. Does God exist? Why do we believe? Why will people kill and die over this business of belief? And ultimately, what does it mean to be human in relation to these ideas of God? And so the book really is about his journey through this – and it’s a spiritual journey.
BuzzFlash: You said when you wrote it the first time around that the narrator was not a believer. He’s an observer, which is not an uncommon narrative technique. You yourself are a self-described unobservant cultural Jew, not a practicing believer. Aren’t you similar to the way you have Carl in the first book?
Larry Beinhart: I’m the atheist. When I killed the atheist, that was me killing myself. More so in the first draft, now I changed that character a lot, and killed a friend of mine who is much more appealing.
BuzzFlash: Or committing suicide, I guess.
Larry Beinhart: Yeah, killing one aspect of myself.
BuzzFlash: We’re in this age of where religion is playing a very prominent role in our national political life.
Larry Beinhart: In the world’s political life. We’re in a war against "Islamofascism." There is in reality a theological state in Iran. There are several states that are run on Sharia law. There are major Islamic-based political parties.
There are Islamic regions that are not yet theocratic states, but moving that way
The 21st Century is like a bad acid flashback of the 12th Century. Crusades. Holy wars. Heretics, civil wars between Shia and Sunni. I was in the Iran recently, and one of the most striking things that was visceral is the visceral hatred of Sunnis among Shia.
Here, the Republican Party, the ruling party, is the party of the religious right
So yes, the major political event of the 21st Century is the return of religion to political power.
BuzzFlash: But, mysteries are appealing in a way because they do have a sense of form and a sense of however skillfully they’re told that they’re leading toward a resolution. Faith, particularly absolute faith, whether it be Islam, Christian, Orthodox Judaism, is a way of dealing with the uncertainty of the world.
When you and I were growing up, there was much social thinking, that we were moving toward an age of less religion, that technology, in a way, would reduce the need for religious belief. But in some ways, it seems the more technologically advanced we’ve become, we have a certain group of people that have become more secular, less believing. On the other hand, there’s another group of people who have become more even entrenched religiously because in an uncertain world, absolute religion provides a refuge from a world without belief.
Larry Beinhart: The short answer is yes. The long answer is this: With the advance of science, two things happened.
One is the "truth claims" of religion were demolished one by one. You look at where God is supposed to be in heaven and find out there was no heaven there. Just vast amounts of space, empty space.
God was supposed to have created everything in seven days. We started doing geology, and we started looking at how long it takes to carve the Grand Canyon. Then you find these levels in the sediment. And we conclude that didn’t happen in seven days.
Then we came up with the theory of evolution.
The Bible makes it sound like all the species were created separately. All at once, except for man, but separately. So that doesn’t seem right either.
The "truth claims" were demolished, and religion became discredited at the same time.
Science created intellectual and technological for tools that allowed human beings to master their world and where there had been uncertainty, now there were new certainties, including being able to feed yourself next week.
Then science progresses and you go from the certainty into a whole new kind of uncertainty. This is quite vivid as you go from Newtonian physics, and suddenly what was supposed to be a solid – the smallest solid building blocks of the universe, the atom, which was considered back in Greek times – was considered to be solid.
Suddenly, atoms were mostly empty space and there were subatomic particles. Where things start getting really weird. You get into quantum weirdness. Electrons that are probability waves until you touch them and then they become particles. Electrons in an atom don’t actually have positions, they’re in a probability cloud.
What we want to really know is what does the world mean in relationship to ourselves. Not why is that star up there, but why is that star up there in my sky and what it mean about my life?
Suddenly science is saying it doesn’t mean anything in relationship to you.
The universe is so vast that it is necessarily indifferent to you. The universe is operating on principles that are beyond your imagination.
So science went right past the point where it was were supplying personal meaning. There was an intellectual and emotional reaction to that, to the new uncertainty. That’s part of why religion made a comeback.
BuzzFlash: There aren’t many writers that we come across that can handle what is a conventional form – such as a mystery—and yet you manage to include such large themes without taking away from the thrill of the conventional form. That is to say that a mystery is really a self-indulgence on all of our parts. It’s a world we enter where we go for some semblance of order, for surprise, for curiosity, trying to figure out what’s going on, the author always being one step ahead of us. And yet you’re also able to handle these enormous themes without becoming didactic or awkward or clumsy. Salvation Boulevard has got a sense of style that pulls the reader through the conventional mystery, but still weaves in these rather resonating religious/political issues, particularly when you have main characters representing major religions and issues of faith. I just want to congratulate you because in doing some background research in the book, I see that you’ve got it optioned as a film.
Larry Beinhart: Yes, that’s true.
BuzzFlash: And I hope it’s as successful as "Wag the Dog" was. I think there was tremendous acting in it. They certainly did credit to your book. And we recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about modern politics that depend upon narrative and imagery and alternative reality, and Madison Avenue sales techniques. We recommend reading your book version and, of course, Salvation Boulevard.
Larry Beinhart: Thank you. I want to say I love BuzzFlash. I really do. I start my day with you.
BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
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Salvation Boulevard featured on Larry Beinhart's website at: http://www.larrybeinhart.com/articles/node/5
Two autographed copies of Salvation Boulevard are available while they last at: http://www.buzzflash.com/store/items/1300
Unautographed copies of Salvation Boulevard are available at: http://www.buzzflash.com/store/items/1302