On Not Packing Your Bag and Heading Home When Things Go Wrong

Part II: Sometimes the important thing is to just close your eyes and try.

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[Note to readers: In part 1 of this interview, Reading the Imperial Press Back to Front, Tom Engelhardt offered his thoughts on how the mainstream media works, among other matters. Here, in the second part of his discussion with Nick Turse, he turns to his life at Tomdispatch. The interview is by way of announcing that all the interviews he’s done so far for his site are being collected in a paperback book to be published by Nation Books this October. It will be entitled Mission Unaccomplished, Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters and I’ll urge it on you at the proper moment. This interview will end the book.]

Nick Turse: The site has become home to diverse voices. What makes a Tomdispatch writer? Is there a defining trait you’re looking for?

Tom Engelhardt: I can only explain this with an image. When I was young, we kids would go hunting for clams with our toes. The question naturally was: How do you know what a clam feels like? Of course, nobody can tell you. You just feel around until, amid the empty shells, stones, and live crabs sooner or later you hit a clam. Then you know.

Ditto Tomdispatch writers. Ditto how I operate in life. Many Tomdispatch writers I already knew. I had edited their books. Tomdispatch is a non-submission site, because I’m the only one answering the mail and I’m usually working another job or two. I just can’t deal.

The real adventure of my site, by the way, is all those e-letters pouring in. This wows me. I check the site e-mail and there’s a convoy commander from Iraq telling me about his experiences, or an anti-imperial conservative from some southern state, or residents of small towns all over America.

In the nineteenth century, people fled small towns for the big city. Now, when they feel isolated, they flee onto the Internet looking for company. So I get letters regularly from people who sign off with the name of a town in Kansas or Montana or Texas, and in parentheses maybe, “pop. 250.” Sometimes, they’ll add something like: “From Red State Hell.” Wonderful letters from people I would never in a million years meet: Iraqi exiles, Germans who want to tell me about our President, an American ex-pat in Athens who let me know that a Greek college student had recommended the site to him. Imagine that!

I try to reply to everything, at least a few words. But every now and then I get an e-letter where I just go: Wow, I have to do something with this! So here’s an example of how a Tomdispatch writer got started. Elizabeth de la Vega had just retired as a federal prosecutor when she wrote in. She had a few kind words about the site, but mainly she wanted to offer some comments on a piece I had posted on the Plame case. Well, I doubt I had gotten a letter from a federal prosecutor before, and her Plame comments were riveting.

When I have the urge to use something written privately to me, I respond quite diffidently. I don’t want to pressure anyone into making private comments public. But I did ask her about writing hers up. She replied that she’d never written anything other than a prosecutor’s brief before, but that she’d try — and she was a natural. She’s been writing for the site ever since.

Stumbling across someone like her, it’s part of what makes life fun for me.

NT: Any idea who the typical Tomdispatch reader is?

TE: Based on those letters, including periodic waves of hate mail from Bush people — though they’ve been quiet of late — I suspect the readership is a lot broader than the alternate press version of Tomdispatch would have been back in the sixties, my other moment of activism. Of course, those years weren’t what we now believe them to be either. All through that period, for instance, I was involved with dissident GIs, even though the history books tell us we didn’t have anything to do with each other.

But the wonderful thing about the Internet is that you can’t know who your audience is. Not really. I mean, we know Tomdispatch has about 17,500 subscribers, who get free email alerts notifying them that a piece has been posted. Those pieces then get picked up and reposted by all sorts of sites. Some give me figures; some don’t even have them.

Then there are the little blogs that pick up the pieces and just bounce them around, and then there are the personal pass-ons and e-lists like Tomdispatch was before it had a name. I get letters all the time saying, I pass your stuff on to fifty or one hundred friends, relatives, workmates. I figure anything I post is read by at least 75,000 to 100,000 people and that’s probably conservative.

People write in corrections, appreciated because both of us are lousy proof-readers; they also write strong critiques and sometimes very angry letters. They order me to write shorter, to stop being such a know-it-all. People regularly tell me things I simply must do. You’ve got to cover the real story about hidden American casualties in Iraq! They don’t realize that we’re the only ones here. You and I joke sometimes: Yes, I’m sending my crack Tomdispatch team to Germany immediately to check it out!

Generally, though, I just look at the world as best I can, put my fingers on the keyboard, and bam! The amazing thing is that most of my life I’ve been such a slow writer. Give me a four thousand-word assignment and I could still be in knots a month later.

Now, four thousand words can come out in twenty-four hours. If I were religious, I would say I was possessed and the next question would be: Whose voice am I channeling? In fact, I know it’s mine in some grim moment weirdly made for me. If I ever had two seconds to go back to writing fiction — because doing my novel, The Last Days of Publishing, was one of the quiet joys of my life — I might write about possession.

NT: How do you define what you do at Tomdispatch? Are you a news editor, a journalist, a commentator, or an Internet activist?

TE: Except in a couple of very limited circumstances, I don’t pretend to be a journalist at all. Every now and then, I go to some event — I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor — and essentially ask people why they’re there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets. That’s the nature of journalism, really.

So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect. In those moments, I do think of myself as some kind of citizen journalist.

I’m always fascinated by how comfortably we humans hold complex and contradictory views without being too bothered. I don’t find it odd, for instance, that the neocons or Bush administration people thought they were manipulating us and also believed in many of the things they were being so Machiavellian about. Yet most people prefer either/or. Either they were manipulating us or they were true believers.

Here’s what marks me as not a journalist: I can go to the event, but I can’t go back the next day. I don’t have the psychic energy. I find approaching strangers too hard.

As for the site, someone else should tell me what it is and what I am.

NT: All right, but I’m going to try to pin you down on some definitions anyhow. You came of age in the heyday of the New Left and the turbulence of the sixties. Politically and ideologically, how did you define yourself then, and how about today?

TE: In the sixties I was still such an American kid. I grew up dreaming of doing exactly two things. I wanted to go into government service, the State Department, and become a diplomat. I didn’t know they basically didn’t take Jews. And then there was a journalist, a friend of my parents named Robert Shaplen, who wrote about Vietnam for the New Yorker. He had that reportorial tough-guy, weathered look to him, but he was sweet as hell to me when I was a kid. I admired him greatly and dreamed about being him.

Journalism or diplomacy, either way I would serve my country. That feeling held deep into the sixties, even though Vietnam began making me really angry. As Iraq drives some people today, Vietnam drove me — right into a kind of unexpected opposition, starting in maybe ’65. In ’64, I was still half-defending the war, or at least the so-called peace candidate, Lyndon Johnson, against Barry Goldwater. I was shocked when, after the election, Johnson turned out to be such a warmonger.

By ’67, I had really moved. In ’68, I turned in my draft card, began doing draft counseling. But — and this is the complexity of human beings — in the midst of it all, I also wanted out of graduate school and applied to the USIA [United States Information Agency]. A propaganda outfit. I told them I wouldn’t go to Saigon. A hopeless thought, actually. I could read French and was studying Chinese. It was like having a bull’s-eye on my forehead, but I was dreaming of someplace like Brazil where I would present my country in a better light.

And then they accepted me! But the vetting process took so long that, by the time they made the offer, I couldn’t imagine doing it. Still, as late as 1968, I wasn’t quite either/or yet. The rest of the sixties, by which we usually really mean the early seventies, I defined myself as on the left. Later, through another series of happenstances, I settled into normal life as a book editor and?

NT: [He laughs] ?joined the establishment.

TE: I became established in any case.

NT: And now?

TE: We’re in such a weird time and the Internet is such a strange beast. Leftists, rightists? I deal, for instance, with some great anti-imperial libertarians who fear what’s happening to our civil liberties and are upset about our imperial course, and on that we agree.

In fact, as I age and watch the Bush administration wreak havoc on the planet, I’ve come to think of myself as more conservative, in the literal sense of conserving what’s human and valuable; in the sense of seeing things in the world I came out of worth conserving that are being frittered away? no, thrown to the winds by these alien people who run this eerie thing they call our “homeland.” But, of course, the word “conservative” has already been appropriated by people I can’t abide.

In a funny way, I probably define myself less and less, and yet, put my fingers on a keyboard, and I know what I think. And if you read Tomdispatch, you’ll know too.

NT: So is Tomdispatch providing a service to the country?

TE: When I interviewed Ann Wright, one of three State Department diplomats who resigned in protest as the invasion of Iraq rushed toward us — a brave act — I asked her what she thought her military and State Department careers and her anti-war activism had in common. “Service to America,” she said. And here was the thing, I had written the word “service” next to the question beforehand. So I replied, “Hey, I knew you were going to say that,” and I showed her. I’ve come to feel particular sympathy for many of the people you write about, Nick, in your Fallen Legion series, people in government or the military who thought they were serving their country and find themselves serving officials they can’t bear, who have betrayed them and the country. In that sense, Tomdispatch has come to feel like my version of service to country.

Of all the things that people write me when they’re angry, the one that most gets my goat — and also makes me laugh — is: Go back to?

Twenty years ago, it would have been Russia, but now, depending on the moment, they’ll put in China or maybe France. Part of me thinks: a plane ticket and some Peking Duck or a croissant. Sounds like a good couple of weeks. But my deeper feeling is, hey, you jerk, this is my damn country and I’m not going anywhere!

NT: Switching gears, what started you doing these Tomdispatch interviews?

TE: Well, the site just continues to develop, probably because I’m a bit of a restless personality. In the years when I was mainly a book editor, I published a certain amount of oral history. My boss then edited the miraculous Studs Terkel and he used to call me in on Studs’ manuscripts, like the second team, just to do a final read-through. More recently, I’ve edited a couple of Studs’ books. I also, for example, edited Chris Appy’s incredible oral history of the Vietnam War from all sides — with an appropriate title for this interview, given our discussion of service to country: Patriots. So I have an appreciation for the glories of the interview.

Last summer, I realized I had access to Howard Zinn and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, and I just thought, well, they probably won’t write for me, and interviews, that’s something I’ve never done. I’ll take a shot at almost anything on the page. I thought, why not try? So I picked up the two cheapest tape recorders I could find, which are now in front of us, and it’s turned into a new forum for people I admire — as well as a book this fall.

NT: What would you like readers to do with what they learn at Tomdispatch?

TE: We’re barraged by information, so many images, so much noise, so many fragments. Even the cultural wallpaper’s screaming, I like to say. In addition, a striking thing about the media in the first few years after the 9/11 attacks was its demobilized state. Here we had a thoroughly mobilized administration, looking at the globe in the largest geopolitical terms, connecting the dots — sometimes terribly — in a planetary way.

Officials like Cheney clearly think of the world in terms of energy flows. They think in terms of interlinked military bases and global military power. They’ve been thinking big, thinking strategically, connecting disparate countries. They look at Russia and, as old Cold Warriors, they think: Rollback. So they’re considering Estonia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan in the same frame. You read the press in this period, and you can find a piece about Estonia, another about Ukraine, and yet another about Uzbekistan, but not together. You can read a piece about Uzbekistan, about Afghanistan, about Iran, about Israel, about Iraq, about Turkey. But from mainstream American coverage generally, you would have no idea that those countries were near to, or related to each other, or that our leaders were thinking about them in the same breath and via sweeping geographic labels like “the arc of instability.”

The press, in those first few years, was striking in not connecting the dots, even when reporting well on specific subjects. What I think Tomdispatch does best is to connect those dots. My hope is that, when you read a dispatch, it will provide a connect-the-dots framework so that the next little bits that wash over you, you’ll be able to slot them into something larger, and say, oh, that makes a kind of sense.

You don’t have to accept my way of framing things, but maybe, at its best, Tomdispatch gets you thinking about how to fit these pieces together.

NT: And what if, as readers start to see things in this larger framework, they’re outraged and come to you for some guidance?

TE: Sometimes they do.

NT: ?and want to do something. What advice would you give them?

TE: I’m going to disappoint you on this one, Nick, because the advice I give is terribly limited. I have no hesitation about putting the world together in immodest ways, right or wrong; but I’m modest indeed about telling people what they should do in the world.

I don’t see any reason why, because I’m capable of connecting those dots, I should become an oracle. Usually what I write back is very simple. I always suspect that people already know what they should do. There’s always something to do in one’s world, after all. But who am I to tell them what it is? So I don’t.

Oddly enough, if I had anything to tell them on the subject, it would be this: I’m proud of the pieces I’ve posted at Tomdispatch, especially since many of the authors could be writing for far bigger places. But I’m proudest of all that I didn’t do a very American thing, which is to post for a while, get discouraged, and go home.

That was the story of the prewar anti-war movement. I predicted before the invasion of Iraq that the huge anti-war movement would only get bigger. Boy was I wrong. I’ve been wrong about many things in my life, but one of the bleak miracles of this period is that, to take an example, just about everything that’s happened in Iraq looked obvious to me from the beginning. If you were to go back and read the things I wrote just before or after the invasion, it’s clear that I sensed more or less what was going to happen. Only on the anti-war movement was I wrong. When they didn’t stop the war, so many of them got discouraged, packed their bags, and went home.

Fortunately, I learn from the authors who write for me. Rebecca Solnit, for instance, has taught me a great deal about how history works, about the fact that simple cause-and-effect — we tried, we failed — isn’t going to cut the mustard. As she points out, you mobilize a huge movement, then you can’t figure out for years, if ever, what it’s actually done, and yet it’s invariably done something strange, affected someone somewhere. History, she says, isn’t like a game of checkers, it’s like the weather. History scuttles sideways like a crab. This gives me hope. This keeps me going. We just never know.

So here I am, almost sixty-two, doing this almost five years now nonstop, and I’ve never taken the tent down, never left the campgrounds, never left the battlefield. And I’m quite proud of that.

NT: I was just about to ask you what the most heartening thing about Tomdispatch was for you.

TE: Just the feeling that I’ve hung in there and, if someone asks, that’s really the advice I do give. I don’t know what you should do, but do it and don’t stop when it doesn’t quite work out, when you don’t get the results you want.

NT: So what’s your vision for Tomdispatch? You’ve gone from clipping service to mailing list to website. Now you’ve got a book of interviews coming. Where would you like to see it in five years?

TE: A five-year plan, Nick? You know me better than that. I’m usually worried about the last five minutes and the next five. The rest I leave to the gods. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and that voice in me will have abated, and maybe that’ll be that. Proud as I am about having lasted this long, there’s nothing wrong with Tomdispatch not going on forever.

I don’t believe in thinking too carefully about future plans. Not as a lone individual in this world. Spend too much time considering what you want to do and you probably won’t do it, because it’ll look hopeless. So whatever it is, maybe it’s best just to close your eyes and try.

Copyright 2006 Tomdispatch

This interview appeared first at Tomdispatch.com.


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We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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