Tom Engelhardt

The Internet teaches its own lessons, often painfully quickly. In April 2005, I followed an urge, as I often did in those days. Our President, who would soon claim to be spending his spare time absorbing meaty books like King Leopold’s Ghost, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, and Mao: The Unknown Story, was then largely known for reading The Pet Goat to schoolchildren while the 9/11 attacks were taking place and for being fond of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So I took a plunge into humor and wrote a mock children’s ABC book that I dubbed “George’s Amazing Alphabet Book of the Contemporary World, or Al-Qaedas All Around.” I claimed that the manuscript, produced by George W. himself, had been leaked to my website by “a senior official in one of our intelligence agencies.”

Maybe it wasn’t Jon-Stewart-worthy, but I posted it anyway as my commentary of the week and thought no more about it until the first angry emails began appearing in the TomDispatch mail box. A number of readers claimed I had been “gulled.” I shoulda known! The President could never have written such a document! It had obviously been produced by the CIA! No, the Secret Service! No…

A perfectly sane friend rang up, wondering whether the manuscript could possibly be genuine — or was I pulling a leg or two? Irritated readers assured me that it was a total fraud and I, a total fool for ever taking the word of that senior intelligence official.

I was stunned. I hadn’t been trying to fool a soul, just make a passing point or two about our President and his people. Still, I got the message — an instant lesson in Bush-era online reality. You couldn’t out-absurd this administration. You couldn’t write a “document” so extreme that some readers wouldn’t mistake it for the real thing. That was the extremity of our moment — thank you, George W!

Actually, back in November 2001, that very extremity had driven me on line in the first place and into the waiting arms of what became — after the assaults of 9/11; after we had been at “war” and George had become a “wartime” President with an ever-expanding idea of his own powers; after Americans had engaged in endless 9/11 rites in which we took all the roles in the global drama (except Ultimate Evil One); after we had become the planet’s greatest victims, survivors, and dominators; after, with relentless, repetitive vigor, the heartland had donned hats and t-shirts proclaiming that they “loved” (or hearted) that former Sodom — to Los Angeles’s Gomorrah — New York City; after the Patriot Act was reality; after the money — to “support our troops” — was already pouring into the Pentagon and allied private corporations; after a budding second Defense Department, the Office of Homeland Security, was a reality (it would be turned into a full-scale Department of Homeland Security in November 2002); after the Bush administration had begun planning for a detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would become the jewel in the crown of an offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice; after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other top officials had made clear their urge to “take off the gloves” and commit just about any act imaginable, from kidnapping to torture, against anyone anywhere they believed to be a “terrorist”; after the newspapers I normally read in the still commanding world of print had narrowed their coverage, upped their “patriotism,” and were beating the drums for George Bush’s Global War on Terror.

TomDispatch was a happenstance, the unplanned creation of a man too old by half for the medium he stumbled into. It came into existence out of a simple urge not to sit still, not to continue my life as it had been while our already shaky world was being ravaged. Between November 2001 and 2004, it went from a private, no-name group email for perhaps 12 friends and relatives to an official site in cyberspace, backed by the Nation Institute, and featuring a range of provocative writers and thinkers.

Sometime in 2004, the year after the site gained its name, I went out to lunch with a Mexican political cartoonist. In what still passed for real life, I was working, as I had been for almost 30 years, as a book editor in the publishing business and we were discussing a project we planned to do together. At one point, trying to explain his life and world to me, he said: “You know, for Mexicans, the PRI years” — he was talking about the one-party-state era in his country — “were shameful times…” He paused and then leaned across the table confidentially, “…but we political cartoonists,” he said, “we were like pigs in slop.”

In the same confessional mode, what were indisputably the worst years of most of our lives turned out to be a small, late-in-life odyssey for me. Call it “A” for adventure.

TomDispatch is — as I often write inquisitive readers — the sideline that ate my life. Being in my late fifties and remarkably ignorant of the Internet world when it began, I brought some older print habits online with me. These included a liking for the well-made, well-edited essay, an aversion to the endless yak and insult that seemed to fill whole realms of cyberspace, and a willingness to go against, or beyond, every byte-sized truth of the online world where, it was believed, brevity was all and attention spans virtually nonexistent. TomDispatch pieces invariably ran long. They were, after all, meant to reframe a familiar, if shook-up, world that was being presented in a particularly limited way by the mainstream media.

Finding myself on a mad, unipolar imperial planet, I simply took the plunge into an alphabet soup of mayhem and chaos. Let me try, now, to offer you my shorthand version of the world according to TomDispatch…


Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media didn’t cover, it is functionally an alternative history of the mad Bush years. This essay is adapted from that book’s introduction. A brief video in which Engelhardt discusses the book and the American mega-bases in Iraq can be viewed by clicking here.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

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