Chalmers Johnson's The Sorrows of Empire is the second volume in the new American Empire series, edited for Metropolitan Books by Steve Fraser and Tom Engelhardt. Here the two editors talk about the series (which was launched with Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival and their aims.
PW: Why did you decide to start the American Empire Project, as you call this imprint-within-an-imprint?
Steve Fraser: It became evident to us really quickly that 9/11 was going to be used as a pretext for imperial adventures abroad.
Tom Engelhardt: As we watched Bush's interventionary impulse, we both had a counterinterventionary impulse of our own. I felt that I couldn't just sit still and let this happen to the world without doing something about what would be passed on to my kids. I mean that quite literally. It wasn't that either of us thought we could change the world.
SF: As publishers, we know the limits of what we can do, but we're also longtime activists, and in our publishing lives have long been interested in publishing books with dissenting viewpoints.
PW: The project would fit in perfectly at many independent publishers. How did you end up at Metropolitan Books?
TE: Metropolitan is really two people: Sara Bershtel and myself. Sara is committed to publishing books like this; Metropolitan published Chalmer Johnson's first book, they publish Barbara Ehrenreich. When we presented the idea to her, she was all for it.
SF: We told ourselves it would be great if we could get a mainstream commercial house, because the project could then get launched into the world in a bigger way, but I quite candidly didn't think they would take it. I was sure they'd tell us it was too explicitly a piece of programmatic publishing, and if they had said no, we would definitely have explored indie alternatives.
TE: Once I started writing [the weblog] TomDispatch.com, though, I realized how many people there were out there who wanted to learn about this stuff. We had a meeting with Holt and, quite honestly, John Sterling heard what we were saying and agreed there was a niche for these books, that there was an audience. We're already starting to see that with the Chomsky book [Hegemony or Survival. He's always been popular to some extent, but never like this in hardcover in this country.
PW: How much of an audience?
TE: I've always argued that publishing is not a mass entertainment industry. If you put any of the publishing figures on a movie scale, they wouldn't even be on the radar screen, and that's at the very top, you know? You don't need a lot of people to buy Chomsky for him to be successful [the announced first printing is 100,000; Johnson's is 75,000].
SF: But even early on, as we were planning, one began to feel an underground swell of oppositional sentiment in the country, and Chomsky's 9/11 and Michael Moore's [Stupid White Men] were symptoms of that.
PW: So it didn't seem counterintuitive to launch an explicitly leftist imprint? Though not a narrow one; Noam Chomsky and Chalmers Johnson have very different viewpoints.
SF: There's no party line. We're open to publishing anti-imperial stuff from the right, and I'm sure we eventually will. But something's happening in the zeitgeist, as far as cultural divisiveness is concerned. It's so unusual to do this from either side at a mainstream house, because everybody's covetous of a large, politically nondenominational audience.
TE: It's ironic, because other publishing houses, even if they're publishing very successful liberal to left books on an individual basis, are setting up little conservative imprints. It's like it's three years after Friends' premiere, and they're all trying to start their own sitcoms with four to six young white urban characters; it's going to fail.
PW: You conceived the project as a response to this administration. Are you looking past the presidential elections next year?
SF: The house is very high on what's happening. I think initially, and rightly, they were cautious about how many books they wanted us to assign, but clearly our leash is growing longer.
TE: If you look back at the history of the right, when they got organized, they organized around the word. They took the word from us in the 1980s and '90s. And I look at our project as one small part of an effort to take the word back.