Stuart Archer Cohen is the author of three novels, Invisible World, The Stone Angels, and his latest – The Army of the Republic. Cohen lives in Juneau, Alaska and is the owner of a company that deal sin the trade of wool, silk, alpaca and cashmere in Asia and South America. I posted a review of The Army of the Republic yesterday. I noted that the novel stuck with me and raised all sorts of questions. I am thankful that Mr. Cohen generously agreed to answer my burning questions.
Baby Got Books interview with Stuart Archer Cohen, author of The Army of the Republic
Baby Got Books: Army of the Republic features the activities of several citizen groups that are in opposition to a repressive and powerful Right wing presidential administration. Their responses to the perceived injustices range from protests/direct actions and violent “terror”. Were there particular real world events that inspired you to write this novel?
Stuart Archer Cohen: I was inspired by two things. One was a long-standing interest in guerrilla movements and revolutions in South America. I’ve been doing business there since 1984, and I was intrigued, on a human level, how a bunch of university students and young professionals could develop the will and the skills to take on a corrupt state. I was also acutely tuned in to how the state responds to that.
With the 2nd Bush Administration, I saw our government becoming more and more like Latin America in its corruption, cronyism and absolute impunity. Also, the Right has taken on an increasingly war-flavored rhetoric and stance, where the goal is now to utterly destroy the “Left” and its institutions by any means necessary. I see this as a recipe for political violence, and that made me want to tackle the subject of political violence in a United States setting.
BGB: The recent non-fiction work It Could Happen Here: America on the Brink by Bruce Judson says that a potential political uprising could occur here that would be driven by financial inequality. The events in your book that lead to protests and sometimes violent political action include mass privatization of water supplies, ballot irregularities, domestic use of of a Blackwater/Xe-type contractor for police actions, and the abuse of courts. Are the issues that you raised in your novel the specific powder kegs that you see on our horizon? Or were they more hypothetical?
SAC: I haven’t read that book so I can’t comment on it. The things you mentioned above are all elements that can engender a violent reaction, as they are in the book.
However, I think the real danger is not those symptoms, or even inequality, but rather the constant, dehumanizing propaganda that is being regularly pumped into American society. The non-communist world has never had such a sophisticated, wide-ranging and cohesive propaganda campaign directed against its own people. Psy-ops techniques that we formerly used on enemy countries are now being used against the American people by the Right. The message of Fox News and other hate-speakers is that Liberals are subhuman weaklings, that Left-of-Cheney politicians are liars and traitors, and that we are engaged in a civil war of Right vs.Left, Patriots vs Elected Government. That’s the real powder keg, both because it stokes Right Wing anger, and, more importantly, because it sets up a future Right Wing administration to ruthlessly, violently repress any opposition.
BGB: I read that your research for this novel included conversations with 60’s activists, CIA operatives, and current student protesters. How did you go about locating these people and were they generally open to having frank conversations with you?
SAC: I locate sources in various ways. The CIA people I met through martial arts connections. It’s something that I have in common with these men and it establishes a certain bond beyond politics. The Argentine revolutionaries I tracked down through introductions provided by friends and other sources. Some people I contacted simply as names I saw on the Internet. I hit some dead-ends, too. I’m not so big and famous that everyone is eager to talk to me.
My experience is that people will answer as honestly as they can if you are non-judgmental and they know you won’t embarrass them. Sometimes, it’s what they don’t say that’s most revealing.
BGB: “The Inside Story” on your web site mentions that you were once held under suspicion by the Salvadoran military. How did that experience inform the events that unfold in AOR?
SAC: That experience really enlightened me as to how decent people become caught up in an evil machine. Things came out fine for me in El Salvador because I had an American passport, but Salvadorans picked up there who were equally as innocent as me met some terrible ends.
BGB: The types of reading that you did as research for this novel, books on “how to form a new identity, improvised explosives, surveillance and bodyguarding”, would seem to send up numerous red flags under the “Patriot Act”. Were you concerned at all about ending up a “No Fly” list or experiencing other negative consequences as a result of researching/writing this novel?
SAC: I didn’t really worry about that, although that distributor where I got most of those books was under constant pressure from DHS to surrender his client list. My feeling has always been that I’m just a novelist writing fiction. People like community organizers, lawyers and investigative journalists are a much greater threat to a regime than someone working in a dying field of the entertainment business. When I see those people start to go down, I’ll worry about myself.
BGB: In the book you present a fictional right-wing reactionary television news host called The Hammer who seems all too believable. In the novel, your protagonist Joshua Sands has a discussion about the power of pictures over words, and The Hammer seems to embody the power of the “picture” side of that argument. Why did you elect to tell this story in words (instead of pictures) and what does that say about where you weigh in on the relative merits of each?
SAC: To tell a story in pictures, you need a movie studio, and I don’t happen to have one of those at hand. Also, making a movie is, above all else, a major business venture, and a book like mine, where urban guerrillas are, to some degree, the heroes, isn’t necessarily a good risk for a backer. I did get a film offer on this book but I turned it down because I didn’t like the direction they wanted to go with it to make it more mainstream. It was probably a stupid decision on my part.
That being said, words can convey ideas in a way that pictures simply can’t. That’s why movies are always shallower than the books they are based on. I was an Art History major, so I know well that pictures can be beautiful, and they can convey a lot of emotion and spirituality. But they are in no way worth a thousand words, not if the words are any good. If you want to illuminate deeper, complex truths, there’s no substitute.
My two previous books were optioned, and at one time I thought I might want to write screenplays of my books, both because of the money and because movies are just so damned large. You think you’re large by extension, but you’re really not. You’re still just a guy sitting in an empty room, so you might as well be writing what you want, and not have to take notes from some producer or see your work covered over by some re-write man.
BGB: While reading your novel I had Reagan-era punk songs going through my mind, songs that were relatively straight forward in their left wing militancy. I kept waiting for these kinds of songs and other artistic responses to surface during the Bush 2 presidency, but for the most part they never did. Do you think that Sept. 11 effectively killed what I’ll call the “romanticism” of anti-government action and rhetoric during that period?
SAC: I think Reagan’s 1984-style propaganda was new, so maybe people reacted to it more strongly. I think by the time Bush 2 came around, the Right had massively amplified and perfected its propaganda machine and 9/11 had also enabled them to up the ante. Rove and his gang made it pretty clear that anyone who didn’t support them internationally was an enemy, and domestically, a traitor. I think this was very successful in intimidating a lot of people in and out of government. Look what happened to the Dixie Chicks for making a few comments on stage in London: they were vilified and their records were burned publicly. Artists see that and they don’t want to go down that road. Also, the propaganda machine made the troops sacrosanct, and, by extension, the wars, so it was just uncool for artists to question government policy.
There was protest music, such as Green Day’s American Idiot, but I think people were worn-down by the endless barrage of garbage that was being dumped every day by the propaganda infrastructure. That’s one reason they do it. After a while, I think it’s hard to keep reacting.
I truly don’t understand why no other novelists have taken on the issues that I did in The Army of the Republic. My book was rejected more than forty times by publishers: so maybe all those other writers were right! The only books I’ve seen dealing with the possibility of political violence are racist garbage like The Turner Diaries, or Right-Wing heroic fantasies written by ex-military guys, where heroic gun-owners fight an oppressive Federal Government.
BGB: Does the rise of right wing protests and direct actions (i.e., Tea Parties, attempted bugging of Sen. Landrieu’s office, etc.) surprise you?
SAC: I’m not surprised, because dissatisfaction among that element of the Right was pretty high even in the waning days of the Bush Administration. Those people are doubly angry, both because of the drift of the country and because their illusions about the Republicans have crumbled. Unfortunately, they are so crippled by their own ingrained hatreds, as well as a completely fanciful view of how the world really works, that they’re unable to express their very justified anger in a positive way. Instead, they just want to dig the hole even deeper. They don’t even realize it’s a hole.
I thought it was interesting that the Corporates used these people to harass and intimidate the Democrats during the health care debate, disrupting Town Hall meetings, etc. The Tea Party people would say that it’s not Corporates who are organizing them, but let’s not forget that the main platforms for Tea Party ideologues (Beck, Limbaugh, Palin) are Corporate platforms like Fox News and Clear Channel. So, yes, to a great degree, this already is a Corporate-backed movement.
If the Tea Party people succeed in gaining real or ideological control of the Republican Party, and the Corporates decide to fully back them, we will be on the fast track to authoritarian government and political violence.
I actually would like to see the Left working on organizing them, because they have the potential to help change this country for the better.
BGB: As an author whose work was recently caught up in the Macmillan/Amazon feud with the result of having your book become suddenly unavailable from the world’s largest bookseller, what do you make of the situation?
SAC: I don’t know all the ins- and outs: it has something to do with electronic rights and e-books. My general impression of Amazon is that they’re always looking for a new way to pick the publishers’ pockets, and I guess the authors just got in the way this time. My advice is: try www.Powells.com or your local bookstore.
Need more? Check out Cohen’s blog post about the Revolution from the Right.