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• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

April 15, 2005

A Birthday Interview With Chris Floyd

Today this website turns one year old. While I don't want to embarrass you with an unseemly display of emotion, I will say it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. It's been a great pleasure to get to know so many like-minded people. Or in some cases, like-minded AI algorithms. I very much appreciate everyone who stops by.

So to celebrate, today will inaugurate a new feature here: intermittent interviews. The first is with the journalist Chris Floyd, whose work (as I've mentioned previously) I greatly admire.

Floyd writes the weekly "Global Eye" column for the Moscow Times. Empire Burlesque, based on his columns, is available as an ebook here; he also has a new blog called Empire Burlesque. Some of his columns are archived here and here. A more detailed biography of Floyd can be found here.

We spoke by phone several days ago.

• • •

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town about 40 or 50 miles from Nashville, Tennessee. Way in the deep country there. A farming town of about 900 people. My father worked at the feed store and was a Baptist deacon, and my mother worked as a bank clerk. Your standard heartland, homeland red-state, red meat-eating place.

I'm supposed to be the kind of guy who loves Bush. That's my background. I know the kind of people he's aiming at.

My father is conservative in a lot of his attitudes about social mores and the like. Both my parents really are red state people. My father's a Korean war veteran. He was in the Naval Reserves. I remember him slamming the people protesting Vietnam. He's a right down the line, literal-word-of-God guy.

But both he and my mother hate Bush with a passion. Boy, they hate him, because they see what he's doing. He's destroying the lives of people just like them. Middle-class people who have been driven to the margins, who need medical care, whose jobs and communities and civic structures are being wiped out.

That always encourages me. They come from the culture that Bush is supposedly appealing to. And of course you read the polls and you see that Bush isn't that popular in the first place.

I think where Bush gets his support is the suburbs. The people who go to churches that seat 3000. It's people in the exurbs, the suburbs. This is where the big strength of the Bush cult lies. More down South, the part of the country I really know about, they might go for Bush for some of these social reasons, if he pushes their buttons on gay marriage or especially gun control.

But like my father, many of them don't really like Bush. They don't like what's happening in their lives. But the spineless national Democrats don't give them anything either. They don't stand up for working people anymore—just look how many Democrats voted for the Bankruptcy Bill, a measure that's going to rip the guts out of the lives of countless working people and the poor. So where are these people supposed to turn? Some go to the Bush cult, but many of them have just sort of dropped out. They don't care about politics anymore. They don't want to hear about it.

So, how did you come to see the world the way you do?

Well, I was a kid in the sixties. I was born in 1958. And I was lucky because I have two older brothers, five and six years older than me, and they were teenagers in the sixties. They brought all the sixties culture into the house. They were the only people around with Nehru jackets, dead cool guys, blasting Motown, Bob Dylan, Hendrix through the house.

And at that time the general national culture itself was more liberal. Our paper there, the Tennessean, was run by John Seigenthaler, the great civil rights campaigner who used to be an aide to Bobby Kennedy. The media in those days just didn't roll over and pander to power. They went after LBJ's lies about Vietnam. They ripped into Nixon over Cambodia. And then Watergateevery day, I'd come home from football practice and tune in to Sam Ervin raking some Nixon bagman over the coals. There was a less obsequious attitude to authority, a healthy skepticism, not just in the counter-culture, but in the Establishment as well.

And the Christian part of it—as I say, my father is a very strong Christian—they didn't bring politics into it back then. It was perfectly possible to be a good believing Christian and a strong liberal Democrat. And my father was deeply interested in history and politics, on every level, local, national, world. He was mayor of our town for a while, state politicians sought him out for endorsements, to get in good with the locals—people like Al Gore, or "Little Al," as my father called him. When Gore ran his first Congressional campaign, my father introduced him around town. My father was also a great amateur archaelogist, unearthed thousands of flint arrowheads left behind by the American Indians who once used middle Tennessee as a huge hunting preserve, common ground for several tribes. So there was no sense back then that being religious meant closing down your mind or following some political agenda.

When I was a teenager, my brother and I used to watch televangelists on late night TV, because they were so funny. Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, you know, curing bunions over the airwaves. We'd watch them and laugh. I've watched these people for 30 years now, slowly moving from the fringes of the fringe to the very center of state power. They're not so funny anymore. It looks like the joke was on us.

Also, like a lot of people, I was influenced by things like National Lampoon—back in the early seventies, when it was really funny, with that sharp, acerbic take on "normal" American life—just a totally different sensibility from our Southern Baptist background. And old Bogart movies, which ran every weekend: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo—there's a real moral sensibility for you.

You know, people who do comedy generally are highly moralistic and judgmental. They're all angry at the world, and they believe if they make enough jokes, people will wise up and change things. Later they dissolve into bitterness and misanthropy because they think they haven't accomplished anything. But I think the people who dissolve into bitterness just don't see that they HAVE changed things.

It's true. You can do an issue of National Lampoon, and one twirpy kid in middle Tennessee will have their mind completely turned around by it. But you don't know you've reached people like that. Or take Monty Python. They've affected the sensibilities of millions of people.

Were your parents unhappy to have National Lampoon and sixties music in your house?

That was the thing about parents of that generation. Like a lot of parents nowadays, I've probably been too involved with my children in that way, trying to know everything they're reading, watching, listening to, analyzing it all, calibrating the potential effects, and so on. I don't think we give children enough space in that regard. But my parents didn't care too much about things like that. The only thing they didn't like is when my brother brought home an album by Steppenwolf. It had a song called "God Damn the Pusher Man," and my parents couldn't quite hack having someone shouting "god damn" through the house on Sunday morning—even though my brother pointed out that it's an anti-drug song.

So, I was interested in all of this growing up. And then Reagan came along, which would have radicalized anybody with half a brain. Plus, I was a Russian literature major in college, so I was steeped in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pasternak and Chekhov, all that deep moral purpose, that restless search for meaning and truth.

How did you get interested in Russian literature?

I'd always been interested in Russian culture. In the seventies when Solzhenitzyn was in the news all the time, I read The Cancer Ward and his other books. I hadn't read a lot of literature before college, but my girlfriend at the time said, you ought to read some great novels. I'd heard of Dostoevsky, so I went to the bookstore and I bought The Idiot. Ended up taking Russian language and everything else.

So I learned Russian and could read Russian, although I didn't do anything with it until I moved to Russia in 1994. By that time I'd forgotten so much of it that I could just get by. I couldn't sit around the kitchen table with people and have the kind of conversations about the human soul that you're supposed to have in Russia.

Do you like Gogol?

Yes, although he was one of the first Russian authors I read, and he almost put me off the whole thing. His Russian is really complicated and hard to follow.

By the way, if you like Gogol, you should definitely read The Master and Margarita. It's about Satan coming to Moscow in the thirties in the guise of a magician. It's got everything: Satan in Moscow, Jesus on the cross, naked witches, a Walpurgisnacht, rank hypocrites getting their just desserts in the most satisfyingly horrible ways. And also, by the way, deep moral purpose and restless search for meaning and truth.

What did you do after college?

I worked for a couple of newspapers. Then I went to work for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, up there in east Tennessee where they built the bomb. It's a huge federal research facility, and I worked for them as an editor and writer. You had to pass armed guards every morning to get in. It was the belly of the belly of the beast. The Defense Department did lots of stuff there, and the Department of Energy.

Did working there open your eyes to various political things?

The funny thing is, it really didn't. It was just like any regular job. Except I sort of fell through the cracks. They would give me an assignment and I would do it and then they would forget about me for weeks on end.

So I'd just read and read and read. That's when I really read Gore Vidal. That turns your head around. Here was one of the elite, talking from behind the screen. It was an eye opener.

You were sitting around at Oak Ridge reading books by Gore Vidal?

Yeah. Gore Vidal. The complete works of George Eliot. Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars. Of course, Oak Ridge didn't provide them as part of the facility. Had to bring 'em in.

How long were you there?

About six years. I eventually left to work for someone I met there who'd started a company creating educational software... in fact, using a lot of technology she'd learned there at Oak Ridge. So I annotated Shakespeare plays, classic American literature, British poetry, all kinds of stuff, for multimedia editions for universities.

It finally all fell apart, and I went to Russia.

How did you end up in Russia?

Because of a woman, basically. I got involved with a woman who worked at the American embassy in Moscow, so I went over there. Then I applied for a job at the Moscow Times. In one form or another I've been doing work for them for almost 11 years, but I was actually only in Russia for two years total, from 1994 to 1996.

So you were in Moscow for the craziest times?

Well, maybe not the craziest times. The craziest time was right when the Soviet Union collapsed. Then later they had another economic collapse, right after I left—although it wasn't my fault, really.

I was there for the Yeltsin election. He originally had a 3% approval rating, yet... somehow... pulled it out. All the Western powers wanted him to win, because the alternative was the communists. And there was a chance of that, because there was so much anger. In the nineties democracy became a dirty word in Russia. They associated democracy with rampant corruption, with the collapse of their whole social structure, the collapse of health care. "Democracy" means grandma is on the street selling her stockings.

I remember one weekend as a perk the paper sent us to a resort outside Moscow. Just this nice little place with a swimming pool, shuffleboard, pool tables, set beside a beautiful frozen lake and forested grounds. But this had originally been built for steelworkers, set aside for them a free place of recreation. This is the kind of thing that people had in their lives before that was suddenly gone, and replaced not with, say, a nice New England-style cozy democracy, but with violent anarchy and deprivation.

And Yeltsin was a part of that. He was a sad case, because he was brave when he stared down the coup after they kidnapped Gorbachev. But he became very corrupt. There was corruption all around him, violence all around him. Clinton was willing to cover for him all the time.

Yeltsin was like Blair, though, in that he was very lucky in his opposition. The leader of the communist party then was this complete lump, Zyuganov. Out of the Brezhnev mold, except he made Brezhnev look like Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, when I was there it was wild enough on its own. You'd go out to eat in some restaurant, and the next day read in the paper how someone had been machine gunned there right after you'd left.

We worked on Pravda Street, which is where all the old Soviet newspapers were. One guy at another paper across the way was investigating corruption in the army for a Russian paper. One day he got blown up in his office. There was a lot of stuff like that going on.

I loved it, though. Moscow is a very strange place, even to Russians. You can't really say you belong there, but that's where I felt most at home in the world. Rilke said Russia was his spiritual homeland. It gets to people that way.

By the way, when you edit this, be sure to keep in me mentioning Rilke. Makes me sound really cultured. And I know how to pronounce it, too.

Another American writer who loves Russia is Ian Frazier. He's said a Russian friend of his once told him Russia exists to take human nature to its extremes.

That's exactly right. Yes, they take it to extremes, particularly anything imported from the West. They took Marxism and turned it into this giant googly-moogly of Bolshevism. Then they took capitalism and turned it into hyper-gangster capitalism. There's something in the Russian character, or Russian geography, or the Russian whatever.

Does the Moscow Times publish in English only?

Yes. It was started by some Dutch guys right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. (They made their money setting up the Dutch lottery.) And immediately there was a huge English-speaking expatriate circle. There were Americans, and Brits, and a giant number of Irish. The Irish got there first for some reason, and there were all these Irish supermarkets and pubs. There was an Irish mafia.

There were lots of people from the paper during that period who you see now all over the place. Carlotta Gall, who's in Afghanistan now for the New York Times. I used to take her dictation when she'd call on her satellite phone from Chechnya. Anne Barnard, who's in Baghdad for the Boston Globe. Frank Brown, my roommate in Moscow, who writes for Newsweek now. Matt Taibbi was there.

Taibbi was a great reporter, a big, honking goon of a guy who'd ride with the police and get down in the real Moscow dirt. He used to make fun of me because I wore this black shirt with a pink tie—I had about four changes of clothes altogether while I was there, living out of a couple of suitcases—so he started calling me "Cheap Trick," because he thought I looked like one of the singers from that old band. Which I suppose tells you something about his musical tastes.

What do you think about the conjecture that the Russian government actually was responsible for the apartment bombings blamed on the Chechens just before Putin was elected? I should specify that all I know about this is two articles I read on the internet.

Well, that's all you need to know. Now you could be a columnist for the New York Times. Now you're Nicholas Kristof.

Anyway... to believe that about the Russian government is nuts. You know, it's like believing the president of the US could get a memo saying bin Laden is about to attack and then do nothing.

Yes, that's just craziness.

When it first happened I thought the government could be involved. And now this renegade oligarch, Berezovsky, who's in exile here in England, claims he has proof.

It is a fact that shortly after the first bombings, a group of local police in Ryazan found some Russian intelligence agents putting explosives in the basement of another apartment building. And the agents said, "Oh, this is just a drill!"

Of course, we'll never know because they never investigated it in any real way. My gut feeling is that someone in the government was involved, whether Putin knew about it or not. It didn't make sense for the Chechens at the time, and it was entirely too convenient for the Russian intelligence services. It got them everything they wanted.

That's my take, for what it's worth.

All this stuff is murky, and governments like it that way. It's like that Dylan song: "It's a shadowy world, skies are slippery grey."

Yes. I've made a conscious decision to never learn anything about the JFK assassination.

That's a very wise choice.

Inevitably I'd feel I'd have to learn EVERYTHING about it. I mean, I'd need a whole other life.

Seriously, though, I think in these situations there's often less than meets the eye. It's not that the government doesn't conspire to cover things up. It's that they're covering up things that are less exciting than you think. For instance, if I had to put money on it, I'd bet that the US government had no involvement in Kennedy's assassination. To us it appears like they might have, because they're so shifty. But I wouldn't be surprised if what they were always trying to cover up was all the embarrassing things Oswald was connected to...stuff with Cuba, trying to kill Castro, and so on. But not, you know, Lyndon Johnson on the grassy knoll pulling the trigger.

I'd tend to agree with that. A genuinely transparent investigation of the Kennedy assassination would have uncovered all these unsavory connections that instead have dribbled out piecemeal over the years. Their instinct is always to cover stuff up. And while I have no sympathy for the Warren Commission, the one thing they were trying to do that was reasonable was head off the war fever to attack the communists for killing the president. So you see a cover story and think they're covering up a deeper lie than they are.

And given my experience with human beings, I'd say they just can't maintain huge conspiracies over any length of time. They like to talk too much.

That may be the situation with 9/11... that they're not covering up that Bush called someone up one day and said, Now's the time to do it, I'm at 43% in the polls. Hit it now! They're trying to cover up unsavory connections with the Pakistani secret service and so on, plus their complete incompetence and criminal negligence.

But then, as you've pointed out in your columns, it IS true that governments sometimes consider terrorist attacks on their own citizens.

Yes—obviously that's true, as with Operation Northwoods. The Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with this whole plan they gave to Kennedy about setting the stage for an invasion of Cuba. They were going to blow up ships, plant bombs in US cities. And Kennedy said no.

These things are labyrinths. Once you get in them you'll never get out.

Noam Chomsky once jokingly said that if he were running the government, he would try to create some subject for people to obsess about, like the Kennedy assassination, so that everyone would miss the actual, indisputable horrible things happening right in front of their eyes.

In broad daylight. The fact that our government launched a war of aggression, which is an international war crime, is right in front of our eyes. They wave flags about it. There's no conspiracy. It's not nine guys in a room somewhere, or Sam Giancana. It's right there in your face.

When all's said and done, why do you care about this? After all, rationally speaking, the difference one person can make is miniscule.

Really, it's just that I can't dance. Otherwise I'd be doing that.

Which reminds me something I read in Rolling Stone, somewhere around 1975. It was in the Random Notes section, about a Marxist-Leninist dance band, done up like Sly Stone or Bootsy Collins, magnificent afros and platform boots. And one of their songs was, "You Been Dancing, Should Be Marching, So You Can Dance Some More Later On."

That's been in my head for thirty years. It'll be the title of my autobiography.

Posted at April 15, 2005 12:02 AM | TrackBack

Awesome. Thanks, Jon.

Posted by: Matthew Sullivan at April 15, 2005 01:14 AM


Posted by: abb1 at April 15, 2005 03:43 AM

good stuff

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 15, 2005 04:41 PM

Matthew & abb1 & mistah charley,

Very glad you like it. Certainly for me it was a high point of this site so far.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 16, 2005 07:20 AM

Thanks so much, Jonathan and Chris. Jorn Barger's 'Robot Wisdom Weblog' (now defunct, or maybe just on a two-year hiatus...) introduced me to Chris' writing, which I enjoy for its savage directness.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster at April 16, 2005 05:19 PM

Ahh, the joy that is Chris Floyd. It is true that he is a savage critic of politics. If only everyone knew the *real* Floyd. His mild-mannered daytime persona hides his night-time alter ego, where he rips it out of politicians! And yes, I'm one of the children of who he is "calibrating the potential effects" of society. Sad to say that these are not the best of times to be growing up in. Luckily, I've got the Global Eye Guy to keep me informed.

Posted by: Avalon Floyd at April 17, 2005 03:18 PM

Hi Jonathan, I am a big fan of Chris Floyd, I have more than 50 articles written by him in my Computer. I really like the guy.
Thanks for your Interview, I enjoyed it Thoroughly.
The thing I like in him is he writes in a Style which few can match. He writes so Beautifully, It's like watching a great actor, or a great musician doing one of his Performance. It's a joy in itself.

Posted by: Ajit at April 18, 2005 06:58 AM

I too used to read Robot Wisdom, allegedly the first place to use the term "weblog" self-referentially - it seemed to go inactive and I hadn't been there for a long time - but in response to Neil Lancaster's mention I went and looked and there it is - currently active

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at April 18, 2005 10:17 AM

Mistah Charley, you made my day! Thanks for the news about RW's aliveness.

Posted by: Nell Lancaster at April 18, 2005 02:07 PM

Nell & Ajit,

Glad you enjoyed the interview—please pass it along to anyone you know who'd also be interested. I too have been knocked out by Floyd's stylish delivery of extremely unpleasant facts.


Thanks, very much, for stopping by. As you can see, your father has many and varied admirers.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at April 19, 2005 07:04 AM

They want absolute power, silencing your voice along with everyone else who disagrees with their agenda.
Sharon to Peres: "We Control America"
Congressional Pandering to Israel proves him Right
"syndicated" press-"punt intended"
There is no difference in political parties today.
Democrat + Republican = Republocrat.
The "rhetoric" may be different,
but the "agenda" is the same.
Rhetoric,that powerful instrument of error and deceit.
Agenda:That list of things to be done for the
lobbies and contributors that arranged your
“By Way Of Deception Thou Shalt Do War.”
The syndicate control has been in charge, for many years.
Most dramatically since JFK.
the Johnson administration implemented a dramatic shift in US-Middle East policy. Every president after Johnson has totally capitulated to Israel and ignored the plight of Palestinians.
America can create an agile and responsive Party that will grow leaps and bounds over the Republocrats.
Follow the money and power trail 1963 on. Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How should become obvious.

Posted by: PHIL ILAKU at September 1, 2005 08:45 PM