Michael Standaert is the author of the recently-released Skipping Toward Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire. He is a founder of the news site Eurocorrespondent.com, and he is a frequent book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. His novel The Adventures of the Pisco Kid is due out soon from Arriviste Press.
Wayne: What was it like growing up in Northern Illinois?
Michael: I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, which is about two and a half hours west of Chicago, along the Mississippi River. The area went though difficulties in the 80s when many of the farm machinery manufacturers shut down there or scaled back. Since there is a large armory there, it was supposedly in the top ten places the Soviets would have struck first in a nuclear strike. For some reason that weighed on me a lot, knowing that at any moment you could be obliterated. I think a lot of people everywhere thought about that from time to time, but since my area had a special designation, I think the idea that it could happen was more present. For me at least. Part of me thinks this type of “paranoia” is similar to how fundamentalist children may relate to the “Rapture” in that it’s like you could be “obliterated” at any moment, taken away, pied piper fashion. I had a pretty normal upbringing, I guess. My parents had five children and I was the last, with eight years difference between myself and my next sibling. So that was a bit different, since my brother and three sisters were all eight to twelve years older from me. Maybe this is a reason I always felt a little older than I was. I went to Catholic school all the way from kindergarten through high school. My father was an insurance executive and my mother a nurse. I wasn’t into sports until later in middle school when I started playing football, which I did all the way through high school. Before that I was a bit bookish, geeky and always fantasizing about different things. I once built a little raft a la Huck Finn but it sank in the Rock River, luckily for me since I wasn’t a great swimmer and if I would have been on it we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview.
Wayne: How did you end up going to school in Wales?
Michael: This is a long story, but to cut it short, I met a girl from the Netherlands while I was studying at the University of Iowa, dated her for a while, took a couple trips to Holland, and while there the second time I visited with a M.A. program in Utrecht, that was partnered with Cardiff University in Wales. So I applied and was accepted to the program and by that time had broken up with the Dutch girl. But I’d always wanted to work as a foreign correspondent, so thought this program would help me realize that goal. The program was in European Journalism. Three months in the Netherlands, three in Denmark, and the final five months working on the dissertation in Wales. So it was a bit of a traveling circus. I was the only American out of 18 students. Six or so were African, and the rest from Europe. It was a great program and a great year, though I’m not sure if Cardiff is doing it anymore since it is difficult to organize. After that year I went to Brussels and freelanced for about a year, in 2002.
Wayne: What later brought you to Brussels?
Michael: Basically a couple of us in the MA program were trying to figure out what to do and four of us decided to move to Brussels to try to either freelance or find work. I freelanced most of the year doing just about whatever I could to get by, but in the end ran too low on money and decided to come back to the U.S. It was a difficult transition coming back.
Wayne: How did you get the drive to become a journalist who seems to like covering political developments?
Michael: I’d much rather write fiction than journalism, but if I can’t do that, I’d like most to cover international news. Everything else has been about finding opportunities to write, and in the end, make a living, or at least surviving. For the past several years I’ve survived as a freelance writer and only this last year did I take a full-time job, but then that was as a writer for a foundation, and I worked from home, so it felt like freelancing. As far as politics, and this might seem funny coming from someone writing for a left wing publisher Soft Skull, but I’d consider myself pretty independent, more something of a progressive libertarian, whatever that means.
Wayne: Why did you decide to write about the Left Behind novels and the moral majority movement for your first book?
Michael: I had been in touch with Soft Skull [Press] about writing a book on issues not covered much in the Midwest by the mainstream press, things like the Meth problem and small family farmers losing their farms out in the rural areas. Anyway, they liked the idea, but the problem with a press like Soft Skull is that they can’t give a big advance, and what they could give wasn’t enough to give me the time to roam around and write and keep myself alive at the same time. This is nothing against Soft Skull, just a matter of facts. I’d seen something on the Left Behind books and had an interest in the nihilism of these beliefs for a long time, so I sent it along to Soft Skull. Richard Nash said he’d love to do something on the books, and I volunteered to do it. So that’s where it basically developed. After that it was a matter of figuring out how to do the research and write the books. Since they don’t have the budget to support a lot of traveling, it turned into a book mainly of criticism looking at the Left Behind books themselves, as well as a lot of secondary research done online and at the University of Iowa library’s special collections department, the Social Documents collection. It’s a wonderful resource if anyone wants to check it out. There’s enough material on American rightwing political movements from 1918 onward for dozens of books. I came across strange publications out of San Francisco during the early 70s that were seemingly gay-baiting neo-Nazi homosexual magazines with photos of naked Aryan types and erotic Hitler depictions. Very strange stuff. I don’t know if anyone has written about those types of publications.
Wayne: Had you heard of the novels before your former landlord introduced them to you, and how surprised were you with their popularity?
Michael: I’d heard of these types of beliefs before meeting the landlord, but hadn’t given them much deep thought until then. I’m half-surprised with the popularity, since I think they’re pretty bad fiction (if we can call it that), but also not surprised because people do like to read things that either stoke or back up their own paranoia and fear, or that make them able to claim the winning side in the fiction, here the “Godly” triumphing over the “Godless” … ie. secular, Jews, Catholics, humanists, liberals, etc., etc., that the Left Behind books depict. It’s a bloody revenge fantasy basically, easily read paint by numbers type books.
Wayne: Out of curiosity, have you heard from your former landlord since the book was published?
Michael: No, I haven’t heard from him since I moved out, other than once to see if he was still getting some of my mail.
Wayne: You noted that only the Harry Potter books and the Da Vinci Code have outsold the Left Behind Books in recent years. Why haven’t we heard more about the Left Behind novels in the mainstream press?
Michael: I think the coverage is there if you look. But a lot of coverage treats the Left Behind books as just fiction, not as a social issue surrounding the larger movement of people that buy these books. But it is a social issue, since the novels reflect the thinking of a large group of religious people in the U.S., and is basically a mirror on their theology and politics. The trouble is a lot of the critical coverage comes from a mainstream media that these people consider either evil or “liberal” or whatever, so those who could use some self-reflection automatically shut them out. An alternative “Christian” media has sprung up to inform these same people, and I put quotes around “Christian” because it is not widely Christian, but more sectarian, usually, and politically right wing Christianity, not embracing the wide viewpoints of a wide range of Christians. That media actively promotes the books. So you have either a critical mainstream media or a half-interested one, and then an alternative Christian media that pushes the books. Myself I don’t think “Christianity” should be considered Left or Right politically, but over the past thirty years, people like Tim LaHaye have worked actively to link a very conservative religiousity with a political movement, the Religious Right. There have of course been politically left leaning religious movements in U.S. history, along with political language being mixed with religious language on either the left or the right, sometimes to extreme ends. John Brown type abolitionists used a very charged political and religious language, militantly at times. Someone like Martin Luther King used less militant and more positive religious jeremiads to support change. I fear the more militant type of religiousity being used, say in the anti-abortion movement, to where doctors or nurses are attacked and killed, which has already happened. I think change can be made through more positive and aspirational language. Fear mongering and scapegoating, on the other hand, often leads to anger and violence.
Wayne: If mainstream churches have been critical of—what you call the “beam me up” theology of the premillenialists, why haven’t we heard these critical voices more on the topic as well?
Michael: We hear it from time to time, but not as actively as you’d think. I know that some Christian faiths have had to issue reports to their flocks about the theology, Catholics for one. It’s funny that the Da Vinci Code gets so much critical press from “Christians” while the Left Behind books don’t as much. While I think they have every right to be critical of the Da Vinci Code, one big thing they miss here is that Dan Brown wrote the book as fiction and has no political activist role that I’m aware of. Tim LaHaye had never been interested in fiction before coming up with the idea for the Left Behind books. Before he found someone to write the books for him, he’d been mainly involved in Religious Right politics, along with his wife Beverly who heads the conservative woman’s group Concerned Women for America. So it’s like if the husband of the head of the feminist National Organization for Women would come along and write a series of novels that portray conservatives as evil and that they be destroyed and such. If something like that was done from the left, I’d be critical of it as well.
Wayne: You call the novels “thinly-veiled works of political propaganda,” and you go on to great lengths to outline the connections among LaHaye and Jenkins (the writers behind the series), their political groups and the more mainstream Republican party (their early anointing of George Bush’s presidential candidacy, for instance). Despite this propagandistic quality, how much of the appeal of the novels actually stems from their political viewpoints?
Michael: Basically it plays into identity politics of people who have the same or similar ideas to LaHaye on gays, abortion, “liberals” etc. So it ends up reinforcing those ideas, and I think people often read things that reinforce their ideas, not challenge them. So I don’t think you can separate the political and the religious in this sense, since that group of people doesn’t separate it themselves. Everything is religious and everything is political for them. They are energized. The popularity feeds on those beliefs.
Wayne: You argue that the Left Behind series is different from the works of religiously devout writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, because those writers started with more of an artistic purpose. How different, though, is the purpose of the Left Behind novels from, say, the novels of Robert Ludlum and John Le Carre, whose works could be characterized as “anti-corporate” by some?
Michael: Interesting points. Like I mention above with Dan Brown though, LaHaye is coming from a position as an activist, and not at the fiction as a fiction writer. If you look at how LaHaye and his cohorts view other writing and media, they think that it is all propaganda. They don’t look at whether it has artistic merit or not, so naturally they produce propaganda themselves. As far as Ludlum or Le Carre, while they may have political views and that may seep into their fiction, I don’t think they set out writing the books in the first place with a political motivation in mind. Nor are they activists first and fiction writers second. That’s the big difference here I think. I go into some of these things more in a recent essay I’ve written, and these are things I’ve been thinking about quite a bit more since writing my book, which was finished about a year ago. I’ve been coming up with new ideas, and things I wished I could have written about in the book if I’d thought of them then. It was a very difficult subject to wrap my head around, and I think some of the flaws in the book are because of that. I wasn’t exactly sure which way to go with the book, but I do hope at the very least it is an overview and maybe a critical crib notes of the Left Behind series. There are more writers out there, more knowledgeable than myself, who are writing about the Left Behind books, that come at them in their own ways. I think all these are valuable as a whole. All that being said, I don’t think novels with political messages in them are necessarily bad, though if that outweighs the novel’s more important aspect, which is looking at character, it will take away from its importance as a novel. Satire, I think, is a bit different in that respect. As satire, the Left Behind books work extremely well. They can be read as self-parody, which is actually much more enjoyable.
Wayne: All politics aside, how good or bad is the writing in the novels itself?
Michael: To me, it’s pretty bad. In the forefront is that LaHaye gives Jenkins an outline, then Jenkins has to fit the characters into this, reducing the characters to mere pawns of a Biblically “literalist” authority first (it’s a pick and choose literalism though), as well as the authority of LaHaye, and then finally the authority of Jenkins. So you have three levels of authority over the characters before they can even get out on the page. The characters come out as much, cardboard and dead, with no independence of their own as characters. I’ve been reading more literary theory lately, and this has been influencing my thoughts on how authoritative the ‘authors’ are on the fictional characters in the books, to a point where I wonder if we can even call the Left Behind novels fiction or novels at all.
Wayne: You quote Richard Hofstadter a number of times in Skipping Towards Armageddon. Why does Hofstadter resonate with you?
Michael: I think he was right on when he was discussing the politics of paranoia in the U.S. We get it all the time, from terrorism, to nuclear war, to immigration, to fears of just about anything. We do paranoia very well. Fear is a galvanizing political tool, and the Left Behind novels play off fear. Fear of not being saved. Fear of being “Left Behind.” Fears of others. Fears of liberals, of the UN, fear of secularists, Jews, Muslims, Catholics or others not in the same theology or political ideology of LaHaye. So I thought Hofstader’s remarks on the paranoid style of American politics are as relevant now as they have ever been.
Wayne: The fear of globalization that characterizes the Left Behind movement seems hardly limited to the moral majority movement alone. Anti-globalization sentiment, what you called the fear of the clash of modernity with traditional values, seems to be common from left to right, and across East and West. Can you comment further on why those feelings are becoming widespread throughout the globe?
Michael: Wow, that’s a tough question and I don’t know if I could go into it in just a few lines. But the simple answer is that globalization affects people’s lives, for good and bad, and there is always a fear of change. People have the right to be afraid of change, as long as they can articulate why they are afraid of it. I tend to think a lot of anti-globalization fears are not articulated well, where they just become anti-for-being-anti sake, or anti-just-to-protect-my-interests sake. For example, anti-globalization farmers in France striking because the EU wants to reduce subsidies on their products. They want those subsidies, but those subsidies hurt farmers in the third world who find it hard to compete because their governments can’t offer the same support, but then if those farmers in France weren’t subsidized, they’d go under pretty fast because they couldn’t compete with the farmer in say Africa. What to do? There are so many pluses and minuses to globalization, but to simplify it into totally accentuating the negative as anti-globalization activists do or totally accentuating the positive as extreme free marketers do, misses the murky middle where the real truths lie. I, for instance, would love to see many more locally grown foods and small family farmers being supported, but I’d also like to see that farmer in Africa not have to compete with the big subsidies to export his goods. I think the bigger problem here is subsidies for unsustainable large scale farming, industrialized farming, instead of more humane and “loving” farming that individual farmers bring to their small farms. But I’m getting off the subject here …
Wayne: You noted the recent popularity of other apocalyptic works like Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. How popular will these themes remain the further we get from the beginning of this millenium?
Michael: I think apocalyptic works will continue to be popular as long as we have big things to be afraid of. God, war, natural disaster, asteroids, global warming, etc. I would however like to see people be a bit more stoic and pragmatic than wasting their time being afraid. There are a lot better things to do with your life than living in fear. Also, as a side note, I think stories of individual apocalypse are interesting and perhaps beneficial. We all face our own apocalypse at the end anyway, our own destruction. Every moment is a little apocalypse I think, but also a moment of creation. It is where the larger apocalyptic religious ideas are used to support ideologies and movements where I get quite wary. People get hooked, do things they wouldn’t usually do, drink the bad kool-aid (whether that be a real poisoned drink or a few hundred dollars to Left Behind merchandise), and lose their sense of self, thus losing their power to someone in authority.
Wayne: You mention your childhood interest in the military and survivalism. How far, if at all, have you outgrown those interests?
Michael: I’ve outgrown this. I remember telling my mom I wanted to be a five-star general and it made her cry. I was like five or six years old. I could sit and look at guns and tanks for hours and hours. I would draw intricate tunnels with underground cities where I think I expected we’d all be living in a few years. Some crazy shit. I used to be really into ninjas as well, not in a teen-age-mutant ninja turtles sense, but into actually doing ninjitsu meditation and getting in pretty deep when I was about 12 years old. But puberty helped all that, I think.
Wayne: Can you tell us about your novel Pisco Kid and when you expect it to come out?
Michael: The Adventures of the Pisco Kid is a satirical adventure novel to be published by Arriviste Press, though not sure when exactly. I think they were going to start moving forward on this right about now. Supposedly hard cover, which I’d be all for, just for the sheer usefulness of the hard spine of the book as a ninjitsu killing device. The novel is about a young man whose mother (she named him Moses) thinks he has a mission to be some sort of messiah to the world, though he really doesn’t like this burden. He works as a rodent exterminator. That’s about all I’ll say, though I will say it was probably the thing I had the most fun writing.