Something for Memorial Day.
NEW YORK, 29 MAY—This past week, in anticipation of a couple of weeks’ travel, I finished work on the transcript of an excellent interview I conducted early in the spring. Readers of my column will know I occasionally publish lengthy Q & A exchanges with people I think deserve the space. I try to choose carefully. This one was with Joel Whitney, who, at 44, is distinguished in all sorts of ways. He studied under Richard Howard, the noted poet and translator, while earning his MFA at Columbia. A few years after getting his letters he co-founded an online magazine called Guernica. As its title implies, it is a journal dedicated to work written at the intersection of art and politics—what an interesting place to stand, always—and it has been an award winner severally since its launch in 2004.
Whitney has just published his first book. No, not poetry, but a lengthy examination of the C.I.A.’s campaign in the literary sphere during what we call “the cultural Cold War.” This is well-tilled ground, notably by Frances Stonor Saunders, an English writer whose The Cultural Cold War set the standard, but Whitney’s way into the topic was very specifically literature and publishing, and he legitimately broke new ground. The book is called Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers. It came out early this year from O/R Books, an interesting new house with editorial offices in Los Angeles, and it was the occasion of our meeting.
I question whether some of the writers Whitney names—and the many names he names are astonishing—were in any way fooled: A lot of them seem to have known exactly what they were doing when they colluded covertly with the spooks. For that matter, “the world’s best”? Finks mentions a few who earn that designation—usually those who were unwittingly drawn into this monumental corruption of American culture and vigorously, instantly blasted it when the lights came on.
But never mind these minor reservations. It is an excellent piece of work, years in the making, and if all goes to plan my Q & A with Whitney is to be published in two parts in The Nation, the first to appear very shortly. By “in The Nation” I mean “TheNation.com.” having overcome my (generational) prejudice against online publication, the liberties are many: These two parts run to 6,000 and 4,000 words respectively. When I was coming up in the craft, that kind of space was unheard-of. One caveat: “If all goes to plan” is a phrase any hack with experience takes seriously as a cautionary. Plans change so often and abruptly in response to events that it is a question how worthwhile it is to speak of plans in journalism, literary or straight-out daily work. We will shortly see. Per my practice, I will Twitter out a note when Part 1 appears (and Part 2 after that).
NICELY SATISFIED after getting the Whitney Q & A out the door at last, a couple of recent incidents came to mind this week, and I thought (1) to consider them together, separate as they may seem, (2) think about them in the historical context Whitney’s book provides, and (3) share them with that—ahem!—highly select, exceptionally discriminating society that reads Cú Chulainn.
No. 1. One night a couple of months ago, someone dear to me had one of those late-night television shows on: It happened to be The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He is not without gift, Colbert, but since Donald Trump’s election he has become, like so many others in the liberal camp, impossibly tiresome. On the eve in question, he was doing his too-predictable-to-amuse standup—Trump this, Trump that, Trump the other—and it came time to announce the night’s menu. I have a video clip, so memorable a moment was it, but I won’t go find it, as the details are not important. “And tonight,” he said approximately, “we have”—split-sec pause—“Michael Hayden, whose new book….” Bald, pot-bellied, bespectacled Hayden, resembling no one more than Mr. Magoo, is of course the retired general who served as the C.I.A.’s director from 2006 to 2009—the last years of Bush II and the first of Barack Obama.
It was stunning in itself that a chief spook would be on a show such as Colbert’s. Hayden was indeed doing a standard writer’s plug for his just-out book, Playing to the Edge: Intelligence in the Age of Terror. But there was a lot more to his presence on Stephen Colbert’s highly popular program, and I will leave readers to consider these many implications. What printed this occasion in my mind was what followed. As soon as Colbert spoke Hayden’s name, the audience erupted in those “Woo-woo’s” and “Whoa’s” youthful American mobs affect at rock concerts and other such events.
My jaw hit the edge of the coffee table. What is this, I shouted aloud. Who are these people? I felt like Rip van Winkle, awakening after a long sleep to find the world a different place I could not recognize, a nonsense.
No. 2. A friend wrote back in response to a column I had filed on the chicanery at Moody’s Investor Services, which had just this past week downgraded Chinese debt. Imagine an American rating agency complaining that Chinese debt was getting out of hand. Preposterous: This was the column’s theme, carefully put and nickel-plated with comparative data.
The friend wrote:
As the Libor scandal should have taught everyone, the analysts of financial markets are just as prone to insider-genrerated spin for short-terms gains as are the journalists that cover foreign policy…. Shared a plane ride with a guy (an Italian–American dual national whose claims about his former jobs I have verified) who was in this at the highest level in European sovereign debt and got out. Basically said that U.S. “deep state” manipulation of these things goes from head to toe and that collaboration between Merrill Lynch, his one-time employer, and the Company was very tight.
Another stunner. A qualifier here, however—a few, actually.
I have not checked this information. My friend, when pressed, had not asked for the name of his cabin-mate’s superior during the flight they shared. Under no circumstance would I go to press with this information as I have it: That would be 20,000 leagues beneath professional standards even The New York Times would have to observe. (Well, I should maybe not take the point that far.)
These things said, my friend-informant is an excellent scholar, an accomplished Europeanist by training. He is careful in the scholarly way. He is also a very close student of contemporary events and is astute in finding the truths that lie beneath the surface of our national life. Alert readers will have seen his essays in publications those who browse Cú Chulainn know as a matter of course. In sum, I am fine with what he told me, my adherence to professional constraints notwithstanding. This is a Journal on a web site. (I detest the word “bl*g.”) The form is new and the rules different.
WHAT AM I GETTING AT HERE? It is not too complicated. I invite readers to think along with me about these two very minor incidents and put them in the context of Joel Whitney’s book (which, certainly, I invite readers to look at).
What do we see?
There is a book in a good response to this question, and if we are fortunate someone will write it (and soon). For now, in Cú Chulainn’s pages, I have just this:
One, just as Joel Whitney’s book suggested, and as he and I discussed during our exchange, the C.I.A.’s subversions of reality extended everywhere during the Cold War—there was no limit one can identify—and it is likely they still do. Nothing is clean. Nothing is necessarily as it appears to be. Little can be taken at face value without verification, and independent verification is increasing difficult to come by. It leaves us in a difficult place—more worrisome the clearer it becomes that most of us are not even aware of our predicament.
Two, and following on the above point, we confront a radical, carefully cultivated change in American attitudes. It has a prominent generational dimension. If you begin, say, 40–odd years ago and look at commonly accepted views of the C.I.A.—what it was and is, what it did and does, what it stood for and stands for—these are now perpendicular to what they were. Or upside down, better put. During the Vietnam war period and after Vietnam’s victory in 1975, people understood the grave dangers of an anti-democratic agency dedicated to subversion—at home as well as abroad, it turned out—and all manner of illegal activities. They saw quite clearly the dangers of a national security state beyond all civilian control. They also saw the creeping reality of secrecy, and how much official business was conducted out of our sight. There was awareness. The matter was in the public eye. There was at least some objection. Pat Moynihan, that bomb-throwing crazy, published Secrecy: The American Experience, in 1998. Better late than never: It is a very good overview of a very real problem.
Now look. We have the very descendants of those who once objected to the C.I.A. and the vast hidden world it signified applauding the chief spook on a dedicatedly liberal late-night talk program. Some things have happened. I will briefly note three.
One, American forgetfulness, among the chief reasons we run around the same bushes unable to address (to say nothing of solve) the same problems, now pushes even very recent history into a remote, inaccessible past. The result—think again of Michael Hayden winning applause on the Colbert show—is that we cannot see straight (and never mind think straight). That moment I bore down on was an utter disgrace.
Two, after Watergate and the Indochina defeats, a concerted campaign was launched to rehabilitate disgraced American institutions—the Pentagon, “the intelligence community” (a contemptible phrase symptomatic of exactly what I mean here) in the American imagination. It began during the Reagan administration and has gone spectacularly well. People dress in camo to go to the mall, flags are everywhere, hatred of others is a patriotic signifier, and it counts as legitimate feminism if it is women who are firing rockets and heavy artillery into communities in other countries. No need to go on. Most Americans love it all.
My third point is the subtlest and most difficult to get down—but also the most significant, in my view. It is more an intuition than a concretely observed phenom at this point. I am unlikely to do an adequate job explaining what I mean.
In the decades since 1975—my touchstone date for a great many thoughts and analyses—there has been what I will capitalize here for the first time as the Great Surrender, or maybe the Great Capitulation. It is a question of social psychology, a shared, collective consciousness. People have given up a vast proportion of what makes a life truly worth living. Survival, privately pursued, is the only remaining project. And if merely surviving is all one is about, it is less a form of living than a form of dying.
I reference a kind of totality. Neoliberal economics, planted during the Carter administration, administered with steroids during Reagan’s, and polished smooth during Clinton’s, have triumphed. What of our lives that has not yet been corporatized and monetized is under threat of both. The political process offers no escape into another future. Our media abjectly abandon their posts. It is harder and harder to breathe.
Everyone loses (even the perpetrators) if one thinks in terms of the loss of a vital spirit and the will to live fully and vibrantly. But N. this B.: Only most lose materially: Some benefit, if modestly, and—bitterest to admit—those who do prove willing to… as I say, capitulate in all other matters. These are our liberals, our Clintonians. At the very least one can say liberals are prominent among those who most vigorously defend our status quo. Do not forget HRC on this point: It is not about “making America great again,” she used to assert. “America is great.” It is a clever phrase out on the hustings, but it bears careful interpretation nonetheless.
It is as if those I describe declare, “Alas, I have no public self, for I did not defend it and it has died. I don’t understand much about how we got here, because I neither read nor think anything other than what I am told to read and think. Everyone knows it is impossible to see to the bottom of American life and American power, so there is no point trying. I choose blissful ignorance, although you will never get me to admit I am anything but very smart. I am suspended somewhere in the middle class. I can still lose myself in all manner of perfectly private pursuits. And I vote. This makes me a good American. Now I entertain delusions of “resistance,” and I make a fuss over the admittedly pointless “subversions” acted out by scholars, celebrities, music stars, and so on. These are sufficient to keep me calm. Let us, then, celebrate those who make at least this much possible. Let us applaud our guardians, Michael Hayden among them—those who protect our poor substitute for authentic living against all threats to overturn our nightmare, for we have learned to sleep soundly enough within it. And we have died to all thoughts of daylight.”
Most of us let ourselves down in this way: This is my sense of how we live. We acquiesce as the integrity of our national life and our institutions is subverted to an extent that is without precedent, I would assert. Letting oneself down in this way, retreating into a form of stupefaction, lets down all others, too. Most of us are busy, then, letting each other down—acting without faith.
Joel Whitney, reflecting on the time he wrote of, the 1950s and 1960s, said, “But those who resisted—they’re important. They’re poking a hole in the tent.” The passage is in the Q & A mentioned above. Such people are always important. And they are always very few. Stephen Colbert and those in his audience are not among them. They only pretend to be. They are lost in self-preservation, and that is always an impoverished idea of a good cause.