Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Not Just History

"Finks – How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” by Joel Whitney, 2017

This excellent and thorough history is not exactly how the title reads.  On NPR, Whitney had to explain the title perhaps too many times, which indicates that he was not quite happy with it.  Being a ‘fink’ implies being an informer.  Being ‘tricked’ implies that you were oblivious to your role in the ‘Cold War.’   However, while some informed, most of the ‘finking’ was actually being a propagandist for the “American way of life” and accompanying apolitical or anti-communist work.  Going after the left as your ‘cultural duty,’ so to speak. Being ‘tricked’ really works out to pretending not to know where the money was coming from.  Or oblivious to how your work dovetailed with the needs of the U.S. government and the CIA.  Many left and liberal writers were ‘tricked’ into interviews or writing for the CIA-backed and ostensibly ‘apolitical’ ‘Paris Review’, ‘Encounter’ and others – people like Ernest Hemingway, Arthur Miller, Bertrand Russell and James Baldwin. But others, especially the literary editors, knew exactly what was going on.
Apolitical Belle Lettres - Courtesy CIA

The CIA under James Jesus Angleton and later, Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, understood that the global class war against the USSR, China and other workers’ states was more than invasions, bribery, funding or assassinations.  It also involved the cultural sphere.  The great reveal of this book is that you come to understand this same culture war in defense of capitalism is still going on.  The crushing of political fiction actually succeeded and goes on to this day.

The ‘great’ names of many intellectuals and writers in U.S. culture show up in this book in one way or another.  It is somewhat disturbing, but shows how culture interlocked in those days.  The main writers fronting for CIA magazines or cultural groups at different times  – specifically ‘Paris Review’ and “Encounter” backed by the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) – were well-known people like Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, William Styron and Stephen Spender.  Nicholas Nabokov, Robert Lowell, James Farrell, Arthur Koestler and the later Richard Wright show up as members of the Congress at various times.  Most of the Western editors hailed from the precious confines of Yale or Harvard, recruited by literature professors, and had extremely privileged backgrounds.  You could say they were doing the intellectual work of defending their class.

The main question is not, was there censorship in the USSR and other workers’ states of relatively benign cultural products.  Or were some American writers actually good writers? The question is, can you oppose censorship or promote good writing while not collaborating with the capitalist state, which is busy committing atrocities around the world through the CIA and others?  These editors and writers could not.

Targets of these intellectuals were leftist and ‘anti-American’ cultural icons like Pablo Neruda, John Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Dwight MacDonald, Erskine Caldwell & John Berger, i.e. cultural figures that did not support U.S. foreign or domestic policy.  This included all Soviet writers, for instance Michael Sholokhov, who wrote “And Quiet Flows the Don.” Even CP-led organizations in the U.S. opposing lynching like the Civil Rights Congress were in the sights of these petit-bourgeois intellectuals, especially centered around the CIA-supported domestic ‘American Committee’ led by anti-communists like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell.  In essence, any deep criticism of “America,’ no matter how accurate, was ultimately verboten.

Whitney looks in depth into the butchered publishing of Boris Pasternak’s famous novel “Dr. Zhivago” by the CIA against the wishes of Pasternak himself.   He discusses the censorship of various writers who fell out of favor with the CIA due to something they wrote. (I.E. censorship cuts both ways.)  He shows how the literary networks established by the CIA gained authors money, subscriptions, jobs, junkets, sales and publicity.  Julius Fleishmann, of margarine, yeast and gin company fame, was a main financing conduit for CIA money into a web of literary magazines around the world, like the British “Encounter” and about 15 others.  Whitney details the relationships between the CIA and other government agencies with the Hollywood film industry, especially Paramount pictures, and how they used censorship even before a film came out. He narrates the changes that came over James Baldwin who wrote for ‘Encounter’ while in Paris, but then realized he was more afraid of U.S. institutional racism than the USSR – especially after moving back to the U.S.  Heavily praised writers featured in CIA publications like William Faulkner eventually sided with the segregationists during the 1960s.  Faulkner even said he’d fight for Mississippi against the U.S. on this issue, though he claims he was ‘drunk’ during that interview.

On the international front, Whitney examines the role of the U.S. funding of Christian Democrats, backing coups and opposing the revolution in Cuba for writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Kenneth Tynan, Tennessee Williams, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Hemingway.  Tynan went into a stuttering anti-communist frenzy over the trials of Batista's poor henchmen.  Hemingway was chased by Plimpton for years for a high-profile interview.  Hemingway had donated money to the Cuban Communist Party and went on an historic fishing trip with Castro and Guevara.  He refused to condemn the support of the USSR for Cuba, unlike Norman Mailer.  Hemingway later committed suicide in Ketcham, Idaho, while under intense FBI surveillance, which some understand played a role in his suicide.

Plimpton’s father was a U.S. delegate to the UN, who later lied to that body about the Bay of Pigs.  CIA-backed Latin American magazines, “Combate” and “Cuadernos” were started, with connections to Norman Thomas of the U.S. Socialist Party, featuring some of these writers.  The CIA tricked the left-wing Marquez into publishing two chapters of “100 Years of Solitude” in their magazines.  As you can see, many of these writers didn’t know who they were dealing with.

Robert Lowell, a mentally disturbed blue-blood poet, was brought to Latin America by the CCF to overshadow Pablo Neruda.  He failed.  Later the CIA tried to blackball Neruda from getting the Nobel prize for literature, picturing him as a Stalinist.  Final vengeance was achieved when Neruda died 12 days after the overthrow of Salvador Allende under suspicious circumstances.  Other writers like Fuentes, Octavio Paz and  Vargas Lhosa were also tricked into writing for the CIA magazine ‘Mundo Nuevo,” along with approved luminaries like Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Lowell.  Sontag published essays in that magazine arguing against Freudian or Marxist interpretations of literature, which was certainly the CIA line.  When Neruda came for the PEN conference in the U.S., the CIA had already penetrated it in several ways. One of which was tricking Arthur Miller into accepting the presidency over the anti-imperialist writer Miguel Asturias.  All this in the context of continual U.S.-backed coups and assassinations in Latin America.  Whitney includes a long section on GG Marguez’ travails through coups, uprisings and revolutions and the genesis of “100 Years...” and what the CIA did with it.

The book also contains the odd story of Jayaprakash Narayan, a former leading socialist who donated land to India’s landless, in a pacifist and Gandhian gesture. The CIA preferred this to a revolution of landless peasants seizing the landlords’ land. Narayan and others became social-democratic cold warriors opposed to Nehru’s neutralism.   Narayan and his organization were approved by the CIA and their literary magazines, including “Quest,” and “Imprint,’ both published in India.  And the tactic worked, because to this day Indian peasants are the premier living examples of the concept of debt-peonage in the world.  This is where charity gets you.

Whitney throws in some freebies, like how a female Ramparts reporter wrestled the diaries of Che Guevara out of the hands of two CIA publishers, and in the process discovered that Che's execution was overseen by CIA agents. Or how the CIA disrupted underground newspapers through "Operation Chaos."  Or how John Train, who was involved with "Paris Review," ended up doing propaganda work for the CIA in the 1980s in Afghanistan, in league with Muslim fundamentalists like Bin Laden and against the USSR. 

This is one of the key books on U.S. literary history ever written.   It is a bit gossipy, but ties many events of literary life together.  For instance, it should be no secret that William F. Buckley was a CIA tool.  Ultimately the NY Times and Ramparts blew the whistle on the web of literary collaboration with the CIA.  The book relates to the present writing culture of individualist or post-modernist fiction too, as both these trends would no doubt be approved by the CIA, or already have been!  The self-affirming world of ‘in-group’ literature still exists, though now it has been blasted into more fragments, with people like Jonathan Franzen leading the non-political pack.

So the inevitable question is: How many of our cultural outlets are still connected to the CIA?  Magazines -  Film Studios -  Newspapers -  Journals...Educational Institutions...Television stations...

Below:  Prior review of book by John Berger, “Ways of Seeing.”  A review of Sartre’s essay, “The Ghost of Stalin” will be reviewed soon.  Film reviews of virtual CIA films:  “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo.”  Film review of Baldwin’s, “I Am Not Your Negro!” Reviews involving the CIA:  Talbot’s “The Devil’s Chessboard,” films like “American Made” and “Kill the Messenger,” Ventura’s “They Killed Our President,” the local “American Assassination” and Scahill’s “Dirty Wars.” Use blog search box, upper left.

And I got it at the public library!

Red Frog

January 16, 2017

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