Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, by Joel Whitney, was published by OR Books in 2016. At the most basic level, it is a history of at least a few of the activities of cold-war era CIA. On that level, there really isn’t much new to see. The CIA was actively engaged in propaganda. They had their fingers in a lot of other people’s pies. Some people’s lives were made difficult or ruined. Some people made a bit of money and reputation.
But wait. Might there be more to be gained by reading this book than a reminder of the tensions and unpleasantness in the first few decades that followed the second world war? Well, reading the book inspires a certain degree of paranoia. Not the unhealthy everyone’s-out-to-get-me type – but a more healthy and mature variety. A variety that understands the ideological world can be a difficult place to thrive.
Freedom of Expression is a vital concept and fixture of intellectual, cultural, social, professional, and interpersonal life. But freedom of expression isn’t necessarily easy, simple and friendly. Indeed, freedom of expression inevitably leads to wars of words and ideas at least as often as it leads to group hugs and congratulations on sentiments well-expressed. And sometimes wars of words aren’t enough to satisfy the participants.
In a later chapter, a passage very nearly jumps from the page when Whitney describes how words and ideas were not enough to satisfy the CIA or the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an organizational belligerent in the propaganda wars).
…Denying money to left-wig writers was by now old hat for CCF, implicit in any of its activities, explicit in others. And it worked as a means of training them to remain without certain rhetorical boundaries (think of that phrase of Botsford as Lowell’s “leash” on the intellectuals). Between the carrot and the stick, the carrot was publication in the well-paying CIA magazines, or its junkets in New York, Europe, Latin America or Asia, all expenses paid, or its networks of friends who could enable subsidies and enhance a writer’s portfolio. To those writers who maintained their critical stance toward the American way came the stick. At minimum, this could mean marginalization, post-McCarthy blacklisting, publication bans, or other forms of censorship. In Neruda’s Chile, the CCF’s plotting also involved a smear campaign that, once blurred in their minds with the US coup, would traumatize those closest to Neruda for decades. (pg.195)
Lest we get too far from the point, it is valuable to consider Cold War lessons in the more current times when it isn’t “cold warriors” most frequently noted in public affairs. Our current decade’s ideological warriors go by different names but the tactics used are not really all that different. Carrot and stick. Ruin and traumatize your opposition if possible. These remain, at least for some ideological warriors, the ethics and values which are most in evidence.
Whitney’s writing is dense. Laden with much research and well worth the time spent. Consider obtaining a copy.