Wednesday, June 19, 2024

When the C.I.A. Turned Writers Into Operatives

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Benjamen Walker, the creator and host of “Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything,” is a pod-maker of the mad-scientist variety: he cooks up projects using his own zeal, research, and audacious notions, then unleashes the results on the world. “Theory of Everything,” which originated in 2004, a decade before the podcast boom, has always been intellectually rigorous, funny, and whimsical, with a format that David Carr, the late Times media reporter, once described as “What are we talking about this week? Who knows! Off we go! 1984! The year, not the book.” Recently, Walker released his magnum opus, a nine-episode miniseries called “Not All Propaganda Is Art,” which he started reporting while hunkered down on a French island in the early days of the pandemic. It bears the marks of the feverish isolation of that time, conjuring a mid-century transatlantic world of left-wing intellectuals, the cultural Cold War, the C.I.A., mass culture, high culture, post-colonialism, and a whiff of conspiracy. Fittingly, it begins with “1984”—the book, not the year.

The series takes its name from the Orwell quote “All art is propaganda . . . on the other hand, not all propaganda is art”—an idea, Walker tells us, perhaps best expressed by the 1956 film version of Orwell’s novel, which was “secretly made by the C.I.A.” (This is a truthful simplification.) We hear old newsreel audio describing the film’s glamorous London première, where there were evening gowns, tuxedos, and people dressed as Thought Police. The novel, we recall, is about a totalitarian future, in which the dictator Big Brother controls and mass-surveils the populace; it ends with its once rebellious hero, Winston Smith, accepting his love for Big Brother. The 1956 film had two versions: one faithful to the novel, the other with a “happy” ending, for European audiences, screened at the première. (In it, Smith defiantly yells “Down with Big Brother!” in front of a Lenin-style propaganda poster, then dies in a hail of secret-police gunfire.) Walker chats with the British historian Tony Shaw, who argues that the U.S. government thought the movie’s “twist” made it more “anti-Soviet.” Nikita Khrushchev had just announced his policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the West, and Walker believes that the film was the West’s unofficial response. “Peaceful coexistence: not an option,” he says. “Only freedom or death.”

It’s a zesty beginning, meant to draw us into the heart of Walker’s project: a group biography, as he calls it, of the writers Dwight Macdonald, Kenneth Tynan, and Richard Wright, whose trajectories help to illuminate the shadowy maneuverings of the cultural Cold War between 1956 and 1960. (Macdonald and Tynan contributed to The New Yorker.) All three men’s lives intersect with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a lavishly funded anti-Communist organization secretly set up by the C.I.A. and headquartered in Europe, which sponsored conferences, literary magazines, art exhibitions, and other projects. Macdonald, an ornery American essayist, was a critic of Stalin and totalitarianism, and then a critic of paranoid McCarthyism. Tynan, the influential British theatre critic for The Observer, lustily called for political engagement in art, for dissent, and for “anti-anti-Americanism”; during the series’ time frame, he lives in London and New York. Wright, the American novelist and essayist (“Native Son,” “Uncle Tom’s Children”), was living in Paris, where he had moved in the forties, partly for the freedom from American racism. An anti-Communist former Communist, he was involved in many C.C.F. projects, and contended with his literary antagonist and fellow-expatriate James Baldwin, who was on the C.C.F.’s radar, too.

In 1956, Walker tells us, each of these men was at a pivotal moment in life, and connected in part through Encounter, a London-based magazine funded by the C.C.F. Wright, then one of the most famous Black novelists in the world, goes to the U.S. Embassy to warn officials about possible Communist influence at the Congress of Black Writers and Artists, a pan-Africanism conference in Paris, which he then attends. (A provocative pro-socialism letter from W. E. B. Du Bois is read aloud there; Baldwin also attends, and writes about it for Encounter.) Tynan, another contributor to Encounter, calls British culture a moribund “dust bowl,” and publishes his famously impassioned review of the play “Look Back in Anger,” which helps to kick off the class-conscious Angry Young Man movement in Britain. He also embraces Brechtian political theatre; one night, he comes home and tells his wife, the novelist Elaine Dundy, “I have seen ‘Mother Courage’ and I am a Marxist.” (Both Dundy, in archival audio, and Walker seem to find this amusing; Walker says that Tynan’s Marxism was more like “champagne socialism.”) Meanwhile, Macdonald is hired to write and edit for Encounter for a year, allegedly unaware that it’s a front operation. “So, yeah—in 1956, just as he set out to write his grand theory of mass culture, Dwight Macdonald started working for the C.I.A.,” Walker says.

That year, Western propaganda efforts were going strong. The C.I.A. infiltrated not just magazines, radio, and movies but youth organizations and movements like Abstract Expressionism; all were meant to inspire a reverence for democracy and freedom, a project that, in Walker’s telling, often tips into absurdity. Macdonald, for example, is hired to help demonstrate American virtues—free speech, tolerance of criticism—but his writing defends high culture from the corrupting forces of the market, and therefore, on some level, from capitalism. That becomes a problem. In 1955, Macdonald writes a scathing Encounter piece on the C.C.F.’s International Future of Freedom conference, which left him “a little disturbed by the luxury atmosphere, luxe hotels, meal tickets to expensive restaurants,” and very disturbed at its “almost complete failure as a medium for the exchange of ideas.” Encounter precedes the piece with a positive account of the conference by someone else. In 1957, Macdonald writes a blunt critique of American mass culture, which prompts another C.I.A.-sponsored publication to call Macdonald, as Walker puts it, “the most influential cultural Marxist of them all.” Finally, in 1958, Macdonald writes “America, America,” a study excoriating the country’s mainstream culture as, Walker summarizes, “shapeless, soulless, ill-mannered, violent, ugly.” Encounter refuses to publish it; by this time, Macdonald is seen as a traitor.

Macdonald, Tynan, and Wright all produce excellent work during these years, reckoning with big questions about art, criticism, society, and economic systems, even as they’re being paid by front organizations for a propaganda scheme. (The C.I.A.’s covert cultural activities were made public in 1966; Macdonald responded with an Esquire essay that he referred to as “Confessions of an Unwitty C.I.A. Agent.”) Walker, whose show is part of the invaluable independent-podcast network Radiotopia, researches his subjects with fanatic energy, visiting archives in America and Europe, interviewing the writers’ friends and peers, consulting scholars, and unearthing intriguing correspondence, film footage, and archival audio. (In a companion podcast series, “Propaganda Notes & Sources”—a perk for subscribers—he details his sources for each episode.) The show, mixed by Walker’s longtime collaborator Andrew Callaway, thrums with evocative music and vivid audio of the three men. Walker’s narration style is endearing—lots of “dear listener”s, a gung-ho conspiratorial friendliness—though it can groan under the weight of his information and ambition. But “Not All Propaganda Is Art” never feels like it’s made by a corporation, a coalition of big-name producing partners, or an NPR affiliate. Its flaws and considerable strengths are distinctly its own. It feels almost like propaganda itself, both for the importance of its subjects and for the legacy of the cultural Cold War—an era that, in Walker’s estimation, “built the world we live in today.” ♦



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