“The past is a foreign country,” L.P. Hartley famously wrote as he opened The Go–Between. There is a pretty tristesse in the line, as Hartley intended, and it holds if the topic is lost love, the joys and errors of youth, all the roads not traveled. But anyone who thinks the thought applies to our institutions, ideologies, and policies, as we are incessantly encouraged to assume, needs to think again. In the political context we must revert to the other noted mot (Faulkner’s) on the topic: The past is not even past.
It would be hard to bring this point home more saliently now than Joel Whitney does in Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. Whitney’s topic is “the instrumentalization of writing,” as he put it at one point in our long exchange—“the weaponization of publishing,” as he said at another. In a broader, simpler phrase, he means the corruption of American culture, discourse, and public space in the name of ideology. Tell me, is there a better time to read of such things as they have unfolded in the past? A better time to hold up history’s mirror so we may look at ourselves as we are? When he finished writing last year, Whitney had no intention of using the shameful record he recounts as an instrument to deploy in the age of Donald Trump. “No, I was expecting to explain my book in the age of Hillary,” he said. “I still don’t have a vocabulary for Trump.” But there is no escaping the timeliness of Whitney’s book, which came out a couple of weeks before Trump’s inauguration. When OR Books sent a notice about it last autumn, I instantly called its Los Angeles office to mooch a set of galleys. I called Whitney to suggest this exchange a couple of days later.
Whitney’s stylish narrative explores the CIA’s covert Cold War program, through which it created dozens of magazines and corrupted many others already publishing. The star of the show is The Paris Review, and some of the names Whitney names caused my jaw to hit the edge of my desk. The cultural Cold War, as the phenom is known, has begotten a small subgenre by now. Whitney’s contribution lies in his focus on literature and, by extension, journalism. “I was after telling the story of the cultural Cold War not in its typical little academic bin, which completely separates it from history and the political Cold War, the so-called real Cold War,” he said, “and to restore the idea that they were both happening at the same time.”
Whitney, who is 44, took an MFA in writing at Columbia in 2000 and wasted little time afterward. In 2004 he co-founded Guernica, a well-considered online magazine where he is now an editor-at-large. Its name is nicely to the point: Like Picasso’s celebrated painting depicting the celebrated Spanish town, Guernica sits at the ever-interesting intersection of art and politics. This is, indeed, where Whitney makes his intellectual home and the hardly implicit theme of Finks. “Culture and politics are siblings,” Whitney said. “It’s not a separate niche category.”