In Part 1 of my exchange with Joel Whitney, conducted shortly after OR Books published Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers, we explored the book as history (which is how Whitney intends it to be read). Our focus was on the narrative line in Finks, fascinating in itself, and its many varied implications—for writing and publishing, primarily, but also for American culture in a broader dimension.
In this, the conclusion of our conversation, we stayed much closer to the world out the window, as we both put it. I wanted to explore Whitney’s thinking as to the scars the period he wrote about has left behind. I was especially interested in Whitney’s reflections on the crisis in the American press and whether its corrupted relationship with power now can be usefully compared with its conduct during the Cold War—its “finkification,” as Whitney put it in a telephone conversation as I worked through the transcript.
“Nothing’s been subtracted from the setup that existed until the ’60s and ’70s,” he said during our interview. “There’s been no serious accountability. There’s no truth and reconciliation. It’s always the people who are involved who get to preside over the verdict of what it did and how it should be dealt with.”
Now, let me ask a question of Whitney the magazine editor. I think a lot about the Cold War’s scars. They are many. Among the deepest, in my view, is our inability to think clearly—cleanly, so to say, with detachment or disinterest. We’ve lost this, it seems to me. But maybe you disagree based on what comes across your desk at the magazine. In the matter of Cold War scars, what do you see as a magazine editor?
Well, since starting the book project I’ve removed myself from day-to-day Guernica responsibilities.… If you want to be a little more optimistic about culture, creating a magazine maybe at first will hurt you, but after its name has grown somewhat, it will help you to become more optimistic about culture long-term. People are writing about every damn thing. They probably always were. It’s easier than ever to get it to an editor now, probably, than has ever been the case. It’s just a question of finding the process and the time to get the good pieces from out of all the noise.
Talking about the scars of the Cold War, they’re there. In publishing I think there’s still a fear of sounding too left wing.
Oh, tell me about it.
I think there’s a fear of self-marginalization, self-censorship. Certainly with regard to the NSA surveillance story, which PEN did a great survey about: They found that writers were self-censoring. I think a lot of people were letting Obama off the hook on things like drones. Maybe Guantánamo—he tried to close it and got stonewalled—but on drones, how do we let him give a drone program, virtually intact, to Trump?