Outlandish Assertions: Response to Joel Whitney

IN JOEL WHITNEY’S RESPONSE to my review of his book Finks, which was to be published as a Letter to the Editor here today, but which he preemptively published in Guernica instead, he displays some of the same flaws that mar the book itself: overplaying evidence and allowing sensationalist language, rather than careful argument, to support his claims. Where he’s pulled back on some of that sensationalist language in his response, he instead attacks me for claims that I never made.

In his response, Whitney says that the most “outlandish… assertion” in my review is that Finks is excessively conspiratorial and relies far too heavily on claims that the Paris Review was guilty of “nefarious puppeteering” (I had “marionetteering” in my original draft, which I still like better, but editors are wise). He defends himself by pointing to a couple of instances where he grants that the Paris Review played a relatively small part in the Cultural Cold War. However, the structure of the book as a whole and the overheated language he uses throughout (including many ominous section-ending rhetorical questions), dramatically overplay the importance of this one journal. I will not try the patience of LARB‘s readers here by walking them through how Whitney uses the Paris Review, but I invite them to read the book and judge for themselves whether Whitney’s argument lives up to its rhetoric. I also encourage them to read the many other works on the Cultural Cold War (by Frances Stonor Saunders, Giles Scott-Smith, Hugh Wilford, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, Patrick Iber, Russell Cobb, and others) whose authors have done primary-source research that Whitney mines for his book.

Whitney’s charge that I am ignoring the bulk of CIA interference in the editorial decisions of Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) magazines has little to do with what I actually wrote. His primary source for information on the magazine Encounter, Saunders, documented only three such instances in her book The Cultural Cold War, and in my own research in the magazine’s papers (at the University of Chicago, the University of Texas, and Boston University) I found nothing additional. Whitney’s assertion that Saunders alluded to “twenty or thirty” others in an interview with him adds no actual evidence to the record. If there was CIA meddling in other CCF magazines, that neither surprises me nor disproves my point. I was speaking only about Encounter, as I have investigated the archives only of Encounter.

Whitney states that “some of [the Paris Review]’s interviewees might have liked to know that their […] interview was recycled into the official magazines of the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” and implies that I think, on the contrary, that this was ridiculous. Not at all! As a writer, I’d certainly like control over what happens to everything I write after first publication; and if I’m ever interviewed, I’d love to be able to exercise approval over what a journalist or publisher can do with that interview. My only point is that this isn’t how things work in the magazine business, and grandstanding that the reprinting of a famous writer’s interview without the interviewee’s permission is some sort of “betrayal” or coercion, as Whitney does in his book, is disingenuous.

Whitney also knocks me for willfully ignoring the unwillingness of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF) to stand up for the civil-rights movement. That is true, but irrelevant to the point I was making: that it’s not accurate to claim that the ACCF and the Paris-based CCF were working hand in glove.

I do regret faulting Whitney for claiming that Sen. Joseph McCarthy chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee. As he points out in his response, I was indeed reviewing advance uncorrected proofs of the book, which did include that statement. Since that erroneous statement has been corrected in the final print version, I withdraw that criticism with my apologies.