Omniscient Gentlemen of The Atlantic
[from The Baffler No. 19, 2012]
Shepherd, show me how to go
O’er the hillside steep,
How to gather, how to sow,
How to feed Thy sheep.
Mary Baker Eddy
Not long before The Atlantic’s parent company announced its swing into a profit-making business model despite operating in the most moribund corner of a publishing industry, I sat in a glass-paneled press room next to a small auditorium on the second floor of the Washington Newseum and took in the incipient profitability. All the unctuous little scabs who believe the future of words lies in rearranging them online would soon (inter alia) barge into the office of Harper’s publisher Rick MacArthur to trumpet their e-vindication. But they evidently forgot to wonder how much of The Atlantic’s profitability owes to operating conferences, panels, and events like the 2010 Ideas Forum. These in-gatherings count as journalism only in the vague sense that they invite journalists to crowd into plushly appointed suites. At the Ideas Forum, The Atlantic’s own editorial staff was relegated to providing rapid-fire stenography services, to ensure the event was branded and promoted in real time on the website.
The din of younger colleagues tapping keyboards is never soothing, but sitting in the press room of the Ideas Forum felt like a human rights violation. What could anyone write about something so tyrannically dull— other than an angry elegy for the massacre of meaning? The average C-SPAN 3 segment is a crowd-pleasing cliffhanger by comparison. Mind flickering between rage and somnolence, I tried my best to keep awake by writing notes. Here are some highlights, with names redacted to preserve the integrity of the tedium.
[New York Times financial correspondent] rankles [Treasury Secretary] with questions such as “What do you think is the most important thing the team has gotten right?”—there were two things, his interviewee insists—and occasional use of unauthorized verbiage like “re-regulate” to denote efforts to reverse the epochal dismantling of financial regulatory apparatus largely undertaken by the technocratic clique to which [Treasury Secretary] owes his entire career.
[Obama Cabinet official], [Obama policy adviser], [billionaire CEO], [billionaire private equity tycoon], and [billionaire mayor] sing praises of [photogenic local schools chief whose extensive sackings of teachers and principals had been sufficiently unpopular with voters to have cost her boss the recent D.C. mayoral primary]. One refers to [recently released charter school propaganda-mentary] as her “Rosa Parks moment.”
[Billionaire CEO] expresses dismay that “laws are written by lobbyists.”
[Billionaire mayor] expresses indignation that some 40 percent of Americans do not pay income tax.
[Prominent Democratic Lobbyist and his Lobbyist Wife] emphatically deny the notion that the “deck is stacked” against [public interest] under current system on the basis that “everyone has a lobbyist . . . nurses have lobbyists, unions have lobbyists, everybody has a lobbyist. Everyone in this audience has an iPhone or a PDA because lobbyists created a competitive system [that] enabled this whole industry to grow; lobbying can be very good for consumers.”
[Prominent Republican Lobbyist] waxes elegiac for bygone bipartisanship with an anecdote about his use of “surrogates” to obtain an implicit agreement from [former Democratic House speaker] to enforce a two-day limit on Congressional expressions of outrage over the decision of [former lame-duck Republican president] to pardon six individuals criminally charged in [high-profile byzantine secret arms trafficking/campaign finance/cover-up conspiracy] on behalf of his [former Defense Secretary and highest-ranking official to be criminally charged] client. An assurance in which Congressional Democrats guaranteed “two-day story” status to the controversy over a unilateral decision that effectively trashed a six-year investigation into [complicated conspiracy] to contravene Congress, could probably not [Republican Lobbyist] theorized, be a realistic deliverable for a client contending with the present-day “toxic environment” on Capitol Hill.
[Centrist Republican Senator] repeats the income tax thing.
Later it occurred to me that The Atlantic events are convened to attract and satisfy (by leaving slightly dissatisfied) a personality type I think of as the “omniscient gentleman,” after a passage in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which pits a modern-day Christ figure referenced in the title, Prince Myshkin, against a backdrop of “omniscient” name-dropping philistines whose interior lives and true intentions are a mystery to him. Encountering his first Mr. Omniscient on a train, he marvels:
all the restless curiosity and faculties of [his] mind are irresistibly bent in one direction. . . : in what department so-and-so serves, who are his friends, what his income is, where he was governor, who his wife is and what dowry she brought him, who are his first cousins and who are his second cousins . . . The people of whose lives they know every detail would be at a loss to imagine their motives. Yet many of them get positive consolation out of this knowledge, which amounts to a complete science, and derive from it . . . their loftiest comfort and their ultimate goal, and have indeed made their career only by means of it.
Omniscient gentlemen have for most of the last century held exalted status on Madison Avenue, where their facility with community quotidiana is recognized as the stuff of highly effective persuaders, influencers, tastemakers, connectors, and miscellaneous other prophets of consumer trends. The Atlantic’s special subspecies of omniscient gentlemen is the “Thought Leader.”
This is not to say all people identified as tastemakers or Thought Leaders share the propensities of practitioners of the omniscient sciences, but in any sphere of influence, the more omniscient types are the ones more naturally inclined to keep up the Thought Leader lists, and assign themselves a place at the top of them. I know of one wretched hack who lists “Thought Leader” as his occupation on his Twitter profile; he recently scored a fellowship with the American Enterprise Institute.
Omniscience is the operating principle by which everyone understands everyone else in Washington, D.C. It is how you relate—the sort of Olympian free-associating that permits The Atlantic’s in-house Thought Leaders to cast America as Snooki, and “Jersey Shore” and “pessimism” as our ultimate obstacle to combating global warming.
The one thought-provoking moment I experienced following the Thought Leader summit occurred during the penultimate— and only officially controversial—panel of the Ideas Conference, in which Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile/Jordanian bank fraud fugitive who planted many of the perambulatory news stories justifying the Iraq War, was interviewed by Sally Quinn, the recently deposed social columnist for the Washington Post. Quinn’s history with Chalabi had been longer than most on Capitol Hill; her father had been a General in the U.S. Army and had helped create its espionage ring, the Office of Strategic Services.
Now both Quinn and Chalabi were—temporarily at least—social pariahs: she over a Washington Post column in which she purported to debunk a purportedly widespread belief that, with malicious forethought, she had scheduled her son’s wedding on the same day as the wedding of her husband’s granddaughter; Chalabi over his role in marshalling official misinformation that presaged the Iraq War and/or his possible employment as some sort of double agent for Iran.
Quinn wore a light beige pantsuit with a pink blouse that conjured the seventies. Back then she hosted an epic “pajama” party— Quinn’s pajamas were lace and single-shouldered— for the newly elected congressman scion of the Quinns’ closest family friends, Barry Goldwater Jr., and thereby seduced (then Washington Post executive editor) Ben Bradlee into hiring/marrying her and leaving his second wife. In the moderate-pensive tone of voice with which you ask a close friend if there is something you are going to need to lie about on his behalf, Quinn asked Chalabi soberly about the nature of his relationship with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, expressing her disapproval of the Iranian president’s subscription to 9/11 truther conspiracy theories. Chalabi laughed the whole thing off, noting “such views are commonly held in the region.” This may have been the summit’s first acknowledgement of a region outside the Newseum walls. But what stuck with me was Quinn’s opening question/soliloquy:
[You’ve] been pronounced dead politicallyand literally dead–physically–so many times that you can’t count them. So how do you explain your survival? How are you still here? You’ve had assassination attempts, you’ve had death threats, you’ve been in, you’ve been out, you’ve been up, you’ve been down, you’ve been rejected by your political system, you’ve been rejected by the American political system. And still you’re a member of the Parliament, you’re now part of the political power structure in Iraq. What accounts for that?
Chalabi sat, placid and smiling and radiating a remarkable balance of the chakras. I am almost ashamed to say that in the moment I wondered idly about his astrological sign. Revisiting the moment a year later when he made headlines for defending the protesting Shias in Bahrain, I wondered whether anything distinguished him from the countless multiple-passport-carrying urbane mobsters who pass through the Capitol every few months for the ritual taxpayer shakedown.
Then suddenly it was over, and The Atlantic’s own godfather, David G. Bradley, was marching toward David Weigel, a young and prolific journalist specializing in Republican politics who had recently made a name for himself getting fired and rehired by the same media company within several weeks. For Bradley, this shift in nameplates apparently constituted a Chalabi-caliber show of resilience:
“DAVID!!!!! So good to see you!”
“David, you really came back swinging, didn’t you!?!!! You were out for all of, what, a week??? But now you’re back!!!”
“Well, I mean, it was actually a few weeks, and it really screwed up my health insurance . . .”
“David, I just want you to know I’ve been scheming ways to deploy you here for quite some time now! Now, of course I realize you may be enjoying your present . . . deployment!”
“Well I mean, heh, I did just start . . .”
“But David, let me tell you this. David, I know you think your mastery is politics. But I think . . . I think your mastery . . . ”
“. . . may be . . . mastery.”
“Oh uh, thanks . . .”
“Do you know what I mean, David?” Bradley finished, gliding out the door. “It’s the same thing with David Brooks. He thought his mastery was politics, but his mastery was actually, whatever he put his mind to. Think about it, David!”
And then he was gone.
David Bradley, The Atlantic’s owner, is inveterately omniscient and by all accounts almost pathologically a gentleman, which is odd when you remember—and you are bound to forget that when he is kissing the foot of some pimply blogger—that he has already monetized his unique skill set to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. Bradley, however, seems to relish the courtship of mastery. As part of what he claims is a research project, he mails surveys to editors soliciting intel on local talent supplies, requesting that the editors rank on a scale of one to ten, or distinguish between “exceptional talent” and mere “talent,” lists of names he has culled in prior efforts. He also scouts for career changers: one sad intern spent a summer in the mid-aughts compiling a spreadsheet indicating the location and employment status for every president and vice president of every extracurricular club to have graduated from any of the eight Ivy League schools in the previous decade. Bradley “spent more than 200 hours discussing his ideas with 80 journalists around the country,” according to the New York Times, before he filled the magazine’s editor-in-chief position with James Bennet, then the Times’s Jerusalem bureau chief.
For all the ostensible objectivity and scientific rigor of the magazine’s questing spirit, The Atlantic’s definition of talent seems to correlate to: a current fellowship at the New America Foundation or any of the other indistinguishably centrist think tanks, though, preferably, one with a brand (i.e., “Daniel Indiviglio is the 2011 Robert Novak Fellow at the Philips Foundation”); an ability to channel one’s talent into the mastery of meritless and preposterous (“counterintuitive”) arguments, deliberately obtuse rebuttals, and miscellaneous pseudointellectual equivocation/noise on topical issues; and proven senior-level mastery of aforementioned mastery as demonstrated either by radical shamelessness or the pious and deeply felt earnestness of a motivational speaker.
The New America Foundation was founded in 1999 by Michael Lind, Sherle Schwenninger, and Ted Halstead, who explained at the time: “My starting premise was that the old ideologies don’t make sense anymore.” Because, Lind elaborated: “You look at people like Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol . . . you could make a living writing for magazines, really an upper-middle-class living, writing for purely intellectual magazines in the forties and fifties.”
This was a stretch. Both Bell and Kristol were liberally subsidized by the CIA, which financed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, whose flagship “intellectual magazine” Encounter Kristol edited in London and whose fancy international seminars were organized by Bell, who also worked a day job at Fortune and who brokered a deal with Henry Luce to promote in Time Inc. magazines (and thereby further subsidize) the intellectual output of CCF-affiliated intellects. The institutional network that supported those guys and their friends was not much different from the one that now connects up The Atlantic, the New America Foundation, and the Aspen Institute, keeping dozens of public pseudointellectual hacks in six-figure salaries. In lieu of the CIA, the funding for such ideas-synergy comes from corporations. Certainly, these think tanks are not ideologically different from those that hosted the cultural Cold Warriors of the fifties.
No one knows this better than Bradley, a man whose personal history comports so perfectly with the rigors of Cold War cultural combat that he may seem like a Manchurian magazine magnate, with his father Gene Bradley—who enthusiastically endorsed, and possibly helped to invent, Korean War theories of mind control—resembling Angela Lansbury’s character.
Gene Bradley’s career as a professional Cold Warrior began before Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, in a concentration camp in Linz, Austria. There, as an army press officer for General Mark Clark after VE day, he inspected the mass graves of emaciated bodies and “shoved it deep down into my mind,” where, he later wrote, “it remained until I saw the movie Schindler’s List.” A new enemy kept him preoccupied, mostly at General Electric, where he served in a string of posts in what was the premier public relations struggle against the twin enemies of “Russia abroad, labor at home,” as GE’s CEO Charlie Wilson famously explained the company’s messaging mission to Harry S. Truman in 1946.
After a stint at the famed ad agency BBDO and as a Pentagon flack, Bradley began at GE in 1953, just a year before his department recruited its most famous hire, Ronald Reagan, who toured the company’s aerospace plants as a motivational speaker and eventually as an evangelist for the free-market system. Reagan’s turn away from the ardently pro–New Deal politics he’d espoused as leader of the Screen Actors Guild was largely masterminded by GE’s labor relations chief, Lemuel Boulware, a high minister of the open shop. Boulware made it his business to be best known behind the scenes—though he once bemoaned Truman’s abortive veto of the anti-union Taft-Hartley law as another demonstration of the “economic illiteracy” that caused Americans to embrace socialism at home “while spending $20 billion in business tax money to battle communism abroad.”
Boulware was a career marketing guru, and he saw unions as fundamentally a problem of “thought leaders.” If a figure like Reagan could succeed in overthrowing labor leaders as designated opinion-makers, he reasoned, why, no one would bother joining a union in the first place. But thought-leading government, which was to be Gene Bradley’s job, was a bit trickier, as it required a Thought Leader to mix in much more sophisticated circles and to drop all the boilerplate about the ills of big government.
In this mission Bradley excelled, founding General Electric Forum, a “defense intellectual” quarterly mouthpiece for decorated hawks to oppose the opposition to the military industrial complex; spending a year on loan to the Peace Corps under Sargent Shriver; and keeping enough distance from hard-core Boulwarism to earn an obligatory accusation of communist sympathies from the John Birch Society, according to the memoir he self-published in 2003, The Story of One Man’s Journey In Faith.
The memoir is discombobulating reading, in part because this lifelong PR man is not the most reliable narrator, possibly also because his memory, in storing and accessing its inventory so selectively, has disabled some of the required capabilities. But if you focus on the omniscient sciences, some remarkable details shake loose. He mentions (in the context of a strange Vietnam War propaganda project) that one of his longtime closest friends was Frank Barnett, a Kremlinologist known mainly for heading a covert project to indoctrinate American soldiers using (inter alia) Birch literature in a bizarre project that had been deemed vital for preserving the national interest on the basis of a PR disaster that had roiled the Pentagon during Gene’s tenure there in 1953: the incomprehensible defection of twenty-one American prisoners of war to Red China. He mentions the episode at the end of Journey in Faith, albeit in terms that bear little resemblance to reality. He writes:
There is more truth than fiction in the substance of [The Manchurian Candidate.] This was revealed to me when I was an Air Force officer reviewing the studies that examined why so many American soldiers submitted to brainwashing by the communists during the Korean War and surrendered passively without a shot being fired. The research study that I read documented why the communists could succeed in brainwashing American GIs: because these American soldiers had never been taught the fundamentals of America. They had not been taught the facts of American history. They did not know our Constitution, our Bill of Rights, or American history, so when the crunch came, when pushed to the wall by ruthless interrogators, they had no core values to which they could hold. In truth they did not know why they were fighting, or even if America was worth fighting for.
In one of the many surreal chapters of Journey in Faith, Gene later attempted to influence—thought-lead?—what he saw as the perilously bereft civic “education” of the student left. The year was 1968, and the official story is that he was researching a Harvard Business Review feature—which he produced, although the research seems to have been rather more intensive than required. Gene describes consulting with the FBI, a connection made via “mutual good friends,” and a deputy of J. Edgar Hoover’s gladly inviting him to take a look at the Bureau’s secret files on the student left; then traveling through Switzerland, Germany, and France “observing” demonstrations (though none are shared in the book or the story); and, finally, most bizarrely, leading a delegation of fellow businessmen in a “debate” with Students for a Democratic Society leader Carl Oglesby—hosted (“with the best of intentions but with a full measure of naiveté,” he writes) by a concern called the Business International Corporation.
It seems likely that the 1968 summit at which Bradley “debated” one-time SDS president Carl Oglesby was the same SDS-BI meeting referenced in James Simon Kunen’s SDS memoir The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary. In the SDS version, the purpose of the meeting is straightforward. Certain unnamed businessmen who portray themselves as “the left wing of the ruling class” are seeking to “buy off some radicals”—purportedly because they’re rooting for Gene McCarthy to win the presidency. The businessmen “see fascism as the threat, see it coming from [segregationist George] Wallace,” Kunen reports. The idea is that heavy protests, which the businessmen offer to finance, will “make Gene [McCarthy] look more reasonable.”
This stated fear and motive seems dubious. Gene, after all, reported in the first chapter of his memoir how effectively he repressed his own fear of fascists. And the only people spooked by Wallace were those powerless enough to intimidate. Whatever the executives wanted from a bunch of college hippies, though, they were willing to both lie about and pay for. It’s all too easy to see in retrospect that lopsided “debates” of this sort had accumulated into a political reality that, for the lifetime of a college kid in 1968 anyway, was inextricable from the concoctions of Cold War propagandists.
Just the year before, the National Student Association, the dominant campus activism network that had spawned SDS, had been outed (along with the CCF enterprises) as a CIA front. It would not be until the late seventies that the bland-sounding sponsor of the Oglesby Bradley forum, Business International, would concede its own dual role as a CIA operation.
Nearly every page of Journey in Faith is bound to set off the intrigue detector of anyone who knows how the Cold War was won; names dropped include Treasury secretaries, CIA directors, senators, Iranian emissaries, shadowy KGB heavies, Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, and a Ku Klux Klan leader who converted to Christianity in jail after reading Mein Kampf. Gene Bradley’s memoir is loaded with people who qualify as Triple A-List Thought Leaders—but it presents them without any narrative, context, or meaning that might leave the casual reader with any thought other than the obvious, Wow, David Bradley’s father was a big-time spook. But Gene’s odd foray into the student left might also leave readers thinking, Wow, here’s a vision of corporate-backed agitprop that can be unselfconsciously deployed in any setting or model of ideological conflict—no matter how unlikely or surreal.
David Bradley was groomed for greatness. One day in the early sixties, Admiral Stansfield Turner, the future CIA director who taught David in Christian Science Sunday School class, breezily told his mother that her son was destined to be president. After all, his favorite hymn, penned by Mary Baker Eddy herself, began:
Shepherd, show me how to go
O’er the hillside steep,
How to gather, how to sow,—
How to feed Thy sheep.
Gene, meanwhile, was bent on winning public distinction for his frail son, all but ordering him to embark on an all-but-winless career on the wrestling team at Washington’s elite Quaker private school, Sidwell Friends, and stressing the mutability of personal identity as a key to success. “If you were to ask me, ‘What has been the secret of David’s success?’ I would skip all the biographical data and simply say, ‘David has worked to become the man he is today just as Marion Michael Morrison worked to become John Wayne.’”
Military intelligence professionals, the mind-cure faith, and a changeling, domineering father—it was the sort of upbringing that suffused Bradley’s young life with a sort of spooky dullness. After watching Richard Nixon’s resignation catch so many family friends financially unawares—and experiencing no small amount of personal disillusionment as a gung-ho intern in the Nixon White House—he decided to work on his war chest before going into politics, his first love. (Bradley’s latter-day interest in politics, by the way, should not be taken to mean he harbors any definite political convictions; on the contrary, one of the professed sources of his admiration for writerly “talent” is his own inability to form an opinion on most political issues: “I define the middle,” he has said.)
Or in other words: civilization cannot be sustained by propaganda and fraud alone. There needs to be available, at the right moment and for the right price, someone to take you by the hand and show you the “best practices” for dancing around the bullshit. At the core of David Bradley’s corest competency is the grace with which he makes this pitch over and over again, as in the 2009 memo he addressed to The Atlantic’s editorial staff defending the magazine’s off-the-record “salon dinners” for Thought Leaders:
Perhaps the guests merely are being polite, but the uniform comment—on leaving or in thank you notes—is that they find no other place for such purposeful, engaged, constructive conversation across walls . . . . The decision to convene our dinners off-the-record was made at the outset . . . . we were hoping to avoid the “canned remarks and rehearsed sound bites” that come with much public-policy discussion. My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written. Everyone—maybe even especially journalists—relies on this confidence in his day-to-day work.
Observe now the degeneration of a magazine that once published Henry James and Mark Twain into an elaborate loss leader-cum-demand creation mechanism for an event-planning operation whose chief selling point is the promise that you’ll never read about it in the media, where certified Thought Leaders risk the loss of their health insurance for saying anything less than ultracanned and überphony. It is, indeed, a thing of mastery. Imagine the spike in eager inquiries that the in-house team choreographing The Atlantic’s secret dinner parties must have fielded after this memo.
And with this sort of triple-threat propaganda triumph in view, the otherwise baffling success of this once reputable magazine grows clear. Of course The Atlantic is a turgid mouthpiece for the plutocracy, a repository of shallow, lazy spin, and regular host of discussion forums during which nothing is discussed. It is, in every formal trait, a CIA front.
Well, how do you think their own retinue of Thought Leader enablers are able to sell so many tickets to all those fancy off-therecord dinners? Not by hiring the sort of “talent” who would be in any danger of talking to me!
Spook shop or not, The Atlantic’s soothing IV drip of frictionless, borderless, culturally agnostic thought-output plays a useful scrambling role in the context of unmitigated national crisis. A featured Atlantic contributor can be counted on—without interference from any known machinery of coercion—to wax incredulous when the current GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, for example, pleads with the audience at a competing Thought Leader conference to spearhead a manufacturing revival.
The Bradley-subsidized chattering class instinctively knows to tune out altogether more articulate assessments of our plight, such as former Intel CEO Andy Grove’s withering indictment of free-market dogma in a summer 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek cover story. Grove blamed the economic malaise on a sick cultural deification of “the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world” at the expense of anyone involved in what happened afterward. His lament was the most eloquent tribute to the symbiosis of design and production and imagination and reality I’d read since Mao’s 1937 essay “On Practice,” which declared “man’s knowledge depends mainly on his activity in material production.” The Thought Leaders of our own political leadership class would never know about Grove’s broadside, though—it was greeted by a Washington-wide wall of silence. (Indeed, the one wayward D.C. player who did take it to heart former SEIU chieftain Andy Stern— was reduced to imploring unsympathetic readers of the Wall Street Journal op-ed section to search online for Grove’s essay some sixteen months after it appeared.)
What mystified Grove was the assertion, voiced by the economist Alan Blinder and others, “that as long as ‘knowledge work’ stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs.” This was not only inhumane, Grove declared; it was idiotic.
But it is why the ideas, so-called, that inspire the omniscient gentlemen of The Atlantic are flat: their world is, literally, flat. Habitual “bipartisanship” has given way to a tendency to level the playing field between reality and fiction. And so in The Atlantic’s account of America’s present crisis, Hanna Rosin wonders whether it was not deregulation or securitization that caused the financial crisis, but . . . Christianity; and James Fallows suspects America’s awareness of its own decline is merely “our era’s version of the ‘missile gap.’” It’s as though, in purging labor from the ranks of accredited Thought Leaders, they have eradicated thought itself.
Meanwhile, in China, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation mourns the death of Steve Jobs with a breathless blog post about an epiphany he has just experienced while scouring the local Thought Leader horizon for signs of a counterpart to his late greatness:
But one of the things I find odd is that the Chinese basically have a person who is their Steve Jobs. I don’t mean someone who created a line of products that we have all become addicted to and which have changed our world—but rather a leader who saw a future, went against the tide, and used the levers of influence he had to gamble on a complete retro-fitting and relaunch of China. I’m talking, of course, about Deng Xiaoping.
Comrades: I hope that you want to throw up now, because I have run clean out of bile to waste on the mental morlocks who think up this sort of shit.
Irving Kristol’s cofounder at Encounter, the British poet Stephen Spender, was the sole member of the CCF clique to be truly traumatized by the revelation that his beloved project was a CIA front. Then, in the early aughts, he was doubly insulted, via the revelation that George Orwell had on his deathbed listed his name on a painstakingly compiled list of “fellow travelers” whom the author suspected would conspire with the enemy in the event of a Soviet invasion—but only because he was “impressionable” that way. Natasha Spender later likened her husband to Prince Myshkin the gentle idiot. And I believe her, with one reservation: no one is too gullible to be unafraid of poverty.
As a child in China toward the end of Deng’s rule, I remember hearing about the Korean War POWs. Without any ideological mis-education to obstruct or distort my perceptions, it seemed obvious that the most remarkable thing about the defectors was their willingness to relinquish their American citizenship to remain in a country that was so unbelievably poor.
Not until college would I begin to grasp America’s own brand of poverty, and not until I spent the aftermath of the financial crisis among the bailout revisionists and inequality denialists of the omniscient D.C. elite would I recognize in myself the abiding fury the defectors professed.* Even as they so dearly missed ice cream, they elected to turn their backs on the demeaning propaganda machine that questioned their manhood, insisted they’d been brainwashed, and portrayed the Chinese enemy as robots programmed to commit gratuitous self-sacrifice in the service of world domination. Thousands of miles from home, they figured out that to be American in such an epoch was to get screwed over and defrauded by the self-appointed high priests of Patriotism. Somewhere along the way, someone had put it in their minds that they didn’t need to take it—and it’s a safe bet that he didn’t sound anything like Mao.
* The whole topic of POWs in Korea is one of those historical subplots about which the facts were so utterly devoured by the accelerating avalanche of misinformation that they may have been irretrievably lost. At some point, the Pentagon shifted its initial explanation for the defection—Chinese brainwashing—to appoint a larger responsibility to the defectors’ generally corrupt characters and barbaric behavior. By 1958, this low attack metamorphosed into an indictment of all-American soldiers who served in the war; the report was leaked to a New Yorker writer who expanded the “findings” into a book, In Every War But One, which has since been pretty convincingly debunked. Strangely, when the writer Dwight Macdonald referred to that Pentagon report in an essay that same year in the CIA-founded literary propaganda outlet Encounter, it became the only piece the Agency itself killed from an issue. More significantly, the Worst Generation narrative was marshaled to justify many billions of dollars on both brainwashing research and practice—an area in which the Agency was already heavily invested. Later that year, microbiologist Frank Olson fell from a tenth-story window, a strange event that conveniently kept him from publicizing the details of the CIA’s MKULTRA mind control experimentation. Most basic truths about that operation have been spun and shredded, brainwashed, and poisoned out of existence.
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