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A New Cultural Cold War?

With or without Covid-19, the United States and China were headed for a clash. The economic fallout from the pandemic will merely accelerate developments that had already been set in mo­tion by the rise of China as a strategic and technological rival.

Nor does this seem likely to end when Trump leaves office, whether that is in a few months or in a few years (this article was written before the election). The tough posture of the Biden campaign against China suggests, despite Biden’s own prior cushiness with Xi Jinping’s regime and pro-China corporate lobbies, that the process of decoupling from Chinese industry will likely continue even if Trump is defeated, at least through the movement of production to other low‑wage nations of East Asia.1

What will such a new Cold War look like? To be sure, we will direct even more resources toward armaments. But the only warfare we will experience, one hopes, will be psychological.

In the Cold War against the Soviet Union, one important element of psychological warfare was a long-running cultural propaganda campaign. This effort included secret CIA financial support for artists and cultural institutions in order to showcase the richness of American art and literature—often without the knowledge of the artists and intellectuals themselves. Many Western European intellectuals viewed the United States as a cultural wasteland; the aim of the CIA was to change this perception. Historians have since called this campaign the “Cultural Cold War.”2

Can a similar campaign be waged against China? Some, like the conservative film critic Sonny Bunch, hope so. In a 2018 op-ed for the Washington Post, Bunch suggested that the CIA might help distribute copies of the movie Sorry to Bother You by rapper-turned-director Boots Riley in China. The film is meant to spoof American capitalism. Its protagonists attempt to unionize the telemarketing company RegalView, which supplies what is essentially slave labor to the Sili­con Valley–like megacorporation WorryFree. WorryFree’s hellish working conditions resemble those at China’s factories well enough that Chinese workers might see themselves in their fictional American counterparts—except that the latter are (theoretically) granted the freedom to assemble and petition for better labor contracts whereas the former are not. And so, watching CIA-produced DVDs of Sorry to Bother You, Bunch writes, “might even spur Chinese citizens to take action against the Communist Party–backed businesses that dominate commerce in the state.”3

Riley, the anti-capitalist, would not approve; then again, neither had the Abstract Expressionist painters whose canvasses toured the world thanks to secret CIA money. But if a Cultural Cold War were waged against China today, the United States would lose it—not so much because of China’s strength, but rather because of American weakness.

Scholars of the original Cultural Cold War often exaggerate the centrality of the CIA to its unfolding. The CIA may have funded and popularized certain works, but it did not invent the conscious alle­giance to a common cultural tradition that many American writers and artists shared at mid-century. However critical some of them might have been toward the status quo of American politics, the solu­tions to the nation’s problems were thought to be found in America’s own cultural and political history. The legacy of the American Revo­lution was viewed as inherently expansive. If black Americans still did not enjoy the full privileges of citizenship, the remedy was to be found in the Constitution.

Today, by contrast, the New York Times’s widely criticized “1619 Project” argues that America’s founding ideals were a “lie” and that racism “runs in the very DNA of this country.”4 Not surprisingly, the article series received the approval of coastal elites and was award­ed the Pulitzer Prize for “commentary” (not history, mind you). Such a project’s popularity within these elite circles is indicative of a culture at war with itself. The violent riots following the police killing of George Floyd—and often indiscriminate destruction of statues and businesses—were merely the latest sign of this malady.

Thus it might be best to settle America’s own internal disputes before turning our guns—cultural and literal—on China. Reclaiming the legacy of the American Revolution and the culture of equality founded upon it—not to mention restoring the decayed democratic institutions that once gave working-class Americans a say in shaping the country’s political direction—might help the United States regain its footing more than any “great power competition” ever could.

The Legacy of the American Revolution in the Mid-Twentieth Century

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the future political orientation of Europe seemed up for grabs. The Soviet Union had expanded its reach deep into the heart of Germany, and close elec­tions in Italy and France threatened Communist takeovers. In these nations, anti-Americanism ran rampant, stoking fears of an impending “coca-colonization” of European high culture by vacuous Ameri­can materialism.5 For that reason the CIA, with generous support from private philanthropic organizations like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, opened a cultural front in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Western European intelligentsia.6

Exhibitions of American avant-garde painting received this surrep­titious support, as did the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which trium­phantly toured the old continent. The Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), an international body of artists, intellectuals, and scientists held together ideologically by anti-Communism, was predominantly funded with CIA money, much to its members’ shock when they found out about it in a series of articles published in the New York Times and Ramparts in 1966–67.

Yet many of the CIA’s beneficiaries objected more to the secret nature of the project than to CIA involvement per se. Michael Po­lanyi, for example, said that “I would have served the CIA (had I known of its existence) in the years following the war, with pleasure.”7 Diana Trilling even revealed that she had been aware of some sort of secret government support for the American Committee for Cultural Freedom early on but carried out her duties unperturbed “because I did not believe that to take the support of my government was a dishonorable act.”8 The main adversary was Soviet totalitarianism, after all, and everything one could do to fight it was justified.

This stance was especially prevalent among the famed “New York Intellectuals,” to which Diana and her husband Lionel Trilling be­longed. They formed the shock troops of what was called the Non-Communist Left, from parts of which later emerged the neoconservative movement. Beginning in the 1930s, the New York Intellectuals had gathered around Partisan Review, the quarterly magazine of arts and letters that had initially been established to sup­port the activities of the Communist Party–sponsored John Reed Clubs before the pub­lication broke from the Communist Party to become the locus of American cultural Trotskyism. As Marxists and, oftentimes, Jews, the Partisan Review writers were doubly confined to the margins of respectable Protestant mainstream culture.9

But in the America that emerged on the other side of World War II, the situation and outlook of the New York Intellectuals had changed. Their radicalism began to moderate as many of their most prominent members received professorships at prestigious East Coast colleges. The editorial statement to the 1952 Partisan Review sym­posium “Our Country and Our Culture” set the tone for this re­orientation. Among the former radicals, there was finally “a recognition that the kind of democracy which exists in America has an intrinsic and positive value. . . . [Most writers] now believe that their values, if they are to be realized at all, must be realized in America and in relation to the actuality of American life.”10

Despite the shift away from a consciously radical tone, however, nothing in these words would have appeared entirely outrageous to their younger selves. While today’s Left frequently denounces the United States as a genocidal, “settler colonialist” project for the estab­lishment of white supremacy, the Old Left had a decidedly different take on the nation’s revolutionary history: it claimed it for itself. “Thomas Jefferson would scorn to enter a modern Democratic convention,” Eugene Debs proclaimed when accepting the nomination for president on the Socialist Party ticket in 1904. “He would have as little business there as Abraham Lincoln would have in a lat­ter‑day Republican convention. If they were living today they would be delegates to this convention.”11

The youth of many a New York Intellectual was spent imitating the mannerisms of Debs on soapboxes in the Bronx.12 In college, they felt equally drawn to the writings of Leon Trotsky, who was idolized in the pages of Partisan Review in the thirties. But Trotsky had great things in mind for the United States. Arrogant Europeans might sneer at “Americanism,” he wrote, but what they were blind to was that this same Americanism “marks the true dividing line be­tween the Middle Ages and the modern world.”13 Elsewhere Trotsky asserted that “all the problems of our planet will be decided upon American soil.”14 The American Revolution had set the world on the course of a larger bourgeois revolution, which uprooted the ancien régime and promised to peoples around the globe the ideals of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Its force made imaginable—for the first time in human history—the worldwide end to slavery and serfdom as systems of labor relations.15

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed over who would carry on the legacy of the bourgeois revolution. While Stalin promised the peoples of the world national self-determination, John F. Kennedy countered, during a campaign speech in Harlem in 1960, that the anti-colonial revolts of the Third World were in fact

part of the original American Revolution. When the Indone­sians revolted after the end of World War II, they scrawled on the walls, “Give me liberty or give me death.” They scrawled on the walls “All men are created equal.” Not Russian slogans but American slogans.16

The Kennedys had earned their anti-Communist bona fides as allies of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. They could thus hardly be suspected of sharing many views with Eugene Debs and Leon Trotsky. Nevertheless, the heritage of the American Revolution was compelling enough for all sides of the political spectrum to claim its mantle. In the history of the Cold War “liberal consensus,” this is the most meaningful expression of where Left and Right met.

To many intellectuals at the time, the liberal consensus also sig­nified the famed “end of ideology,” with technocratic capitalism securely established as the sine qua non of liberal democracy. The social democratic thinker Michael Harrington had it exactly right when he countered that “[t]he end of ideology is a shorthand way of saying the end of socialism,” i.e. the end of challenges to capital’s reign from an organized proletarian opposition.17 But what would have been incomprehensible even to socialists prior to the rise of the New Left and its various Maoist splits was a condemnation of America’s political history as irredeemably murderous and racist. It was a point of pride to be able to say that the United States had set off the cycle of revolutions that modernized the world. Naturally, this consensus rubbed off on the art world, too.

“The Artist as Cowboy”: The Triumph of American Culture

With Europe lying in ruins, it was time for American culture to shine. There is more than a grain of triumphalism evident in the following words by Partisan Review critic Clement Greenberg, written in 1948:

If artists as great as Picasso, Braque, and Léger have declined so grievously, it can only be because the general social premises that used to guarantee their functioning have disappeared in Europe. And when one sees, on the other hand, how much the level of American art has risen in the last five years, with the emergence of new talents so full of energy and content as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, David Smith—then the con­clusion forces itself, much to our own surprise, that the main premises of Western art have at last migrated to the United States, along with the center of gravity of industrial production and political power.18

No institution played a larger role in boosting the prestige of these Abstract Expressionists than the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) under the leadership of Nelson Rockefeller, who during World War II led the Office of Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, a prop­aganda agency that operated in Latin America. In a similar vein, MoMA played an important role in organizing exhibitions of the new American art abroad, often in tight collaboration with CIA fronts.19 Rockefeller saw in the wild, large, and nonrepresentational canvas­es of the abstract expressionists a form of “free enterprise painting,” an aesthetic that stood in sharp contrast to the formulaic, state-imposed socialist realism of the Eastern bloc.20

The view of America as a cultural hinterland was hard to sustain when New York’s galler­ies had stolen the limelight from the Parisian art scene. There was no better form of propaganda, admitted the diplomat George Kennan during a speech at MoMA, than “to show the outside world both that we have a cultural life and that we care . . . enough about it, in fact, to give it engagement and support here at home, and to see that it is enriched by acquaintance with similar activity elsewhere.”21

The new painterly modernism seemed to serve the cause perfectly. As the historian Hugh Wilford has argued, “there was something peculiarly American about abstract expressionism, with its giant can­vases, its virile daubings of paint, its foregrounding of the act of artistic creation. Pollock—western-born, taciturn, hard-drinking—was the artist as cowboy, shooting paint from the hip, an incontrovertibly American culture hero.”22

Yet Wilford also cautions that the CIA’s role in putting Abstract Expressionism on the map has been exaggerated. In its own ranks, this episode from the agency’s early days serves a redemptive pur­pose, he claims. After decades spent conducting botched invasions, toppling sovereign governments, and assassinating foreign leaders, the memory of the CIA’s art patronage makes its overall role appear less malignant.23

Besides, America’s spies had better friends with bigger audiences than bohemian paint splashers. No cultural institution proved more in tune with the governing anti-Communist consensus than Hollywood—which provided the world with more straightforward cowboy heroics than Jackson Pollock ever could. Luigi Luraschi, the head censor of Paramount Pictures in the 1950s, even served as a double agent of sorts, keeping the CIA reliably informed of the latest news in studio politics.24

But Hollywood’s anti-Communist messaging was at its weakest when it churned out such paranoid McCarthyist trash as the 1952 movie Big Jim McLain, in which John Wayne stars as a HUAC inves­tigator rooting out cartoonish Communist megavillains. This obvious weakness was why, according to historian Tony Shaw, Wayne joined with his longtime directorial collaborator John Ford and others to form Militant Liberty, a “programme instigated in the mid-1950s by John C. Broger, an evangelical Christian working as a psychological warfare consultant in the U.S. Defence Department.”25 The point of Militant Liberty, writes Shaw, was “to propagate more aggressively through a range of media the ideas of freedom and individual respon­sibility,” i.e., to give American values a more positive spin than the purely negatively defined anti-Communism of Big Jim McLain al­lowed for. From the team making up Militant Liberty sprang such masterpieces as John Ford’s 1956 Western The Searchers.26

But such explicit collaborations with government agencies didn’t mean that figures like Ford and Wayne had only recently begun to fill their productions with patriotic content. Stagecoach, the John Ford Western in which Wayne was given his first ever lead role in 1939, needed no Defense Department cheerleading to arrive at a pro-American message. The movie shows a vengeful gunslinger (John Wayne) crammed into the same stagecoach as a greedy banker, a prostitute, a liquor salesman, a cultured southern belle, and a southern gentleman turned gambler. Somehow, in the post–Civil War world, this seemingly irreconcilable mix of people would have to get along if America’s survival is to stand a chance. According to the philosopher Robert Pippin, many of the great Westerns of the period sought to pose the question of whether a new nationhood could be formed from such sociocultural diversity. It could, Pippin answers, but only if the young republic were to overcome the problems of social and class stratification in favor of affirming “the quintessentially American political ideal of equality.” Stagecoach, in short, presents “a mythic representation of the American aspiration toward a form of politically meaningful equality, a belief or aspiration that forms the strongest political bond, such as it is, among Americans.”27 The fact that Stagecoach continues to excite audiences to this day, whereas Big Jim McLain is rightfully forgotten, shows that aesthetically successful artworks leave a much greater impression than more politically explicit ones, even when the latter may be momentarily in tune with mainstream ideological perceptions.

We dwell on the Western genre here for a reason. Its attraction was felt around the world. Even the otherwise anti-American French felt its appeal. The celebrated French film critic André Bazin saw in the Western the modern incarnation of Homeric myths. Where the American Civil War stood in for the Trojan War, Bazin wrote, the conquest of the American West stood for the Odyssey.28 However much Europeans may have feared that American GIs would spoil their native cultures, there was something about the sight of an Amer­ican working-class kid in uniform, Marlboros dangling from the corner of his mouth Western gunslinger–style, that inspired secret admiration.

The Swiss novelist and dramatist Max Frisch understood exactly where this admiration came from. Frisch had just finished a yearlong visit to the United States thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation—from which sprang his greatest novel I’m Not Stiller (1954)—when in 1952 he cautioned an audience in his native Zurich against feeling arrogance toward America. The average middle-class American was less cultured than the average middle-class Swiss, all right, but that was so for a reason: the American continent had to be conquered first and much of its landmass “developed, cleared, irrigat­ed, and covered with roads, railroads, bridges, dams, and industries of all kinds.”29 This recent history of rugged entrepreneurialism was still freshly ingrained in the American mind. Therefore, what the United States lacked in high cultural refinement, Frisch explains, it compensated for in industrial accomplishments, which put the comparatively young nation in good historical company:

Americans are to the old Europe as the Romans were to ancient Athens—a colony turned global power. Rome, after all, was grand in its civilizational achievements, such as the construction of roads and aqueducts, while Greece continued to be important long after losing its power, important, that is, in its spiritual remnants.30

In his contribution to the “Our Country and Our Culture” symposium in Partisan Review, written in the same year as Frisch’s remarks, James Burnham made the identical point, calling America “a ‘semi-barbarian superstate of the periphery,’ dependent still on the older spiritual spoil in spite of new roots, with Rome and not Athens the potential form of the future.”31

As it so happened, Europe, this modern Greece, was lying in ruins, bereaving Picasso, Braque, and Léger of the ability to carry on with their art as if nothing had happened. The “artist as cowboy” was their natural heir, tapping into a secret fascination with the “gunfighter nation” that was hidden underneath an official revolt against “coca-colonization.”32

But the advocacy for American culture was far from confined to WASP icons like John Wayne. With his novel The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Saul Bellow elevated a form of English prose inflected with Yiddish stylings to the pantheon of mid-century Amer­ican literature.33 One year earlier, Bellow’s close friend Ralph Ellison had landed the literary sensation of the decade with Invisible Man, a novel about an unnamed black protagonist who is the plaything of seemingly benevolent whites. Still, cautioned the literary critic and New York Intellectual Irving Howe more than ten years after the publication of Invisible Man, Ellison’s novel was too steeped in the predominant liberalism of the Cold War. To Howe, the novel ended on an “unprepared and implausible assertion of unconditioned free­dom”—Invisible Man’s turning his back on the world of Harlem and the black nationalist leader Ras who had instigated a destructive race riot.34 With this self-assertive gesture, Ellison had broken with the black American writer to whom Howe thought Ellison indebted: Richard Wright. “If such younger novelists as Baldwin and Ralph Ellison were to move beyond Wright’s harsh naturalism and toward more supple modes of fiction,” Howe writes, “that was possible only because Wright had been there first, courageous enough to release the full weight of his anger.”35

Ellison was displeased at being lumped in with Wright. “No, Wright was no spiritual father of mine,” he countered in his famous rebuttal titled “The World and the Jug” (1964). This honor belonged instead to “Marx, Freud, T. S. Eliot, Pound, Gertrude Stein and Hemingway. Books which seldom, if ever, mentioned Negroes were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.”36 The predominant liberal universalism inform­ing mid-century American intellectual culture received hardly a more insistent affirmation than when Ellison proclaimed that “[w]hatever my role as ‘race man,’ . . . I am as a writer no less a custodian of the American language than is Irving Howe. Indeed, to the extent that I am a writer . . . the American language, including the Negro idiom, is all that I have.”37

Howe’s other sparring partner, James Baldwin, similarly asserted his independence from Wrightian naturalism and agitated against the predominant view that black literature was required to perform the political work of protest and anti-racist agitation.38 Baldwin’s quick ascent to literary glories earned him inclusion in the Ford Foundation’s first ever round of grants-in-aid to fiction writers handed out in 1959 (Saul Bellow was also among the recipients that year). In his acceptance note to Ford Foundation officer Joseph McDaniel, Bald­win declared that “[t]he fellowship means a great deal to me and I will do everything in my power to justify the Foundation’s confidence.”39 This and the fact that Baldwin was “very publicly part of U.S. cultural diplomacy” through his appearance at USIA-sponsored events even as late as 1963 has left a sour taste in the mouth of literary critic Juliana Spahr, who recently sought to qualify Baldwin’s popular appeal by writing that “the Baldwin we know, we know because his work was amplified by these networks.”40

Baldwin’s continuing aura probably has more to do with the fact that his works, like John Ford’s films, are often unqualified aesthetic successes. But what Spahr points to is not entirely untrue: that even some of the harshest critics of American culture figured so prominently in the nation’s cultural diplomacy efforts shows just how broad the liberal consensus of the early Cold War days truly was.

In his contribution to “Our Country and Our Culture” in Partisan Review, the sociologist David Riesman explained whence this sense of cultural contentment sprang: demagogues in the vein of Huey Long had no shot at disturbing the postwar peace of 1950s America because “Americans possess increasingly competent govern­ment, without having to spend much energy getting it.”41

Intellectuals against America

Things didn’t turn south for America’s prestige until later in the next decade, when Vietnamese resistance proved a formidable opponent to American industrial might. John Wayne sought to sway the nation in favor of the war effort with the propaganda film The Green Berets (1968), but by the time the movie appeared in theaters (to great finan­cial success), public support had already waned.42 The revelations around the Watergate scandal that soon followed did little to assuage Americans’ concerns around their country’s dwindling status.

As the publisher Jason Epstein put it in an influential article in the New York Review of Books in 1967, whatever cushy relationship with the American government many New York Intellectuals had enter­tained throughout the 1950s was unjustified in the age of Vietnam. “By the Sixties,” he wrote, “a defense of America became no simple thing” because it had become clear that “the evils of Stalinism did not guarantee a corresponding virtue in one’s own country.”43 The Non-Communist Left, he argued, had provided too much cover for the government while America dragged its feet on civil rights domestically and ran an aggressive campaign of coups and invasions of unaligned nations abroad.

The French and British members of the Congress for Cultural Freedom agreed and turned their backs on the organization in protest against the CIA’s meddling. For a while, the rebranded International Association for Cultural Freedom (IACF) tried to carry the torch under the direction of Ford Foundation officer Shepard Stone, but with all the prestige of the old CCF out the window, the IACF could never generate as much excitement among the global intelligentsia and dissolved itself in 1979. The CCF’s famous in-house journal Encounter survived long enough at least to see the Iron Curtain come down before it ran out of funds and ceased publication in 1991.

But as the cultural consensus that had nurtured the nexus between intellectuals and the government vanished, so also did the social democratic consensus that drove much of American industrial and social policy before the rise of neoliberalism. The Non-Communist Left (NCL) was still the Left, and that’s precisely what angered many conservative politicians when the CIA’s support for the NCL was exposed. Barry Goldwater, for example, asked “why all of this money went to left-wing organizations . . . instead of conservative groups such as the Young Americans for Freedom.”44 The complaint was bipartisan: piqued by an antiwar protest that was staged at the White House Festival of the Arts in 1965, in which many New York Intellectuals had participated, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he was “not going to have anything more to do with the liberals. . . . They all just follow the Communist line—liberals, intel­lectuals, Communists. They’re all the same.”45

The solution was to sever ties with the NCL, first by admitting to the CIA’s support for many of the NCL’s organs and second by moving the government’s art patronage out from under the shadows. Part of the motivation behind keeping government patronage for the arts secret in the fifties had been to smuggle it past the anti-modernist tastes of many archconservative senators. When Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, the secrecy was no longer warranted since the NEA’s funding decisions were now sub­ject to public scrutiny (not that this appeased many conservative politicians, who have plotted its defunding ever since).

After the disintegration of the NCL as a coherent body of pro-American social democratic thought, a new generation of leftist intel­lectuals took its place. Alas, this generation had a much less favorable view of the United States. Thus, “[w]hen young intellectuals watch John Wayne war movies” today, the philosopher Richard Rorty observed in 1998, “they often become convinced that they live in a violent, inhuman, corrupt country. They begin to think of themselves as a saving remnant—as the happy few who have the insight to see through nationalist rhetoric to the ghastly reality of contemporary America.”46

The “young intellectuals” of 1998 are no longer young today. Instead, they hold influential positions in university departments, the media, private foundations, nonprofits, and government bureaucracies. Their dislike of the United States has spun so far that in 2018 New York governor Andrew Cuomo thought it politically opportune to say that America “was never that great.”47 Presumably, he thought that he’d thus win over the approval of New York’s managerial elites and white-collar professionals in his bid for reelection.

The faith in American ideals has turned out to be greater among protesters in Hong Kong than among America’s own elites. While the former waved the American flag to proclaim their independence from mainland China, the children of the latter wrapped the flag around a statue of George Washington and set the whole thing on fire.48 Under these circumstances, it’s impossible to picture a concerted strategy of cultural propaganda against our Chinese competitors possibly suc­ceeding.

With America’s soft power appeal out the window—a constant source of anxiety for our elites49—the Chinese government can get away more easily with campaigns of ethnic genocide, such as they’re conducting against the Uighurs, if at least they reliably manufacture cheap electronics and extend capital. It seems almost unimaginable that the rest of the globe will simply cut ties with the world’s second-largest (or largest when adjusted for purchasing power parity) econ­omy for purely humanitarian reasons. How reliable, by contrast, is a United States smoldering from monthslong riots? Even a Biden vic­tory in November (as a reminder, this essay was written prior to the election) won’t very easily heal the wounds that were ripped open long before the 2020 riots.

Sorry to Bother You

Some influential institutions familiar from Cold War days continue to be at the fore of contemporary political discourse, however. In 2016, the Ford Foundation announced that it was going to provide $40 million in funding for the Movement for Black Lives, the umbrella organization of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and related organizations. It did this, according to a press release, “to nurture bold experiments and help the movement build the solid infrastructure that will enable it to flourish.”50

However one may view BLM politically, the centrality of well-endowed philanthropies to its fundraising is revealing in crucial ways. Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, has framed the underlying ideology driving Ford’s funding models as “a new gospel of wealth,” a reference to Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 article “The Gos­pel of Wealth” (his famous justification for smuggling his fortunes past the estate tax). In Walker’s account, it is the philanthropy of the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet which “is lifting the lives and lots of millions of people around the world.” The Ford Foundation, Walker goes on, intends to “lend agency—and legitimacy—to slum dwellers and rural farmers, incarcerated people and refugees, migrants pursuing a better life and families on public assistance.”51

As the historian Karen Ferguson has noted, the Ford Foundation played a central part in bankrolling the newly ascendant Black Power movement in the late 1960s. While the civil rights movement had once been a vibrant, working-class driven movement aimed at toppling the remnants of Jim Crow all over the country, the Black Power turn quickly channeled this movement into a “top-down,” elite-run cam­paign of racial liberalism.52 This is in keeping with another trend that defines our age: Civic life in America was long defined by a proliferation of large, multi-class membership organizations. But the second half of the twentieth century saw the transition away from this community-rooted, bottom-up structure toward a managerial, elite-directed politics, with memberless and billionaire-funded nonprofits leading the way, while voters are only called on every couple of years to lend superficial legitimacy to this undemocratic malaise.53

The danger in this arrangement is, of course, that the vast majority of Americans are left voiceless in shaping the future of the country. What this produces, Richard Rorty cautioned, was a “spirit of de­tached spectatorship, and the inability to think of American citizenship as an opportunity for action.”54 No wonder, then, that many Americans, especially those on the left, have learned to understand political “action” not as the deliberate organization of majorities through institutional containers like parties or unions, but as mindless acts of destruction of public monuments and private businesses to which the rioters feel no civic connection whatsoever—legitimated by the support of elite cultural institutions and large corporations.

That’s why Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is so brilliant, and Sonny Bunch was right to highlight its significance. The movie takes contemporary Americans’ widespread feelings of helplessness and resignation to the extreme. The ruthless CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) comes up with the diabolical plan of turning his unwitting worker-slaves into actual horsemen—“equisapiens”—who are much stronger than regular humans and can thus shoulder much tougher workloads. The protagonist Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) captures one such equisapien pleading for help on his smartphone and appears on one news show after another to blow the whistle. But the result is unexpected, to say the least: the stock of Lift’s company WorryFree skyrockets because the market rewards Lift’s labor-intensifying ingenuity. It turns out that the news, placed in the hands of a politically disenfranchised population, had no transformational effect whatsoever.

“They’re turning human beings into monstrosities,” Cash exclaims in despair, “and nobody gives a fuck!” The cunning union organizer Squeeze (Steven Yeun) understands the problem: “Most people that saw you on that screen knew calling their congressman wasn’t gonna do shit. If you get shown a problem, but have no idea how to control it, then you just decide to get used to the problem.” Squeeze’s idea is to take control by organizing a popular strike that successfully unionizes RegalView, which had supplied WorryFree with its slaves. Only this way, the movie’s lesson goes, can we revert back from our supine state of mere spectatorship into active agents that shape the course of history once again. (The equisapiens, however, have not been returned to their humanity; they’re now just part of the labor market.)

Yet in this sense, Riley merely poses an ought; the true state of American politics and business that he so ruthlessly exposes is quite miserable by contrast. In reality, any attempt to surmount the dys­topian nature of neoliberal depoliticization still faces steep challenges. Show Sorry to Bother You to workers at Chinese manufacturing plants and they might commiserate with their equally disenfranchised American counterparts, but the positive solution to their misery—the militant mass strike action depicted in the movie’s climax—appears like utopian naïveté in either country. The movie is also somewhat subpolitical in that political organization—the work historically done by a labor party—is left completely out of the frame. At best, party organizing is shunned because the leaders of both major American parties are in cahoots with WorryFree anyway.

But to reconstitute either—a trade union movement or political parties accountable to actual members—would first require solidarity, which in turn looks past the differences between citizens toward some kind of unifying principle and goal. Yet in our time solidarity is a scarce good, as workers are encouraged by HR to rat each other out for alleged violations of oppressive speech codes.55 A renewed spirit of labor militancy would first have to wrestle back from the nation’s self-hating elites a sense of civic pride in the American ideal as the best grounds on which to produce a broad, popular consensus that leaves behind differences of skin pigmentation and sexual prefer­ences.

Absent such a revival, American cultural production—both the critical and pro-American varieties—seems doomed to resemble ham-fisted efforts like Big Jim McLain. In 2014, it became almost a patriot­ic duty to watch the crude comedy The Interview (codirected by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg)—in which the assassination of Kim Jong-un (played by Randall Park) is imagined—after North Korean hack­ers threatened the movie’s distributor, Sony Pictures Entertainment, with retaliation if they went ahead and released it. Some even took it upon themselves to smuggle the film poster into North Korea.56 This might have been the last stand of American triumphalism, though this time reimagined as farce.

What did audiences of The Interview get to see? It turns out that Kim is a great fan of the trivial celebrity interview show Skylark Tonight, hosted by the flashy Dave Skylark (James Franco). In an unprecedented scoop for Skylark, Kim offers his great idol the chance to conduct a live interview with him—with superficial questions prepared by Kim’s regime. The Interview satirizes the actual mys­tique built up around North Korea’s leaders by suggesting that the Korean people are led to believe that Kim doesn’t even defecate. Disappointed by Kim’s lies, Skylark goes rogue and confronts Kim with unscripted questions, which frightens Kim so much that he audibly “sharts”—shits and farts—for all the world to hear as his mystique collapses. Soon after, Skylark takes out Kim with a rocket skillfully launched from a tank, allowing North Korea to then speedily transition toward democracy.

The movie’s attraction six years ago was its assumed celebration of the First Amendment. But the First Amendment right to what? The Interview is occasionally funny, but it’s also literal toi­let humor. It does not affirm somehow “sacred” constitutional prin­ciples, but riffs on the comedic consequences of the absence of these principles in other nations. There is no “intrinsic and positive” con­tent to The Interview other than reminding us that it’s good that we’re not like North Korea—our grocery stores are not for make-believe. Yet neither are those in most of the world today, so consumer contentment hardly seems sufficient to reestablish a new political consensus.

Besides, our own major entertainment institutions—from Holly­wood to the NBA—are more concerned with appeasing the censors who are overseeing the Chinese market than standing firm on their own speech rights. In one of the most infamous instances, the NBA forced Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets, to apologize for offending China after he had tweeted his support for the Hong Kong freedom movement. This proves that, if anything, the Chinese government is fighting a Cultural Cold War against the United States—and winning.

Fifty-First States: America’s Ongoing Cultural Appeal

Echoing Greenberg, it seems that the “general social premises” that once guaranteed the functioning of American art and culture have disappeared from these shores, along with much of America’s former industrial strength. And one senses that the two stand or fall together in the American Rome. If for no other reason, then, Cold War agita­tion against a perceived Chinese threat is insufficient—and, indeed, counterproductive—to meet the present economic and cultural chal­lenges, especially when the nation’s premier newspaper is spread­ing the lie that the age of democratic revolution to which America gave birth was all a sham. The redcoats will have to be beaten back one more time.

Nevertheless, the recent Black Lives Matter protests around the world revealed that there’s still a continued pull to American culture, however negatively defined. People in countries as diverse as Brazil, Finland, and South Korea prominently copied American protest forms in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Why this strange imi­tation in nations with far different ethnic makeups and political concerns? As Alex Hochuli has commented, the phenomenon re­vealed that “[p]articularly in the anglophone world, as well as across northern Europe, a 51st state mentality prevails,” and that even at a time when we don’t actively run a program of cultural propaganda (that we know of), we willy-nilly export our culture’s most defining incarnations. And the rest of the world is an eager taker.57

At the heart of this odd state of things lies the fact that America continues to reign as the Western world’s sole hegemonic power—and will likely continue to for the time being as other major powers in the West, like Germany, experience growth rates far below those in the United States.58 This makes political events in America decisive for those in other countries as well. It is why, as Christopher Hitchens once said, “everyone really around the world secretly has always wanted one thing: a vote in American elections.”59 The promise of American democracy, even as an object of criticism, still seems to exert a stronger attraction than Xi’s dictatorship gone global.

To resist the pull of the latter, civic institutions in the West will have to be strengthened. But this requires more than a few essays about norms or another wave of biographies of the founders. A new economic boom, finally ending the stagnation experienced amid the long downturn since the 1970s, will be most essential. This downturn, and the consciously imposed austerity measures accom­panying it, has made the experience of economic precarity near universal in America, leaving workers to scramble for the ever-diminishing dignity once afforded to them by stable jobs. Cancel culture arose from the toxic brew of artificial scarcity and will only be ended with a new boom. But the politically dominant class of rentiers—a class that derives its income not from investment and rising rates of productivity but from mere coupon-clipping—has no incentive to bring along a new boom. This leaves an organized American working class to pick up the task once more of pushing the democratic revolution forward. In the end, Leon Trotsky may still be right: “all the problems of our planet will be decided upon American soil.”

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 4 (Winter 2020): 128–48.

Notes
1 Steven Lee Myers and Paul Mozur, “Caught in ‘Ideological Spiral,’ U.S. and China Drift Toward Cold War,” New York Times, July 14, 2020.

2 See, for example, Christopher Lasch, “The Cultural Cold War: A Short History of the Congress for Cultural Freedom,” in The Agony of the American Left (New York: Vintage Books, 1969), 61–114; and Frances Stonor Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (London: Granta Books, 2000).

3 Sonny Bunch, “The CIA Funded a Culture War against Communism. It Should Do So Again,” Washington Post, August 22, 2018.

4 Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” New York Times, August 14, 2019.

5 Reinhold Wagnleitner, Coca-Colonization and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War, trans. Diana M. Wolf (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

6 See Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); and Kathleen D. McCarthy, “From Cold War to Cultural Development: The International Cultural Activities of the Ford Foundation, 1950–1980,” Daedalus 116, no. 1 (Winter 1987): 93–117.

7 Quoted in Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?, 408.

8 Quoted in Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 87.

9 See, among other works, Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons: The New York Intellectuals and Their World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Alan Wald, The New York Intellectuals: The Rise and Decline of the Anti-Stalinist Left from the 1930s to the 1980s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); and Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1995).

10 Editorial Statement, “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, no. 3 (May–June 1952): 284.

11 Eugene V. Debs, “Speech of Acceptance of the Presidential Nomination of the Socialist Party,” Marxists.org.

12 The story is related by Daniel Bell in the documentary Arguing the World, directed by Joseph Dorman, 1998.

13 Leon Trotsky, “If America Should Go Communist,” Marxists.org

14 Leon Trotsky, “A Letter to the American Trotskyists,” Marxists.org. The author thanks Cam Hardy for recommending this source.

15 This allegiance to the American Revolution is rare on the contemporary left, but instances of it still exist. See James Vaughn, “1776 in World History: The American Revolution as Bourgeois Revolution,” Platypus Review 62 (December 2013–January 2014); Ralph Leonard, “The Birthday of a New World,” Medium, July 4, 2020; as well as the valiant efforts by the journalistic arm of the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party to expose the racialist roots of the “1619 Project” on their World Socialist Web Site.

16 See “John F. Kennedy Presidential Campaign In Harlem, New York 1960 (Full Speech & New Video),” Harlem World Magazine, February 9, 2019.

17 Michael Harrington, “The Anti-Ideology Ideologues,” in The End of Ideology Debate, ed. Chaim I. Waxman (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 342–51.

18 Quoted in Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 172.

19 Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 108.

20 Quoted in Barnhisel, 65.

21 Quoted in Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?, 272.

22 Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer, 106.

23 Wilford, 112–13.

24 Wilford, 121–22; Tony Shaw, Hollywood’s Cold War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 108.

25 Shaw, 202–3.

26 Shaw, 203.

27 Robert Pippin, Hollywood Westerns and American Myth: The Importance of Howard Hawks and John Ford for Political Philosophy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 4–5.

28 André Bazin, “The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence,” in What Is Cinema?, vol. 2, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 148.

29 Max Frisch, “Unsere Arroganz gegenüber Amerika,” in Öffentlichkeit als Partner (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1967), 29; my translation.

30 Frisch, “Unsere Arroganz,” 34.

31 James Burnham, “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, no. 3 (May–June 1952): 290.

32 See Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth‑Century America (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).

33 See James Atlas, Bellow: A Biography (New York: Modern Library, 2000), especially 191–92.

34 Irving Howe, “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Dissent Magazine (Fall 1963): 363.

35 Howe, 355.

36 Ralph Ellison, “The World and the Jug,” in The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, ed. John F. Callahan (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 164.

37 Ellison, 172; on the literary politics of the Cold War liberal consensus, see Thomas Hill Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).

38 See especially his famous Partisan Review essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (New York: Penguin, 2017), 13–23.

39 James Baldwin to Joseph McDaniel, Feb. 19, 1959, Ford Foundation records, American Literary Manuscripts (ALM) collection, FA718, Box 1, Folder 1, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

40 Julian Spahr, Du Bois’s Telegram: Literary Resistance and State Containment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 90.

41 David Riesman, “Our Country and Our Culture,” Partisan Review 19, no. 3 (May–June 1952): 310–11.

42 See Shaw’s extended discussion of the movie in Hollywood’s Cold War, 211–26.

43 Jason Epstein, “The CIA and the Intellectuals,” New York Review of Books, April 20, 1967.

44 Quoted in Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer, 241; ellipses in original.

45 Quoted in Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?, 401.

46 Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 7–8.

47 Maegan Vazquez, “NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Says America ‘Was Never That Great,’” CNN, August 16, 2018.

48 Ella Torres, Guy Davies, and Karson Yiu, “Why Exuberant Hong Kong Protesters Are Waving American Flags,” ABC News, November 28, 2019; and Joseph Guzman, “George Washington Statue Toppled, American Flag Burned by Portland Protesters,” The Hill, June 19, 2020.

49 Timothy Egan, “The World Is Taking Pity on US,” New York Times, May 8, 2020.

50 Brook Kelly-Green and Luna Yasiu, “Why Black Lives Matter to Philanthropy,” Ford Foundation (website), July 19, 2016.

51 Darren Walker, “Toward a New Gospel of Wealth,” Ford Foundation (website), October 1, 2015.

52 Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); see also Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).

53 See Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, Okla.: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 2003); and Michael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (New York: Portfolio, 2020); see also my interview with Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins, “‘The Democrats Are Worthless’: An Interview with Howie Hawkins,” Platypus Review 126 (May 2020).

54 Rorty, Achieving Our Country, 11.

55 Josh Eidelson and Hassan Kanu, “It’s Now Even Easier to Fire U.S. Workers for What They Say,” Bloomberg, July 30, 2020.

56 James Kirchick, “I Smuggled Posters for ‘The Interview’ into North Korea,” Daily Beast, January 20, 2015.

57 Alex Hochuli, “The Triumph of American Idealism,” Damage Magazine, June 17, 2020.

58 Alexander Horn, “Europe’s Zombie Economy Staggers On,” Spiked, May 28, 2020.

59Obama ‘Is a Megalomaniac Narcissist’: Christopher Hitchens on Culture, Celebrity & The Daily Show,” YouTube, 45:13, posted by “The Film Archives,” Jan. 13, 2014. The pertinent remarks begin around time 0:00:28.


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