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The CIA and the New Dialect of Power

In January 2021, shortly after Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, the Central Intelligence Agency announced a “digital facelift.” The agency’s goal was to attract millennial and Gen Z applicants who might be skeptical of the organization’s mission and to “increase racial, cultur­al, disability, sexual orientation, and gender diversity so that its work­force is ‘reflective of America.’”1 The rebrand involved a new minimalist logo, reminiscent of the type of design typically used to promote electronic music (as some online were quick to point out). The models used on its website were conventionally attractive and ethnically ambig­uous twenty-somethings, the faces you might see on a college brochure.

The agency’s twin adoption of liberal talking points and Bay-Area-inspired professional-class aesthetics suggested that the two might be linked, and—as we shall see—they are. It was not until May, however, when a series of recruitment ads titled “Humans of the CIA” appeared, that the political undertones of the CIA’s rebranding would be made explicit and all hell would break loose. The most notorious of these ads included a Latina woman who begins her monologue, “When I was seventeen, I quoted Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me.’” The video continues,

I am a woman of color, I am a mom, I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise. I did not sneak into CIA. My employment is not and was not a fluke or a slip through the cracks. I used to suffer from imposter syndrome, but at 36, I refuse to internalize misguided, patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be. I am tired of feeling like I am supposed to apologize for the space that I occupy rather than intoxicate people with my brilliance. I am proud of me, full stop. My parents left everything they knew to expose me to opportunities they never had. Because of them, I stand here today a proud first-generation Latina and officer at the CIA. I am unapologetically me. I want you to be unapologetically you, whoever you are. Know your worth. Command your space. Mija, you’re worth it.2

The advertisement was almost universally panned. As one Forbes headline put it, “The Internet Comes Together to Mock the CIA’s New ‘Woke’ Ad.”3 The pushback was so intense that the CIA felt the need to respond, with a spokesman telling Fox News that “2020 was a standout recruitment year for the CIA despite the pandemic. . . . Our 2021 incoming class is the third-largest in a decade.”4 Apparently the rebrand was working for its target audience. The broader public may have been repulsed by the unfamiliar, academic language, but it was not directed at the public. This is the language of the professional class, the liberal elite—in short, a new dialect of power.

Dialects of Power, Then and Now

Previous generations of CIA officers spoke an older dialect of power—the genteel, patrician, transatlantic accent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jackie Onassis, Gore Vidal, and Katherine Hepburn. Like the new dialect of power, the transatlantic accent was used to distinguish the speaker from the masses. It was taught in boarding schools modeled on the British system, as the accent itself was modeled after the English. Many of the CIA’s initial recruits were brought up in such boarding schools, where, as Vicent Bevins points out, they inherited the upper-class imperial values of the British.5

The way the old elite spoke about the underclass would seem out­rageous to our new elite. In Conversations with a Masked Man, John Hadden recounts with horror his CIA agent father’s description of watching a street brawl between union workers and scabs from a limou­sine window, referring to the brawlers as “these people.” Hadden writes, “The small phrase gives me a chill. The way he says it leaks contempt for the rabble or those brainless clods; he is above the fray, dissociated and indifferent.”6 Of course, not all the early CIA officers came from May­flower-descended, British-boarding-school stock. James Jesus Angleton, a former OSS member and one of the CIA’s earliest recruits, who became its chief of counterintelligence from 1954 to 1974, had a Mexican American mother. Yet it is difficult to imagine Angleton uttering “Mijo, you’re worth it.

He was, however, uniquely transfixed by language and literature—he was a onetime companion of the poet and Mussolini-sympathizer Ezra Pound—particularly the New Criticism. As his bio­grapher Jefferson Morley put it, “He would come to value coded language, textual analy­sis, ambiguity, and close control as the means to illuminate the amoral arts of spying that became his job. Literary criticism led him to the profession of secret intelligence. Poetry gave birth to a spy.”7

Today’s new dialect of power, which has supplanted the old, is radical New Left politics internalized, individualized, and regurgitated by the professional class. It is imparted by the universities just as the previous elite idiom was imbued at British-style boarding schools. This dialect, like the transatlantic accent before it, is a class signifier. But today this class contains both CIA agents and left-wing journalists, to the embarrassment of the latter. This language was not “co-opted” by the professional class, as Natasha Lennard insisted in The Intercept.8 Quite the contrary, the CIA has as much claim to the new dialect of power as anyone else in the professional class, having had some hand in creating the New Left intelligentsia from which it sprang.

The CIA and the New Left

The CIA was heavily invested in mid-twentieth-century art and cultural production through the Congress of Cultural Freedom (CCF), and was involved in the noncommunist Left more broadly, much to the chagrin of conservatives at the time.9 The CCF’s tendrils were seemingly end­less, even reaching the preeminent postcolonial writer Derek Walcott.10 The CIA was consistent in its anti-communism, but it was never conservative. The feminist Gloria Steinem went so far as to characterize the CIA as “liberal, nonviolent and honorable.”11 Steinem would know—she freely admitted to working with the CIA through a front organization called the Independent Research Service.12 The CIA’s Harry Lun encouraged her to become the face of the organization, sending her to lead a group which would disrupt pro­ceedings at the Marxist Vienna Youth Festival in 1959, and later to Helsinki in 1962.13 These affiliations were hardly a problem for Steinem on the left; she long served as an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America until such positions were abolished in 2017.14 The DSA officially condemned Steinem a year later in 2018 in its magazine—not for being a CIA agent, but rather for her insinuation that young women supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton because “the boys are with Bernie.”15

Of course, the CIA’s flirtation with the New Left soon became untenable, as leftist groups like the Weather Underground began picking up arms and setting bombs. The most radical elements of the New Left would be arrested or killed. Some, like the former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, would later help launch the political career of one Barack Hussein Obama.16 Many others retreated to academia, the site of professional class reproduction, and there cultivated a form of radical liberalism from which the new dialect of power arose. In addition to education and law, many new academics, who placed a premium on diversity, would find work in various “area studies”—which, as Bruce Cumings points out, were a pet project of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA’s immediate predecessor.17

The CIA: Vanguard of Liberalism

Another Humans of the CIA advertisement features a gay CIA librarian who expresses his “shock” at seeing a rainbow flag on former CIA director John Brennan’s lanyard upon swearing-in. He later learned that it had been designed by angle, the CIA’s LGBT resource group.18 The septum-ring-wearing protagonist of this video would be delighted to know that the CIA’s position on homosexuality has always been liberal for its time—even amid the Lavender Scare, when homosexuals were seen as potential blackmail targets or communist sympathizers, Soviet spies in waiting. Much to the annoyance of Joseph McCarthy and other conservatives, Angleton employed openly gay men in the CIA, includ­ing hiring Carmel Offie shortly after he had been fired from the State Department for propositioning an Army officer.19 Angleton also be­friended an openly and flamboyantly gay British diplomat named Guy Burgess, a friend (and possible lover) of Angleton’s close confidant, a British spy named Kim Philby. Unfortunately for Angleton, both men in fact turned out to be Soviet spies.20

In 1985, at the height of the Moral Majority’s power, and decades before a thirty-something CIA agent would call herself a “cisgender millennial” in a recruitment video, an internal CIA report expressed great hope in France’s “New Philosophers.” Their ideas, particularly Michel Foucault’s, would help form the basis of an emerging academic field called queer theory, which pioneered concepts and terms like “cisgender.”21

On April 24, 2006, Judith Butler, who became the most famous living queer theorist by taking Foucault’s idea of sexuality as a social construct and applying it to gender, spoke at a “teach-in” at UC Santa Cruz against the Iraq War.22 Calling it a “teach-in” was a deliberate choice, an homage to the New Left radicalism of the Vietnam protests. But some­thing had changed. During the Vietnam War, it had been the students who led the teach-ins; now, it was the professionals, professors like Butler, as well as politicians, lawyers, and in this case, a former diplomat named Joseph Wilson. Wilson had worked in the Iraqi embassy before it closed during the first Gulf War and was the last diplomat to meet with Saddam Hussein. The CIA had previously sent him on a fact-finding mission to Niger to investigate whether Saddam had purchased yellow-cake uranium from that country. The dictator of Iraq had not, and Wilson wrote as much in the New York Times.

But Wilson was not there because of an op-ed in the Times nor because he was a former diplomat; he was there because the Bush administration had outed his wife as an undercover CIA operative. It is difficult to imagine the student radicals of the Vietnam War era inviting a man who had openly worked for the CIA to speak at one of their teach-ins. Gloria Steinem had at least bothered to keep her affiliation with the agency a secret. But the world had changed, and so had the former college radicals at UC Santa Cruz. Wilson was one of them: a professional concerned with the particulars of his work, in his case, intelligence, in the wake of 9/11, and an expert ignored by conservative politicians and the impulsive, vengeful rubes they represented. The Bush administration’s retaliation against Wilson and his wife turned them into the ultimate professional-class martyrs. Her name, Valerie Plame, was all over the news, and the liberal intelligentsia would never forget it.

Thirteen years later, Valerie Plame drove a speeding Chevrolet Ca­maro through the New Mexican desert, recounting the story of her betrayal. Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, had been convicted of leaking her identity and Trump had just granted him a full pardon. “You might have heard my name,” she said, as valerie plame appeared in bold letters on the screen, each word accompanied by a metallic clicking sound. Then, stepping out of the Camaro, Plame took off her sunglasses, “And Mr. President, I have some scores to settle.”23

This campaign advertisement garnered almost two million views, and small-dollar donations began flooding into New Mexico’s Third Con­gressional District. “She hid where 90% of her campaign contributions came from by not listing them,” one rival campaign manager said, implying that most of her donors were from out of state. The Plame campaign responded only that “the number of campaign contributors is evidence of broad political support from everyday people.”24

Plame’s fundraising success was indicative of a larger phenomenon. There was an explosion of political contributions during the Trump years from individuals whom the political scientist Eitan Hersch calls “political hobbyists,” people who watch CNN the way other people watch ESPN.25 They are college-educated, mostly white, and mostly, though often newly, Democratic. If Obama was “the apotheosis of the PMC [professional-managerial-class] elite,” as Catherine Liu suggests, then Trump was its nadir, the anti-Obama, the vulgarity of his language revealing his position outside the professional elite.26 As former Repub­lican representative Ryan Costello (PA-6), who retired rather than seek reelection in his upper-middle-class suburban district, told Vox, “We are facing the prospect of re-alignment in your Rockefeller Republican districts. . . . [because when] things are going well, paycheck’s coming in, kids are in a good school, it’s a little easier to be outraged by what’s going on and what the president says and does.”27 These voters helped Democrats retake the House in 2018, including the election of two former CIA agents, Democrats Abigail Spanberger (VA-7) and Elissa Slotkin (MI-8). Despite her impressive fundraising, however, Plame would not be as successful in her much poorer, much browner district in New Mexico.28 She lost her primary, garnering only 24.8 percent of the vote.29

The Future (of Espionage) Is Female

In popular culture, the CIA is often thought of as a redoubt of reactionary conservatism, representing the worst of the American Right. There are numerous examples, of which the longest-running and most light-hearted is the animated comedy series American Dad!, which portrays the agency as both socially conservative and jingoistic. Created in 2005, its protagonist, Stan Smith, is an incompetent, bigoted, middle-class Republican. He insults his gay neighbors and transvestite alien sidekick, makes racist comments about his wife’s adopted Chinese parents (“They’re cheap, they’re pushy, they come in and take over!”), and frequently squabbles with his peacenik daughter.30 However funny, the show is more a parody of Bush-era conservatism than of the CIA itself. Two recent memoirs by former CIA agents reveal that the image of a typical officer is more like Valerie Plame than Stan Smith. The first, The Unexpected Spy, by Tracy Walder, traces the author’s life from bookish psychology professor’s daughter to sorority girl to the CIA and, eventually, to the FBI; from there, a retirement to teaching. The book ends with Walder embracing the new dialect of power’s most basic linguis­tic conventions. She writes:

I am a Delta Gamma Girl who joined the CIA, hunted down terrorists, and stopped WMD plots before they could kill. I am a California girl who joined the FBI and helped catch foreign spies on American soil. I am a teacher at an all girls school, a woman who is daring to try and change the world. I am armed with students. I am armed with a daughter. This is my revolution.31

Amaryllis Fox is less didactic in her book Life Undercover, but her overall sentiments are similar. Her book resembles Walder’s in various ways, though she makes the latter’s roots seem hardscrabble by com­parison. Like Walder, Fox’s father was a professor; she was recruited in college; she was a self-consciously precocious child; and she (like several of the individuals in the Humans of the CIA series) goes to great lengths to convince her reader that she never expected to end up working for the agency. Still, it is difficult to imagine anyone more likely to become a CIA agent. Her father was a Chicago school economist who specialized in the privatization of state industry; her mother was an actress, old money, from the British gentry.32 The family frequently moved throughout her childhood due to her father’s work, which included acting as an adviser on the privatization of the UK’s electricity grid and similar consulting on various “restructurings” of public utilities in the Eastern Bloc.33 After a proper cosmopolitan upbringing spent between the United States, her family’s English countryside manor, London, and Russia, the family returned to D.C., where Fox completed high school at the National Cathedral School.34 Although up to this point she had taken her privileged upbringing for granted, at the elite private school she noticed the words “Noblesse Oblige” engraved above a fireplace in her English classroom. She remarks that the “noblesse oblige” she saw around her was not earned but bought.35

Like Paul on the road to Damascus, blinded by the prospect of redemption, she went out looking for a cross to carry. She found one on the Thai border with Myanmar, working with political dissidents in the Free Burma movement, exiles, and others more like herself, including at least one investment banker volunteering his time as a cameraman as a form of secular penance, atoning for his firm’s continued investments in the country.36 Her trip culminated in a recorded interview with the pro-democracy leader and future prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi—then under house arrest—who discussed various issues, including the economy, human rights, and the ethnic cleansing of minorities. The interview was broadcast into Myanmar via radio by the BBC.37 After her gap year, she attended Oxford, wearing a lungyi and Burmese flip-flops, “feeling like an outsider in this stronghold of Britishness,” despite having a British mother and spending half of her life in the UK—an interesting case study in the rapid adoption of taboos regarding cultural appropriation by the professional class.

For graduate school, she enrolled at Georgetown, a university so entrenched in the national security apparatus that it had a CIA agent in residence, who recruited Fox at the age of twenty-two.38 From there, the book continues with her career in the agency through relationships, missions, and sexual harassment. Much of Fox’s narrative focuses on how all of these events taught her about herself, the balancing act of relationships and motherhood, her growth and maturation, both person­ally and professionally. Adhering to the conventions of the genre from which nearly all professional-class writing derives—college admission essays and cover letters—this focus on personal development is as much a fixture of the new dialect of power as Walder’s lean-in feminism or the “wokeisms” of the Humans of the CIA recruitment ads. Having set out and earned her claim to “noblesse oblige,” Amaryllis Fox retired from the CIA and married Robert F. Kennedy III.39

As the public face and self-understanding of the CIA has changed, sympathetic popular culture depictions of the organization have relied on similar themes of feminism, wokeness, and self-actualization to por­tray the agency’s work as morally complicated but necessary. Maya Harris, the strong female protagonist of Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, played by Jessica Chastain, feels deeply conflicted about physically and psychologically torturing suspected terrorists at a CIA black site. In the end, however, she is justified. The intelligence she extracts from her victims is helpful in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, whose body she personally identifies before weeping on a helicopter as the credits roll. The entertainment industry, which had been highly critical of the Bush administration, embraced this Rumsfeldian defense of torture because it was told through the prism of meritocratic, pro­fessional-class feminism. It was this narrative that Jeremy Bash, former CIA chief of staff under the Obama administration, invoked in defense of Gina Haspel, who is perhaps Maya Harris’s closest real-life analog. During her Senate confirmation proceedings, Bash defended Haspel from the criticism she faced for having run a black site in Thailand—which utilized torture and ordered the destruction of tapes that depicted “enhanced interrogation”—writing that, “Haspel is now the nominee to lead the CIA, the first woman to be so nominated. . . . Democrats and progressive organizations should be encouraged that a nonpartisan, professional woman has been nominated to be CIA director.”40

Though individual members of the professional class may feel pre­carious—gripped by a “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich put it—they have taken over the administration of the corporate world, the media, and the state.41 This professional class is also at the vanguard of left politics today—and leftists’ embarrassment over the CIA’s “appro­pria­tion” of “radical” language is simply evidence of their refusal to acknowledge the fact that the power of this class is so hegemonic and insti­tutionalized that its “radical” identitarian ideals cannot be meaningfully anti-establishment. Today’s leftists must insist that their “revo­lutionary” lan­guage was co-opted by the CIA, an institution created specifically to quash revolution and maintain the status quo, because any alternative explanation would suggest that this “revolutionary” language serves the same purpose.

The Trump Presidency:
Sanctioned and Unsanctioned Conspiracy Theories

Though liberalism is the dominant ideology of the Democratic Party, the stereotypes about liberals—well-paid, well-educated, and cosmopolitan—hardly describe the Democratic Party’s national voter base of working-class nonwhites.42 Instead, the professional-class residents of the Rockefeller red suburbs who defected to the Democratic Party were not Republicans who became liberals; they were liberals who became Democrats. When they did, they took their affection for institutions like the CIA with them. A poll published in 2017 by NBC and the Washington Post indicated that for the first time since they began asking the question in 2003, Democrats had a more positive view of the CIA than Republicans.43 The trust in national security bureaucracies like the CIA was reinforced by President Trump’s clashes with them, as well as the belief, widely held by the liberal intelligentsia at the time, that Trump had colluded with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election. Trump’s attacks on the expertise of the intelligence community were perceived as attacks on the educated class more generally, which Naval War College professor Tom Nichols admits “run[s] the day-to-day affairs of the nation, and often in ways that voters would not approve if they understood them.”44

Ironically, the proliferation of this debunked Russian collusion conspiracy theory among the chattering elite coincided with a rising paranoia about conspiracy theories propagated by conservatives and other groups outside the mainstream. This paranoia reached a fever pitch toward the end of the Trump presidency, with panicked calls for censorship. Helmut Anheier and Andrea Roemmele, both professors working at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, even proposed a de facto censorship board called the “Conspiracy Monitor,” which would be “highly professional and non-partisan” and

employ hundreds of experts, all of whom would be committed to safeguarding its reputation as a serious, independent, reliable organization working in the service of the public interest. The CM’s funding would come from dues paid by social-media and Internet companies, which share an interest in fighting harmful content to avoid litigation, regulatory action, and public obloquy.45

This organization was proposed in response to the pro-Trump Q-anon conspiracy. Not surprisingly, it makes no mention of conspiracy theories propagated throughout government agencies and the mainstream media—you will find no mention of WMDs in Iraq or Trump’s alleged status as a Russian asset. The professional-class elite privileges its own conspiracy theories while belief in “unsanctioned” theories is used as a marker for censorship and social isolation.

There are two main distinctions between “sanctioned” and “unsanc­tioned” conspiracy theories: first, the theory’s epistemic relationship to mainstream institutions; second, the kind of language and vernacular these theories employ. Like the Russia-gate conspiracy theory, college-educated whites remain the only demographic in America convinced of the official, state-sanctioned narrative that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy.46 Mainstream institutions, like the FBI and CIA, grant epistemic legitimacy to these theories. Sanctioned conspiracy theories also employ legalistic and technical vocabulary that gives these speculations an air of professionalism and rationality, bestowing on them the legitimacy of bureaucratic affirmation. Examples seen in the media and the national security state include “intelligence,” “dossier,” “asset,” and of course, “collusion.” None of these words pack the punch of “deep-state,” “false‑flag,” “patsy,” “plot,” “cabal,” or similar terms in the more colorful, visceral lexicon of unsanctioned conspiracies. These are the swear words in the new dialect of power, the ultimate professional-class faux pas, and definitive signifiers of out-group status.

Of course, such jargon often obscures more than it reveals. Take, for example, Operation Northwoods, a proposed false-flag plot put forward by an elite cabal of military and deep-state officials which involved directing the CIA to commit acts of terrorism and murder against Americans to justify a war with Cuba. Yet Northwoods is not a conspiracy theory but a well-documented historical artifact. Critics of the CIA have to deal with the reality that merely talking about CIA programs known to be true makes one sound like a conspiracy theorist. The idea, advanced by his lawyers, that Sirhan Sirhan was brainwashed by the CIA into becoming a patsy for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy sounds like the desperate defense of unlucky law­yers. But the existence of a CIA mind control program is an undisputed fact; what is in dispute is only whether Sirhan Sirhan was a victim of the actual CIA mind-control program, MK-Ultra.47

The CIA’s New Mandate: Wokeness Goes Global

The CIA’s adoption of the new dialect of power also has wider implications given the ongoing debate over whether, in the words of the economist Tyler Cowen, “wokeism will rule the world” and become the next great American export.48 If exporting “wokeism” abroad is a goal of the United States, the CIA will play an important role. Historically, the agency has been more adept at cultural manipulation than intelligence gathering (see the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the failure to predict the Iranian Revolution, the failure to predict the Yom Kippur War, the failure to predict the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, the failure to predict 9/11, the faulty intelligence pointing to the existence of WMDs in Iraq, and most recently, miscalculating the strength of Ashraf Ghani’s government in Afghanistan).49 After all, this is an agency that failed to foresee the success of its own propaganda efforts in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Given its track record, the CIA is certainly not above culture jamming abroad, but the question of why it would even bother remains. In a rebuttal to Cowen, Ed West, the senior editor of UnHerd, argues that wokeism is unlikely to resonate among elites in China, India, and the Middle East because wokeness is not an ideology or a set of discrete political demands, but rather a Western vernacular.50 Its single consistent demand—inclusion of individual minorities at the elite level—is already a feature in much of the non-Western world. Iran reserves a number of seats in its parliament for religious minorities; affirmative action in government jobs for “scheduled castes and tribes” is written into the Indian constitution; and the Chinese Communist Party sets quotas for ethnic minority representation in its congress. This serves as a legitimization tactic for the current elite in these countries just as wokeness does here.

Of course, woke language is far less likely to have any substantive effect on the well-being of its purported beneficiaries. Take the decline of black wealth under the presidency of Barack Obama or Aung San Suu Kyi’s heartfelt interview with future CIA operative Amaryllis Fox over the treatment of minorities in Myanmar—combined with her failure to stop, or even acknowledge, the genocidal treatment of the Rohingya under her premiership—as examples. Anything “woke” the CIA says or does, from its use of the elite vernacular to the invocation of human rights, is aimed at the politically engaged American professional class first, and the cosmopolitan elite second. On the international stage, it will continue to utilize “wokeness” to attack opponents like China and Iran for their treatment of minorities while ignoring or defending the actions of allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, as it has for decades. Opponents of the United States and its allies will similarly criticize America’s treatment of minorities, Palestinians, African Americans, or whomever happens to be in the news that day, with accusations of hypocrisy flying from both sides.

Thus wokeness is unlikely to be useful to the CIA as a tool of cultural imperialism writ large. Still, moral justifications for state inter­ference abroad will continue to be marshalled to convince the American public and some global audiences of the necessity of those interventions, such as the Bush-era hand-wringing over the plight of Afghan women under Taliban rule. As for the superficial spread of the dialect of power, this is probably inevitable, if articles like “‘You Don’t Look Dalit’ and Other Things ‘Upper Castes’ Must Stop Saying to Dalits Immediately,” published in an Indian newspaper, are any indication, at least among the anxious professional classes.51

The New Dialect of Power:
Legitimating Elite Privileges, Quashing Dissent

In popular culture, the CIA is the ultimate boogeyman, always given more credit than it deserves. In reality, it is a largely incompetent institution that has failed in its primary function—gathering foreign intelligence—at nearly every critical turn. In this sense, the CIA’s failures mirror the shortcomings of the professional class more broadly, which, rather than effectively expanding or maintaining American post­war prosperity, has instead managed its decline.

The Left has won nearly every culture war of the past seventy years amid growing economic inequality, deindustrialization, mass privatization, deregulation, austerity, and deunionization. The CIA, likewise, has been most successful in its own kind of culture war, whether it be through the CCF, anti-Soviet propaganda, or the lead-up to the Iraq War. Regardless of their failures, both the CIA and the professional class use their adeptness at culture war as a means of self-justification. The CIA utilizes the new dialect of power because it grants the agency legitimacy within the ruling elite; the Left and its professional-class van­guards cry foul because they do not want to admit their own involvement in the credentialing and reproduction of this elite.

Right-wing critics acknowledge the power of wokeness but, like leftists, mistakenly believe that it is a bona fide political project capable of changing institutions rather than merely reifying them. The conservative commentator Sohrab Ahmari’s dystopian fantasy about a future Kamala Harris presidency, in which America is in danger because, among other things, “the vast majority of our spooks spend their days analyzing their identities along intersectional lines of race, gender and sexuality,” presupposes a level of competence in the pre-woke CIA that is far beyond what it deserves given the historical record—the pre-woke spooks hardly kept America safe from danger. There is, however, an illuminating portion of Ahmari’s hypothetical that reveals an essential truth about “wokeness.” In the future imagined by Ahmari, the Ameri­can military is ill-prepared to execute its mission, having been busy naming and renaming bases. When discussing Guantanamo Bay—now appropriately called Naval Base Mumia Abu Jamal—a staffer passively notes that the mission of the base hasn’t changed. This suggests that even the most aggressive right-wing critics of “wokeness” question its ability to change anything beneath the surface of American politics; it can change appearances, not purposes.

Ahmari’s critique of the domestic purpose of wokeness gets closer to the truth:

Wokeness serves two functions for today’s ruling elites. The first is a kind of ideological control directed against Western working classes: wokeness covers over concrete class and economic injus­tices—massive wealth inequality, health precarity, stagnant wages and so on—with a thick fog of mystification. It creates an impression of furious change and even revolutionary activity. Yet what is in fact taking place is mostly intra-elite competition and redistribution: a disabled trans woman may be on the board, but workers still have to relieve themselves in bottles for lack of sufficient breaks.

This somewhat Marxist critique of wokeness is far more honest than the Left’s strained defenses of it.

Only the Beginning

The CIA’s new recruitment videos represent the totalizing effect of the new dialect of power. The Central Intelligence Agency, a cosmopolitan, professional-class institution if there ever was one, is a harbinger of what is to come. As warfare becomes increasingly asymmetrical and reliant on cyberattacks, drone strikes, and counterintelligence, the need for work­ing-class cannon fodder declines, and the military will increasingly speak the language of its potential recruits. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s recent comments, expressing his desire to “under­stand white rage,” are evidence enough of that.52

Perhaps one day, like industrial labor before it, this avenue to the middle class will also be closed off. But not to everyone. A willing few can always put in the hours, write the correct essays, retrain their voice, reshuffle their vocabulary, claw their way up, look with sleepless eyes half-mad in the mirror and repeat the mantra, “Know your worth. Command your space. Mija, you’re worth it.”

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 4 (Winter 2021): 184–99.

1Krithika Varagur, “The CIA Fine-Tunes Its Hiring Pitch to Millennials and Gen Z,” Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2021.

2 Central Intelligence Agency, Humans of the CIA, YouTube, 2021.

3 Dani Di Placido, “The Internet Comes Together to Mock the CIA’s New ‘Woke’ Ad,Forbes, May 4, 2021.

4 Yael Halon, “Another ‘Woke’ CIA Recruitment Ad Makes Waves: ‘I Noticed a Rainbow’ on Brennan’s Lanyard,” Fox News, May 10, 2021.

5 Vincent Bevins, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World (New York: Public Affairs, 2021), 28.

6 John Hadden, Conversations with a Masked Man: My Father, the CIA, and Me (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2016), 17.

7 Jefferson Morley, The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018), 8.

8 Natasha Lennard, “‘Woke’ CIA Ad Is No Reason to Throw Out the Language of Liberation,” The Intercept, May 4, 2021.

9 Gregor Baszak, “A New Cultural Cold War?,” American Affairs 4, no. 4 (Winter 2020): 128–48.

10 Laurence Zuckerman, “How the CIA Played Dirty Tricks with Culture,” New York Times, March 18, 2000.

11 Markos Kounalakis, “The Feminist Was a Spook,” Chicago Tribune, May 11, 2019.

12 Kounalakis, Chicago Tribune.

13 Tom Hayden, “The CIA’s Student-Activism Phase,” Nation, June 29, 2015.

14 Amber A’Lee Frost, “The Characterless Opportunism of the Managerial Class,” American Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 126–39.

15 Democratic Socialists of America, “NPC Statement on Gloria Steinem,” Democratic Left, February 10, 2016.

16 Ben Smith, “Obama Once Visited ’60s Radicals,” Politico, February 22, 2008.

17 Bruce Cumings, “Boundary Displacement: Area Studies and International Studies during and after the Cold War,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 29, no. 1 (1997): 6–26.

18 Central Intelligence Agency, Humans of the CIA.

19 Morley, The Ghost, 46–47.

20 Morley, The Ghost, 48–54.

21 France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals: A Research Paper,” CIA, 1985.

22 Scott Rappaport, “Husband of Outed CIA Operative Valerie Plame to Headline Teach-in at UC Santa Cruz,” UC Santa Cruz News, March 29, 2006.

23 Valerie Plame for Congress, Undercover,” YouTube, 2019.

24 Morgan Lee, “Ex-CIA Operative Plame’s House Bid Gets Many Small Donors,” Associated Press, July 17, 2019.

25 Eitan Hersh, “College-Educated Voters Are Ruining American Politics,” Atlantic, January 20, 2020.

26 Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 45.

27 Dylan Scott, “What Do the Suburbs Want?,” Vox, December 19, 2018.

28 Congressional District 3, NM,” Data USA, accessed March 26, 2021.

29 New Mexico Primary Election Results 2020,” NPR , accessed March 25, 2021.

30 “Big Trouble in Little Langley,” American Dad! (Fox Broadcasting Company, November 4, 2007).

31 Tracy Walder and Jessica Anaya Blau, Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020), 244.

32 Amaryllis Fox, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA (New York: Vintage, 2019), 9–10.

33 Hodson Thornber,” Becker Friedman Institute.

34 Fox, Life Undercover, 27–30.

35 Fox, Life Undercover, 30.

36 Fox, Life Undercover, 37.

37 Fox, Life Undercover, 35–55.

38 Fox, Life Undercover, 69–70.

39 Sam Dangremond, “Bobby Kennedy III Weds Former CIA Officer Amaryllis Fox at the Kennedy Compound,” Town & Country, July 9, 2018.

40 Jeremy Bash, “Gina Haspel Is the Rare CIA Director Nominee That Both Parties Should Love,” NBC News, January 24, 2020.

41 Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: Pantheon, 1989; repr. New York: Twelve, 2020).

42 Political Typology: Financial Well-Being, Personal Characteristics and Lifestyles,” Pew Research Center, August 28, 2020.

43 Carrie Dann, “Democrats Now Give the CIA Higher Marks than Republicans Do. That’s a Really Big Shift,” NBC News, January 4, 2017.

44 Tom Nichols, “How We Killed Expertise,” Politico (September/October 2017).

45 Helmut K. Anheier and Andrea Roemmele, “The Q-ing of the West,” ProjectSyndicate, September 11, 2020.

46 Harry Enten, “Most People Believe in JFK Conspiracy Theories,” FiveThirtyEight, October 23, 2017.

47 Tom Jackman, “CIA May Have Used Contractor Who Inspired ‘Mission: Impossible’ to Kill RFK, New Book Alleges,” Washington Post, February 11, 2019.

48 Tyler Cowen, “Why Wokeism Will Rule the World,” Bloomberg, September 19, 2021.

49 Uri Friedman, “The Ten Biggest American Intelligence Failures,” Foreign Policy, January 3, 2012.

50 Ed West, “Why Wokeism Won’t Rule the World,” UnHerd, September 21, 2021.

51 Pardeep Attri, “‘You Don’t Look Dalit’ and Other Things ‘Upper Castes’ Must Stop Saying to Dalits Right Now,” The Print, July 16, 2019.

52 Danielle Kurtzleben, “Top General Defends Studying Critical Race Theory in the Military,” NPR, June 23, 2021.

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