Written by the co-founder of Guernica magazine, Finks is a tale of two CIAs, and how they blurred the line between propaganda and literature. One CIA created literary magazines that promoted American and European writers and cultural freedom, while the other toppled governments, using assassination and censorship as political tools.
...an essential book on a small but key part of the prehistory of this hijacking of culture ... Whitney’s writing burns with indignation at the fact that few cultural figures who worked with the CIA ever faced accountability for their actions ... Perhaps the strangest and most compelling of Whitney’s revelations are how the founding managing editor of The Paris Review, John Train, worked with the CIA-backed mujahideen in Afghanistan, during the 1980s, to finance a film on the war and against the Soviet presence ... Finks is a fine historical book, reviewing propaganda’s long and tortuous history in the world of art. With huge contemporary relevance, Whitney recalls what many look back on as a far more innocent media age, before the internet, and yet the effects of government-backed lies were just as deadly then as now.
Whitney argues that the government 'weaponized' culture and helped create a compromised media that still serves, 'in part, to encourage support for our interventions.' The term he uses in the title—'finks'—implies that the book’s subjects are disreputable actors, complicit in the crimes of the agency that supported their work ... represents a return to [a] mode of exposing hypocritical alliances rather than explaining their historical motivations ... Whitney makes a compelling case, for instance, that the CIA reinforced the literary prestige of white men in American letters ... Still, Whitney and other critics of the CIA too often aim to portray the agency and those who worked with it as a single entity acting with a unified purpose. The reality was much messier ... Whitney sounds a powerful warning about the dangerous interaction between the national security state and the work of writers and journalists. But the precise experience of the cultural Cold War is unlikely to be repeated.
The book’s scope is indeed broad, and it details how quite a few boldface literary names of the 1950s and 1960s crossed paths with The Paris Review, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, or both. Finks fails to persuade, though, as thirdhand connections to the Review — whose editor may or may not have known of the CIA’s presence in the lit-mag world — are hardly enough to make an open-and-shut case of nefarious puppeteering. Whitney also fudges differences and at times gets facts wrong in the drive to make his story cohere ... The larger problem is that Finks is so diffuse. Whitney’s Salon article was a minor but genuinely original and valuable contribution to the scholarship on the Cultural Cold War. Here, he attempts to expand that article to book length, and the seams strain. His new contribution to the field is still his research on The Paris Review, but at times the links are so distant, or speculative, that they just seem forced. ... There is much more to be learned about the Cultural Cold War and the CIA’s role in promoting American literature, but Finks is not the place to learn it.