27 November 2019
The Mighty Wurlitzer
Lara Prescott's novel The Secrets We Kept is about CIA's successful efforts in the late 1950's to bootleg Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Novy Mir had refused to publish in the USSR. The manuscript was smuggled out, and translated into Italian. CIA arranged for the first Russian-language edition, hoping to embarrass the Kremlin. They got more than they hoped for when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was discouraged (to put it mildly) from accepting. For the Soviet Union, it was a public-relations disaster, the engines of terror fearful of a poet.
The Secrets We Kept is deliciously juicy, on any number of levels, and terrifically serious. The catty asides, on the one hand, the abyss of the Gulag on the other. The voices carry the story, and the sense of period is absolutely convincing. I highly recommend it, as a fiction - although I don't imagine Lara Prescott needs my help, she's getting a lot of good press - but also in the documentary sense, as a corrective. The history is genuine.
White propaganda, so-called, is basically information, although it may well be slanted in your favor. Think, for example, the Voice of America, or Radio Moscow. You know the source. Grey, though, is more along the lines of a false-flag operation, where a story, pro or con, might be planted in a supposedly neutral (or even hostile) media environment. Black propaganda is deniable. The provenance isn't traceable.
Back in the 50's and 60's, this effort was managed with a certain sophistication, as well as brute force. The legendary Frank Wisner, one of CIA's clandestine chiefs, called it "the Mighty Wurlitzer," and it was an instrument Wisner played well. The coordination of underlying narrative is a tool of spycraft, generally, as in the development of a legend, using false background material or selective truths, but Wisner wasn't just selling ice to Eskimos, he was developing a brand. He was mythologizing America, and American virtues, as dedicated countermeasures against Stalinist myth and methodology.
This exemplifies and defines the Cold War. The crazy thing to me is how it's redefined itself, and metastasized, in the present day. Obviously, you can blame the Internet, or social media, but there seems to be something more afoot. We've internalized this Wall of Noise. One of the standard practices of Intelligence is discrimination. All information isn't equal. The phenomenon we're seeing now is that everything has the same weight, that it deserves a hearing. Which gives rise to dense constructions of unreason, hysteria, alternative realities. You have to wonder if it's a symptom, or the disease itself. It's like the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. It made no sense, it struck down the evil and the virtuous alike, the young, the old, the hale, the sick. It didn't matter. There was no explanation, other than the Hand of God. This is like some willed, mass brain death, a plague of information noise. What will the post-Apocalyptic world be like? One thing we might wish for is a large, empty silence.