In Praise of Cultural Warfare

Nicolas Nabokov (center), an understated hero of the Cold War

I'm not terribly fond of "the culture war," at least as it is generally discussed in relation to United States domestic politics. Abortion, gay marriage: These are not things I am particularly interested in, and the arguments surrounding them tend to be so remarkably tedious that I try to avoid them altogether.

Cultural warfare, on the other hand, is endlessly fascinating. Efforts to spread cultural products (books, movies, operas, etc.) in order to convince the rest of the world that your way of life is superior are far more interesting to me than troop movements and power politics. This is one of the reasons I so enjoyed writing my latest column for the Washington Post, in which I suggested that the CIA should mount an effort to clandestinely spread Sorry to Bother You throughout mainland China.

As part of the research process for that essay, I picked up a copy of Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War by Frances Stonor Saunders. It's an interesting, well-researched book, one that I quite enjoyed despite the fact that Saunders is relentlessly critical of the CIA's efforts to covertly fund certain aspects of the culture war. Her disdain for Nicolas Nabokov, cousin of the novelist Vladimir, is particularly pronounced. Consider, for instance, her recounting of his behavior at a conference in New York City organized by the Soviets and their States-side useful idiots at the Waldorf Astoria:

One can feel pity for Dimitri Shostakovich, a Soviet composer required by the monstrousness of Stalinism to denounce fellow composers, while also understanding that Nabokov is entirely right to highlight the inherent absurdity of a Soviet-sponsored "Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace." Nabokov was well within his rights to note that this effort to propagandize American artists and intellectuals was being underwritten by a nation that had spent much of the last 20 years un-personing artists and intellectuals, sentencing them to the gulags (or worse) for failing to use their art in service of the revolution. Nabokov wasn't "throwing punches at a man with his hands tied behind his back": He was punching up at one of the few remaining world powers, an enemy state that had set its sights on bringing America to its knees. That Shostakovich was the Evil Empire's representative at this event may have been unfortunate. But cultural warfare ain't beanbag.

Anyway! I highly recommend reading Saunders's book, available at an Amazon near you. So long as you remember how to read it.