The Art of Saying Nothing

Louis Menand’s new history of Cold War art and thought The Free World wants to rehabilitate liberal anti-communism. To do so, it downplays both the political repression of the US left and imperial America’s genocide against its Third World political opponents.

The Free World tells mostly familiar stories of American and European Cold War culture and thought in easily digestible prose to confirm entrenched pro-American biases: America really is an exceptional country and not an empire. (John Kim / Unsplash)

With an academic post at Harvard and a National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama, New Yorker critic Louis Menand is like a modern version of the elite cultural and political figures he writes about in his new book, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. Twenty years after he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Metaphysical Club, his book on the Civil War’s influence on American pragmatist philosophy, The Free World, in a way its sequel, assesses the lives and works of leading American and Western European pragmatist and liberal intellectuals of the Cold War era, like realist diplomat George Kennan, liberal academic Lionel Trilling, and anti-Marxist diplomat and academic Isaiah Berlin.

The book also includes biographical portraits and critical summaries of leading works by liberalizing artists, writers, musicians, and entertainers — artists like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol; philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; writer and activist James Baldwin; and musicians like John Cage and The Beatles. Even New Yorker cartoons are conscripted in the Cold War struggle between “The Free World” and “totalitarianism.”

The book reads more like a collection of essays, some of which have been expanded from New Yorker pieces, than a tightly argued whole. But it does have a thesis, which is essentially this: those were the days.

Nostalgic if nothing else, The Free World tells mostly familiar stories of American and European Cold War culture and thought in easily digestible prose to confirm entrenched pro-American biases: America really is an exceptional country and not an empire. Art and thought should be measured primarily by popularity, commercial success, and elite institutional credentials. And, of course, the Soviet Union was a “totalitarian” regime that had to be contained.

At almost nine hundred pages, The Free World is a heavy book, but its analysis is light as a feather. That’s because Menand does not write criticism. He writes a literary form of gossip, in the sense defined by the influential McCarthyite gossip columnist Walter Winchell: “Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid.”

In The Free World, Menand’s main argument is a piece of gossip in this sense. It is not directly articulated as a thesis to be developed but simply presupposed. The very title of the book is a triumph of public relations. The communists are the bad guys, and the United States and Western Europe are “The Free World.”

But to convince his readers that “The Free World” is more than just a memorable propaganda phrase, Menand downplays the power fanatical anti-communists had at this conjuncture in American history. They suppressed leftist and even nonsocialist progressive groups in America from the second Red Scare after World War II to the Civil Rights era and waged a genocidal war in Vietnam and neighboring countries. Through analyzing American culture, the book is an attempt to rehabilitate liberal anti-communism in an enlightened form: “anti-totalitarianism.”

“An American Sense of Global Responsibility”

Early on, Menand asserts that Cold War policy was well-intentioned in the years just after World War II. George Kennan and the other “Wise Men” around President Harry Truman are presented as true believers in “the altruistic use of American power.”

“There was nothing conspiratorial about them,” Menand writes. “They were just what they seemed to be: representatives of an American conception of prosperity and an American sense of global responsibility.”

While The Free World soft pedals Kennan and company’s right-wing sympathies and imperial designs, you would hardly know from the book that figures to Kennan’s political right ran domestic and foreign policy for much of the period under consideration.

There is only one mention each of the Dulles brothers, the aggressive anti-communist hardliners who headed the CIA and the State Department during crucial years Menand covers and essentially ran foreign policy in the interest of many of their former corporate clients from their days as Wall Street lawyers. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles comes up only as a reference in an unnamed Allen Ginsberg poem. Allen Dulles, the longtime CIA director, is only brought up in a paragraph that reassures the reader the CIA never ran its own foreign policy.

“Two wide-ranging investigations of CIA activities,” Menand reassures, “concluded that although the CIA did many illegal things, it did them with the explicit or tacit approval of the administrations it worked for.”

“Many illegal things” is much too vague and understated here; the past tense “did” is worse. The CIA’s program of “extraordinary rendition,” of essentially kidnapping suspects in the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, is just one example showing that such actions are not confined to the agency’s distant past.

McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare after World War II receive only cursory references in a “by the way” fashion, with more unsettling numbers and details relegated to the footnotes. In one telling passage, Menand downplays the extent of the job losses by focusing only on jobs lost by communists and suspected communists in one field: education.

About six hundred teachers or professors lost their jobs, half in New York City. “In a country with 960,000 public school teachers and (by 1955–1956) 300,000 college and university faculty, that was less than a hundredth of a percent.” In fact, the real number of total job losses was closer to ten thousand, as Menand himself admits in a footnote. “An outside estimate of the number of Americans who lost their jobs in those years (which could be dated 1947 to 1957) is ten thousand.”

But even that larger number misses the point of such actions: even a small number of unjust firings were enough to send an undemocratic chill throughout education and all kinds of industries everywhere.

Menand’s fuzzy accounting gives no sense of what the witch hunts of the various Congressional committees involved in the Second Red Scare were like. “Congressional hearing rooms were the bleeding grounds where witnesses either ‘cooperated’ or faced the prospect of losing their jobs, and sometimes jail,” journalist Fred Jerome writes in The Einstein File. “Those subpoenaed were not allowed to cross-examine their accusers, or even to know who their accusers were.” This led to something that no number can do justice to: a pervasive climate of fear. “As a ‘service’ to employers and a sword over the head of witnesses, HUAC made its records available to any company requesting them.”

The longer sweep of anti-communism is also essentially ignored in The Free World. It leaves out the longer view of the Cold War that should begin with the First Red Scare, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer’s raids that target communists and other leftists for deportation, and the establishment of what would become the FBI, all in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. And it makes no mention of the way terrorism seamlessly supplanted communism as a rationale for military spending and imperial adventures in recent decades.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1961. (Marion S. Trikosko. / Picryl)

Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the hard-right anti-communist, is only mentioned once. Over nearly fifty years in power, Hoover harassed leftist activists and illegally collected evidence for his infamous files. Menand features Hoover complaining after a rare setback. In 1957, the Supreme Court threw out convictions of American Communist Party leaders under the Smith Act, which allowed for the arrest of Communist Party members for supposedly wanting to overthrow the government. Menand quotes Hoover’s framing of this victory for political rights and freedoms as “Red Monday.” He then politely disagrees: McCarthyism was dead, Menand reassures his reader, because McCarthy was dead.

Menand does not mention that around this same time Hoover’s FBI had launched its notorious counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO) to infiltrate, surveil, and otherwise harass not only communists, but civil rights organizations, antiwar activists, and all those deemed “subversive.” Instead, from then on, as Menand euphemistically puts it, “Communism became a foreign policy problem.” This is where the bodies are buried during the time period of The Free World — and Menand does not want to look.

Menand does not mention CIA-orchestrated coups against moderate reformers in Iran and Guatemala, or the agency’s violent repression of a communist insurgency in the Philippines. It ignores the US- supported genocide against the peaceful, unarmed Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). Similarly, the failed attempt to violently overthrow the Cuban government in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion is mentioned only once and in passing as an “embarrassing setback” for President John F. Kennedy. The book almost succeeds in casting the United States as the embattled underdog fighting mighty Cuba, with its “CIA-directed invasion … crushed by Cuban forces.”

The FBI’s violent role in the repression of the Black Power movement is mentioned only in passing and as a fait accompli. According to Menand, the Black Panthers were like the Black Arts Movement, “which did not last long.” [The Panthers’ “demise was violently accelerated by the FBI campaign to destroy them.” Nor does his account of the demise of the black left include the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, and with his death, the splintering of his campaign for jobs and other economic rights for the working poor of all races. But Menand would have you know that King only said “equality” once in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

“Vietnam Reminds Me of a Child”

The Free World is a kind of sequel, in the “expanded universe” mold, to Menand’s previous book, The Metaphysical Club, on the Civil War origins of the American philosophical school of pragmatism. Both feature a cast of elite centrist liberal and pragmatist intellectuals. The Metaphysical Club was a group biography of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, and philosophers William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.

There is another similarity between the books: they both downplay and disavow right-wing intellectual and political movements.

In The Metaphysical Club, Menand downplayed the mainstream success of eugenics during the early twentieth century to make pragmatism seem more important than it really was for a key event: Holmes’s infamous opinion legalizing forced sterilizations under eugenical doctrine in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell. Menand brings up this case only in passing to argue that Holmes saw the sacrifice of the “feebleminded” who were to be sterilized as small compared to the deaths of his fellow soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. Menand ignores the more decisive beginning and ending of Holmes’s opinion that explicitly invoke eugenicist doctrine.

Most shockingly, and unmentioned by Menand, neither Carrie Buck nor her daughter Vivian, who was sterilized as a toddler, were feebleminded. As Stephen Jay Gould summarized it in his classic essay, “Carrie Buck’s Daughter”: “She [Carrie Buck] was raped by a relative of her foster parents, then blamed for the resulting pregnancy. Almost surely, she was (as they used to say) committed to hide her shame (and her rapist’s identity), not because enlightened science had just discovered her true mental status.”

Poverty was Buck’s in-born “trait” that led to her and her daughter’s sterilization. As the powerful lobbying group the Eugenics Record Office wrote in support of the case against her: “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South.”

In a similar vein, in The Free World, a key section of the Vietnam chapter not only downplays the suffering inflicted there and in surrounding countries, but tacitly supports a dehumanizing, racist view of the Vietnamese.

General William Westmoreland, the commander of American forces in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, is notorious for his racist remarks about “Orientals.” “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as the Westerner,” Westmoreland solemnly explained in the documentary Hearts and Minds (1973). “Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as a philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.”

In Hearts and Minds, Westmoreland’s comments are intercut with images from Vietnam that prove he could not be more wrong. A young boy clings to his dead father’s framed portrait crying inconsolably. The boy’s grandmother must be restrained from crawling into her son’s grave. A distraught woman carries an infant badly burned by a napalm attack, and an American pilot weeps for what he has done.

By contrast, Menand lets Westmoreland’s comments stand with no interpretation besides the fact that they reflected the US policy “to kill as many of the enemy as possible.” Westmoreland’s statement ends one paragraph, and the next paragraph begins by excusing the US invasion and downplaying America imperialism: “American presidents who pursued a policy of engagement in Vietnam were not imperialists. They genuinely wanted a free and independent South Vietnam, and the gap between that aspiration and the reality … turned out to be unbridgeable.” The irony of the United States both wanting a free Vietnam and being willing to kill as many Vietnamese as possible to obtain one goes unremarked.

General William Westmoreland in Vietnam, 1967. (Flickr)

For Menand, Vietnam was not a genocidal war but a “policy of engagement,” a clean, tidy phrase about what the genocidal realities of what the war actually looked like. This phrase near the end of the book provides insight into The Free World’s very first sentence: “This book is about a time when the United States was actively engaged with the rest of the world.” Menand wants engagement to mean starting international lending institutions, hosting the United Nations, and having “US entertainment culture … enjoyed all over the world.” By the end, engagement turns out to mean “to kill as many of the enemy as possible.”

Menand is aware of this contradiction, but the main problems for him are the damage to the US empire’s reputation and the squandering of “political capital,” not the staggering death toll of millions of people in Vietnam and neighboring countries and the ongoing health crisis and ecological destruction from the use of chemical weapons like Agent Orange.

Westmoreland’s comments are repugnant, of course. But it is important to remember he was not speaking for himself alone. He was saying the quiet part of the policy loudly. The dehumanization of the Vietnamese was a systematic part of the war.

In another infamous comment earlier in the film, Westmoreland outlines this racist policy by rooting it in a discredited understanding of evolutionary development known as the biogenetic law, which was used by “race science” and eugenicists to rank races based on their overall maturity.

“Vietnam reminds me of a child, the development of a child,” Westmoreland explains. “The laws of nature control the development of this child. A child has to sit up before it crawls. It has to crawl before it walks. It has to walk before it runs.” In a sign of the basic dignity of the young Americans sent to fight in Vietnam, mass desertion, insubordination — including the killing of commanding officers — and other forms of resistance showed the extent to which they rejected the brutal, racist doctrine of their superiors and contributed to ending the war.

By contrast, Menand is unable to account for how and why the war ended, because he puts too much stock in the power of elites to affect change. He points to and interprets closely a televised Senate hearing where George Kennan criticized the Vietnam War in 1966. This event is important for Menand because it “marked the point at which what was regarded as ‘establishment’ opinion turned against the war.”

And yet, as Menand concedes, “the war ground on for another nine years.” Perhaps elites like Kennan are not as important as The Free World presumes. Rather, it took incredible sacrifices from the Vietnamese people, a national protest movement in America, and acts of resistance by American soldiers themselves to end the Vietnam War.

The Value of Nothing

In Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, a character remarks that cynics “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” I kept thinking of this line as I read the various sales figures for paintings and the statistical portrait of consumption habits for popular music, television, and movies recounted in The Free World. Perhaps there is something well-intentioned behind the emphasis on the business side of the arts and culture. It is supposed to show us how the real world operates.

But there is also an unstated premise behind this emphasis on consumption habits: that consumption is the primary perspective through which we should understand art and culture. But with music in particular, there is another, older way to measure its success, a way that we lost in the last year of pandemic quarantine, while the commodified version of music carried on: the activity of simply playing music with other musicians and not necessarily for an audience or other specified commercial purpose. Put simply, what do the musicians play for themselves?

The answers to this question should be embraced by socialists as signs of the future we want. Wilde’s essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” points in this direction in its famous opening lines. Under capitalism, Wilde argues, far from being free, “the majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism” and are never able to realize the perfection of what is in them. Just like the vast majority of workers spend their lives answering to a boss, musicians and artists spend their lives playing for their bosses: record company executives, producers, bookers, conductors, and so on.

Menand is aware of the discrepancy between the music business, on one side, and the music and the musicians, on the other. But in his gossipy mode, it is simply mentioned and left aside. He mentions that musicians associated with one genre commercially might very well enjoy playing other music on their own time. “Most musicians are much more eclectic than their fans.” Elvis Presley wanted to be a ballad singer. His big break was anything but: “That’s All Right, Mama” was a happy accident at the end of a long, mostly frustrating recording session. But it is mostly the business side of such events that is The Free World’s focus.

John Cage, 1988. (Wikimedia Commons)

The predominant focus on the music business does not take us as far, however, if we turn to modernism in jazz and classical music, to music that has enjoyed only modest commercial success but has endured among the musicians who continue to play it. Menand has virtually nothing to say about the avant-garde jazz of the era, and essentially his only avatar from the world of modernist classical music is John Cage.

Cage’s key contribution to music was his extensive use of chance. Chance figures in the procedures Cage used to write music, such as coin tosses, and in that he often left the execution up to the performer’s choice in the moment or the performance itself open to chance. His most famous work – 4’ 33’’ – instructs the musicians not to play but to sit in silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It is modern music’s ultimate challenge to the distinction between the musician producing the music and the listener consuming it. Cage remarked after the first performance: the audience “made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” 4’ 33’’ turned the audience into the musicians.

Menand lightheartedly reiterates throughout his analysis of Cage’s career that Cage did not have much money and did not seem to mind. He connects Cage’s distaste for recording his music to his lack of funds. Cage believed that recordings “turn music into an object.” Menand wants us to know, though, that Cage still wanted recognition — “he was not that unworldly.” Eventually Menand finds a way to link Cage’s desire for recognition to a vast sum of money. Cage was on a quiz show in Italy called “Double or Nothing?” He won the grand prize, $6,000, by naming all twenty-four white-spore mushrooms in alphabetical order. “It was by far the largest amount of money he had ever earned,” Menand reports with gentle mockery.

But Cage was not just being avant-garde or “unworldly” by rejecting the commodity form of recorded music. He was also invoking the much longer tradition of musicians playing music not primarily for musical consumption, but for themselves.

Musical recordings at major corporate labels are produced following rules predicated on extracting quick profits above all else. Charles Rosen was a recording artist for Columbia Records when Clive Davis issued a new directive in the 1960s: “no recording was to be undertaken if the recovery of its costs could not be projected within one year’s sale in the United States.”

Some classical music recordings were immediately cancelled as a result. The geographic restriction of Davis’s rule, where the costs had to be recovered in the US market, was particularly absurd. As one of Rosen’s producer friends expressed it, “Don’t they know we are an international company?” With Japanese and European sales taken into account, classical records would have met Davis’ financial criterion.

But the point of this anecdote is darker. In fact, Davis’s decision, that thought a whole year ahead, was “unusually broadminded in the American record business.” As Rosen explains:

Normally the goal was nothing more than a fast recovery of costs and a quick profit. A continuously growing profitability was also desirable since selling only the same number of records each year would neither please stockholders nor attract investment. Staying in business merely by sustaining the same level of activity was not commercially appealing. … This conviction, it seems to me, is less a principle of economics than an article of faith.

It is this article of faith that The Free World wants us to believe in still: that “continuously growing profitability” corresponds to increasing human freedom. If the book’s goal was to reinforce the entrenched bias that the search for ever increasing profits is essential to human freedom, it has accomplished its mission. But it is long past time to call a different tune.