How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers (Wasn’t Even Hard)

A foreign power stealthily intervenes in another nation’s affairs, manipulating media and disseminating propaganda to help sway an election. Joel Whitney has spent years looking into underhanded activity of that sort, but his subject is not Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its incursions into election processes in the United States and Europe. Whitney points the flashlight at the U.S. government in his book Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers.

Whitney writes how the Central Intelligence Agency covertly spawned a worldwide network of media outlets, especially literary magazines, during the Cold War. The CIA used these outlets to further its geopolitical goals—an exercise in cultural diplomacy, or “soft power” in today’s lingo, as distinct from the agency’s hard power that included assassinations, coups, election-related bribery, and other intrusions. The general outlines of this story have been known for decades, but Whitney is clearly hoping to amp up the indignation over what he considers an historic disgrace. In particular the “literary CIA,” as he styles it, blurred the lines “between criticism, journalism, and the needs of the state; between aesthetics and the political requirements of the Cold War.”

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Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland

Through the centuries they have been known as “cretins,” “simpletons,” “morons,” “idiots,” “imbeciles” and “feebleminded,” among other classifications. These labels at various times have enjoyed the status of proper names, among them the Massachusetts School for Idiotic Children and Youth (a progressive organization founded in the mid-19th century) and the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded (which followed in the early 20th century).

Dan Barry’s disturbing yet beautifully told story begins in the mid-1960s, when a few dozen men transported from Abilene, Texas, are called “mentally retarded.”

See the review in America magazine …

The Irish and Italians: A Love-Hate Story (Or a Hate Story that Became a Love Story)

Growing up in Brooklyn, I belonged to a predominantly Sicilian parish headed by a priest with silvery hair and wooly white eyebrows, whose surname was Riley. The pastor’s homilies often involved itemizations of parish expenses, and some say that on one occasion he held up a few fronds of the kind distributed freely on Palm Sunday and declared, “Do you think these grow on trees?” When he was not preaching about money, the Irish priest was, more subtly, admonishing the Italians.

Review of an engrossing history crafted by Paul Moses …

Relative Poverty

The indignity of gross inequality

Which view of economic inequality has greater merit? The one espoused by Adam Smith, the father figure of capitalism? Or the teaching that unfolds from the Bible’s pleadings for justice and righteousness?

It’s a trick question. In fact, these two perspectives are broadly the same. Smith, like the biblical writers, was opposed to gross income inequality. For both, how people are faring relative to others in society is not simply a question of envy. It’s a matter of human dignity and social well-being.

There’s another outlook on inequality that has many adherents. Let’s call it the We Got Stuff school of thought. …read more

Master Teachers

Inside the classrooms of six Boston College faculty

At 8:15 one Wednesday morning last January, most of the 40 students in G. Peter Wilson’s 8:30 Financial Accounting class were already present. Wilson waited a minute or two longer, surveyed the lecture room occupied mostly by freshmen in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, and said: “Let’s do it.” All heads turned toward a bingo cage on a wooden bench at the front of the room. The professor gave the toy a spin and yanked out a numbered yellow ball—indicating the study group that would report on its research momentarily. Then he rolled a red dice. “And the lucky number is two,” he announced, signaling the student who would deliver the group’s brief presentation. In the back of the room a young man pumped his fist and exclaimed, “Yes!” … read more

The Peace Front

Religious groups stake out a wider role in violent conflicts.

On Sept. 11, 2001, a cadre of young Muslim men hijacked planes and, perhaps with visions of black-eyed virgins in Paradise, crashed them into the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, acting supposedly in the name of their religion. Within hours of these atrocities, Top 40 radio stations across the United States began playing John Lennon’s anthem “Imagine,” which supplied what many saw as a soundtrack of hope and harmony in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The lyrics longingly envisioned “all the people, living life in peace.” But with a disquieting relevance to the suicide attacks, Lennon had also pondered, “Imagine there’s no heaven…and no religion, too.”

Since then commentators have fleshed out this contemplation of a religion-free world. “Imagine no suicide bombers, no 9/11…no Crusades…no Israel/Palestine wars…no Taliban,” wrote the prominent atheist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins five years after the towers crumbled. This past December, 30 years after the ex-Beatle was gunned down by a deranged fan, the comedian and television personality Bill Maher, alluding to religious strife in general, sent a message to his fans on Twitter: “Remember Lennon said ‘Imagine NO religion.’ Honor what he wrote—it holds up.” These and other secularist screeds have tapped into a larger feeling that religion usually is a cause of violence rather than an agent of peace helping to resolve and heal conflicts. …read more

The Life of Meaning

The Life of Meaning

Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World

By Bob Abernethy and William Bole, with a Foreword by Tom Brokaw

Nautilus Book Awards Gold Winner 2008

The Life of Meaning presents conversations with 59 extraordinary people speaking candidly about their own spiritual struggles. Their insights on community, prayer, suffering, religious observance, the choice to live with or without a god, and the meanings that are gleaned from everyday life form an elegant meditation on the desire for something beyond what we can see and measure. Among those profiled are Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Harold Kushner, Madeleine L’Engle, Studs Terkel, Andrew Greeley, Anne Lamott, Francis Collins, Marianne Williamson, Irving Greenberg, Thomas Lynch, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marilynne Robinson, and William Sloane Coffin. …read more