The CIA's 'Woke' Ad Is An Absurd Psyop That's Melting People's Brains

There's no reason to take the coup-plotting agency at face value, but many commentators have done just that for the past week.
May 5, 2021, 4:45pm
The CIA's 'Woke' Ad Is An Absurd Psyop That's Melting People's Brains
Image: Central Intelligence Agency

For a while now, the Central Intelligence Agency has been rolling out a rebrand to attract diverse operatives with roots in countries they've terrorized with coups, rigged elections, death squads, and assasination plots. In January, the agency launched a glossy new website plastered with Black and brown faces, a sleek minimalist logo, and messaging explicitly aimed at recruiting millennials. Before that, we saw the first executive for Hispanic engagement pen an op-ed expressing that even though "the spies I saw on TV were male Anglo-Saxon Ivy leagues, not Latinas from New Jersey'' she belonged in the agency.

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Last week, the CIA opened up the next phase of that rebrand with a glitzy advertisement celebrating the intersecting identities of an agent of color. “I am a woman of color. I am a mom. I am a cisgender millennial who has been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.” The agent tells us that she's "intersectional"; to her credit, being the "daughter of immigrants" and rejecting "misguided patriarchal ideas" while working for an agency that has terrorized countries in the name of imperialism justified as benevolent paternalism is intersectional in a sense, just not in the way the spy agency means.

It's not clear whether this agent actually exists—not a surprise given the agency's history—or is a creation of a marketing firm well-versed in these sorts of campaigns, but it is clear the narrative has been finely calibrated to distort the meaning of intersectionality to apply to any set of interlocking symbols: a nod to "imposter syndrome" here, a raised feminist fist icon there. The ad, it seems, was also finely calibrated to break the minds of everyone who gazed upon it.

"Wokeness, ultimately, is neither really an ideology nor even a politics," tweeted investigative reporter Glenn Greenwald. "At its worst, it's about petty cultural control, but mostly it's just a personal branding image by those otherwise at a loss for identity, purpose and self-esteem. That's why power centers love it so much."

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Greenwald was not the only one to share this sentiment, but perhaps spent the most time developing it and arguing it online over the past few days. This culminated in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to expand his analysis of how "left-wing cultural ideology" was being used here by power centers.

“Wokeness, this ideology, is not about subverting power centers. They never talk about power centers, the CIA, big tech, monopolies, hedge fund managers, it is about turning citizens against one another,” Greenwald said. “That person is evil. That individual is bad. It empowers these ruling class centers. That is why they not just embrace it and cynically exploit it, they actually finance it and want to spread it because it strengthens and entrenches their power.”

Putting aside the absurdity of this level of response to the CIA’s already completely absurd ad, this is a strange argument. It is assuming, for one thing, that the left doesn’t critique the American state, the intelligence apparatus, concentrated private power, Wall Street, and so on, basic stuff for any budding leftist whether they’re reading a book or participating in some organized action. It also conflates the left with “wokeness” as if the CIA’s deployment of this language should be taken at face value. Greenwald has spent his career laying out why we should never trust the intelligence apparatus, so it’s not clear why he and others are suddenly treating a propaganda video from America’s spy agency as a statement of the left’s values. 

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Greenwald takes his argument further on Carlson’s show by condemning liberals and leftists for "a complete confusion about where power lies." He admonishes them for never protesting at Langley, the CIA headquarters, the Pentagon, Silicon Valley, or Wall Street. "The left and liberals think that they are fighting against power when they are really fighting marginalized people to benefit ruling class institutions because it is much easier to go fight a boogaloo boy than the CIA or tech monopolies."

Greenwald has done important investigative reporting unveiling corruption in Brazil under Bolsarno’s regime and collaboration with the United States to see it through, but it would be silly to suggest he doesn’t care about that because he doesn’t protest at Palácio da Alvorada (the Brazilian president’s residence) especially given the security threats to him and his family. And it would be even more silly to read his reporting and criticisms, then to simply insist he has never made them, as he is doing by painting the left as being uninterested in basic questions of power. 

Greenwald’s argument is so confused that it’s hard to even discern who he is referring to when he mashes together vague ideas of “left-wing cultural ideology” and “woke” people, and so on. The entire recent history of the world flies in the face of his characterization of the left writ large, but if we consider that he is angry in front of Twitter for far too many hours of the day then his blinkered conception of the world and who he perceives as his enemies makes a bit more sense. 

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you do. Every corporation and government agency can adopt all the anti-racist rhetoric or inclusive language it wants, but who cares? It is ridiculous to read that as an honest move and not a cynical one—especially when coming from a government agency that has a history of subterfuge and deception and spycraft that has relied on co-option or corruption of people, values, and movements. It’s even sillier to imagine that such a propaganda campaign says anything about the real ideas it is trying to hollow out and use as promotional material.

It is hard to overstate how little we gain from agonizing over the CIA’s adoption of that language because it is the CIA. This is the one group of which we should all be united in our distrust. This is one of the only institutions whose willingness to lie and manipulate is not only plain to all but a core part of its mission. What it says in public simply does not matter, and turning propaganda into a week-long discourse cycle helps no one.