Kenneth Tynan’s “We Dissent”

“We Dissent” (from broadcast transcript), 1960

Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980)

Benjamen Walker, a freelance New York-based writer and researcher, has been looking into (and continues to be looking into) English theatre-critic, author, and establishment-gadfly, Kenneth Tynan, including tracking down more on a supposedly “lost” film that Tynan made in 1960 for British tv (ITV/ATV) called “We Dissent”.  “We Dissent” featured a variety of American non-conformists, (‘lively American mavericks” is Tynan’s description of them) whom he invited to speak “on the state of non-conformity in general and the nature of their own non-conformity in particular”.

On a limited budget and at relatively short notice  he was able to gather together an impressive and wide-ranging collection of representative voices.

“America being by definition the greatest capitalist country on earth, it followed that Socialism and dissent would frequently be allied”, Tynan subsequently, wryly, notes.

“Accordingly, I ..included one admitted member of the Communist Party (Arnold Johnson), and four speakers reputedly linked with the extreme Left – Clinton Jencks, of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union, the Reverend Stephen Fritchman of the Unitarian Church, Dalton Trumbo, the Hollywood screen writer, and” –  (a particular provocation, it should be noted) –  “Alger Hiss.”

Not to mention intellectual heavyweights  – J.K.Galbraith, C.Wright Mills
Norman Mailerpontificating about the hipster…

and, most importantly (from our perspective) – “The Beat poets”, Allen Ginsberg & Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia


Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

Here’s a transcript of Allen’s contribution (prefaced by narrator, William Clark’s transitional remarks):

” The Beat network, or grapevine, threads its way back and forth across the American continent, zigzagging through Denver and Chicago, Nevada and Cincinnati, Ohio. On the other end of this sawtoothed axis, in Lower Manhattan, is Allen Ginsberg, one of the most internationally famous of the Beat poets”.

AG: I’ll read a poem called “My Sad Self”  (Allen reads most of the first stanza up to the line –  “in one eye blink to the horizon..”)

Ginsberg was joined in his regular cafe corner by Peter Orlovsky, also a poet and sometime called “The Beat Saint”. We asked them to define “Beat” poetry’s aim.

AG: To do it not to define it, for one thing, But to do what?  Like there is a strange beauty in people and the universe that is almost forgotten and almost suppressed, which you can see in the weird eyes of people looking at television cameras at times, if they look nakedly enough it can be gassed out into poetry which can be communicated and which can be heard now and in a golden car in Heaven. That’s good, but what I like, I like poetry that smells, that has a smell to it. What kind of smell?  Well any kind of smell so long as I can look at a page and say, “I smell something here”. That’s what I like, poems that smell.

Basically, so far, what we have done is attempted to construct a prosody that satisfied the rhythm of American speech as distinguished from English speech, which is to say we have had to invent our own measure of the line of poetry and construct a new organic form for the poets. Basically I would agree with that. But I believe that, and I would say that there is a cherry hanging from the inside of the skull of the mind that wants to light up like a red light bulb and flash out of the eye. It’s that great final state that we’re trying to arrive to. Are we protesting?  No, no, no, the quality of protest is, our quality is, beauty – protest gets trapped in death and beauty never gets trapped in death. Also let me give you a big literary answer – All the English and American criticism has been pretty incompetent. It has got hung up with all sorts of social ideas, hung over from the ’30s, mostly jealous old liberals who have never made it into some area of beauty. The poetry is not primarily of protest, it is more an epiphany. It like a religious ecstasy has come to us and it is a quest finding a way of communicating.”


William F Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008)

Senator Thomas J Dodd (and William Buckley Jr (writing in the National Review) were among establishment figures who were horrified by the program

Dodd: “With twenty-two personal interviews, “We Dissent” might indeed have presented to the British public a panorama of the “varied minority views” in our country. “The proud tradition of dissent” in America” was represented on the program, altho’ in a limited and completely one-sided manner, by people like Hutchins, Galbraith, Cousins and Thomas.
But I challenge the program’s contention that “our proud tradition of dissent” is in any way represented by most of the other members of this tendentious amalgam – by Communists, party liners and a convicted perjurer, by beatniks, eccentrics, a dope addict and an expert on sex deviation (sic).”

Tynan: “After lengthy discussions . . . we decided to exclude American dissenters of the extreme right, such as Senator Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Their participation, it was felt, might have caused British viewers to construe the program as a slanted piece of anti-American propaganda.”


Here’s Tynan, at the subsequent Senate Security Subcommittee hearing (part of investigations into “foreign infiltration” and The Fair Play For Cuba Committee), Tynan being grilled by “J.G.S”, (the aptly-named “Mr. Sourwine)” – classic paranoia and Cold War Anti-Communism:

JGS:  Mr Tynan, did you produce a broadcast, entitled “We Dissent”, of the Associated Television, Ltd., the British Television Network, on January 27, 1960?
KT: Yes I did
JGS: Was this a broadcast which served to bring the United States into disrepute?
KT: Certainly not
Senator Dodd (to Mr Sourwine) : Just a moment. I think you might rephrase that question.
I think the matter of whether did or did not is an opinion and judgement, don’t you think so?
JGS: The Chair is, of course, correct. I will ask this question.  Was this broadcast intended to bring the United States into disrepute?
KT: By no means, I should say rather the opposite.
JGS:  This was the  broadcast  produced as a platform for Americans who have doubts about the American way of life.
KT: It was conceived, and I think advertised as a program, expressing as much as we could in ninety minutes of the enormous – of the whole spectrum of nonconformity in this country in the arts and philosophy and politics and in any field.
JGS: You are attempting to cover the whole spectrum?
KT: That obviously one cannot do in ninety minutes. I had hoped it would be a much longer program but I was overruled. It’s aim, if I may continue, was to correct a distorted image of America that I had noticed to my horror in a great many countries in Europe. The idea is that America is a country of conformists and organization men. I know this country well enough to say it is untrue.I was extremely pleased to be asked by the TV company concerned to undertake the organization of the program.
Senator Dodd: This is the private TV in Great Britain, was it not?
KT: It was one of the independents.
Senator Dodd: Independent?
KT: Independent producing companies.
JGS: I can understand that you might not in a ninety-minute program put on everybody that you might wish to reach, but it is fair to say that you put on as many as you could get of the persons you wanted?
KT: Well, originally, this was enormous.It was compiled in England, a couple of hundred people were on it, and we had an extremely limited schedule, extremely limited amount of money at our disposal which restricted our filming entirely in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Obviously we could only interview those that were available and accessible and interested at that time in those cities.”

Typical passive-agressive right-wing bullying.

Allen’s featured interview is here, we’ll be featuring other interviews from the transcript in other postings in the days ahead.

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