Life Is Unfair, Chapter 5,386,259…

Jonathan Schell is dead, but Henry Kissinger is still spewing lies for money. Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in NYMag:

Unsightly demonstrations accusing Henry Kissinger of mass murder tend to trail him wherever he goes, and so when the former secretary of state agreed to address a Yale graduate seminar, the school asked its students to keep the appearance confidential, probably to stave off the inevitable protests. Graduate students being graduate students, word of both Kissinger’s appearance and Yale’s efforts to keep it quiet inevitably leaked, so the protests when he arrives in New Haven on Friday are bound to be louder and more vigorous. This is the permanent theater of Henry Kissinger — Nobel Peace laureate, engineer of proxy wars, accused acquiescent to genocide — and it has been running for nearly four decades: Establishment institutions at once venerate his great intellect and importance while their scholars and students simultaneously accuse him of the most heinous crimes…

Fame is always bankable, even fame of the most heinous kind. But I think Kissinger’s strange place in the culture has a more specific cause. Our tendency in the public debate is to discuss foreign policy in bizarrely abstract terms — we talk ceaselessly about the tension between the “realist” and “idealist” positions on a crisis (even though every modern American endeavor, foreign policy or not, has components of both) as if the particular human experiences overseas mattered quite little, as if foreign affairs could be understood in terms as general and cleanly theoretical as those of economics. This is a useful shorthand, insofar as it allows you to have an opinion on how the White House should act without knowing much about the country in which it will be acting.

But it has a couple of nasty side effects. One is to subtly dehumanize people who happen to live in other countries, much as Kissinger himself does, by turning the discussion of events actually happening in the world — revolutions, famine, massacres — into a kind of internal test of character and leadership: What are the president’s most fundamental commitments? Is he an idealist or a realist? Another is to elevate the most ideologically rigid foreign policy thinkers to a permanent place in the debate. Kissinger is one; the error-prone neo-imperialist reporter Robert Kaplan, who has a long and absurd piece in The Atlantic this month, is another. In a perverse way, accruing evidence of Kissinger’s amorality, like the Bengali episode, only serves to strengthen his standing as the avatar of the relentlessly cynical American perspective on the rest of the world. In this, his credentials are impeccable. At least we know where he stands.

28 replies
  1. 1
    Morbo says:

    I’m not sure it’s fair to accuse Kissinger of slinging lies for money…

  2. 2
    LesGS says:

    My dad was a career FSO. He loathes Kissinger.

  3. 3
    srv says:

    RIP. A real American Hero.

  4. 4
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    AL: Why didn’t you write a piece about Schell? Or link to one? You gave all the attention to Kissinger. Was that what you wanted?

  5. 5
    NotMax says:

    Jonathan Schell is dead, but Henry Kissinger is still spewing lies for money.

    What one’s viability has to do with the other’s, how one not being dead is connected to the death of the other, is unfathomable.

    Best I can glean from that construction is that both spewed lies for money and one now no longer can do so.

  6. 6
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Link to the Nation‘s Schell retrospective was in the first line above.

    I don’t know his work well enough to add anything useful to what his colleagues write.

  7. 7
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: I don’t want to start a fight about it, but why did you include a mere link to info about Schell and then blockquote a metric shit ton of stuff about Kissinger? Speaking editorially, who did you actually memorialize?

  8. 8
    Chris says:

    Our tendency in the public debate is to discuss foreign policy in bizarrely abstract terms — we talk ceaselessly about the tension between the “realist” and “idealist” positions on a crisis (even though every modern American endeavor, foreign policy or not, has components of both)

    They teach you the basic IR theories in freshman year (realism, liberalism, constructivism). Once you’re back in grad school, it sometimes seems like it’s all anyone wants to talk about (every final paper proposal in every class so far has elicited the feedback “you need to bring more theory into it”)… but by that point you’ll have long figured out that it’s horseshit, none of them explains everything that’s going on and real-world IR is a blend of it all, along with things so random and irrational we have no theories for them.

    (Which isn’t to say that theorizing can’t be useful… as long as the “adepts” of the different “schools” don’t turn their worldviews into a religion, insist it’s the right one and get mad at all the other ones for daring to exist).

    One is to subtly dehumanize people who happen to live in other countries, much as Kissinger himself does, by turning the discussion of events actually happening in the world — revolutions, famine, massacres — into a kind of internal test of character and leadership: What are the president’s most fundamental commitments?

    Yep.

  9. 9
    C Nelson Reilly says:

    Zsa Zsa Gabor still walks this earth, yet Frank Zappa has been dead for over 20 years. Go figure.

  10. 10
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: Do you want to write something about Schell, for me to front-page?

  11. 11
    Violet says:

    @Omnes Omnibus: I didn’t know who Schell was so I clicked on the link and after reading that googled some more. The gigantic cover story image is almost as big as the blockquote. Caught my eye for sure.

  12. 12
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Anne Laurie: No, I just found it weird that you would note the death of someone by blockquoting a shitload of stuff about one of his major adversaries. I may be weird that way. If so, I apologize.

  13. 13
    gian says:

    @Omnes Omnibus:

    I think it’s wishful thinking

  14. 14
    NotMax says:

    @Omnes Omnibus

    Not just you. It is weird.

  15. 15
    Ruckus says:

    I don’t think it’s all that weird. I don’t know of Schell either but if he was against kissinger then how inappropriate is it to bring it up? I sure didn’t see the blockquote as being positive about kissnger but that may be my bias.
    Are you looking for fair and equal? And if so how could it possibly be so? One is evil with a lot of credentials and the other wrote about how evil he was credentials or not.

  16. 16
    J says:

    Thanks, Anne Laurie, for calling our attention to Jonathan Schell’s death and the piece about Benjamin Wallace-Wells about Kissinger. I don’t understand the sniping about putting them together. The headline makes it perfectly plain what the point is. Jonathan Schell will be sorely missed. For an account of the madness and the horror of the war in Vietnam in real time one could hardly do better than the unsigned pieces that he contributed to the Talk of the Town in the New Yorker, since collected in a book, One of many things I admire about JS is the way in which he carried on and re-invented himself after his time at the New Yorker, where he was very much the golden boy expected for a long time to succeed Shawn as editor.

  17. 17
    Elizabelle says:

    From the LATimes obit:

    A native of New York City, Schell was born on Aug. 21, 1943, just two years before the U.S. dropped two atom bombs on Japan. He grew up in a family of thinkers and dissenters: His father, the late Orville Schell Jr., was an attorney and human rights activist. His brother, Orville Schell, is a longtime journalist and activist and former head of the journalism school at UC Berkeley.

    Conscious of nuclear weapons from an early age, Jonathan Schell remembered headlines in 1953 that the Soviet Union had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. At Harvard University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in 1965, one of his teachers was Henry Kissinger, the future secretary of state and target for the antiwar movement.

    http://www.latimes.com/obituar.....z2xA9M2XKq

  18. 18
    Elizabelle says:

    From the NYTimes obit:

    Mr. Schell was praised by many critics for his cleareyed reporting, his erudition, his unfussy prose and the persuasive force of his arguments. Other reviewers, however, decried him as naïve, alarmist and overly confident of his own moral stance.

    Critical response to “The Village of Ben Suc” [his first book, published in 1967] within the pages of The Times exemplified this division.

    In 1967, on his way home from postgraduate study in Japan, Mr. Schell stopped in Vietnam, where he witnessed Operation Cedar Falls, an aerial campaign designed to level Ben Suc. The village, 30 miles northeast of Saigon, was known as a Vietcong stronghold.

    Mr. Schell reported firsthand on the American invasion of Ben Suc, the forced resettling of thousands of its people and the ultimate annihilation of the village.

    “At 1 o’clock, the official count of ‘V.C.’s killed’ stood at 24,” he wrote. “I asked the officer tabulating the day’s achievements how the Army disposed of enemy corpses. He said, ‘We leave the bodies where they are and let the people themselves take care of them.’ It occurred to me that this was going to be difficult, with only women and children left in the area. Later in the afternoon, I heard the following exchange on the field radio:

    “ ‘Tell me, how should we dispose of the bodies, Sir? Over.’

    “ ‘Why don’t you throw them in the river? Over.’

    “ ‘We can’t do that, Sir. We have to drink out of that river, Sir.’ ”

  19. 19
    Elizabelle says:

    More from the NYTimes obit: He had a privileged background and an excellent education.

    Jonathan Edward Schell was born in Manhattan on Aug. 21, 1943, a son of Orville Hickock Schell Jr., a lawyer, and the former Marjorie Bertha. After attending the Dalton School in New York and the Putney School in Vermont, he received a bachelor’s degree in Far Eastern history from Harvard.

    Afterward, he spent a year studying Japanese at the International Christian University in Tokyo. It was while returning to the United States that he stopped in Vietnam, where “The Village of Ben Suc” took root.

  20. 20
    Cervantes says:

    Of all the modest hopes of human beings, the hope that mankind will survive is the most modest, since it only brings us to the threshold of all the other hopes. In entertaining it, we do not yet ask for justice, or for freedom, or for happiness, or for any of the other things that we may want in life. We do not even necessarily ask for our personal survival; we ask only that we be survived. We ask for assurance that when we die as individuals, as we know we must, mankind will live on.

    — Jonathan Schell, 1982

    We do live on, JS, and we will, ferociously, and we will not forget.

  21. 21
    chrome agnomen says:

    i had always held that kissinger was the most evil person on the planet, all the way until the cheney era, when cheney showed henry how it was really done. though it’s a closely contested race…

  22. 22
    Chris says:

    @chrome agnomen:

    Kissinger wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought, but he was still no Dick Cheney. (I can’t imagine Cheney being okay with the outreach to China, for example).

    Cheney will probably always be my prime example of a real life supervillain, but then you’d expect that because the Bush administration is the one I grew to political awareness under. I kind of wonder if twenty or thirty years from now I’ll be saying the same thing about him and somebody else that you’re now saying about Kissinger and him. Ugh.

  23. 23
    Ruckus says:

    @Chris:
    They are both evil. Just in different ways and degrees. Cheney is just evil incarnate, kissinger is the guy who tries to justify evil without you noticing how screwed you’re getting, and that makes him evil.

  24. 24
    C.V. Danes says:

    If we need a dividing line for culling certain members from the Village community, I would start with those who still think anything Kissinger says is relevant.

  25. 25
    rea says:

    @Chris: Cheney is a piker by Kissinger’s standards, in terms of the number of people he got killed.

  26. 26
    C.V. Danes says:

    @rea: Exactly. Cheney is like the guy who goes into a theater with a machine gun, whereas Kissinger is like the guy who builds schools on top of chemical dumps.

  27. 27
    dmbeaster says:

    At least Kissinger seems to think about why he is killing people, and has some effed up reason for it. Cheney just seems to believe in bloodshed as an end.

  28. 28
    Chris says:

    @dmbeaster:

    I’m honestly not sure which is worse. (I suppose it’s all academic, though).

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