"My Lunch with a War Criminal"
October 24, 2013
One of the most important lessons I learned from listening to renowned diplomat Henry Kissinger talk (at a luncheon that cost guests $1,500 to attend) was that if you’re going to go see a former 1970s Secretary of State, you’ve got to dress like you’re going to a muthafuckin’ gala.
Nestled atop the vast and glittering stretch of sea and sand that comprises Butterfly Beach, all attendees at Santa Barbara’s Coral Casino Beach and Cabana Club were dressed to the tee in refinement and class; their outfits and mannerisms oozed elegance and not a hair nor Rolex seemed out of place. The strangest part, to me, was that I felt beautifully dressed walking in, and like a peasant walking out. To put it simply, Kissinger’s “fireside chat” at the Coral Casino was the bougiest, ritziest, most chi-chi event I’d ever had the opportunity to be on the media guest-list for.
If you were looking forward to hearing about some controversial, overtly real politik comments Kissinger made, I’m afraid to say that you’re going to be just as disappointed as I was. Noozhawk very fittingly characterized his talk as “predictably encyclopedic” — everything he said was safe, generic and not even remotely interesting. For instance, when asked about his views on the issue of immigration in America today, he said, “I’m sympathetic to the immigration issue, but one has a right to defend its borders.” And in response to a question about America in light of the recent government shutdown he said, “Almost all of the problems I’ve described here we can solve with our own efforts.”
But hey, if Kissinger wants to make a bunch of money saying boring things and living off his legacy, that’s cool. Former presidents like Bill Clinton and George Bush have earned millions from paid speeches. Santa Barbarians have every right to pay $1,500 to listen to this 90-year-old man speak — that’s their prerogative.
I just couldn’t help but feel a little bothered by the fact that these people — most of whom happened to be white, over 30 and probably very wealthy — spent roughly the same amount of money it costs to attend community college for a year to see a man that’s been called a war criminal by figures like author and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’ book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, examines the diplomat’s alleged war crimes in Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus and East Timor and presents quite a strong case as to why Mr. Kissinger is not quite the perfect Nobel Peace Prize Winner.
I admit he has done some great things for this country: He helped ease Cold War tensions between America and Russia, negotiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and rapprochement between America and China, among other things. But at the same time, Kissinger played a key role in secretly bombing Cambodia during the Vietnam War, supported Indonesian President Suharto’s genocidal invasion of East Timor, authorized the CIA to encourage a military coup that eventually caused the death of Chilean presidential candidate Salvador Allende and he backed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime … among other things.
Now one could say that it’s convenient for me to take a stance against Kissinger for bearing a political philosophy that differs from my own, just as someone on the far right could call someone like Marxist revolutionist Che Guevara a war criminal for his extra-judicial killings of “war criminals” as director of the La Cabaña prison in 1959. But I can’t help but wonder, if I had joined indigenous campesinos and exploited mine workers to listen to Guevara talk, would his words have been “encyclopedic”? Would he have dodged hot button questions about controversial issues? Or would his words have caused a deep stirring in my heart? If I spent nothing to listen to a man like Guevara talk in the dilapidated barrios of rural South America, would I have felt inspired? Would I have felt honored to be in the presence of such greatness?
Now I am no Marxist by any means. But I do think that the people who forked over $1,500 to listen to Kissinger talk did so for that very reason— to be in the presence of “greatness.” In Homeric times, the ancient Greeks strived for greatness: for fostering qualities like justice, wisdom, courage and moderation in their everyday lives. But for modern day politicians, greatness seems more like an afterthought than a goal. In the case of Kissinger, his diplomacy was based on the application of power and acting in a state’s own self-interest or, to put it more simply, on “winning.” But at what cost? Is “winning” — maintaining hegemonic power, even if it means becoming friends with your enemies and killing millions of people — really worth it? Do the ends really justify the means?
In light of the recent government shutdown, it seems like that kind of philosophy just doesn’t cut it. Because Republicans on the extreme right acted out of self-interest and refused to work with Democrats to pass the budget, hundreds of thousands of government workers were furloughed and departments in science, research, medicine and society in general were permanently fiscally wounded. And for what? So that a small amount of people don’t have to pay more money in taxes for a healthcare plan that, though flawed, aims to do good for millions of Americans that need and can’t afford healthcare? Oh wait, that’s right — they need that money to spend on listening to men like Henry Kissinger talk.
All sassiness aside, the experience really shed light on what seems to be a dearth of greatness in our postmodern society. It seems like the leaders of our world are too worried about appeasing their constituents or maintaining power to be bothered with being great or doing actual, genuine good in the world. Where are the great leaders —like Pericles, Alexander the Great or Jesus of Nazareth— who live on in historical renown throughout the ages? Where are the people we sing songs about? Until that person comes, I think Kissinger and his admirers can keep their bougie seaside luncheons. The coolest thing about the whole thing was the beautiful landscape — but that I can see for free, anytime.
Carissa Quiambao is the Daily Nexus’ News Editor.