Death of a Chestnut

Last week, the sinister Dr. Kissinger was interviewed on The Charlie Rose Show about his new book On China.

The Charlie Rose Show is the hour of television that America’s brain dead elites watch to reaffirm the tired cliches that constitute their provincial cosmopolitan worldview. Rose himself, the favored Mouth of Elite Opinion, is the ultimate nadir of the American elites’ corruption of the traditional American can-do spirit. Rose constantly badgers his guests about what the solution is to intractable problems.

For instance, Rose incessantly asks what the solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue is, implicitly assuming it’s the two-state solution where Palestinians and Israelis live side by side in peace. Some guests dutifully echo the conventional elite wisdom that all that has to happen is happy reason to infect a brave Israeli leader and a brave Palestinian leader and peace will break out all over. This ritualistic performance of elite liturgy is usually sufficient to satisfy Rose and his audience’s need for cliche validation.

Some guests, however, occasionally accidentally hint that they know the real solution will be one of two outcomes:

  1. Israelis in the Mediterranean
  2. Palestinians in the Syrian Desert

Ted Koppel once had the bright idea of having a televised “town meeting” that was half-Palestinian and half-Israeli. The concept was based on the naive elite view that, once you eliminate the misunderstood, whatever’s left, however improbable, must be unconditional love. Even Koppel, with Reality Elimination Field turned to full power, was taken aback by the crackling energy of the hatred in the room. There was dark primordial enmity there that does not sleep, even under the tender ministrations of American elite enlightenment.

At the two minute mark in his interview with Dr. Kissinger, Rose asks the good Doctor about one of the Twenty Key Quotes that make up conventional American historical wisdom. Dr. Kissinger once supposedly asked Chou En-lai, one of Mao’s chief stooges, what he thought the impact of the French Revolution would be. The story goes that Chou face assumed a wise and inscrutable look as he answered, “It’s too soon to tell”.

Or, as a laundry detergent commercial of my youth jingled, “Ancient Chinese secret”.

In responding to Rose, the Doctor does his best Chou imitation and inscrutably remarks that he doesn’t remember an incident like that but that it makes a good story.

And good story it probably is, being more truthful than factual. According to the Financial Times:

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliche, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.
The trouble is that [C]hou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. [C]hou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.
At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On ChinaChas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.
“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.
He said [C]hou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how [C]hou understood them.”

Asked to comment, the Mouth of Kissinger reported that the good Doctor:

…has no precise recollection but that the Freeman version seems much more plausible

The Financial Times can’t help itself and concludes with a cliche about a cliche:

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.

10 thoughts on “Death of a Chestnut”

  1. I’d like to compare asking Chou En-Lai about the French Revolution to asking, hmm, let’s see, Himmler? Dzerzhinsky? Beria? about the American Revolution, but what’s the point? In the anecdote Chou apparently stands for the collected wisdom of the Kingdom of Heaven under the Wise Emperor, a figure like Confucius, but Chou is actually a vile, mass-murdering thug advocating a hate-filled and inhuman ideology. So the point of the apocryphal anecdote eludes me and should elude everyone. Real Chinese (, e.g., Fang Lizhi know the value of the French and American revolutions. Only their self-appointed fuhrers are uncertain.

    Wonderful essay. +1.


  2. In fact, whatever the source of the quote, it is very accurate. The leftist philosophy began there. The moral origins were with Rousseau and his Social Contract Theory, however the Wikipedia interpretation omits the fact that his theories led directly to Robespierre.

    Rousseau’s political theory differs in important ways from that of Locke and Hobbes. Rousseau’s collectivism is most evident in his development of the “luminous conception” (which he credited to Diderot) of the general will. Rousseau argues a citizen cannot pursue his true interest by being an egoist but must instead subordinate himself to the law created by the citizenry acting as a collective.

    The collective was seen first in its full glory with the Terror. All was subordinated to the collective will as interpreted by Citoyen Robespierre whose “Committee of Public Safety” would be copied repeatedly by leftist tyrants culminating in Stalin and Pol Pot. The latter’s illiterate schoolboys copied Rousseau in attempting to create the “natural man” by killing anyone who wore glasses and compelling all city dwellers to move to the jungle.

    “ The first man who had fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody. ”

    — Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

    We are still living with the consequences of the French Revolution and it is too soon to see where it all ends. Maybe within this decade.

  3. I tried to research this once. I could not find a stable version of the anecdote.

    I also saw it attributed to a conversation between Chou and André Malraux in the 1940s. Malraux had written “Man’s Fate” (“La condition humaine“) a 1933 novel about a failed communist revolution in Shanghai in 1927, and was a supporter of Mao and the Chinese Communist party. That version may make more sense, but Malraux was an unreliable witness. In a review of a biography of Malraux, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “Toward the end of this book, he hits on a near-perfect Left Bank encapsulation for his subject. Malraux was, we learn, ‘autonomous in relation to facts.’ “

  4. As for the substance of the thing. Whether with Kissinger in the 1970s or Malraux in the 40s, the observation was apt. By the 1990s the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abandonment of Marxism by China, made the answer obvious. The French revolution was a disaster for all concerned. That the only revolutionary movement still alive in the world is Islamic jihad, which continues an older tradition of rapine and violence, demonstrates this.

  5. I like to watch Charlie Rose for precisely the reason that some people here don’t like to: sometimes, I want to hear how the conventional wisdomists phrase things.

    The better to think about it and around it, you know? Plus he’s quiet. And the interviews with actors and actresses and artists are fun.

    I admit it. I like the table.

    But I digress. This is what I really wanted to link:

    For 40 years, Kissinger has enjoyed unmatched access to China at the highest level. He has made dozens of trips there. In government he was instrumental in the establishment of relations between Beijing and Washington. Since leaving government, who can doubt that his lobbying firm, Kissinger Associates (not mentioned in the book), has done much business with China, or that the services of a former secretary of state do not come cheap? He has probably conversed—through an interpreter, of course, always—with more members of China’s ruling elite, and at greater length—than any other living American.

    The Weekly Standard

    Meow. As might be expected, I have conflicting feelings on the strategic genius of Dr. K….


    – Madhu

  6. Okay, I just reread your funny post, JF. Of course he peppers his guests with questions. By quiet I mean compared to the bedlam of cable tv, but then, I tend mostly to watch CSPAN or movies. Mostly chickflicks.

    All foreign policy all the time depresses me.

    – Madhu

  7. @Madhu

    I watch Charlie Rose every weeknight at 9.

    I don’t watch it to learn. I watch it to see what the Powers That Be think I should learn. That’s a valuable data point in and of itself.

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