Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the famous Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev.
The setting was the American National Exhibition. It was our part of a cultural exchange program with the Soviets that year. Our exhibit displayed a cross section of American products, from cars to household gadgets to Pepsi Cola. It was meant to showcase good old Yankee ingenuity, along with a healthy helping of truth, justice, and the American Way. The Soviet exhibit in America earlier that year was less well known, but presumably connected many endeavoring spies with many eager useful idiots.
Khrushchev, unhappy with recent events regarding East Germany and the status of Berlin, showed up in a downright cranky mood and fired the first shots in the impromptu debate. Sounding especially neo-reactionary that day, he questioned the utility of superficial gadgets when his Soviet products, such as rockets and prison camps, were so much more impressive in the grand scheme of dialectical progress.
Despite the jaded revisionism over the years since the Cold War ended, Nixon more than held his own responding to Khrushchev’s sallies. Free markets and competition drive innovation that benefits our lives. A wide variety of consumer choices does lead to a broader distribution of wealth, and it is the best way known to man that, while certainly not eliminating social classes, allows for greater circulation between classes.
The communist solution, in contrast, is a sclerosis of social mobility. Everyone is a slave to the state and will remain that way.
“After all, you don’t know everything,” Nixon said to the inflated Khrushchev. Of course, none of us can, but even more importantly, what we do know will always be more than we can tell,. What we know will always be more than we can perceive to know. True knowledge about human values and the human condition must be disentangled and teased out, abducted from available information that is only seen through a glass darkly, and then put back together over and over in an endless cycle of return and departure. The best products that emerge from the scuffle are the ones that unite us, and, when we look at them, they reflect back the best about ourselves and our way of life.
Khrushchev, the son of a humble miner, may have known this once, but he was perhaps cleansed of this notion in the Soviet revolutionary fervor for the charade of a new socialist consciousness. Nixon, the son of a Quaker grocer, born and raised in the house his father built, did not forget.