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Kissinger is dead. Long live his memes

Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, attends the opening news conference of the annual WEF meeting in the Swiss Alpine resort town of Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2008.

Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State, attends the opening news conference of the annual WEF meeting in the Swiss Alpine resort town of Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2008.

REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

At the spritely age of 100, former US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Dr. Henry Kissinger passed away this week … to much internet fanfare. This polarizing figure drew a wide range of responses – amplified by social media algorithms intended to reward polarization.

There was some praise, and much vitriol, creatively spread across social media after the death of the man who helped the United States navigate the troubled waters of the Cold War and Vietnam. I waded through the rough, dark waters of social media hot takes to break down some of the most popular reactions – so you don’t have to.

The Shady Tweets

Dr. Kissinger supported a coup of the democratically elected government in Chile, backed Indonesia’s killing of hundreds of thousands in East Timor, and championed the bombing of Cambodia and Laos, all in the name of American Exceptionalism.

There is blood on his hands, and the internet doesn’t want you to forget it. Besides his name, some of the top trending topics on X included Cambodia, Laos, War Criminal, RIP BOZO, and IT FINALLY HAPPENED. The general sentiment shared by many can be best encapsulated by the following:

@yashar: A reminder that Henry Kissinger is owed absolutely zero grace or kindness when he dies … a man responsible for destabilizing countries all over the world. He is an unrepentant monster.

@EmissaryOfNight: "Once you've been to Cambodia, you'll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands." – Anthony Bourdain

Oh, and we mustn’t forget the update from the “Is Henry Kissinger Dead Yet?” account, which currently is sitting at 37k followers: YES

When a famous person dies, people often come together on X to share their sorrows and participate in collective mourning. For Kissinger, at times, it felt more like a celebration.

The Memes

There is this tried-and-true meme that pops up anytime a beloved celebrity dies: The grim reaper choosing his next victim from a claw machine and asking, “Is Henry Kissinger even in this thing?” Thoughts and prayers poured in from many across X … about the death of that meme. Sorry guys, next time a “Friends” cast member dies, you will have to find another way of saying “Take someone else instead.”

Also, now that Kissinger has passed, the internet is using AI to get creative about what lies ahead for him. A way-too-realistic image broke the news of his death on Facebook with an AI Kissinger embracing Satan in the fiery depths of the underworld.

And finally, my favorite meme technically isn’t a meme but a reflection on the British prime minister, who holds the record for the shortest time in office but the longest time being compared to produce: Liz Truss. In a response to Truss’ photo taken outside of the US Capitol building, a user wrote: “Liz Truss went to Balmoral Castle and the Queen died two days later. Liz Truss has gone to America and Henry Kissinger died within hours.”

Correlation has to imply causation sometimes, right?

The Bright Side

Regardless of what my polarizing algorithm would like me to believe, there was some outpouring of condolences and warm tributes honoring Kissinger for his many years of service to the United States.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was all smiles in a picture he posted with the late statesman, reminding us of Kissinger’s brave journey to the US as a teenager fleeing Nazi Germany. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell also offered his condolences to the Kissinger family and praised the power of his diplomacy.

Another place that featured glowing tributes for Dr. Kissinger: Chinese social media. Only a few hours after the announcement of his death, discussions about Kissinger netted 660 million views on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like alternative. “I can't help but lament the passing of this era where heroes were born in large numbers,” wrote one admirer. Don’t forget, Kissinger visited China at least 100 times, and Xi Jinping even recently called him “an old friend” of the Chinese people.

The Surprises

Clicks generate revenue, and nuance doesn’t generate clicks. Maybe that’s why Rolling Stone’s obituary was titled “Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies” (Subtitle: good riddance). It worked, garnering over 44,000 likes on X. Are there any lies in that headline? No. Is it tasteful? No. Does he deserve to be remembered tastefully when so many allegedly died as a result of his actions? You decide.

A more measured read that doesn’t shy away from Kissinger’s human rights record comes from David Sanger in The New York Times: “Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped the Nation’s Cold War History.” In 10,000-plus words, Sanger provides a thorough analysis of Kissinger’s life and legacy, minus the headline optimized to elicit emotion (and thus engagement). This obituary, in contrast, only garnered a few hundred likes on X.

Kissinger leaves behind a complicated legacy. He will inevitably be remembered for the many people lost as a direct result of his foreign policy decisions. Any accurate retelling of his life story must include a footnote about how uniquely the centenarian was hated by the collective conscience of 2020s social media — that spent years not so patiently awaiting his death.

And I speak for so many when I say, we will all truly, deeply miss … the memes.

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