Quotulatiousness

October 29, 2014

Charles Stross – Communist and post-communist Britain, history that didn’t happen

Filed under: Britain, History, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:25

Charles Stross wanders in a Britain of today in a world where Stalin won World War 2, taking all of western Europe into the control of the Soviet Union in the early 1940s:

Here’s a brief thought-experiment for you: imagine what the UK would look like today if the outcome of the second world war had taken a left turn early in 1940, and the whole of western Europe somehow ended up under Soviet control by 1946. (No nuclear weapons or gas attacks need apply: this speculation is about outcomes, not processes — so discussion of precisely how the British People’s Democratic Republic comes about is left as an exercise for the reader (and is not to be explored in comments)).

Let us further postulate that Stalinism passes with its creator, much as happened in our own experience of history: that the Soviet empire eventually undergoes the same fiscal crisis and collapse (alternative discussion of the same process by a former Soviet minister — you can forget the urban legend that Ronald Reagan did it) much as we remember, except possibly somewhat later — as late as the early 21st century, perhaps.

What interests me, in view of recent revelations about police spying and the extent of the British surveillance state is: How would the practice of internal suppression of dissent and state surveillance have differed in a post-Soviet Britain from what we appear to be living with right now?

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: as we have no way of knowing when the regime of the British Democratic People’s Republic fell, or what level of technology was available to them, purely technical aspects of the Communist surveillance state of the British Isles must be excluded.

However, we know the general shape of the ideological envelope within which Warsaw Pact regimes operated (or were allowed to operate, before the Kremlin jerked their choke-chain), and so we can speculate as to the structure and objectives of the British regime under Actually Existing Socialism.

September 8, 2014

QotD: The Economist‘s whitewash of the “Great Leap Forward”

Filed under: China, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

When Mao died, The Economist wrote:

    “In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and half million.

I am curious — has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state “where nobody starves?” Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?

David D. Friedman, “A Small Mistake”, Ideas, 2014-09-07.

September 2, 2014

Tsar Vladimir I

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 15:44

One of the problems that Western politicians have in dealing with Vladimir Putin is that they can’t decide what he wants or even why he wants them. They’re struggling because they keep misreading individual actions as being either nationalistic or ethnic, when they should really be described as “imperialistic”. Putin is trying to recreate the old USSR, but without the Communist Party running things — he’s trying to recreate Imperial Russia:

Americans have been grasping to find explanations for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s serial aggressions in Europe. We keep searching for bumper stickers we can understand, so we gravitate to simple explanations like “geopolitics” or “nationalism,” not least because such notions promise solutions. (If it’s about geopolitics, cutting a deal with Putin will stop this; if it’s about nationalism, it’ll burn itself out when Putin has recaptured enough ethnic Russians around his borders.)

And, of course, there’s always “realism.” In this month’s Foreign Affairs, John Mearsheimer argues the Russo-Ukraine war is basically the West’s fault. (We expanded NATO, we supported the Maidan protesters, we were generally just mean to Russia, etc.) It’s a classic Mearsheimer piece: a beautifully-written, attention-seeking exercise that insists on the brilliance of realists while bucking the innate moral sense of most normal human beings. (Consider, for example, his 1993 Deep Thoughts about how maybe it would be good for Ukraine and Germany to develop active nuclear weapons programs.)

That doesn’t mean I disagree with the overall evaluation that America’s Russia policy since 1992 — insofar as we’ve had one — has been remarkably obtuse. (That pretty much describes most of our foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, but I will not digress here.) I, too, objected to expanding NATO, deplored the arrogance of people like Madeleine Albright, and lamented the repeated lost opportunities to bring Moscow closer to the Western family to which it belongs by both heritage and history.

Very little of what’s happened in the past 20 years, however, has much to do with what’s going on in Ukraine right now. And nothing excuses Russia’s war against a peaceful neighbor, especially not arid theories of realism or flawed historical analogies.

Putin is not a realist: very few national leaders are. Realism is much loved by political scientists, but actual nations almost never practice it. Nor is Putin a nationalist: indeed, he hardly seems to understand the concept, or he would not have embarked on his current path.

June 21, 2014

QotD: The bureaucratic revolution

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

In 1939, Bruno Rizzi, a largely forgotten Communist intellectual, wrote a hugely controversial book, The Bureaucratization of the World. Rizzi argued that the Soviet Union wasn’t Communist. Rather, it represented a new kind of system, what Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” What the Soviets had done was get rid of the capitalist and aristocratic ruling classes and replace them with a new, equally self-interested ruling class: bureaucrats.

The book wasn’t widely read, but it did reach Bolshevik theoretician Leon Trotsky, who attacked it passionately. Trotsky’s response, in turn, inspired James Burnham, who used many of Rizzi’s ideas in his own 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham argued that something similar was happening in the West. A new class of bureaucrats, educators, technicians, regulators, social workers, and corporate directors who worked in tandem with government were reengineering society for their own benefit. The Managerial Revolution was a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984.

Now, I don’t believe we are becoming anything like 1930s Russia, never mind a real-life 1984. But this idea that bureaucrats — very broadly defined — can become their own class bent on protecting their interests at the expense of the public seems not only plausible but obviously true.

The evidence is everywhere. Every day it seems there’s another story about teachers’ unions using their stranglehold on public schools to reward themselves at the expense of children. School-choice programs and even public charter schools are under vicious attack, not because they are bad at educating children but because they’re good at it. Specifically, they are good at it because they don’t have to abide by rules aimed at protecting government workers at the expense of students.

[…]

Working for the federal government simply isn’t like working for the private sector. Government employees are essentially unfireable. In the private sector, people lose their jobs for incompetence, redundancy, or obsolescence all the time. In government, these concepts are virtually meaningless. From a 2011 USA Today article: “Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.”

Jonah Goldberg, “Of the Bureaucrats, by the Bureaucrats, for the Bureaucrats: The naked self-interest of the government-worker class”, National Review, 2014-06-20.

May 19, 2014

QotD: Communism and language

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps,” “contradictions,” “the interpenetration of opposites,” and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation…” Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)

May 11, 2014

Market disruption and innovation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:19

Innovation often leads to challenges to established markets. Existing players in those established markets have three choices when faced with a disruptive new competitor or technological change: they can innovate themselves, they can retrench and avoid direct competition, or they can do what most incumbents do — get the government regulators to fight their battles for them.

Market incumbents do not like disruption. Uber, the ride-sharing service that has loosened the stranglehold of the taxi cartels, has been the object of government attacks and vigilante attacks both. Various regulatory agencies have tried with varying degrees of success to shut it down, London’s taxi drivers are even as we speak promising “chaos” in response to the firm’s success, French vigilantes have attacked its drivers, and in Seattle — blessed Seattle! — self-styled anarchists are targeting its cars and drivers. “Anarchists” for state-enforced cartel economics to increase private profit — somebody is unclear on the concept, it seems.

A great deal of the program of the old Left — from its full-on Marxist wing to its Proudhonian anarchist wing — is in the process of being accomplished by 21st-century capitalism. The means of production have been radically democratized, with multi-billion-dollar firms springing up out of garages and dorm rooms. The privileged position of dominant old-line financiers is being undermined rapidly by innovations such as Kickstarter, which blurs the line between the altruistic and the consumerist. The life expectancy of large corporations has collapsed, from about 75 years in the 1960s to 15 years and declining today. When Pierre-Joseph Proudhon called for “a war of labor against capital; a war of liberty against authority; a war of the producer against the non-producer; a war of equality against privilege,” he certainly did not have in mind Uber or Outbox; his most famous motto was, after all, “Property is theft.” (I think there is rather more to his idea of property than that simplistic formulation communicates, but this is not the place for that particular essay.) But the characteristics of those firms — relatively modest capital requirements, subverting various kinds of political authority in the form of licensure and regulation enacted in the interests of market incumbents, empowering efficient producers to compete with rent-seeking non-producers, and, above all, undermining the privileged place of state-sanctioned monopolies and cartels — looks a lot more like what the 19th-century revolutionaries had in mind than the USPS does. If what you mean by “capitalism” is the East India Company, then capitalism is not very attractive; if what you mean by “capitalism” is Kickstarter, then it is.

Not that a man transported from the 19th century to our own time would recognize that. If we could transport M. Proudhon or any of his contemporaries to the here and now, their eyes would not register any economic system with which they were familiar at the sight of the daily wonders we take for granted. They wouldn’t see capitalism; they’d see magic. But the DMV, the USPS, the housing project, and the prison would all be familiar to their 19th-century eyes. Our choice is not really between neat ideological verities with their roots in Adam Smith or Karl Marx, but between the DMV and the Apple store. Each model has its downsides, to be sure, but it does not seem like a terribly difficult choice to me.

March 19, 2014

This isn’t Cold War 2.0, it’s a return to historical norm

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 08:31

Jonah Goldberg asks everyone to stop talking about a new Cold War, because the old one was a unique event (or event-chain) and what we’re seeing now is more like history unfolded before the Cold War came along to freeze geopolitics for a few decades.

… the Cold War was far more than a conflict with Russia. Everyone should agree on that. Communism, anti-Communism, and anti-anti-Communism divided Americans for decades, particularly among academic and media elites. Right and Left may still argue over the merits of those divisions, but no informed person disputes that the topic of Communism — the real version and the imagined ideal — incited riots of intellectual and political disagreement in the West for a half-century.

Meanwhile, Putin’s ideology holds little such allure to Americans or the populations of the European Union. With the exception of a few cranky apologists and flacks, it’s hard to find anyone in the West openly defending Putin on the merits. And even those who come close are generally doing so in a backhanded way to criticize U.S. policies or the Obama administration. The dream of a “greater Russia” or a “Eurasian Union” simply does not put fire in the minds of men — non-Russian men, at least — the way the dream of global socialist revolution once did. And that’s a good thing.

[…]

Many have called the decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and the attacks of 9/11 a “holiday from history.” The truth is closer to the opposite. The Cold War years, while historic in a literal sense, were something of a great parentheses, a sharp departure from historical norms. Communism was a transnational ideology imposed on nationalist movements. That’s why every supposedly Communist movement eventually became nationalist once in power. Still, the rhetorical and psychological power of Communist ideology, combined with the fear of nuclear war, made international relations seem like a sharp break with how foreign affairs worked before 1945 — or 1917.

It turns out, the Berlin Wall wasn’t blocking us from a new world order, it was holding back the tide of history. Western Europe was especially slow to realize this. Its politicians and intellectuals persuaded themselves that they had created a continental “zone of peace” through diplomacy, when in reality they were taking U.S. protection for granted. They let their militaries atrophy to the point of being little more than ceremonial.

The end of the Cold War fostered the illusion that the “guns or butter” argument had been permanently settled and we “wouldn’t study war no more”. The peace dividend was always an illusion — a very attractive illusion to politicians who wanted to spend money on things that would get them re-elected — and voters rewarded them appropriately. It’s going to be psychologically difficult for the countries of the West to come to terms with the return of the traditional forces of history.

January 27, 2014

QotD: Montreuil and Le Corbusier

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:16

Montreuil reminded me strongly of something: ah yes, I remember what it was, Eastern Europe in the good old days. It had that same air of inspissated gloom and ontological pointlessness; the architecture would have gladdened the heart (so to speak) of Elena Ceausescu. The bus passed through a wasteland of 1970s modernism, egalitarian doctrine made not so much flesh as concrete. The buildings did not age, they dilapidated; it was architecture that induced immediate thoughts of suicide. (Le Corbusier is still revered in France and treated as a hero, though it should be obvious to anyone who reads any of his voluminous writings that he was a psychopathic architectural delinquent of totalitarian pretensions whose talents belonged more to the field of propaganda than to those of architecture, in which his abilities were all negative.) The bus stops were in places such as Saint-Just, the patron saint of revolutionary terror, and Nouvelle France: new in the same sense that the New Man, so beloved of Mussolini and Che Guevara, was going to be new. Montreuil is, in fact, firmly communist, and it shows, although honesty compels me to admit that I don’t know which came first: the communism or the ugliness of everything. Probably the relationship is what Marxists used to call a dialectical one.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Museum of the Living Dead”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-01-26

December 30, 2013

QotD: Yes, but what is it really about?

Filed under: Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, “The Fifth Child,” which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

The demand that stories must be “about” something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.

Doris Lessing, “Questions You Should Never Ask a Writer”, New York Times, 1992-06-26 (reprinted 2007-10-13)

October 30, 2013

QotD: The career of Karl Marx

Filed under: Britain, Economics, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

[Karl Marx] was also an unemployed professor, a scholar in the German tradition with a first-rate brain, a vast depth of learning and considerable obscurity of thought. Of his intellect and scholarship there can be no doubt at all. He knew many languages and had read widely in many subjects. A very learned man indeed, he was admirably fitted for the life of a German university. Marx’s complete absorption in his philosophy, history and economics was quite typical of the sort of professor he should by right have become. That mixture of scholarship, vagueness, poverty and practical inexperience would have graced a chair at Heidelberg or Bonn. But for the death in 1840 of Frederick William IV, a man of strictly orthodox views on religion, Marx might have had an academic career. Barred from this, however, as an atheist, he had no class to teach, no pupils from whom he might have learned. There is a sense, of course, in which a professor lives apart from the world. But his duties, even in the mid-nineteenth century, involved some contact with other people. The most professorial of German professors would have examinations to set and appointments to keep. Sessions of Senate and Faculty might give him scope for eloquence or intrigue, and he would find for himself the need to compromise, concede and persuade. Howbeit painfully and slowly, the professor comes to know something of administration and finance. But this was the practical knowledge which Marx was denied. All the experience he had was in his own home, where his failure was catastrophic for his wife and family. Of his children some died of slow starvation and two committed suicide. Retaining and increasing all his professional learning, he became more purely theoretical than even professors are allowed to be. Of the difficulties of organizing human society he knew practically nothing. There was in fact no human society — no province or city, no school or club — of which he could be said to have been a member. His whole life was bounded by the printed page.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Internal Contradiction”, Left Luggage, 1967.

September 22, 2013

The lasting influence of the Frankfurt School

Filed under: History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:00

Lee Stranahan talks about the Frankfurt School’s continuing importance in modern liberal thought:

For a decade, the Southern Poverty Law Center and others on the left have been trying to hide and distract from one of the main origins of both radical academia and media hostility towards capitalism: the ideology of cultural Marxism and Critical Theory that arose from the Frankfurt School.

The SPLC and others dismiss the facts about the German think-tank and its subsequent influence in America as a conspiracy theory. Understanding these attacks is an object lesson in how the left creates self-sustaining mythology by demonizing the people who dare expose their ideology while misdirecting their own followers as to the real story behind liberal ideas.

Organizations on the institutional left such as the Southern Poverty Law Center didn’t just appear out of nowhere or in an ideological vacuum. The SPLC in particular has a specific role of designating organizations as ‘hate groups’, often smearing mainstream conservatism by falsely tying it to tiny, violent and racist organizations.

The SLPC’s designation of what does and doesn’t constitute a hate group has clear foundations in the world of academic political correctness and censoring of speech it considers ‘racist, sexist and homophobic’; all terms that it defines in leftist terms and very selectively. For example, in the wake of last year’s shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council, the SLPC went out of their way to double down on it’s claim that the FRC is a ‘hate group.’

Even political correctness, however, didn’t just suddenly pop up out of thin air; it has its basis in a group of academic Marxist philosophers that came together in Germany between World War I and World War II called the Frankfurt School. Their cultural Marxist approach would go on to have a profound influence in the United States after many in the Frankfurt school fled Germany and came to America in the 1930s.

QotD: The personal alienation of Karl Marx

Filed under: Britain, Economics, Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Almost any Jew can be stateless, but Marx was particularly so — born of alien parents in a frontier region between Germany and France, educated in the Rhineland and in Prussia, a student at Berlin but a graduate of Jena, exiled by the age of thirty-two. Nor was this domicile chosen from any love of England or of anything but safety. He knew next to nothing of the English when he died, preferring to live among German exiles, talking German, thinking in German, and for preference writing in German. He knew of the toiling masses only from blue books and parliamentary reports. We hear nothing of his travels among the Lancashire cotton mills and as little of his talks with the London poor. There is no record of his visiting the coal mines, the docks, or even a public house. He was essentially homeless, offering no loyalty and expecting no aid. And with his scorn went hatred. He despised and loathed his rivals, quarreled with this allies and condemned all sympathizers who deviated even by a little from the doctrine he held to be sacred. Karl Marx had no country.

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Internal Contradiction”, Left Luggage, 1967.

August 22, 2013

Chinese government philosophy in the headlines

Filed under: China, Government, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:57

Jon, my former virtual landlord, sent me this link and said “Does this sort of thing really matter any more? Aren’t all governments doing this?”

Under Tocqueville’s Influence, China Chooses Despotism
Paul A. Rahe

In the last few days, the national press has been full of reports suggesting that China’s new President, Xi Jinping, is orchestrating a revival of Maoism and a crackdown on those in China who would like to introduce within that country the procedures, practices, and institutions that distinguish the West: the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and “universal values” – which is to say, a respect for human rights. The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story on Saturday, claims that Xi is receiving strong support from former President Jiang Zemin; and on Monday The New York Times filled in some of the details:

    Communist Party cadres have filled meeting halls around China to hear a somber, secretive warning issued by senior leaders. Power could escape their grip, they have been told, unless the party eradicates seven subversive currents coursing through Chinese society.

    These seven perils were enumerated in a memo, referred to as Document No. 9, that bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping, China’s new top leader. The first was “Western constitutional democracy”; others included promoting “universal values” of human rights, Western-inspired notions of media independence and civic participation, ardently pro-market “neo-liberalism,” and “nihilist” criticisms of the party’s traumatic past.

    Even as Mr. Xi has sought to prepare some reforms to expose China’s economy to stronger market forces, he has undertaken a “mass line” campaign to enforce party authority that goes beyond the party’s periodic calls for discipline. The internal warnings to cadres show that Mr. Xi’s confident public face has been accompanied by fears that the party is vulnerable to an economic slowdown, public anger about corruption and challenges from liberals impatient for political change.

[…]

The evidence now suggests the contrary — that Wang Qishan is by no means alone in his convictions, that Xi Jingpin and his lieutenants take quite seriously the possibility that China is in a pre-revolutionary situation, and that they are intent on putting a lid on everything. Where Tocqueville might have suggested that the way forward was for the country’s leaders to embrace the “seven subversive currents,” to carry out a revolution from above, and to gradually introduce into the country the rule of law, constitutionalism, freedom of the press, judicial independence, civil associations, and a respect for human rights, they have decided in this year — the 120th anniversary of Chairman Mao’s birth — to return to the path he charted more than 60 years ago.

August 19, 2013

QotD: “The Genius of the Carpathians”

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.

Tony Judt, “The End of the Old Order”, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2005.

July 24, 2013

A visit to North Korea

Filed under: Asia — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:27

In this month’s Reason, Michael Malice recounts his tourist trip to the Hermit Kingdom:

As background reading for my trip, I devoured several books about the nation (though Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader by Bradley K. Martin and Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick should be sufficient for anyone planning a visit). Like most other don’t-call-me-a-hipster New Yorkers, I also watched The Vice Guide to North Korea on YouTube, in which Vice honcho Shane Smith claimed that in North Korea, “there’s nothing normal that happens ever.”

My experience ended up being completely different from Smith’s — about the only thing we shared in common was that we coincidentally ended up staying in the same hotel room. I witnessed vast amounts of human normalcy in the most abnormal society on Earth. When I waved to teenage girls, they giggled. When I smiled at toddlers, their grandmothers beamed with pride. The people on the streets of Pyongyang are often alleged to be actors staffed for the benefit of tourists, but there is no amount of training in the world possible for a theater production of that scale.

The first step to entering North Korea is getting debriefed by the Western tour agency that acts as your liaison. I expected a long litany of do’s and don’ts from Phil, our Western guide in Beijing, but his advice was actually quite relaxed. “The North Koreans really like and admire their leaders, so we need to respect that. We will be laying flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung and bowing before it. Does anyone have a problem with that?” No one did. “That’s about it. Just don’t be a jerk and everything will be fine.”

[…]

We tend to think of North Korea as being stuck in time, but that is an incoherent description. One can get stuck in traffic or in line at the airport, but “time” is a very big place. In the parking lot encounter, for example, the soldier was dressed in a 1950s military uniform. The woman wore the sort of cringeworthy 1980s pantsuit that a fresh-off-the-boat Soviet immigrant might view as the acme of style back home. Both were “stuck in time,” in different times, like a flapper talking to a hippie.

So while the contemporary Internet might be forbidden in North Korea, there’s a thriving black market in VCRs — the better to watch foreign videotapes on. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, the woman and the solider provided a perfect metaphor for where the modern dynamism in North Korea lies. The army is stuck in a Cold War rut, while the black marketeers — more often than not female — become “wealthy” and powerful by flouting the laws and bribing whoever they need to bribe. It’s capitalism de facto, not de jure. And it’s growing, as the poverty-stricken government becomes increasingly unable to feed its enforcers.

Although North Koreans are kept ignorant of much that happens outside the state — and just as much that happens inside it — they’re not completely isolated:

I couldn’t figure out how to ask Kim about world events or history. I knew this would be a touchy subject leaving for little back-and-forth. Picking her brain would easily come off as arguing, and would cause her native paranoia to kick in. I wanted to ask about the Holocaust, but knew World War II was an extremely sensitive area. I thought of the most world-famous event I could that would have little bearing on North Korea, and so at one point simply asked Kim if she had heard of 9/11.

“Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes at my obtuseness. “We saw it on the television.”

Her reaction was telling. She clearly felt that, though the media might be biased, it wasn’t particularly censored. In her view, the state media wouldn’t keep such major world events a secret.

I still remain quite surprised that they played the actual video. Despite the obvious reveling in America taking a hit, one can’t show 9/11 footage without showing something that most of us no longer register in those shots: the New York City skyline. The closest thing in Pyongyang is the 100-plus story Ryugyong Hotel (“The Hotel of Doom”) a never-finished monstrosity that’s been dubbed the worst building in the world and usually excluded from official photos. The comparisons between the wicked New York of their propaganda and the glowing skyscrapers, calling to immigrants like sirens of myth, could not be any greater.

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