… the little children died in the streets.
It is generally a good idea to laugh at dictators. It helps that they are often funny, with their monstrous pretensions, awful taste in clothes and bad hair. Laughter is a way of puncturing their pomposity and self-regard: I have long thought that David Low’s hilarious send ups of Herr Hitler fed London’s ‘Blitz spirit’ in a different from but entirely complementary way to Churchill’s speeches.
For that reason, I am very glad that this blog’s previous post poked fun at Little Kimmie Sick (and do watch the vid, it’s hilarious in a cringeworthy way). I also love the ad produced by South Africa’s Nando’s fast food chain, and news that it made Robert Mugabe squirm so much he banned it in Zimbabwe (and is now suffering an advanced dose of the Streisand Effect as a result) is to be welcomed:
And, I must say, having Mugabe playing on the swings with apartheid booster P. W. Botha is simply bloody inspired.
Last night, however, I reached a moment where I couldn’t laugh at Kim Jong-Il any more. It’s difficult to explain why, but I will make the attempt. A friend of mine on Facebook, Tom G. Palmer, had located a live feed from North Korea’s official news channel of Kim Jong-Il’s state funeral. Strangely enough, Melbourne’s Age newspaper was hosting the feed, so there was a vertiginous moment where the Dear Leader’s funeral was sponsored by Kia Sorento in Australia. My irony meter broke at that point and normally I would have laughed, but Tom had spent the previous hour pulling screen shots from the live feed and putting them up on his page. I couldn’t very well laugh at scenes like these:
Or the scenes I was now watching. I thought I had seen mass hysteria at a funeral before: that of Princess Diana, although this was far worse, almost a form of competitive crying. It embarrassed me then, and the North Korean outpouring of grief embarrassed me last night. Even worse, the live footage was backgrounded by a wailing and gnashing of teeth that struck me as almost Biblical: ah, I thought, this is what Jeremiah meant with his sackcloth and ashes. The wailing even drowned out the massed marching band (which, in another vertiginous moment, struck up a Sousa march shortly before the Dear Leader’s hearse went past).
News coverage of the funeral since tones down the wailing, which makes for something of a misrepresentation (even though it is for an entirely practical reason — foreign newscasters need to be able to make themselves heard). The wailing is what made the images such potent nightmare fuel. It struck me as a form of religious ecstasy: how the Pharaohs were worshipped, something dredged up from the depths of an antiquity we like to think we’ve left behind.
Over time, I found the hysterics so unbelievable that I began to wonder if they were feigned, or at least partly feigned. The Korean newscasters (one man and one woman), I thought, were faking it big time, and I stand by that supposition… but then I reasoned that fakery is the essence of television news. The newscasters are not, in that sense, to be taken as representative.
I was not alone in my puzzlement. Psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple, in an excellent and thoughtful interview with the BBC, made the following comments after the first outbursts of hysteria, but before the funeral proper. He last visited North Korea in 1989:
It’s not easy to produce tears when you’re not really feeling it but you could fake weeping and wailing and this mass hysteria makes it impossible to tell what is real. There’s a kind of arms race situation in which you have to express yourself more and more extremely in order to demonstrate that you are feeling the orthodox emotions. A lot of it is perfectly compatible with acting. That isn’t to say that it is acting, however.
[A personal aside: I remember seeing posters for the 1989 International Festival of Youth and Students Dalrymple attended in Pyongyang attached to telephone poles around Brisbane, promoted by a certain Senator George Georges; there were some nasty things hiding under rocks in the ALP in those days].
Dalrymple goes on to make the point that the normally reserved Koreans — at least during his visit — seemed capable of only two emotions: complete stoicism or mass hysteria. He saw nothing in the middle:
When I was in the huge stadium and the Great Leader [Kim Il-sung] came in, everyone stood up and started worshipping him, quite literally worshipping him and letting out a roar at the same time. It might be that these people would be terrified not to do that but at the same time it’s possible that many of them felt a genuine allegiance to the Great Leader. After all, when Stalin died, people wept in the streets, although it was less effusive than in North Korea.
By contrast, Jim Hoare, the British charge d’affaires in Pyongyang from 2001-2002 told the BBC many of the scenes of grief were likely to have been choreographed. His interview contains his observations, and includes some relevant footage, although once again the wailing has been softened. Neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor offers a different perspective again, and her article is well worth a read:
Since the death of Kim Jong-il, images of weeping North Koreans have filled the western media. But is their grief real? Some have suggested that the hysterical displays of mourning were staged, others have come up with an even shorter answer: brainwashing. But what does that mean?
For Westerners raised to believe in strength of mind and individual free will, brainwashing was a nightmare. Zombies and demonic possession have staying power in our cultures for good reason: they represent the terror of mind control. And as possession was all about black magic, so brainwashing reeks of dark and dangerous science. What else could explain those US soldiers’ behaviour but mind-altering technology? A horrifying idea, but also encouraging for the US military, since technologies can be captured and transferred.
Except that, even in secretive North Korea, we can be pretty sure there is no such technology. To date. Neuroscience is developing so fast that brainwashing machines may yet appear, but they are not responsible for the grief in Pyongyang. So what, apart from propaganda, is?
The thought-reform that terrified the West did not use new technology but old psychology, cleverly applied. Chinese culture, less individualistic than its western opponents’, was more aware of how groups can manipulate individuals. They used that social power on American prisoners and in their own societies. We see it now at work in North Korea. In this sense, brainwashing does exist. People can be made to believe things that clearly aren’t good for them.
One depressing point worth adding to Taylor’s observations is the fact that the dictatorship in North Korea is now multi-generational: there is no past, or different system, to be ‘washed’ out of people’s heads.
Tom — the friend who provided the two images above — was in North Korea in 2010, far more recently than either Dalrymple or Hoare (yes, friends of mine go on travels to lots of odd places; I’ve even travelled to odd places myself). I’ve culled some of his observations from various facebook updates. In response to a comment that the people must be grieving only out of duty:
I think that many, almost certainly most, do love him. Years later, they may look back and find it baffling. But the slaves often do love, and fear, and revere, and worship their masters.
Tom’s comparison with another ‘cult of personality’ regime, albeit one that took far longer to develop its cultish qualities and was always more porous:
I have talked to people who lived in Albania and were strong classical liberals… And they all cried when Enver Hoxha [pronounced to rhyme with 'lodger'] died. They said later it was hard to understand, but they had been raised from childhood clapping “Enver Hoxha, Enver Hoxha, Enver Hoxha” as they marched to school. That was all they knew. And they had it much easier than the North Koreans, as they could listen to Italian radio. The North Koreans have no contact with the world.
In response to another suggestion that the people must be faking it:
I am confident that they are not faking it. This is the result of a 100% totalitarian state. They truly do love Big Brother.
That, I think, is why I could not laugh any more. North Korea’s Kim family has created Orwell’s dystopia on earth. Yes, there are probably dissenters, but they are not like the dissenters in Zimbabwe or (recently) Libya or Egypt or (still) Iran: known, in numbers, sometimes armed. Gaddafi’s bloody end indicated that, in large swathes of the country, he was hated. North Korea, by contrast, is terrifyingly stable.
And when it does fall (no totalitarian state can last forever), picking up the pieces will be no little thing, as its people learn that everything they thought true is false, and that all must change.
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
W. H. Auden, Epitaph on a Tyrant
UPDATE: Lorenzo has an excellent companion piece to this over at his place, on the atavism of totalitarianism. Go read.