Crazy North Koreans, Crazy Americans

I visited the Lincoln Memorial once, and I was moved. Who isn’t? The statue is massive, magisterial, and yet the warmth, empathy, wisdom, and humility of that great man shines even through the cold marble. It’s an impressive monument.

I’m thinking of this because I recently watched “Lincoln”, Steven Spielberg’s newest movie and a recent Oscar contender. Like many viewers, I was amazed by Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting. He showed the president’s confidence, conviction, and humor in the face of adversity. Though it was surely only a poor facsimile of the man himself, that fine portrayal honored a man who may have been our greatest president.

And then I read B. R. Myers’ book The Cleanest Race, which, taking Lincoln as a brief example, clearly shows the fallacy of writing off North Korean people as crazy, of thinking, “even they can’t possibly believe their own propaganda.”

In fact, Myers shows, their belief in their own propaganda is not enigmatic, but very understandable. Look at what I believe about Lincoln: I don’t know the man, and I don’t know much about him beyond the conventional high-school history textbook account. I can quote a few lines of the Gettysburg Address. (I admire Lincoln almost equally for the rhythm and clarity of his prose as for his morality or his politics.) I watched a TED talk about him once (one of my favorite TED talks, actually).

But what do I know of the real Lincoln? All I know was taught to me by history textbooks and college professors, by statues and by movies. How is this different, Myers asks, from North Korean propaganda, which also relies on textbooks, on teachers, on statues, on movies? Are we any different to glorify Lincoln than the North Koreans to venerate the Kim family? Even their myths are quite similar: compare the log cabin in Kentucky where Lincoln was born to the legend of Kim Jong Il’s humble birth in a snowcapped log cabin at the foot of Mt. Baekdu.

In defiance of death, we all seek to find meaning in causes beyond ourselves. That’s part of why I admire Lincoln; he is proclaimed to be one of the greatest leaders of my culture, my country. It’s true that Lincoln played a significant role in the emancipation of black people in America; but I don’t think that’s really what I’m thinking about when we watch the movie. I’m not carefully considering his actual contributions, studying the legislation he championed, or reviewing his philosophy; I’m believing that he represents an ideal of governance largely because that’s how he’s represented to me. In short, I think he’s great because everyone says he is. And so the people bowing at the foot of the 66-foot statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, the people weeping at the death of their Dear Leader are hardly different from my own feelings of pride and humility at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Lincoln Memorial on a foggy evening on January 12, 2013. Photo credit Ehpien via Flickr.

The Lincoln Memorial on a foggy evening on January 12, 2013. Photo credit Ehpien via Flickr.

Myers does an exceptional job of bringing a further truth home to us: that it is not that surprising that North Koreans are faithful to a dynasty that has materially failed them, even as Americans are faithful to a political and economic system that is manifestly failing us. We just believe what we’re told; if we’re liberals, we blame our economic woes on the war spending, and if we’re conservatives, we blame liberal government spending. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this is how most people think about politics. And North Koreans just blame the Americans, because that’s who the people who ought to know tell them to blame.

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