Adam Johnson Wins Pulitzer for Orphan Master’s Son

From the NYTimes. 

Mr. Johnson, 45, was cited by the board for an ‘exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.’

While writing the novel, Mr. Johnson said, he read propaganda and books approved by the regime. He eventually included Kim Jong-il, the late North Korean leader, as a character in the book. ‘I came to, not feel for him, but to see a human dimension in him,’ he said. ‘He was a very cunning person, a very witty person. He had flaws like all people. The more I studied him the more I realized that he was a very human figure.

Richly deserved award. Here’s my review of the Orphan Master’s Son.

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Our Passive Acceptance of Evil

I’ve been subjecting my unlucky, long-suffering wife to a string of intense foreign flicks. Most recently, In a Better World, which won the Oscar for the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film. One reviewer explains that “the film examines the different ways people react to injustice, and looks at how what counts as ‘revenge’, as opposed to ‘justice’, is a matter of perception.” Watch it and let me know what you think.

How do you react to injustice? What, if anything, do you do when you see an adult hit a child in public? What, if anything, do you do when you learn someone is a victim of domestic abuse? What, if anything do you when your tax dollars make it possible for drones to kill bad guys and innocent civilians anonymously from the sky?

I know what you do when an evil person, family, or cadre in Zimbabwe or North Korea hits, impoverishes, and imprisons on a national scale. Nothing. Most people cope with the atrocities of those regimes by not paying attention to them. If we don’t even know where Zimbabwe and North Korea are, who Kim Jong-un and Robert Mugabe are, or what Zimbabweans’ and North Koreans’ lives are like, it’s so much easier to just make fun of how backward the countries are.

On the other hand, if we’re better than our popular culture, and press pause long enough to learn what life is like for fellow humans who were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, it’s impossible to watch the North Korean succession without getting sick to your stomach.

The North Korean tragedy is nearly impossible to grasp, but here’s an imperfect analogy. If your politics are anything like mine, after John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, you had a few “Oh shit, there’s a possibility of an ill-informed, right wing dilettante becoming president” moments. Forget President Sarah Palin. Instead imagine if the vote was canceled and Jenna Bush was appointed President. Jenna, not Barbara because she revealed a greater capacity for cruelty. One of Jong-un’s alleged childhood pastimes was torturing small animals.

I miss Christopher Hitchens’ writing. This incredibly vacuous New Yorker essay on North Korea’s Kim Jong-il’s funeral ceremony/performance begs a question—who will fill his shoes? Without Hitchens’ passionate, populist voice the Kim Jong-un succession has even more of a feel of inevitability.

I get it, the immediacy of the evil in North Korea pales in comparison to the violence in our own neighborhoods and communities, but the scale of human suffering deserves more of our attention. We can and should be committed to a more peaceful and just 2012 both in our own communities and on the Korean Peninsula.

Dictatorship

I’ve been intrigued with dictatorship since living in Ethiopia for nine months under Mengistu and reading this bad boy.

Qaddafi, in his rambling February 22nd speech said, “Muammar Qaddafi is history, resistance, liberty, glory, revolution.” Fascinating. In his mind he’s superseded human form, he’s a concept. How can anyone’s sense of self trump that?

In particular, I pay more attention than average to the tragedies of Zimbabwe, where I once spent a memorable week, and North Korea. I had an extensive discussion about North Korea with Fifteen at dinner one night last week and then we streamed this documentary from Netflix. Home-school social studies, love it.

This week I also read about a few dictators in waiting including Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue and Qaddafi’s sons. And then I read Tom Friedman’s editorial on our addiction to oil. I’ve been critical of Friedman, but on this subject he’s usually excellent.

I believe most people are caring and generous. Consequently, I think many more people would commit to serious energy conservation and Friedman’s $1/gallon gas tax proposal if they clearly understood how their automobile purchases and driving habits empower dictators to oppress people. One ugly fact about ourselves that we choose to ignore is that as a result of our automobile and driving decisions our government values unfettered access to inexpensive oil more than it does some people’s human rights.

Back to Qaddafi’s unraveling. There’s at least two ways to watch and listen to him. I suspect the vast majority of people in the U.S. watch him in the same way I watched Grizzly Man, as intimate and transfixing a study of mental illness as I’ve ever seen. They write him off as a genetic aberration. The alternative perspective is that maybe he’s not an extreme outlier after all. This is what I’ve been thinking. It seems naive to me to assume there aren’t people in the U.S. with evil, dictatorial ambitions.

However, there are two all-important, dictatorial-saving impediments in the U.S. Even though our government often seems broken and our press anemic, our constitutional underpinnings remain remarkable—specifically the built-in separation of powers, checks and balances, and rule of law. Additionally, we have a history of open elections and peaceful leadership transitions that have created serious positive, democratic, non-violent momentum.

U.S. citizens aren’t inherently better than Libyans, North Koreans, or Zimbabweans, it’s just that evil, dictatorial impulses have no chance of sprouting in our constitution, history-enriched soil.