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.

It Could Be Far, Far Worse

For the most part, I’m grateful for the numerous blessings in my life including my health; my wife; my daughters; my mom, siblings and extended family; my personal freedom and civil rights; my work; access to excellent films and literature; the Pacific Northwest, and a surplus of Honey Bunches of Oats.

But I get frustrated with myself for not being as appreciative as I should all the time. Sometimes, when sitting in faculty meetings, or in traffic, or for hours at the doctor’s office, I can even begin to feel sorry for myself.

The ancient Stoics had a strategy for being joyful, negative visualization. Negative visualization entails taking a few minutes out of one’s enjoyment of life a few times each day or week to think about how all the most positive things in one’s life could be taken away. What if a loved one were to suddenly die? What would my life be like without my wife? Without a daughter? Without my mother? What if I was severely injured and couldn’t swim, cycle, or run? What if we lost all our life savings through disastrous decision making or an unprecedented financial meltdown?

All of those questions combined pale in comparison to one I’ve been batting around this past week: what if I lived in North Korea?

I’m fascinated by North Korea partly because I briefly lived in 1990 Marxist Ethiopia, partly because the curtain around it is drawn so incredibly tight, and partly because of Bradley K. Martin’s lengthy, riveting history of 20th Century Korea, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.

Yesterday, I finished another genius work titled Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. One hundred eighty five, five star customer reviews on Amazon, not bad. Demick, a former LA Times correspondent based in Seoul, tells the story of six North Koreans she got to know after they defected first to China, then South Korea. She introduces each character when things are, as always in North Korea, extremely repressive, and then they endure the mid 90′s collapse of the already pitiful economy and the famine that killed somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the population, including some of their parents, siblings, and young students.

It’s going to take awhile to shake this book. Actually, I hope I never do. In fact, the next time I look in the frig and wonder what to make given the paucity of pickings, I hope I’ll remember that some North Koreans are picking individual kernels of corn and grains of rice from animal waste and then eating them or climbing trees to cut off and then eat the soft underside of the bark. The next time the internet is down, I hope I remember that in North Korea there is no internet. And the next time my government demonstrates its fallibility, I hope I remember that in North Korea government officials burn unopened letters in the winter for warmth.

Those references just scratch the surface of how evil the Kim dictatorship is and how utterly brutal life is in North Korea. My vote for the worst address in the world. I’m surprised more North Koreans don’t attempt to escape across the Tumen River. And the frustrating thing is the world seems content not to do anything probably because they threaten to unleash their military might on Japan and South Korea. That “can’t do anything” mindset is much tougher to accept given Demick’s storytelling. We are at best selective humanitarians.

Thank you Deborah Demick for the disorienting stories and the reminder that life is far, far worse in North Korea than people as privileged as myself can ever fully grasp.