Case Studies in Political Psychosis: USA and DPRK
Down in South Carolina, baby-faced Newt Gingrich bemoans the inexplicable failure of the masses to see him as the savior-of-civilization he believes himself to be. Meanwhile in North Korea, chubby-cheeked Kim Jong-Un steps forward as the new “supreme leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic, ready to protect the people from all who menace them.
As North Koreans acclaim their new leader and U.S. voters assess the ideological purity of the Republican candidates for President, now might be a good time to look at the similarities between North Korea and the United States. While self-consciously poised as antipodes—one triumphantly capitalist and the other ostensibly communist, each at times condemning the other as the embodiment of evil—these two “democracies” share more features than either would care to acknowledge. Chief among these is what B.R. Myers, writing about North Korea, calls “paranoid nationalism.”
Former DPRK Kim Jong-Il’s death and his son Kim Jong-Un’s accession have drawn a new round of attention to Meyers’ colorful 2010 treatise, The Cleanest Race, which purports to clarify the North Korean “cult of personality” for befuddled foreigners who might be tempted to write off that nation’s aggrandizing rhetoric as insane or insincere. According to Myers, North Koreans mean it when they revere their leaders, whom they see as embodiments of the essence of their own inherent superiority. In other words, when North Koreans sing the praises of leaders such as Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il they are actually praising themselves. Like true-red-white-and-blue Americans, North Koreans see themselves not only as uniquely virtuous but also everlastingly endangered. Hence the need for a strong-armed leader with his finger on the nuclear trigger.
American candidates for office routinely state that the United States is “the greatest country in the world,” sometimes going so far as to retroactively include all of human history in the comparative assessment. To hear FoxNews tell it, we are persistently besieged by terrorists who hate our freedom and by immigrants who will pollute our culture unless kept in check by English-only laws and a militarized border. Meanwhile, the mediocre thinkers who pass for our intellectual class debate with straight faces the concept of “American exceptionalism” as if this notion were anything other than manifestly fantastical.
How different is this, really, from North Korean claims of inherently exceptional (and always endangered) purity?
Let me put that another way: If any other country were to rank 37th in the world health care, 17th in the world in educational achievement, and 36th (tied with Cuba) in life expectancy while insisting that all candidates for the highest office in the land make counter-factual statements concerning the country’s overall superiority, what would you call that?
If the citizens of any country other than the United States assumed that it was their natural right to lead the world on every issue—not sometimes lead, sometimes follow, and most of the time cooperate, but actually take charge on every matter of international concern—what would you call that?
I call it delusional hubris. And so I am curious to understand the roots of such self-aggrandizement elsewhere, in case it might shed light on the psychological forces that lead our country and its leaders to behave so dangerously. (Yes, I mean you Barack Obama—don’t think you’re off the hook just because the Republicans are so flagrantly deranged. The current chaos in Pakistan comes courtesy of your arrogant insistence on death by drone when the true allies of democracy in the region could have told you what to do instead.)
I found The Cleanest Race to be illuminating albeit imperfect. The basic premise of the book is sound: What looks like nonsense from the outside often proves to be both internally consistent and psychologically meaningful. (That’s true, by the way, not only for popular political delusions but also for personal psychoses.) Myers marshals masses of illustrations of the key themes he sees in recent and current North Korean propaganda and pop culture, all of which spring from and flow into what he sees as the fundamental motif: “The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader.”
So far so good. But Myers’ own biases betray him when he sets about explaining themes such as mistrust of foreigners or the maternal characteristics attributed to and expected from the male leader. Myers treats Korean history as if it were blank before the era of Japanese colonization, mistaking the absence of a self-consciously national or ethnic identity among the inhabitants of the peninsula for the lack of a distinct culture. This leads him to neglect indigenous traditions when reckoning the sources of the collective psychology he aims to analyze. Of course, all human groups create cultures—that’s the nature of social animals. Like island cultures, peninsular cultures tend to be idiosyncratic. I don’t know enough about indigenous Korean culture to know what Myers missed, but it cannot possibly be the case that no vestiges of pre-colonial Korean culture persist in the psyches of the people today.
Myers simultaneously overstates and minimizes the impact of the 40-year Japanese occupation of Korea, denying the traumatic effect of colonization while at the same time attributing virtually all of the characteristics of post-colonial Korea to ideas and practices borrowed from Japan. Similarly, Myers acknowledges but denies any impact of American activities on the peninsula, which have included occupation of South Korea and indiscriminate bombing of North Korea. Myers concedes that the United States committed war crimes in Korea yet does not take the ensuing trauma and legitimate fear of further aggression into account when assessing North Korean attitudes towards Americans.
“War crimes in North Korea?” I can hear mystified Americans asking. Myers notes the North Korean unwillingness to judge themselves as guilty of any wrongdoing, but there’s one country that carries the presumption of innocence to truly psychotic proportions. Educated Americans—left, right, and in between—debate “immigration” as if the very borders of the nation were not established through an explicitly genocidal process of displacement of the original inhabitants of the land (including the ancestors of many so-called “illegals.”) American soldiers march into other people’s homelands expecting to be greeted as liberators and then feel sincerely aggrieved—innocently outraged—at any resistance they encounter. American consumers gobble up far more than their fair share of the world’s resources and then accuse environmentalists of evil intentions.
And don’t get me started on whiteness. Suffice it to say that it’s no surprise to me that Ron Paul’s right-wing racist newsletters haven’t kept even self-proclaimed progressives from supporting him.
I’ve not yet seen the book that adequately plumbs the “brain trouble” that historian Oscar Ameringer identified as a key determinant of American history. Since we’re the more dangerous rogue nuclear state, that’s a glaring gap. (“Brain Trouble” was the title of my original dissertation. Maybe I’ll have to pick that project back up.)
Despite its shortcomings, The Cleanest Race has helped me to make better sense of the stories and pictures coming out of North Korea in the wake of the death of Kim Jong-Il. I can see in the ways that Kim Jong-Un is conducting himself and being presented a replication of the persona previously occupied by his grandfather and father. And many of his subjects do seem to be sincerely hailing him as the latest incarnation of the the heroic and protective genius of the nation.
That’s gotta be killing Newt.