Sunday, April 10, 2011

Protecting the Truth from the Powerful

I just finished Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle, which was recommended to me by America's leading library science student. It's a graphic memoir, and by graphic I don't mean it's full of sex and violence, but rather that it's written in comic-book-like format with words and pictures. It follows, in other words, the great tradition made famous by Art Spiegelman's Maus.

North Korea, it turns out, is an entirely free and open country, the kind of paradise we Americans could only hope to someday experience.

Psych. It's actually a hellhole, albeit a rather clean and tidy one, according to Delisle. But most of us have already have gathered that from our own mainstream media coverage.

What is so bizarre about the place is the way so many people actually seem to accept that their Great Leader, the deceased Kim Il-sung, was truly one of the world's most amazing presidents ever. Also worshiped is his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, who, at 5' 2" is referred to by Bill Maher as Lil' Kim. Not, ahem, that there's anything wrong with being short.

North Koreans all seem to wear pins with the likenesses of one or both of these Kims, and the country has built a series of monumental statues, museums and other structures designed to glorify these two characters. And people are expected to bow to their images at appropriate times. I mean, come on, aren't these guys supposed to be communists? If, as Marx says, religion is the opiate of the people, the North Koreans seem to have OD'd on their own homegrown Kimotheism.

The Great Leader surrounded by adoring school children

Foreigners in NK are not allowed to go anywhere except when accompanied by guides, or minders, and life for ordinary Koreans is exceptionally tightly ordered.

From Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

One thing I'm sure they don't have in North Korea is tenure. Delisle doesn't mention this, but I'm only bringing it up because I've been having a mini-debate with my dear niece, Ms. Tracy, who doesn't believe that tenure for educators is a good thing.

I do, of course, and for this reason: powerful people cannot be counted on to let scholars and educators seek and teach the truth in accordance with the precepts of science and reason. If a truth (e.g., tobacco causes cancer or using fossil fuels contributes to global warming) contradicts the interests of powerful people, these powerful ones will inevitably attempt to stifle or silence those educators who bring it to light. In the bad old days, before tenure, it was all too easy for some big shot millionaire to get a teacher or professor fired for saying things Mr. Big Shot objected to.

Stripping educators of tenure will not turn us into North Korea, of course, but it would be a big step toward that kind of society: the kind where people with power, not those with knowledge, get to decide what "the truth" is.

In North Korea, "the truth" is that Kim Il-sung led Korea to a glorious victory over Japan in World War II (the U.S. had no role in this) and Kim Jong-il was born on the sacred slopes of Mount Paektu under a shining star and a double rainbow. I'm not kidding.


  1. Great entry, I was not aware of Guy Delisle's graphic novel. I will try to pick it up. There is a lot more work graphic history and culture stuff available. I recently read a couple of graphic novel you might enjoy.

    Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography
    Written by Andrew Helfer; Art by Randy DuBurke


    The Beats: A Graphic History
    by Harvey Pekar et al.; Art by Ed Piskor et al.

    Both of these works are from a Hill and Wang series that include graphic profile of J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Isadora Duncan. In addition they those historical graphic novel like an adaptation of the 9/11 report.

    You might want to check them out!!

  2. Very interesting and I'll check out the book.

    I once asked a Korean friend what it was like growing up with NK to the North, and let him know that I understand it's a sensitive topic and it's fine if he doesn't want to talk about it.

    His reply was:

    "First, it's a sensitive issue and I don't want to talk about it.

    Second (insert smiley face), it's like being born with a sword over your head that is being held up by one strand of thin thread (presumably strong enough to hold up a sword, or course) and follows you wherever you go.

    You know the sword is there, but because it follows you everywhere and you only notice it when you look up to see it, it doesn't play a major part of your everyday life. However, in the back of your mind you know it's there, and that it could fall at any time."

    I thought this was a good explanation and appreciated him sharing this with me.