In watching this incredible documentary about the North Korean Mass Games, the question on everyone’s minds cannot be anything but: do these people really believe what they say? When this young dancer comes in front of the camera and repeatedly extolls Kim Jong-il, spouting ream after ream of the stultifying propaganda she’s been filled with since her first seconds on Earth, I think everyone outside of North Korea is wondering the same thing: is she terrified that her family will be sent to a concentration camp if she mis-speaks, or does she truly believe in the goodness of the dictator who has enslaved her and everyone she knows?
Nothing seems false about her, as she goes on and on about the greatness of Kim Jong-il, but in the last video available on youtube, in part 9, at the climax of months of preparation, the dictator flakes out on her performance, and in response she says something like she understands he’s too busy defending the country to take a few minutes to watch and gratify the thousands of people who have been slaving away night and day for him. At that exact moment it sounded like there was a bit of fury creeping through the propaganda—I’ve done all this for you, and you can’t take a break from the mountains of caviar and the palaces full of sex slaves that everyone knows about to watch me?
I’m reading George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia right now—and wishing that I had the author’s complete works resting safely, pleasantly on my shelves—and as I thought about this question that everyone asks every time North Korea is in the news—do they really believe in this cult?—a question B.R. Myers says is never asked of the citizens of the Vatican—I think the answer has to come back to Orwell, who wrote this book called 1984 which we can use to decode North Korea, as it would seem to be the only Orwellian state that is currently in existence, and perhaps the only perfect Orwellian state that has ever existed.
Doublethink, Orwell writes, is “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself – that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed.”
Orwell was so successful that he and much of what he has written has become cliche, which makes me wary of discussing him, but this doublethink is a process that I think every politically-minded person partakes in at one point or another, as doublethink, or what we can call unconscious hypocrisy, is sometimes unavoidable, although it’s definitely a defining characteristic of political extremists, regardless of their orientation. One or two of the Pro-Palestinian people on my facebook wall have alienated me from their cause several times by re-posting garbage like this:
People who criticize Israel, like Noam Chomsky, have complained that those on the other side confuse any such criticism with anti-semitism, but here the pro-Palestinians have produced what is very clearly a racist caricature of a Jewish man, though I doubt the image’s creators and disseminators have any idea of what they have done, because their extremism, their doublethink, allows them to complain about racism when it is directed toward their own side while they themselves hurl it toward the other. The image was originally taken from this facebook group.
As I return again and again to this issue I feel disgusted with myself if I take any position except the one in the center, as far as possible from the two extremes.
In the case of North Korea, and this wonderful documentary, doublethink comes up most noticeably when a party elite out in the country starts discussing the North’s ridiculous Juche philosophy, which he (and the narrator) define as meaning total self-reliance: that man is the creator of his own destiny. This, in a nation wholly dependent on foreign aide, where anyone who steps out of line for an instant is either killed on the spot or sent, along with his or her entire family, to a concentration camp for the rest of their lives. Self-determination and self-reliance. Despite the force of his doublethink, the cadre starts to run out of steam the moment he begins discussing how North Koreans are so dedicated to their self-reliance that they will get an engine working even if there is no fuel around. The entire philosophy is as absurd as anything spouted by Big Brother, and Myers has written that if you happen to visit North Korea, you should ask your two guards (who must accompany you whenever you venture outside of the special hotel set aside for foreigners) to explain Juche to you, as they will probably not be able to talk about it for more than a few seconds before flubbing up and getting confused.
So, does this dancer believe in what she says? The answer, I suspect, is yes and no at the same exact time. Yes, when her family’s life is on the line; no, when the country falls, and she is allowed to speak her mind before a different set of captors, who will probably jail her if she says even the slightest positive thing about Kim Jong-il.