Editor’s note: Sonny Bunch is guest-blogging at Act Four this week while Alyssa Rosenberg is at the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
There was an odd piece by Ben Railton published by “Talking Points Memo” yesterday headlined “Sorry, Freedom Lovers: America’s Hero Worship Is Just As Bad As North Korea’s.” Writes Railton:
When it comes to tolerating criticism of our own government, it doesn’t take much for own outrage industry to burst into high gear. While the hack (whoever did it) was an act of cyberterrorism, the rest of North Korea’s protesting talk sounds frighteningly American.
Really. Remember March 2003? That’s when Natalie Maines, lead singer of the popular country music group The Dixie Chicks, told a British audience, “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” …
Yet the response to Maines’s comments from millions of her fellow Americans was as outraged, as extreme and as violent as anything out of North Korea. North Korea may indeed have been responsible for what amounted to a boycott of Sony’s film, although the decision to pull the film was the company’s own. On the other hand, numerous country music radio stations and millions of country listeners boycotted The Dixie Chicks themselves, refusing to play their music, destroying piles of their albums, labeling them “Saddam’s Angels,” the “Dixie Sluts,” and so on.
On the one hand, I agree with Railton that such efforts are relatively dispiriting. Outrage culture is the worst, and efforts to boycott artists for their political views — such as, say, the efforts to punish Orson Scott Card for his statements about president Obama and his contributions to anti-gay-marriage organizations — impoverish us all.
On the other hand, however, I can’t help but feel a bit of amusement at the comparison. The cult of personality surrounding American leaders is nothing at all like that surrounding the Kims. The fervor Americans feel for their political leaders is sort of like sports fandom: At any given time, half of the country likes, and half hates, whoever’s in charge. (And even the people who like the guy in charge usually have some complaints.)
The adulation North Koreans feel for their leaders is closer to a religious fervor. Consider, for instance, that in North Korea “crimes include a failure to wipe the dust off a portrait of Kim the patriarch,” for which one can be sent to North Korea’s infamously awful gulags where, as “The Economist” notes, whole families are incarcerated for the crimes committed by a single member.
That’s almost “just as bad” as making fun of a country band for insulting its core audience, I suppose.
As B.R. Myers notes in his masterful examination of North Korean propaganda, The Cleanest Race, the people of North Korea revere the Kims as parental figures protecting them from a cruel, impure world. “Far from complex, [“juche" thought] can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure blooded, and therefore too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader,” Myers writes (italics his) about North Korea’s ideological underpinnings. “North Korea’s personality cult quickly surpassed its Eastern European counterparts in extravagance. … Unlike Stalin and Mao, Kim tolerated no sub-cults of the second or third in command.”
Indeed, the North Korean cult of personality is almost literally cultish, practically religious in fervor. “North Korea regards the country’s history as a long foreshadowing to Kim Il Sung, much as Christians see everything before the birth of Jesus as a Vorgeschichte or pre-history,” he writes, noting later, “Even among the few North Koreans who have left the country and stayed out, a heartfelt admiration of the Great Leader is mainstream. (I personally know migrants who still cannot talk of him without tearing up.)”
I can’t recommend Myers’ book enough; it is filled with images taken from the Hermit Kingdom and interpretations by the scholar of North Korean studies. For instance, Myers highlights the famous picture above of the diplomatic meeting between Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il in 2009. While most westerners search the stony faces of the participants for meaning, Myers analyzes the painting chosen for the backdrop. “The choice of background was no accident: waves breaking on the rocky coast symbolize the futility of the world’s harassment of the motherland,” he notes, pairing this image with two similar paintings of North Korea’s leader standing stoically in front of breaking surf.
It’s hard to think of an American equivalent to such work; the closest would probably be hyper-ironic portraits of Ronald Reagan riding a raptor while shooting a machine gun, or Barack Obama riding a lion while holding a light saber and a crossbow.
The difference, of course, is that we’re just having a bit of fun. The North Koreans are deadly serious.