Other People’s Misery

19 December 2011


The acronym “OPM” is usually used to abbreviate “other people’s money,” and is one of those unfortunate slogans that has been used to rationalize risky financial practices in pursuit of easy money, but I realized that “OPM” might be put to better use as an acronym for “other people’s misery.”

The death of Kim Jong-il, communist dictator of North Korea, provides an opportunity for a two-sided reflection upon other people’s misery. There is, on the one hand, the abject misery of the people of North Korea, who have been impoverished and oppressed by a political leadership that seems indifferent to their fate. Many news stories and public statements since the announcement of the death of Kim Jong-il have talked about a “failure of leadership,” but I tried to point out in yesterday’s North Korea and Arête that, if his leadership was a failure, it was a planned failure, and in fact the country was governed exactly as he intended it to be governed. If a political leader accomplishes exactly what they intend, it is not exactly accurate to call this a failure. On the other hand, there is the apparent misery of the North Korean people expressed in their public mourning for the “Dear Leader.”

The BBC (and probably also many other news services — the above video is from Russia Today) have carried some striking photographs and video of public mourning in North Korea over the death of Kim Jong-il. It is difficult to know exactly how to interpret these displays of grief. Are they genuine, and the product of a hermetically sealed totalitarian state such that the people don’t even know that they have been immiserated by their “Dear Leader,” or are these to be understood as politically expedient forms of mourning, the greater display intended to forestall any accusations that one is not distraught over the death of Kim Jong-il?

For the Western mind it is difficult to imagine a greater pitch of injustice than that a man should be mourned by millions of people whose suffering he magnified and deepened. This reminds me of the opening of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “A Free Man’s Worship,” in which Russell gives his version of the Faust-Mephistopheles encounter:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.”

If the grief expressed by North Koreans over the death of Kim Jong-il is genuine — and that is a big if — then clearly Kim Jong-il is now the recipient of spectacularly undeserved praise — undeserved praise on a Stalinist scale, which is oddly appropriate, since the North Korean regime modeled itself upon Stalinist totalitarianism, complete with an absurd personality cult featuring brightly painted scenes of the communist dictators, father and sun, surrounded by children and flowers.

Human memory is a vulnerable thing. People forget. People even forget their own misery. And if people can forget their own misery, how easy it is to forget other people’s misery!

The sheer horror or life in North Korea creates an obligation to keep alive the memory of this totalitarian regime and its utter indifference to the suffering of its own people. It is more important than ever to be bluntly honest, to call a spade a spade, and to resist the steady tug of euphemistic undercurrent that would drown the tragedies of history before their lessons are learned.

Let no one employ euphemisms to describe the rule or the life or the character of Kim Jong-il. Let us allow no posthumous rehabilitation. Let us be intolerant of historical revisionism that might someday say, “Well, yes, he was brutal, but after all he did represent the people of North Korea as a strong and independent voice in the world.” It is all-too-easy to imagine that such things will be said someday, and that day may be not far off if we are slack and insufficiently vigilant toward the memory of those who suffered.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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