Recently, I had seen via several channels some remarks from a prominent North Korean defector declaring boldly that American universities (and presumably, by extension, much of the West’s intellectual culture) were more laden with indoctrination and psychological conditioning than her own native DPRK.
There are a few things to be said about this, although let me first acknowledge that one of those channels which ran the story – the New Zealand Herald – is not technically a mono-cultic perspective, because at least it tends to allow other contributors to demonstrate via comparison when Mike Hosking is just blatantly making things up (as we saw this week as applies his remarks on the Government’s economic performance).
Now, as it happens, I do agree with the sentiment that Western universities contain within them quite potent processes and institutes designed to condition their subjects (and here I mean both students and subject-matter they are there engaged with), with a view to limiting free-thought. It is just that, for the most part, these are probably NOT the ones which either Park, the DPRK defector in question (and more on her in a moment), or Fox News (the original source for the interview in question) tend to be concerned with.
When I did papers in macroeconomics and political economy at Auckland University, it was quite plain that ‘indoctrination’ and a certain level of cultish thinking prevailed within the discipline. Asset sales were the political hot-topic of the day (which shows how long ago this was – a decade … not the uh, 1980s or 90s rounds of these, although I suppose that that, too, shows that things keep going around and around again), and we literally had a senior lecturer enjoin us to believe that they were almost an unqualified good, that opposition to them was just “wrong”, and that we should go out and remonstrate with opponents to the maneuver to see the error of their ways, armed with a few paragraphs from an introductory macroeconomics textbook. Of course, some counterbalance was provided from the political economy department – which has made, as a discipline, quite a speciality out of pointing out exactly these sorts of fallacious and damn near religious perspectives for what they are, and showing how the ‘accepted truths’ of modern, neoliberal economics really don’t work very well in the actual, real world.
But, as I say – I doubt most strongly whether that kind of ‘indoctrination’ and cult-like thinking is what Park or Fox would be concerned by. After all, it is a set of norms which, however questionable, are foundationally congruent with their preferred world-views. Which is precisely what universities, when functioning at their best, are supposed to challenge. Not necessarily overturn, mind you (although it would be very nice if, as applies the aforementioned neoliberal economics sphere, that was managed) – but at least get us to be thinking critically.
The second thing to be raised, I suspect, is that the notion of a mono-myopic perspective being inculcated within the academic world is hardly a novel one. Solzhenitsyn, the famous Soviet defector, called out just such a tendency half a century ago upon arriving in and experiencing America. The author of the Gulag Archipelago, it was anticipated by his Western audiences that he would get up and deliver stinging rebukes of Stalinism and socialism more generally in favour of the sorts of freedom he most readily beheld in his new country of domiciling. As applies his Commencement Address to Harvard University in 1978, however, he did almost the exact opposite.
Instead of getting up to biliously congratulate the West for … basically not being Soviet Russia, he instead took the stage and the lecturn to castigate the West for failing to live up to various vitally necessary dimensions in human existence. Indeed, he directly made the comparison between the West and the Soviet East, stating that in terms of the former’s effective abjuration of these elements, it had increasingly come to resemble the latter.
Yet whereas Park, formerly of the DPRK, criticizes her own Ivy League institution for “anti-Western”, “anti-American” and anti-Jane Austen propaganda provision … Solzhenitsyn took the decidedly opposite point of view: showing how Western (and more specifically, although definitely not exclusively, American) Triumphalism had blinded these spheres and their institutions to their own ongoing decline. He put especial attention upon the ‘spiritual’ decline which he saw as having occurred due to a suppressive ‘crowding out’ of this dimension of human experience and necessity from the Academe’s enthusiasm. I do not think that he was wrong to do so.
Fox, of course, would probably claim to agree with the latter element – although I say “claim to agree”, rather than actually agree, because they are most certainly emblematic and expressive of the very same hyper-materialist and anti-critical conniption which Solzhenitsyn was seeking to call out at the time. These are, after all, the same people who appear to think that Donald Trump was an admirable vector for Christian values. And they would likewise, perhaps agree with the remarks Solzhenitsyn had made in that same speech concerning ‘stupifying’ American television and an intrusive media … except as applies themselves, naturally. I shall quote some relevant sections of his speech later.
But the major reason for raising the specter of Solzhenitsyn here is precisely because Park is his ‘mirror image’. And by ‘mirror image’, I mean where ‘everything is the wrong way around’.
Like Park, Solzhenitsyn was a defector from a non-Western sphere regarded as being an autocratic, totalitarian regime. Yet Solzhenitsyn, in his remarks, proved that he was not merely there to tell a comforting morality tale in which his new home was irreducibly superior in every way to any possible rival. Quite the contrary. He saw his role as being one predicated upon being able to tell the Americans things about themselves – their true selves – which only a foreigner, an outsider, could have perceived .. and which, only a true friend would dare to voice in their presence. One, perhaps, who had already faced the Stalinist gulag system and therefore felt it less likely that anything, any ‘unpersoning’ by intelligentsia or popular-press, could be quite so threatening.
Park, meanwhile, has come amongst us – or, rather, amongst (the) US – in order to comfortably reaffirm what her audience already wishes to be true. Namely, that America, were it freed from some shadowy and parasitic ‘alien’ force, could be(come) Great Again; and that a critical view upon American culture or geopolitical saliency is tantamount to treason. That there is nothing joining an academic elite to the ordinary person in her intended audience except the flow of contempt in at least one direction of this dyad. Perhaps, in some cases, she is right; yet I suspect that the active driving of a wedge between institutions of academic endeavour and ‘ordinary people’, is the sort of grift run by people who want to be the sole gate-keepers of what is ‘acceptable’ intelligent thinking … and often because they are seeking to actively undermine what might be ‘intelligent’ about much of that thinking. This is my perception based around exactly this tendency seeming to exist when it comes to macroeconomics – wherein the great and lively internal debates to the field are all effectively silenced by a few people whose immense funding by well-endowed think-tanks and other such institutes, control and condition so much of the “acceptable” discourse.
Now, it may seem rather unfair for me to characterize Park in these terms – what do I know of her or of her motivations? Perhaps she really DID experience somebody telling her off for an enthusiasm for Jane Austen during her orientation at her university. Stranger things have most assuredly happened. (Although I do feel it of interest to point out that the academic study of Jane Austen is, quite literally, something steeped in colonialism – it was congealed during the Macaulayist era of the British Raj’s education policy, because they felt it was an ideal corpus to attempt to render more ‘English’ the Indians then going through the Raj’s reworked (I would say ‘vandalized’) Indian tertiary education system. There had been little need for Austen to be taught as literature prior to this – as it wasn’t really thought of as being an enduring and worthy portion of the Western Canon, or even the specifically English one .. but I digress).
But having looked a bit into Park and her backstory – or, rather, her backstories – I would suggest that she strikes me as a figure who has been quite adroit at telling her impressionable audience what they want to hear. She claims that her perceptions of the DPRK were formulated as the result of witnessing her best friend’s mother publicly executed … for watching a James Bond film (on other occasions, unspecified South Korean DVDs); and by having to endure literal grass-eating starvation in the early 2000s following separation from her parents. The former claim has been challenged by both other DPRK defectors and academic experts upon the DPRK, who note that while yes consuming such media would not be consequence free … it would almost certainly not lead to an execution, and that the circumstances of the execution as presented by Park are similarly not credible. The latter claim has elements which have been contradicted by Park herself in other interviews (seriously – talking to the BBC, she stated she’d been under the care of her aunt, with her sister ; talking two days later to the Irish Independent, the story changed to there having explicitly been no adults involved requiring her to provide for herself and her younger sister, who were now together in the past apparently), as well as by her mother – who has emphatically denied any such starvation situation occurred, as well as noting that Park’s perspective appears to have been considerably shaped and informed by what other DPRK defectors were saying when appearing on a South Korean tv show. In other appearances, Park had instead characterized her situation at the time as having only been able to afford two meals a day and pitying those who were actually starving when seen in the street.
Similarly, Park’s actual escape from the DPRK has undergone some “evolutions” in the telling – going from being a journey undertaken by herself, her mother and her father, through to one featuring just herself and her mother and sexual violence endured en-route. A number of mountains have also been added to the story, which as others have observed is rather curious given the distinct lack of mountainous topography in the riverine border-zone between where she escaped from in the DPRK and where she fled to in the People’s Republic of China. The story also now features a several-day crossing of the Gobi Desert carried out in decidedly sub-zero temperatures.
I am not in any great position to assay the relative truth or merits of Park’s various claims about her past and her struggles to get to where she is today. Others have done that for me. I am reliant upon their work and their words. Yet while there are a few potential explanations for their multifariousness, inconsistency, and questionable content – including that all of these things were happening to a young girl in her early teens, and would have been heavily traumatic; and that there’s a noted psychological pressure on DPRK defectors to possess such stories and thence to share them – it is difficult to avoid the perception that a large part of Park’s success has been precisely facilitated by her ‘celebrity defector’ status. A status heavily predicated upon “giving the people what they want” in these regards.
It is therefore not too hard to make the cognitive leap from there, through to “even North Korea was not this nuts!” being a catchy tagline for deploying bankable criticism of her own Ivy League education, regardless of what “nuts” she may or may not actually have encountered (or which may or may not actually exist) anywhere in sight at same.
For what it’s worth, considering some of the things which seem to go on in some Humanities disciplines these days, there’s probably some truth to some of the sentiments banded up with hers. It’s in a similar manner to how even despite the significant doubts about Park’s description of her life in and then escape from the DPRK … there’s definite truth to the notion of there being a less-than-ideal food situation in the DPRK at the relevant time. What it misses out, of course, is just how much foreign sanctions contributed to that.
And that’s entirely the issue here – “why” and “how” something has happened, the extent to which it has actually occurred, and where it might be going from there … these are not things that can or should be reduced down to sensationalized headlines. For to do so is to miss any semblance of actual, informative and useful meaning nor explication. In favour of a quick emotive ‘hit’ of exactly the kind Solzhenitsyn was endeavouring to warn Americans that their press had increasingly geared itself up to act as the pusher-purveyor thereof.
I said that I would quote a few excerpts of his speech, and to these we shall now turn. I do not (necessarily) agree with all of it, and it is worth considering that he was speaking of and dealing in, a time that is some decades distant and a very different (in some ways) cultural context to our own. Yet that’s the thing about universities – they’re there to expose us also to such things, not merely reinforce the ‘cult of the now’ as it pertains to us most pressingly in the present. When they’re functioning properly, at any rate.
“The press too, of course, enjoys the widest freedom. (I shall be using the word press to include all media.) But what sort of use does it make of this freedom?
Here again, the main concern is not to infringe the letter of the law. There is no true moral responsibility for deformation or disproportion. What sort of responsibility does a journalist or a newspaper have to his readers, or to his history — or to history? If they have misled public opinion or the government by inaccurate information or wrong conclusions, do we know of any cases of public recognition and rectification of such mistakes by the same journalist or the same newspaper? It hardly ever happens because it would damage sales. A nation may be the victim of such a mistake, but the journalist usually always gets away with it. One may — One may safely assume that he will start writing the opposite with renewed self-assurance.
Because instant and credible information has to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumors, and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none — and none of them will ever be rectified; they will stay on in the readers’ memories. How many hasty, immature, superficial, and misleading judgments are expressed every day, confusing readers, without any verification. The press — The press can both simulate public opinion and miseducate it. Thus, we may see terrorists described as heroes, or secret matters pertaining to one’s nation’s defense publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything.” But this is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls [stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk.] A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.
Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic disease of the 20th century and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press. Such as it is, however, the press has become the greatest power within the Western countries, more powerful than the legislative power, the executive, and the judiciary. And one would then like to ask: By what law has it been elected and to whom is it responsible? In the communist East a journalist is frankly appointed as a state official. But who has granted Western journalists their power, for how long a time, and with what prerogatives?
There is yet another surprise for someone coming from the East, where the press is rigorously unified. One gradually discovers a common trend of preferences within the Western press as a whole. It is a fashion; there are generally accepted patterns of judgment; there may be common corporate interests, the sum effect being not competition but unification. Enormous freedom exists for the press, but not for the readership because newspaper[s] mostly develop stress and emphasis to those opinions which do not too openly contradict their own and the general trend.
Without any censorship, in the West fashionable trends of thought and ideas are carefully separated from those which are not fashionable; nothing is forbidden, but what is not fashionable will hardly ever find its way into periodicals or books or be heard in colleges. Legally your researchers are free, but they are conditioned by the fashion of the day. There is no open violence such as in the East; however, a selection dictated by fashion and the need to match mass standards frequently prevent independent-minded people giving their contribution to public life. There is a dangerous tendency to flock together and shut off successful development. I have received letters in America from highly intelligent persons, maybe a teacher in a faraway small college who could do much for the renewal and salvation of his country, but his country cannot hear him because the media are not interested in him. This gives birth to strong mass prejudices, to blindness, which is most dangerous in our dynamic era. There is, for instance, a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of a petrified armor around people’s minds. Human voices from 17 countries of Eastern Europe and Eastern Asia cannot pierce it. It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”
I quote those passages because, of course, by amplifying this kind of perspective of Park’s, and various other things which Fox News and its ilk have engaged in over the years – they are engaging in exactly this kind of ‘cancellation’ via ‘cone- (or ‘conspiracy’-) of silence’ that Solzhenitsyn here warned against.