Drop the fantasyThis past month, America’s Public Broadcasting Service has been showing Ken Burns’ documentary, “The Vietnam War,” in which a retired North Vietnamese officer explains, “The South was more democratic than the North. They could ask many questions. We could ask only a few. Asking only a few questions is needed to win a war.”
Looking back a hundred thousand years, consider what Yuval Noah Harari, in his global best seller, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind,” points out as Homo sapiens’ most important invention: group fiction. Like all great primates, the largest cohesive group of individuals numbers roughly between 15 and 20 animals. Beyond that number, the other individuals are considered to be alien. However, early Homo sapiens came up with fictions that unified small groups into being larger groups, under the fiction of a clan, then being part of a tribe and eventually on up to belonging to a nation state.
In the process, argues Prof. Harari, other fictions such as money, religion, ethics, law were created and accepted, when in fact there is nothing more to these fictions than widespread trust that other humans acknowledge these countless fictions as being valid.
Most recently, Kurt Andersen noted in his “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” that while all societies are made up of many fictions or fantasies, some nations have many more than others. The two extreme examples of this is the superrich United States, infamous for being a hotbed of conspiracy theories, religions and ideological alienation. North Korea is America’s opposite, destitute in wealth and remarkably intolerant of ideas not sanctioned by the state. So much so, it is as close as one can find anywhere in history to the nation described in George Orwell’s “1984.”
The current North Korea vs. United States standoff is the most pertinent example of an illiberal country facing off against a liberal (in terms of the free exchange of ideas) superpower. But the struggle is global, between Orwellian-aspiring societies versus pluralistic societies that have made up the wealthy nations of the past 60 years or so.
Until recently, it has been a given that inefficient, dictator-controlled nations would eventually implode.
The internet was expected to create a wide exchange of information and ideas that would spread notions of participatory democracy and the advantages of capitalism. However, the internet lacks the gatekeepers that once kept out irresponsible nonsense as in the days when there was only television. As such, anyone with a fantasy and internet access can find like-minded people across the globe. No matter how laughable or dangerous, disparate individuals form cyber fellowships and create their new fictions through cyber exchanges in the still liberal societies. In the process, they create fantasy-based divisions in their societies.
In contrast, there are the “Bamboo Firewall” models of China and North Korea where the populations are kept within a state-controlled bubble of ideas. The local oligarchs sanction all exchanged information. According to international journalists working out of China, these massive schemes of thought control are proving to be effective.
A French journalist told me of engaging in a debate with a young university student from one of China’s better universities. She was eager to correct the Frenchman’s wrong ideas. Clearly he was confused due to his getting his information from many sources whereas she had the advantage of getting her information from just one source.
Turning to Korea, let’s consider what is happening on both sides of the DMZ. In the North, the entire society is unquestioningly on a unified war footing. To the south, younger Koreans are doing their best to dismiss security awareness. The two Koreas could be summarized as one side’s thinking being dominated by war and the other side doing its best to get by with a ‘whatever’ attitude.
Just north of Seoul, we have a society that seems quite capable of accepting Orwellian concepts of “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “ignorance is strength.” Their primary backers, China and Russia, have been making determined changes in their societies to remove freedom of the press, which in its absence leaves only state propaganda. Even in the United States, the notion of a free press is under attack with a president who routinely yells ‘fake news!’ whenever the media discovers corruption or worse in his administration. His sycophants have even come up with the concept of “alt facts,” as if they were in 1984 rather than in 2017.
So, what to do? We need to seriously recognize this global trend to illiberalism. We must recognize how oligarchs, as a means to protect their wealth and power, are making their nations fear pluralistic societies. At the same time, we should acknowledge that so-called weak nations that effectively stifle freedoms of information have intrinsic strengths stemming out of unified national will. As such, they need to be taken more seriously, without condescension.
Ultimately, we need to raise our children to call out fantasy-based nonsense that distracts our societies from existential realities. As the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
*The author is the owner of Onsite Studios, publisher of Korean Economic Reader, and author of two books on doing business in Korea.
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