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Saturday, December 24, 2011

North Korea: Pain on a Train

With the demise of Kim Jong-il, the author wonders about the future of the people in North Korea. Will the Dear Leader’s death be a fatal blow to the iron-fisted regime, or will the authorities continue in their way? The author expresses hope for the people confined inside the country’s walls.

By Christopher Zimny

When  one reads the brutal story of the justly paranoid Winston Smith, one is confronted soon enough with a telescreen filled with the face of the Stalin-like image of Big Brother. Never ceasing its indelibility, the image fades to the background where it looms, while three phrases instead take its place—the three slogans of the Party:


These absurd statements, penned in the 20th century, and the totalitarian idea that led to Orwell to pen them, actively survive in only one place on earth today— North Korea. In her 2009 book, Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick makes note of a few propaganda signs that line the unused roads and are plastered ostentatiously on North Korean buildings:


Overt propaganda in North Korea is not taken as such by the people there; instead, statements like these are not only purported to be, but believed to be, self-evident. Kim Jong-il received ultimate control after the death of his father (who is still, technically, the president of the state) in 1994, and for nearly 20 years this said sun hath shown its awful light. On December 18th, however, it went out; it apparently was not impervious to train rides.

Kim Jong-il, the aberrant, ludic, sadistic creature-despot claiming ownership of every living being between the 38th Parallel and the Chinese border, suffered a heart attack from exhaustion on his way to an area outside the country’s capital, ending his life. Rid of their principle dwarf, North Koreans have the faintest—yet simultaneously the strongest—glimpse of freedom they've had in over 60 years. The state-run media reports that Kim Jong-un—the “Great Successor”—is to step up to the only successful Communist dynastic throne in history; the second handing of the baton, as it were; but perhaps those few secretly apostate souls of the country, who willingly commit thoughtcrime and illegal acts of freedom (such as speaking ill of either the Dear Leader or Great Leader (as Kim Il-sung is there known), or are in possession of unapproved books), will have a chance to see the wretched state disintegrate in their own lifetime. If this doesn’t seem the case on the outset, a somewhat closer look reveals a more positive picture.

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (as it calls itself), through various measures, has coup-proofed itself by selecting the most loyal supporters to occupy its inner circle. However, now that the Dear Leader—as the middle Kim is called—is dead, struggles over who may fill the power vacuum may indeed be the straw to break this sickly camel’s back. Some say that Kim Jong-un is far too inexperienced and still rather obscure in the eyes of the North Korean people, having only been assigned to be Kim Jong-il’s successor about one year ago—contrasted with the 20 years spent by the eldest Kim preparing his son for the role. If this is indeed the case, Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind of Harvard Kennedy School point out that a succession may be the only plausible event that could make the regime fall to pieces.

There is, of course, an alternate timeline North Koreans may face—the same road on which Oceania was driven: the inner party effortlessly moving past any troubles and continuing boldly in its drive for power over the individual (for its own sake). It is possible that this handover from capricious father to untried son may succeed in one way or another; if this happens, unless something markedly different changes in our policy toward the government of that country, we may be condemned to watch North Korea for a long time thereafter, while thousands of North Korean defectors and secret dissenters still inside its borders hope, then wait, for something to be done.

These escaped dissenters and quiet renegades have lived or continue to live the life of an average North Korean—a bleak, dreary one, always with an undertone of real perpetual fear. Speaking with citizens of another country on a cell phone (or until recently, even owning a cell phone), for instance, may earn a person a place in front of a firing squad, as will selling DVDs or being repatriated from China, or defacing currency if either Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il’s porcine faces are displayed on the note; these “criminals” also face another fate: being dragged to the country’s notorious prison camps. Some 200,000 human beings are interned and confined in North Korea’s gulags—modern day concentration camps. For a crime one commits, one’s entire family is punished—three generations over, an appealing (and appalling) terror tactic begun by Kim Il-sung.

This says nothing of their abject poverty: The purposeful and ludic currency wrenching done in late 2009 decimated what semblance of a middle-class the people could muster through a somewhat bustling, if still severely stifled, illegal market, and plunged everyone who wasn’t in the capital into acute destitution. Two nuclear tests and the sinking of a South Korean naval ship (leading to a short-lived recantation of the Sunshine Policy by South Korea) have not stopped foreign aid to North Korea. The massive amounts of foreign aid and billions of dollars in imported wealth are used on three things only: the political class, the military, and propaganda—which the regime feeds its starving people in place of food. Indoctrinated children sing praises of their deified leaders, learn “official” history, and are subtly inculcated in every aspect of their schooling—nay their life—to say nothing of their widespread malnourishment, their diseases, or their being stunted both in mind and body (eight-year-old children appear to be three or four, for instance). The average North Korean is six inches shorter than his South Korean neighbor due to lifelong food deprivation.

Such is life in North Korea.

The most deranged aspect of this abhorrent, grotesque picture is that these conditions are preventable. When one sees satellite imagery of the Korean peninsula, the southern half is positively gleaming and China produces its fair share of light—but between the two: nothing. Darkness covers every meter with the exception of the capital city that houses the government and politically loyal: the prop showcase city for foreigners. Once the brutal authoritarian dynasty of dwarfish martinets is brought to an end, as may happen in the near future with Kim Jong-il’s demise, North Koreans will be rid of their chains—and be free at long last. May they finally be free to do as they please and their free market shine in the night like their South Korean brothers and sisters.

We should hope that the death of North Korea’s infallible Dear Leader, fatally exhausted from a train ride, is the beginning of the end for this repugnant regime.

This article was also published in The American Reporter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Of His Experiment

I've made this poem to be precisely phrased (I had Ben Jonson in mind) and borrowed Sir Walter Scott's famous lines from Marmion for the first two lines. The purpose is to satirize an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God. My poem discusses the Old Testament, New Testament and Koran, human knowledge and struggle, the exploration of the universe as well as philosophy, and facing the fact that we may never gain a full and true answer, all from the point of view of an objective observer seeing the human race as if it were in the midst of a sadistic and ludic experiment.

"Of His Experiment"

Oh, What a tangled web we weave!
When first we practice to deceive.
Plant the seed of evil early on
So they know not as time goes on
Deus ex machina makes no remark,
But give an inkling, a hope, a spark.

Then steal the knowledge from their minds!
To watch them squabble and war and find
That from their nascence they did not know
And never will, too strong the row:
The inquisition which they explore,
Is but a contraption, and nothing more.

This poem was also published in The Libertarian Review.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, Not Arguable

One simply does not dispute with Christopher Hitchens, especially if his newest selection of essays is anything to go by.

By Christopher Zimny

In his time, Eric Arthur Blair saw the publication of two anthologies of essays he had written, both of them curiously terse in content, granting too little justice to the mind of the author himself. Though he did indeed have other publications (radio broadcasts, pamphlets, and novels to boot), none vindicated the man quite like the progressively fuller publications to be produced after his death, or the delightful trove of complete Orwelliana presently available for the curious eye on the Internet. Perhaps Orwell’s unluckiness will lead one to appreciate the many volumes of Christopher Hitchens’ equally wonderful literary lore (at least of the non-fiction kind) made readily available for the learning or otherwise interested mind today.

It should be said on the outset what Hitchens values most in the world; he notes of John Brown, the God-fearing abolitionist who led the failed storming of Harper’s Ferry:

Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people.

Add to that list explicitly the implied word “justice” and one has a good picture of his purpose for writing in the first place. The means he advocated throughout his career have changed (and have become more refined, as we should expect, with experience), but his ends have not. Using the timeless tool of the written word, independence of the mind and individual sovereignty are what he has always fought for.

Measuring in at 749 pages of commentary, Christopher Hitchens’ largest and latest published work, Arguably, is the fifth anthology of the veteran journalist’s articles and essays, containing one hundred-seven works spanning roughly the past decade. Not a single one—as one might well expect—is worthy of the term “boring”. Plastered on the cover of the assemblage itself is an intent and glaring face that may only be described as someone who one does not wish to cross with. (It is interesting to note here, by the way, that Hitchens ironically and quite strongly resembles a certain figurehead in the film production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, de-mustachioed.  I can’t be the only one to have noticed this.) The photograph almost creates a feeling contrary to the book’s title: that in fact, no issue is safe for argument when Hitchens is watching. Indeed, through the use of lively, elevated and distinctly characteristic prose, Hitchens illuminates his own view of the world, commenting on everything from the life-affirming martyrs of recent Middle Eastern rebellions, to the faiths of the Founding Founders (or lack thereof), to the scarce literary magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and the true humor of the female (and lack thereof). In his introduction he writes, “Since an essential element of the American idea is variety, I have tried to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest.” And through six aptly-named parts, he does exactly this without missing a beat.

Having been granted citizenship in 2007, the first part’s title, “All American”, seems a quite fitting completion to his love of American culture, values and history. To use two old expressions, he shows his true colors right off the bat. On a different note than Kurt Vonnegut’s defense of atheists in the foxholes (“I think it's a much better argument against foxholes.”), Hitchens writes a pointed piece on the (nothing but) ill effects that the high-ranking promulgation of religious zeal has on the secular warriors our military houses, and the subversive attacks it mounts on the Constitution. The rather innocent author of The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan, comes under Hitchens’ fire for publishing a work that apparently does next to no justice to the man it concerns. Worse (but perhaps this victim is less innocent), Hitchens covers Gore Vidal’s dissent into lunacy. “I have no wish to commit literary patricide,” he writes after doing very nearly exactly that, “or to assassinate Vidal’s character—a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.” Even worse here, and to the dismay of our government officials, he says virtually the same thing of the federal government in his polemic on the bailout-business it concerned itself with in 2008. Coining quite amusing derivatives of the term ‘banana republic’ (itself coined by O. Henry), he lambastes the whole rotten happening from the private companies who lobbied for other people’s wealth in the first place to the President himself who became “a despot”, so characteristic in these types of places. He also writes about our Founding Fathers who he so much admires. Too, he includes pieces on many American authors he reveres, and after taking “decades to dare the attempt,” he writes about the great Russian and English prose artist, Vladimir Nabokov.

Part two comprises mostly of book reviews, but by no means let that be a deterrent. Making notes on authors from Dickens to Rowling, he illuminates much of the writing world using the books in review as a means and a tool to provide his own thoughts of the subject at hand and the history of the authors themselves and their times. For instance, using Robert McCrum’s biography of P.G. Wodehouse, he discusses his obvious affinity for Wodehouse’s works and wit. With Samuel Johnson, he visits the dark side of the man’s mind and whether or not Johnson really had masochistic tendencies. Always one to make use of Orwell’s works in his own (with due reason, mind you), his preface for Animal Farm reviews both the history and aftereffects, and simultaneously gives an appraisal of the great “Fairy Story” (as Orwell called it) itself, along with a nearly thirty-page introduction to the massive travel history Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Of Edward Upward, he gives a frank analysis of his life and works and makes mention of an interview he had with the great writer. Isaac Newton, he notes, was not all the man is presently cracked up to be; he seems to have been a nutcase that happened to produce the laws of gravity. Though it must not escape the reader, as he is never one to avoid the truth, Hitchens spares no rod on any character in question; revealing their bright points as well as their dark ones, one feels they’ve gained a fuller picture of each persona after every brief biography one reads of Hitchens’. Also included near the end of this portion is an absolutely wonderful piece of journalistic nostalgia entitled “Fleet Street’s Finest” where he recounts not only his days in the field but others’ as well. This, to me, is sincerely one of the best essays the book has to offer.

As if serving as a small break from the other short works of selected pen, he inserts an unusually, but wisely placed group of miscellaneous essays into the third slot. From his exposition on the male-comedy-adopting female and destruction and reconstruction of the Decalogue (both articles featuring accompanying videos on the Internet) to his discourse on the blowjob, the act being “As American as Apple Pie” (which I couldn’t help thinking was misnamed as such, and that the title of a later essay concerning the French ban on veils—“In Your Face”, as it is headed—would have been a better fit), to gay politicians and waiter complaints, Hitchens provides some welcome and warming personal insights of the random pursuits of his own mind.

As a literary critic, roughly half of this bound collection consists of book reviews. Indeed, one should pay some attention to the author’s words of the subjects in review, but I have long enjoyed his personal thoughts on matters at hand or of history more than his thoughts of the written word of others. For readers of this sort, the fourth section features quite probably the best essays in the book, written by his long-practiced, deft and polemic-specialized hand.

Via two articles condemning the state, the leaders, and to an extent, the people of North Korea “where the only things that work are the police and the armed forces”, he takes the reader briefly through the brutal reality of the disgusting place and we see Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia come true (only worse). On the practice of waterboarding, there exists video footage of Christopher Hitchens going through the process, administered by anonymous and hooded figures: the article written about the experience appears here and it is titled appropriately, “Believe Me, It’s Torture”. Meanwhile, in Vietnam the effects of Agent Orange linger on and the effects on the reader’s heart and psyche of the imagery and living conditions of effected children are wretchedly dejecting—even only described in print—in another magnificent piece, indeed rivaling that of his column about the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” of Sudan and Uganda, yet another paramilitary group that makes soldierly use of male children and unmentionable, unthinkable use of the female kind. (On the same note, Ishmael Beah’s first-person and first-rate account of the use of child soldiers on both sides of the Sierra Leonean civil war—A Long Way Gone—comes highly recommended.)

                The next collection within this collection may be deemed its lowest point, though that’s not to say the essays it contains are not interesting (or, at the very least, made to be interesting). One feels that it is rather aimless, as if it were simply a place to dump ill-fitting articles about totalitarianism and authors who comment on the awful stripe. This does not constitute overlooking his words, however; his opinions on the facts are not only noteworthy, but are handy for presenting to any regime-affirming apologist. At the outset, he chronicles the harrowing ventures of Victor Serge (who coined the term ‘totalitarian’) and his resulting vitriolic works despoiling all things Communist. For the “Persian Version” of absolutism and despotism, Hitchens writes of the superb ability of Iran’s people to find “the cracks and gaps in the system, [and] testing its limits and transcending them.” Included also is an introduction to Isabel Allende’s semiautobiographical novel, The House of the Spirits, which recounts three generations of Chileans and the overthrow of fascism in the country. After a sharp review of Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread, we are subject to five essays concerning World War II that scathingly deplore pacifism, give moral justification to the war on the whole, and are hilariously ruthless in demeaning Adolf Hitler.

In the last portion included—so ingeniously called “Words’ Worth”—he focuses on the history and idiosyncrasies of the English language, as well as the universal right of freedom of speech and all that it entails (perhaps most notably in defense of the political cartoons—an issue he and others loudly and justly spoke of in the media and elsewhere—printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005). He begins by praising the King James Bible—not something exactly in his character, you might say, until one realizes that it is that version and that version only that he appreciates, and for no other reason than its contribution to the massive lexicon of the English language. Mentioning Terri Schiavo, he makes a fuss over the “four letter word: d-e-a-d,” as he said on MSNBC at the time, and all the needless attention paid to the situation. On the amusing side of our delightful language, ‘Fuck,’ it seems, is a very versatile word. Or so the author makes it seem: making light of this very unsanitary term used by everyone from scholarly authors to the children of Iraq. In his article “Words Matter”, he highlights the importance of the depth and variety of words and the hilarious attempts made by politicians to come up with a catchphrase for campaigns.

At times though (as the uproarious fiction writer and Hitchens’ close friend Martin Amis hinted at, but did not quite get around to fully pointing out in his forward to The Quotable Hitchens) the author’s humor can be misplaced. In “Old Enough to Die”, an otherwise deeply powerful, very humane observation of the state-sanctioned execution of mentally perturbed minors, Hitchens more than once inserts ill-timed sneers at his favorite targets, or otherwise makes use of untimely phrases or terms, disrupting the pointed mood he is trying to convey. Of the 14-year-old George Stinney, whose unusually fierce convulsions caused his mask to slip off of his face while being executed by electrocution in 1944, Hitchens describes how

The witnesses saw his wide-open and weeping eyes, and his dribbling mouth, before another two jolts ended the business and fried him for good. They may not have “burn’d him in a holy place,” but it was a reverent state occasion and you can bet there was a minister on hand to see fair play done.

While as handy as these sardonic statements are (and as easily as they may have arisen out of pure and justified indignation), he may have been too quick to make use of them. On the other hand, as my reader may have noticed, he quotes a line from William Blake that is rightly harsh to religion, and I have an intuitive suspicion that he went as far as inserting two quatrains of Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” into the article for no other purpose than to have an unfitting dig at the foul institution.

Make no mistake, however: the humor used throughout is often very clever and of smart placement. (Immigration seems to have no effect on wit.) In his review of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the unconscious “capitalist primer” as he calls it, he at once provides humor that is always to be found among the English-born type: “Probably no two words in our language are now more calculated to shrivel the sensitive nostril than ‘socialist realism.’” And funny gives rise to more funniness; when discussing the aphorisms and witticisms of the pseudonymously authored Poor Richard’s Almanack (obviously meant for elevated, humorous minds, but apparently read and seriously taught by unfunny half-wits), Hitchens adds his own to the mix when he notes how the collected tidbits whizzed far over the head of Mark Twain: “A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss.” Later, he issues his complaint of the massive use of the term ‘like’ in the teenage lexicon:

How could one preserve what’s useful about “like” without allowing it to reduce everyday vocabulary and without having it weaken the two strong senses of the word, which are: to be fond of something or somebody ( As You, Like, Like It ) or to resemble something or somebody (“Like, Like a Virgin”)?

Have a laugh but once more at a small excerpt from his field day with the stupid slogans we hear shouted by hopeful politicians on the campaign trails:

Take "Yes We Can," for example. It's the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake. As for "We Are the People We Have Been Waiting For" (in which case, one can only suppose that now that we have arrived, we can all go home). . .

But these bits hardly scratch the surface, and he is meaner—much meaner—in other places; as in his article-length complaint about the pointless national attention given to the Virginia Tech shootings or (perhaps only a little less mean) in the first paragraph of his thoughts on the Terri Schiavo case:

all through Easter Sunday, one had to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, the late and long-dead Terri Schiavo would receive the stigmata on both palms and both feet and be wafted across the Florida strait, borne up by wonder-working dolphins, to be united in eternal bliss with the man-child Elián González.

Such is the humor of a polemicist. Hitchens restrains himself nowhere he cannot be muzzled, always going for the throat of the matter with a jab and an uppercut for good measure.

Though, it should be said that the largest criticism to be made of this anthology—without any doubt or reserve—is of the content it doesn’t include. Essays like the superbly written account on the author’s loss of voice due to esophageal cancer, “Unspoken Truths”, for instance, published for the June edition of Vanity Fair should have made the cut; or perhaps the hilarious 2004, six-page lampoon of The Passion of the Christ entitled “The Gospel According to Mel”.  There are others that most definitely could have been bound along with the rest of the essays in this book, but unfortunately for one reason or another were not.

The acclaimed and charming essayist E.B. White, in the 1976 preface to his own collection of essays, wrote of his own breed, "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest." No writer from Montaigne to Huxley has thought otherwise; Hitchens—for the better—certainly has not. This volume will remain in the hands of those who wish to learn not only about the psyche of the author himself, but of the fruits of an independent mind and profoundly talented essayist. Most certainly placing among the ranks of Orwell himself, Christopher Hitchens’ collected tour de force is but one more work to add to his list.

Let us have one last thought come from the work in review: As this remarkable anthology draws too-soon to a close, its ending words are arranged in a last, all to appropriate essay on the simply unnatural amount of books in partially-arranged shelves, or stacks, or in abject mass, strewn throughout his home in Washington D.C. The imbroglio at first seems unfitting, but by the end of the essay—and thus, of the book—it seems, in a very pleasant way, to be particularly consistent with the wise and brilliant character at hand. Long live Christopher Hitchens. 

Twelve Publishers — List price: $30

Monday, August 29, 2011

Unclear and Present Danger

It is a healthy practice to see politicians in the flesh, rather than through the cables of a high definition television screen or spanning the cover of a highly circulated news publication—one sees them as and for what they are: merely other human beings.

By Christopher Zimny

It strikes a peculiar blow to what is portrayed to the psyche when a person of supposed authority is
viewed in person: it brings a somewhat obscure persona to a harsh and perfect light and one can adjust the individual’s policies to the tune of an immediately present idea. The ideas and actions the person is said to pursue are dragged by the scrupulous under a microscope, where both the objective stance and the inner workings of it can be examined in a much finer detail than one would otherwise see.

When the politician is on television or on the cover of a magazine or the front page of a newspaper, the person automatically becomes more nebulous—and in that way, more powerful. This, because he appears the more obscure, the physical human connection is lost and the politician is placed instantly on high: by vice of this opaque pedestal, the reality is effaced, the connecting circuits of one man to another are removed. We tend to think of reported proposed laws that are presently in discussion as just another something that’s happening on Capitol Hill, or when one of these laws is signed by the President it’s but another measure being carried out by the White House—accepting or rejecting the dictates themselves as a matter for argumentation, while all the while holding that the authority is in a faraway capital known as Washington D.C.

However, when the proxy is removed—when one sees the legislator or the candidate or the judge in person, with no obscuration barriers—the ideology becomes clear. Watching Ron Paul speak of freedom and unfreedom at his podium on stage, seeing his peculiarly earnest body movements from the side vantage point I held,

when he spoke a point on his mind, when he spoke deliberately to us and earnestly to us, I understood the concepts in full and perfectly. He made his point, but the fact that my imagination could carry his words to immediate and solidified action was surprisingly liberating. I had already held the libertarian stance in theory, and now it was viewed in my mind clearly in practice: the government obeying its founding document, the government stepping out of the way of the individual, as it should—the non-employment of force.

My thoughts then turned to the omniscient President himself—though the act imagined would work with any infallible higher being in office—where he, if he stood in front of me, said—demanded, indeed—that I was to give my property to another person, or demanded that I act against my own will for my own betterment. Absent the blurring proxy, the absurdity of another mere homo sapiens attempting to dictate my actions would be laughably easy to dismiss as a trivial nuisance (or even—quite probably—a few words of harsh derision would be heard on the part of the commanding party, if only for my own amusement), but I could not, for he would use his men of force to arrest me. Why? I simply refused the requisition. Stripped naked, this is his ideology. The absurdity is clear and present; though through the use of abstractions and fog machines, the signal of the plain human being who calls himself a politician is made difficult to gain hold of, and soon is left unfound—at least from the point of view of the governed—alas, to the politician’s advantage.

The most simple and direct scenario is also the most potent. When one boils an ideology down
to its bare essentials, when one removes the estrangement filter, when the face in the press is present before your eyes and it is simply your mind against his—whatever the ideas of either person present, the convictions will become clear and you will know exactly where you stand.

This article was also published in Liberty Underground by the 1787 Network.