Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published a couple of years ago on my blog Life After Bartertown. It is reprinted here in it’s entirety by special permission of it’s author, me, and represents a good example of where my head was at just a few years before I started ninaillingworth.com.
Although I believe that our current era is, and will continue to be largely defined by the collapse of the many ideologies that have dominated the past century; I also feel that it is important to understand that history does not occur in a vacuum. Even as our past crumbles around us, the future beckons us forward and though we, as individuals may never reach that next hill, our history is what happens in the moments while we’re chasing it. Despite the undeniable emptiness of a time in which religion, government, the media and business have all largely failed the societies that helped create them; we may yet remember this moment as a key historical turning point in what we define as human culture. Unfortunately, as with most other turning points in our collective history, our current era is marked by a struggle between deeply ingrained ideas from the past and new, emerging ideas about what it means to be human. For every two steps we take towards a common empathy, there seems to always be someone who’s prepared to drag us back one step backward on the path of hate. Understanding this struggle between old and new ideas is important to the modern peasant because, in many ways the tension between them affects virtually every aspect of our lives; even most horrifyingly, our very thoughts.
On one hand, developments in communication and information technologies allow the common peasant a far greater understanding of how truly vast and diverse human culture actually is. While this is certainly a function of easier access to historical records and independent news sources, the real breakthrough has come in our ability to directly communicate with each other as a species across regions, countries and even continents. Armed with cell phones and the internet, many peasants are no longer reliant on government or mass media sources to learn about life in other parts of the world. Through independent films, podcasts, chat rooms and even major social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, everyday people are learning about each other, directly from each other across communications networks. Although various governments and ideological groups have attempted to monitor and control this type of communication, their efforts have by and large been unsuccessful. At this very moment, technology is still helping people teach each other and the lesson we are learning is that peasants all across the planet have a lot more in common than we’d been lead to believe. Alternately, we continue to live amongst the mental (and spiritual) wreckage of the grand ideologies that dominated and nearly destroyed that culture in the previous century. Despite what now appears to be a growing, worldwide rejection of totalitarianism, imperialism and politically systemic exploitation based on race, class or gender; we are still surrounded, and indeed influenced by the world that these ideas created. Casual racism, sexism and class divisions have replaced institutionalized versions of these ideas in much of the “free” world and there is still a direct effort to define modern conflicts in shockingly nationalist, or religious, rather than economic terms. Old hatreds die hard and as a direct result of the past century, humanity is largely still under the influence of a dangerous, inhumane “us against them” psychology.
Perhaps the most repugnant aspect of this struggle however, is the absurd duality of thought it creates in so many minds today. On a surface level, defined primarily by rational thinking, we can easily see hollow generalizations, assumptions and propaganda about ourselves for the mental rubbish that they are. I found the image on the right for example after searching for anti-American propaganda on the internet. It is reportedly the work of a North Korean painter and is part of a series that depicts vaguely American soldiers committing numerous atrocities against notably patriotic North Korean peasants. The series itself is apparently meant to reflect the actions of US troops during the Korean, or “Fatherland Liberation” War from 1950-1953, although for reasons that will become obvious; it is impossible to be completely certain of the artist’s intentions. Naturally, to my (reasonably) educated mind this image registers as political propaganda. This is in part because of my familiarity with American culture and history, in part because of my (admittedly restricted) understanding of the North Korean government and in part because the image is so blatantly inflammatory. The artist has made little effort to conceal the message in this work and it’s not hard to imagine how this poster is encouraging North Koreans to view the United States, or at least it’s military. Even in this blatantly biased image however, there remains a grain of truth; although I have been unable to find evidence to suggest it’s institutionalized, it has become common knowledge that abuses by US military forces in places as far flung as Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya have led to tremendous loss of largely innocent lives. One does have to question if these abuses would not be described as “war crimes” if they were committed by soldiers of a less influential nation but again, taken as a whole these actions morally outrage Americans and therefore are unlikely be a part of open military policy in the United States. In short, evil men have done terrible things while wearing a US army uniform but nothing about this poster is going to convince me that Americans want to invade North Korea and execute innocent civilians.
Unfortunately, my ability to see through the above poster is mostly irrelevant because I am not the intended audience the artist is trying to reach. The image is intended for citizens living in a nation that expends a tremendous amount of money and energy to prevent its population from contacting or learning about the outside world. In this nation, it is illegal to own a radio or television that has not been modified the government to receive only state sponsored channels. North Korea remains perhaps the most brutal dictatorship on earth today and by most accounts available in the “West”, it is ruled by a semi-deified “god” leader who uses terror, violence and food shortages to control virtually every aspect of daily life in the nation. When the above image is placed in the context of fear, oppression and literal ignorance of life outside one’s own environment; what stands out as blatant propaganda to you and I, passes for the official story in the absence of anyone capable of refuting it. Although I can only speculate, I would not be shocked if this series of paintings were highly effective in stirring up anti-American sentiment in North Korea. This in turn gives Kim Jong-un greater freedom to continue oppressing his citizens; after all, everyone knows you’re better off “with the devil you know” and even if life is harsh under the DPRK government, it’s likely preferable to execution and torture at the hands of American soldiers.