The Really Intractable Thing: North Korea, Climate Change, and Why We’re Failing

Over at The Week, a depressing piece on the horrors up North, titled “North Korea isn’t Nazi Germany — in some ways, it’s worse”:

Unless North Korea invades or bombs another country, or China gives up its patronage of the Hermit Kingdom, it’s hard to see much concrete coming out of the report. Paul Whitefield at the Los Angeles Times remembers the post-Holocaust slogan, “Never Again,” then throws up his hands in resignation:

So what should the world do? What can the world do? Must we accept that in North Korea, basic freedoms — even such a simple thing as the right not to starve — are denied most people? You already know the answer: Yes. Diplomacy can’t fix North Korea’s problems. And we are not going to attack North Korea. And even if we did, as we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, once we’ve broken it, we own it. And we don’t want to own North Korea’s problems.

So, “too many times in this building, there are reports and no action”? Yep, that about covers it. Someday, North Korea will change. Someday, things will get better there. But it won’t be soon enough for millions of people. And it won’t be because of this U.N. report. [Los Angeles Times]

Of course, it’s not depressing for the reason Whitefield suggests. If people wanted to do  something about it, they’d be much more creative, because we all know that the UN, and mainstream government action, isn’t going to do anything… and, likewise, that if it comes to war, plenty of people in both North and South Korea will suffer and die.

No, what’s sad is that only a few people are willing to think outside the box on this:

I firmly believe the problems of the world are not as intractable as most of us think. Difficult, yes, but not intractable: what is intractable is our refusal to question the status quo, and imagine radical differences in how we could respond to the world.

Our failing when it comes to North Korea is the same as our failing when it comes to preventative medicine, or the myth of corporate personhood, or in trying to reform education: we’re just not thinking hard enough about how to solve the problem. We’re caught in the web of what’s deemed possible, and fail to see the much broader ranger of actual possibilities.

Think of it this way: if the millions of people in our world who describe themselves as “Christian”–including plenty who, by global standards, hold incredible wealth–really were committed to the Christian value system, would genocide or famine be possible? Wouldn’t they simply be flying into places like Darfur and preaching peace, love, and brotherhood, and offering help to those who need it? Would they not be flooding into North Korea–bribing the guards along the Chinese border, or converting them by example–and carrying in goods, food, tools, and the true linchpin of freedom, information?

Of course, if they did so, the people carrying out the genocides and enforced famines wouldn’t likely be moved, but many of the people around them would. Those people outnumber the monsters significantly, and if they couldn’t convince their countrymen to halt in the horror, they would at least be able to make them stop.

Likewise, wouldn’t those millions of Christians be preaching to the arms mannufacturers, and the arms distributors, to stop selling to those regions? In fact, if there were actually millions of Christians in the world–rather than a few dozen, plus millions of people who like to wear the Christianity soccer jersey–wouldn’t it be much more difficult to manufacture weapons?

It probably sounds like I’m bashing Christians, so allow me to be clear: we’re all at fault in this. I mention Christianity because it is, at root, a radical theological conception of the world that has been deradicalized in ways that are baffling, but you would be hard-pressed to find a value system in which failing to do something about horrible things happening to one’s fellow man are acceptable. The reason for the failure, though, seems the most important question, to me, and from what I can tell, it’s because out imaginations are dulled.

This is why I think Russell Jacoby is onto something in his book The End of Utopia (a book I’m going to talk about a bit more in upcoming posts): as he suggests, what we suffer from most now is an apparent inability to imagine radical alternatives to the present way of living and doing things, and the failure is really astonishing when you think about it. I think it might also be chalked up to a certain watershed moment in the early 90s where globalization hit a point of no return: where suddenly, it wasn’t all about the competition between USA and USSR, but about the triumph of American-styled capitalism. Evem now, when the writing is on the wall, we struggle to recognize that such a victory cannot be permanent or sustainable:

That video isn’t perfect–there may be ways of getting more energy cheaply, with certain risks, though often the hidden costs of new energy are bigger than anyone likes to admit–but the video is pretty good in terms of the thing I’m talking about: that looking at reality in another way, and stepping away from our received understanding of how to operate within in order to do so, aren’t “intractable” problems… the intractable problem seems to be getting people to be willing to do so before it’s so late that it does no good.

The real reason we’re failing is because we’re good at giving the right answer for the test: we’re just not good at figuring out what the real test is.

gordsellar: Your host on this site. I'm an SF writer, homebrewer, and expat teaching at a university in South Korea. My policies for commenters on this site can be read here.
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