Years ago, when I was first learning about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I heard about strict limitations imposed on foreigners visiting that country. It wasn’t just about limiting what they said and did, but also what items they could bring in, cell phones in particular. The purpose of this was to control how the citizens of North Korea viewed the world and their role in it. A foundational dogma of the Kim dynasty was that North Korea was the most advanced nation in the world, and that while life wasn’t perfect there, it was better than anywhere else.
I’m sure not all North Koreans believe that, but the point was to have enough to send a clear message – change could lead to disaster. You think you have it bad now? Rock the boat and it’ll get worse for you. Some of that threat was from the government itself, of course, but at the same time there’s the idea that this leaky, dangerous boat with its brutal captain are all you’ve ever known, and the choice presented is not between that boat and a better one, but between that boat and no boat at all.
And when someone complains to much, the captain makes a big show of throwing that person overboard to remind everyone else that things can always get worse.
When news broke of the efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in the United States, there were a lot of people trying to work out what Putin’s interests might be in meddling in the American government. First, to be clear, America is a near-global empire, perhaps the first of its kind. Its military reach covers the whole planet through a massive air force, and a huge network of military bases. All of that power has gone not towards controlling territory, but rather towards ensuring the global economy is a capitalist one, as much as possible. That means that there’s a very real way in which the control and activities of the American government are a legitimate concern for everyone on the planet.
Setting that aside, one of the proposed motivations for Putin’s activities was very similar to that narrative I had heard about North Korea. Putin’s interest wasn’t in controlling America, though he’d doubtless be fine with expanding his power, but rather in convincing the Russian people that while his rule might not be everything they wanted, it was the best they could expect. No other system that might look better from the outside is stable enough to last. Having the United States operate in a way that directly benefited Putin would be nice, but more valuable than that was the chaos and decline in standard of living that would come from a Republican administration under Trump. Under that analysis, it didn’t matter whether Trump was fully controllable, or even that he always worked for the benefit of the Russian government. What mattered was that he continue to be divisive, chaotic, and corrosive to the United States and its allies, to provide evidence that the notion that America’s claimed democracy was so unstable that it wasn’t worth trying for.
Hearing this discussion about Putin, and linking it to what I had been told about North Korea, made me think more about the United States, and the narratives fed to us as citizens of that country. Various flavors of nationalism are ubiquitous. Slogans like “America #1” can be found everywhere, as can the claim that it’s the “greatest country in the world”, to the degree that it causes a bit of a scandal if anyone suggests that that’s not the case. When we talked about improving our healthcare system, we were told that what we had was already the best possible healthcare system, and given justifications for the downsides, and outright lies about what other countries had.
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