Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sunday Reading

Did You Hear the One About the North Korean…? Why do we mock North Korea but take Iran’s threats seriously?  Julian Hattem at The Atlantic looks into it.

A man starves his own people and threatens to start a nuclear war, and Americans laugh. What a bizarre thing to do.

Meanwhile, we shirk in fear at the unhinged other leg of former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” tripod: Iran. Unlike North Korea, we treat Iran as a legitimate threat. In Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s full-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the word “Iran” was mentioned more than 170 times. “North Korea” was mentioned 10. During the foreign policy-focused debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney last October, Iran came up nearly 50 times, and was the subject of multiple questions. North Korea was mentioned just once, as part of a series of other challenges facing the U.S., in the same breath as the trade deficit with China.

It’s not that Americans like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or don’t actively consider the hermit state a threat. It’s actually the country’s second least-favored , right after Iran, and equal numbers call North Korean and Iranian developments of nuclear weapons a “critical threat.” Of course, North Korea already has nuclear weapons, and Iran doesn’t. One might think that the country with a bomb – with whom we are still technically at war, no less — would be more of a threat than the country without one, but at least judging by the way we talk about them, that’s not the case. Why do we consider North Korea to be such a joke?

Partly it’s the way they present themselves. North Korea is a relatively small nation with leaders who come across as stereotypically incompetent Bond villains: uniformly dressed, tasteless but expensive cliché obsessions, physically unintimidating, with every major attack blowing up in their face like Wile E. Coyote. The Kim family does not produce tall or physically gifted men, nor exceptionally handsome ones. They are also Asian, which connotes a whole set of racist stereotypes, none of them necessarily terror-inspiring. Iran, meanwhile, is a Muslim nation, and for obvious but unfortunate reasons it’s easier to stoke public fears of Muslim fanaticism than Northeast Asian nationalism.

We also know less about the D.P.R.K. and Kim Jong Un. Basic details about his age (probably 30), marital status (he’s been seen around with a pretty girl , probably his wife) and children (he may have just had a kid) have only recently become clear. His nuclear policy is even murkier. When the senior Kim died in late 2011, Korea-watchers were hopeful that the country might be entering a new age of governance, maybe under a coalition of leaders who would exert unseen pressure on Kim to open the country more. That didn’t happen, obviously. Still, though, we don’t quite know what to expect from Kim, who has at least inherited his father’s inscrutability. “Nobody knows what he has planned, what he is thinking or contemplating doing or why the North Koreans are tripling down on their rhetoric,” an unnamed senior administration official told CNN last month.

The Pecker Contest — Adam Gopnik looks into our gun fetish.

And so the real argument about guns, and about assault weapons in particular, is becoming not primarily an argument about public safety or public health but an argument about cultural symbols. It has to do, really, with the illusions that guns provide, particularly the illusion of power. The attempts to use the sort of logic that helped end cigarette smoking don’t quite work, because the “smokers” in this case feel something less tangible and yet more valued than their own health is at stake. As my friend and colleague Alec Wilkinson wrote, with the wisdom of a long-ago cop, “Nobody really believes it’s about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. …I am not saying that people who love guns inordinately are unstable; I am saying that a gun is the most powerful device there is to accessorize the ego.”

It’s true. Everyone, men especially, needs ego-accessories, and they are most often irrationally chosen. Middle-aged stockbrokers in New York collect Stratocasters and Telecasters they’ll never play; Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld own more cars than they can drive. Wine cellars fill up with wine that will never be drunk. The propaganda for guns and the identification of gun violence with masculinity is so overpoweringly strong in our culture that it is indeed hard to ask those who already feel disempowered to resist their allure. If we asked all those middle-aged bankers to put away their Strats—an activity that their next-door neighbors would bless—they would be indignant. It’s not about music; it’s about me, they would say, and my right to own a thing that makes me happy. And so with guns. Dan Baum, for instance, has an interesting new book out, “Gun Guys: A Road Trip.” His subjects, those gun guys, are portrayed sympathetically—they are sympathetic—and one gets their indignation at what they see as their “warrior ethic” being treated with contempt by non-gun guys. (That’s, at least, how they experience it, though where it matters, in Congressional votes, there is little but deference.) As Baum points out, gun laws are loose in America because that’s the way most Americans want it, or them.

But though you’ve got to empathize before you can understand, understanding doesn’t entail acceptance. Slavery, polygamy, female circumcision—all these things played a vital role at one time or another in somebody’s sense of the full expression of who they are. We struggle to understand our own behavior in order to alter it: everything evil that has ever been done on earth was once a precious part of somebody’s culture, including our own.

Travels with Sadie — Joan Walsh channels John Steinbeck.

I reached a new level of eccentricity this year, though, when I decided to move to New York for a few months when my book came out. After United’s poorly named PetSafe program screwed up every aspect of ferrying Sadie from San Francisco to New York (you can read the details here; I never got a reply from United — classy, huh?), I realized I would never put her in cargo again. I paid some wonderful people to drive her back to San Francisco when I came home at Christmas time (yes, I’m aware of how crazy that sounds as I type it.) So when I decided to return to New York and spend a few more months there this spring, timed to when my paperback comes out from Touchstone/Simon and Schuster April 16, I saw only one choice: I would drive, with Sadie, myself.

So I’m getting in my little Honda this morning with a dog bed in the back with a new safety-belt harness that she’ll probably wear only a few hundred miles. I’m reversing a journey I made 28 years ago, a young person, moving from Chicago to Oakland to become the California Bureau chief of In These Times, a job I made up and sold to my boss. I was pretty pleased with myself zooming across Interstate 80. Now I’m a not-young person figuring out what comes next, shuttling between coasts.

It will also be the first time in 28 years I’ll visit some of the bright red states I write about with disappointment, but have no real experience of. I’ve lived in only blue states with a purplish tinge: New York, California, Wisconsin, Illinois. I’m not going to pretend I’ll understand exactly why Nevada Sen. Harry Reid is still so beholden to the NRA by getting outside Clark County; or why there’s only one abortion clinic in Wyoming by driving through the bottom of the state; or why Nebraska replaced the most conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson with conservative Republican Deb Fischer. But I’ll talk to people and read local papers and listen to local radio and I’m sure to learn something I don’t know as I sit writing this morning. There is nothing more American than driving across country and having to take in how big this land is, how diverse it is, in every way.

And I wouldn’t be doing it, in all likelihood, if not for Sadie. Talk about being tethered: No take-off, no suspension of disbelief, no floating in the air and trying to sleep while a pilot does all the work. I’m doing the work, with Sadie’s help. She’s my road dog.

Doonesbury — Free at last.

One bark on “Sunday Reading

  1. About Iran vs. North Korea: it might also be pointed out that Iran is sitting right by our oil in the Middle East (not to mention uncomfortably close to Israel). I think the author has a good point as well about what we might call the “ah-so” factor–stereotypes about Asians that suggest they can’t be that much of a threat.

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