The death of Otto Warmbier six days after the North Korean authorities have released his near-comatose body to his parents demonstrates once again the salutary truth that in the year 2017, the Second World Problems still trump the First World Problems. You think you’re being violated because someone expresses an opinion you find disagreeable or confronting, you are triggered in your safe space because someone at your university invites a conservative speaker, you get upset because the soy milk at your local cafe is not locally sourced or the latest episode of “Game of Thrones” is not downloading fast enough, but you will never be sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a political poster and then be effectively murdered by your jailers. This is not damning the United States (or our Western societies more broadly) with a faint praise; it is merely noting the yawning abyss that separates many people’s perception of their life from the cold hard reality. No, the US is not a fascist dictatorship; no, you’re not oppressed; no, you don’t know a thing about resistance; no, you don’t have a tough life. Your constant whining and whinging is not only irritating to the majority of your compatriots, but it is also an insult to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who suffer real privation and hardship, face real challenges and struggles, are really oppressed and persecuted – and they generally suffer it all with more courage and good cheer than you face your paper cut problems.
Of course, all the great self-styled victims in our society will say my rant above merely demonstrates the extent of my white privilege; that as a male, Caucasian, heterosexual, and middle class, I have no idea how much women, people of colour, immigrants, or persons of other 31 genders suffer every day at the hands of the power superstructure created by people like me to serve the interest of people like me at the expense of everyone else. This sort of cultural Marxist self-pitying results in morally obscene arguments like that of one “Huffington Post” blogger last year who wrote in a post titled “North Korea proves your white privilege is not universal”:
As shocked as I am by the sentence handed down to Warmbier, I am even more shocked that a grown man, an American citizen, would not only voluntarily enter North Korea but also commit what’s been described a “college-style prank.” That kind of reckless gall is an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country. Every economic, academic, legal and social system in this country has for more than three centuries functioned with the implicit purpose of ensuring that white men are the primary benefactors of all privilege. The kind of arrogance bred by that kind of conditioning is pathogenic, causing its host to develop a subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.
Adding helpfully that “I’m a black woman… The hopeless fear Warmbier is now experiencing is my daily reality living in a country where white men like him are willfully oblivious to my suffering even as they are complicit in maintaining the power structures which ensure their supremacy at my expense.”
Or a teen publication, “Affinity Magazine”, commenting yesterday in a now deleted tweet: “Watch whiteness work. He wasn’t a “kid” or “innocent” you can’t go to another country and steal from them. Respect their laws.” Maybe if Warmbier was caught trying to enter North Korea illegally, “Affinity” would have more sympathy for him.
Otto Warmbier might have been stupid – you don’t steal anything anywhere, but particularly not overseas – but he didn’t deserve to die for it. Pretending that this is somehow a white thing, as if women or people of other ethnicities don’t occasionally also do stupid things and break laws, and therefore that this could not have happened to a Betty Warmbier or Juan Warmbier in North Korea, shows nothing but sheer stupidity. And imagining that your life in the United States is somehow equivalent to being tortured in a North Korean gulag is just beyond belief. Strangely, this sorts of arguments are only ever made by people who 1) live in the United States (or Australia etc.), and 2) don’t want to live anywhere else but the United States (or Australia etc.).
Be that all as it may, Otto Warmbier is a tragic reminder that a significant proportion of the rest of the world is not “like us”. I have no doubt that North Korea would be a fascinating place to visit, fascinating in that ghoulish and terrifying way – “1984: the theme park”. But I have no desire to go there, and not just because I think Kim Jong Un is one of the greatest c***s in the world, and so I probably wouldn’t even have to steal his picture to end up in a Nork prison camp. Never mind not stealing anything – this is a country where you have to watch what you say, where you walk, and what you do, including very basic activities like taking photographs. And where tourists are expected to bow in front statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Imagine the delusion that deifies a family of genocidal psychopaths.
North Korea might be one of the diciest places to visit but it’s far from the only one. I’m a great believer in travel, not just for its recreational and aesthetic values, but also as a great eye opener and educator. If you spend your whole life inside the pleasant self-referential cocoon of your safe space, you are very likely to unquestioningly believe the worst about your society beyond the cocoon. But in life everything is relative. The more you travel and experience other countries with their different political and economic systems, different cultures and religions, and different ways of life, one of two things is likely to happen – either it will make you realise that your own country is not as badly governed, corrupt and oppressive as you have previously imagined, or that these other countries are really much better and more to your liking, and you should therefore relocate. In which case, good luck and good riddance.
There is, of course, the third option – you think that other countries are so great and wonderful you want to stay in the United States (or Australia etc.) and work to make it more like North Korea, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, or any number of other alternative models. In which case, I will fight you to my last breath with every legal mean available to me under our democratic system of government. Bon voyage!