In the Arguable e-mail newsletter, columnist Jeff Jacoby offers his take on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day. Sign up here.
For as long as there have been brutal totalitarian Communists, there have been Western journalists to sing their praises.
A fresh example of this sickening pathology comes from CNN, which ran a gushing weekend story about Kim Yo Jong, the sister and accomplice of North Korea’s megalomaniacal tyrant. “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics,” proclaimed the headline:
If “diplomatic dance” were an event at the Winter Olympics, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister would be favored to win gold.
With a smile, a handshake, and a warm message in South Korea’s presidential guest book, Kim Yo Jong has struck a chord with the public just one day into the Pyeongchang Games.
“I hope Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts and move forward the future of prosperous unification,” she said in her guest book message, referring to the capitals of North and South Korea.
Seen by some as her brother’s answer to American first daughter Ivanka Trump, Kim, 30, is not only a powerful member of Kim Jong Un’s kitchen cabinet but also a foil to the perception of North Korea as antiquated and militaristic.
Perhaps CNN’s reporters didn’t know that the woman they were describing is a key figure in a hateful regime responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent human beings? Um, no — they knew:
[A]s North Korea’s brutal dictator, Kim’s brother has ruled with an iron fist since coming to power, operating Nazi-style prison camps, repressing political opposition and even executing senior officers and his own family members in an effort to consolidate power.
In Pyeongchang, her presence is a major story line for reporters and the buzz on the street, with some in South Korea curious and accepting.
The story went on to describe the “wine-colored jacket and black pants” that Kim wore to a dinner hosted by a South Korean official, to compare her again to Donald Trump’s daughter, and to quote a Georgetown University visiting professor’s bizarre explanation for Kim’s presence at the Olympics. She’s there, said Balbina Hwang, formerly of the State Department and National Defense University, as “a signal that North Korea is not this crazy, weird former Cold War state — but it too has young women that are capable and are the future leadership.”
Not to be outdone in the let’s-kowtow-to-the-Communists competition, Reuters yesterday ran a sycophantic story of its own.
“North Korea judged winner of diplomatic gold at Olympics,” the piece announced, contrasting Kim’s charming manner and “elegant smiles” with the way Vice President Mike Pence “cast one of the loneliest figures” at the opening ceremony by not rising when the North Koreans entered the stadium. Reuters even found an academic at a Tokyo university to make the preposterous claim that “North Korea is skillfully driving a wedge between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea.”
Such sucking-up to Marxist monsters by Western news organizations is a very old, very shameful practice. In a 1995 column, I asked: “What makes Commies so cuddly?” An excerpt:
Fidel Castro, for instance. For 36 years, “progressive” Yanquis have tingled with esteem for the Bearded One, never mind that he has turned Cuba into an impoverished rat hole where freedom is nonexistent and dissidents are tortured in psychiatric wards. . . . Time and again, journalists have flown to Havana, interviewed the bloody maniac, then swooned about how charismatic he is and what wonders he has done for Cuba.
“Welcome to Fidel Castro’s playground, Cuba’s Caribbean paradise . . . a Cuba the comandante is now inviting the world to enjoy,” bubbled CBS’s Giselle Fernandez not long ago. “Cuba and its sultry beaches have become a major vacation hot spot.” Fernandez never rhapsodized about “Pinochet’s playground.” But then, [Chile’s right-wing dictator Augusto] Pinochet wasn’t a Communist, so maybe his beaches weren’t sultry.
This has been going on for a long, long time.
As early as 1919, when Lenin’s new Communist dictatorship was in its first terrorist throes, the prominent American journalist Lincoln Steffens couldn’t stop raving about how wonderful the new Soviet order was. “I have seen the future, and it works,” he repeatedly exulted after returning from a visit to Russia. In 1932, The New York Times’s Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for literally recycling Kremlin propaganda as news, assuring his readers that Stalin was not engaged in the mass murder of millions of Ukrainian landowners. Western reporters insisted that the Khmer Rouge conquest of Cambodia would prove an unmistakable blessing, that Yuri Andropov must be a reformer because he supposedly liked jazz and abstract art, and that China’s ghastly one-child policy was a success, notwithstanding the immense loss of life it caused.
The cooing over Kim Jong Un’s sister is more of the same. More than any other country in the world, North Korea is governed like a Nazi death camp. In a just world, the central members of the Kim regime, including Kim Yo Jong with her wine-colored jacket and “elegant smiles,” would be arrested, prosecuted for crimes against humanity, and put to death. Instead they bask in the fawning coverage of the West’s useful idiots, as public faith in journalism sinks ever lower.
No great literature, please, we’re snowflakes
Duluth, Minn., is the latest community to decide that banning a great piece of literature is preferable to teaching it. The city’s public school system announced on Thursday that “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” will be expunged from high school required-reading lists, because they “contain racial slurs.” The Star Tribune of Minneapolis has details:
“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”
There was no specific complaint that led to the ban, according to the Duluth News Tribune, but there had been objections to Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for some years. Stephan Witherspoon, head of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP, applauded the decision to censor the books:
Some people think the novels are educational literature for students, he said, but the novels are “just hurtful” and use “hurtful language that has oppressed the people for over 200 years.” The district’s use of the books as required reading has been an ongoing discussion between elders in the local NAACP and district leaders for years, Witherspoon said.
“It’s wrong. There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue,” Witherspoon said. “Let’s move forward and work together to make school work for all of our kids, not just some, all of them.”
Duluth isn’t the first community to spike these books, which happen to be among the very greatest explorations of race, equality, and the color line in all of American fiction. Biloxi, Miss., banned “Mockingbird” last year, and Accomack County, Va., banned both books in 2016.
Harper Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It recounts the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in Macomb, Ala., a small Depression-era Southern town, who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Though the evidence makes it clear that the defendant is innocent, the white jury, steeped in racism, convicts him. Later, when Tom in his desperation tries to escape from prison, guards shoot him dead.
If Lee’s book justified the conviction or embraced the jury’s bigotry, there might be a good argument to keep it out of high school classrooms.
But “Mockingbird” does exactly the opposite. It humanizes those who are victimized by the ignorance and fear of others, and it provides a beautiful portrait of courage in the face of popular bigotry. It teaches lessons in moral complexity, tolerance, the indispensability of empathy, and the contemptibility of racism. In one memorable passage, Atticus tries to help his young son make sense of the unjust verdict:
“If you had been on that jury, son, and eleven other boys like you, Tom would be a free man,” said Atticus. “So far nothing in your life has interfered with your reasoning process. Those are twelve reasonable men in everyday life, Tom’s jury, but you saw something come between them and reason. . . . There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads — they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts, when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly, but those are the facts of life.”
“Doesn’t make it right,” said Jem stolidly. He beat his fist softly on his knee. “You just can’t convict a man on evidence like that — you can’t.”
“You couldn’t, but they could and did. The older you grow the more of it you’ll see. The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.”
Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves — it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.”
To use a contemporary phrase, “To Kill a Mockingbird” teaches, with deep sensitivity and compassion, that black lives matter. So does “Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain’s magnificent account of two runaways, the young white title character and Jim, the escaped slave he befriends and protects.
I find it inconceivable that anyone in 2018, let alone any educator, could regard Twain’s book as anything but a masterpiece of racial decency. Few American works of art more powerfully combine the novel’s moral lessons — that slavery is always evil, that society is often blind, that law can be unjust, that nobility can be found in the lowest castes, and — as in Mockingbird — that empathy is indispensable.
Azar Nafisi, the author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” has described how much “Huckleberry Finn” meant to her as a dissident in Iran after the Islamic Revolution:
“Whenever I think of the word ‘empathy,’ I think of a small boy named Huckleberry Finn contemplating his friend and runaway slave, Jim. Huck asks himself whether he should give Jim up or not. Huck was told in Sunday school that people who let slaves go free go to ‘everlasting fire.’ But then, Huck says he imagines he and Jim in ‘the day and nighttime, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking and singing and laughing.’ Huck remembers Jim and their friendship and warmth. He imagines Jim not as a slave but as a human being — and he decides that, ‘all right, then, I’ll go to hell.’”
Well taught by good teachers, novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” enlarge the heart and inspire the mind. They have the power to uplift readers — whether those readers are in Duluth or Biloxi or Tehran — and to enrich them, to give them tools with which to strengthen their own humanity and perceive the humanity in others.
“You shall not oppress a stranger,” God commands in Exodus, “since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Mark Twain and Harper Lee turned that injunction into two of America’s most important pieces of literature. In stripping its high school curriculum of these books, Duluth is depriving its students, white and black, of treasures from their patrimony. The NAACP shouldn’t be applauding; it should be weeping with frustration and rage.
The world gets better and better
If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go to Steven Pinker’s heartening essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal? Writing under the title “The Enlightenment Is Working,” Pinker, the well-known Harvard professor, submits a spirited argument against those who are convinced that the world is growing steadily worse.
The declinists are wrong, Pinker declares, ladling out batch after batch of encouraging statistics to prove the point.
In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.
The headway made around the turn of the millennium is not a fluke. . . .
Start with the most precious resource, life. Through most of human history, continuing into the 19th century, a newborn was expected to live around 30 years. In the two centuries since, life expectancy across the world has risen to 71, and in the developed world to 81.
When the Enlightenment began, a third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today, that fate befalls 6% of the children in the poorest parts. In those countries, infectious diseases are in steady decline, and many will soon follow smallpox into extinction.
The poor may not always be with us. The world is about a hundred times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across countries and people. Within the lifetimes of most readers, the rate of extreme poverty could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in the past, has vanished from all but the most remote and war-ravaged regions, and undernourishment is in steady decline.
Everywhere Pinker sees glasses that are at least half-full.
“As people are getting healthier, richer, safer, and freer,” he writes, “they are also becoming more knowledgeable and smarter.” Humans are well on their way to universal literacy and education. Their IQs are measurably higher than those of their ancestors. They spend less time on housework and more on travel and enjoying culture. With more wealth, they devote far more effort to environmental repair than earlier generations could have ever dreamed of doing.
Whence this cornucopia of good tidings? Pinker credits the power of human reason unleashed by the European intellectual revolution of the 17th century. “Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition, and authority with reason, debate, and institutions of truth-seeking,” he says in his essay. “They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class, or faith toward universal human flourishing.” (The Wall Street Journal essay is adapted from “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” Pinker’s newest book, which I haven’t yet seen).
I’m not sure that I buy his explanation in its entirety — Pinker is an atheist, and he shortchanges the contributions made to the human condition by the spread of Judeo-Christian ethics and virtue. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to watch as he revels in joyful optimism.
He’s not the first to do so, but it isn’t a common occupation among left-leaning Ivy League academics. Usually the ones marshalling the many reasons to be cheerful about the prospects for life on earth are market-oriented libertarians — writers and researchers like Matt Ridley (“The Rational Optimist”), Julian Simon (“The Ultimate Resource”), Indur Goklany (“The Improving State of the World”), and Johann Norberg (“Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”). Much more typical on the left are the gloom-and-doomers — the pessimists who lament that the world is being dragged down by racism and inequality; the ones who bewail militarism and arms races, while fretting that anthropogenic carbon dioxide dooms us all.
Pinker’s refusal to join in the keening is refreshing, all the more so because of his impeccable liberal credentials. That said, his essay does bend a knee to the conventional wisdom on climate change (“the policies of President Donald Trump — denial of climate change, planned withdrawal from the Paris accord . . . are alarming”). But I wouldn’t be surprised if, given his deep respect for the data, Pinker comes to regard the rise of fossil-fuel use worldwide as yet another engine of the cascading good news he celebrates.
For in truth, the soaring reliance on oil, coal, and natural gas over the past two centuries has fueled an almost inconceivable amount of good. In a column a few years back, I wrote that “the rise of fossil fuels has led to dramatic gains in human progress — whether that progress is measured in terms of life expectancy, income, education, health, sanitation, transportation, or leisure. Nearly everything that is comfortable and convenient about modern civilization depends on the ready availability of energy, and nearly 90% of our energy comes from oil, gas, and coal.”
In fact, notwithstanding all the alarums raised about impending climate disasters, the rise of CO2 has correlated strongly with much lower rates of climate-related loss of life.
Alex Epstein of the Center for Industrial Progress has documented this trend, showing that global deaths from droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, and extreme temperatures have plunged by more than 80% since the 1930s. That’s despite much more complete reporting and enormous increases in population. “Climate is no longer a major cause of death, thanks in large part to fossil fuels,” Epstein has written. Surely that, too, belongs in Pinker’s brief.
The human race is thriving as it never has before. It is an exhilarating story, and it isn’t being told nearly often enough.
Site to See
Amid the internet’s vast ocean of tripe, some websites are extraordinary islands of knowledge and discovery. Each week, in “Site to See,” I share with one of these online treasures.
This week’s site is “Spy Letters of the American Revolution” [URL: http://clements.umich.edu/exhibits/online/spies/index-main2.html]. Created by scholars at the University of Michigan, it illuminates the world of espionage and counterintelligence as it played out during the Revolutionary War. In addition to telling the stories of some of the remarkable men and women who were recruited as spies by the British and the Americans, the website describes the techniques they used to convey information — from invisible ink to writing in secret code — and portrays a dozen of the actual communications they sent.
In one coded letter, the American traitor Benedict Arnold — one of George Washington’s most trusted field commanders — supplied the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, with confidential details of American and French troop movements. Conveying the information via Clinton’s aide-de-camp John André, Arnold also stressed that he expected to be handsomely rewarded by London for his betrayal:
“As Life and fortune are risked by serving His Majesty, it is Necessary that the latter shall be secured as well as the emoluments I give up, and a compensation for Services agreed on and a Sum advanced for that purpose — which I have mentioned in a letter which accompanies this, which Sir Henry will not, I believe, think unreasonable.”
Want to recommend a Site to See? Send a note to email@example.com, and put “Site to See” in the subject line.
My column last Wednesday was about the emotional diplomatic crisis that has erupted between Poland and Israel. The uproar was set off by a new Polish law that makes it a crime for anyone to claim that Poles were complicit in the crimes of the Nazis during the Holocaust. But some Poles were complicit in those crimes, and Poland must not think it can evade painful historical questions by passing laws to punish those who raise them.
The last line
“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” — Mark Twain, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884)Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.