‘Developing mass gymnastics is important in training children to be fully developed communist people, to be fully developed communist man, one must acquire a revolutionary ideology, the knowledge of many fields, rich cultural attainments and a healthy and strong physique. These are the basic qualities required of a man of the communist type. Mass gymnastics play an important role in training schoolchildren to acquire these communist qualities. Mass gymnastics foster particularly healthy and strong physiques, a high degree of organization, discipline and collectivism in schoolchildren. The schoolchildren, conscious that a single slip in their action may spoil their mass gymnastic performance, make every effort to subordinate all their thoughts and actions to the collective.’
On Further Developing Mass Gymnastics. Talk to mass Gymnastics Producers. April 11th 1987 Kim Jong Il
I have seriously been considering a trip to North Korea. Sometimes it is good to stare evil in the eye. But I can’t. I am a blogger, a freedom lover and an inveterate photographer. Do you, dear reader, think I could abide by these rules? I like going different places, seeing different things and I am not a “Brit Abroad”. I never use flash inside religious buildings let alone diss national monuments yet the imp of the perverse that would like to take me to Norkland is the same imp that means I extend this courtesy to my hosts entirely because it is polite and not down to “rules”. In short it is because I am not a twat. You start sticking rules on me over things that are the common intercourse of the civilized and I rebel because I don’t need to be told not to whistle in church or not to piss on war memorials. Indeed I resent it. True civilization operates to a very large degree on the unwritten almost by definition.
Moreover, if I lost it North of the DMZ, the real pain would be visited upon my “guide”. That I could not stand. More to the purpose they really couldn’t. I would be being petulantly unfair to the most appallingly oppressed people on this planet. And yes I do mean “petulant”. I’d only have to stand it for a few days but they have it from cradle to grave with virtually no chance of escape.
I can’t trust myself to do it. I guess that is not my fault – that is what totalitarianism does to people. Irrational, arbitrary persecution causes irrational, arbitrary fear. Yes, I would like to see into the abyss and whilst I do not fear it seeing into me I fear my rational reaction to arbitrary evil. My reaction to what is the absolute antithesis of civilization.
Photography when being driven around is also restricted. Even what we would interpret as ‘day to day’ harmless scenes may cause problems. It is too easy to get carried away and think that it is not causing offence or would not put the guides in danger. This is not the case and therefore we ask our tourists to take a very responsible attitude even though it may mean missing the photographic opportunity.
I am way too responsible a shutterbug to feel confident around such arbitrary rules. I took quite a few photos of the Vietnam (and indeed the Korean) War memorials in Washington DC. The Vietnam memorial I felt particularly odd about. Some of the people there were there to see the name of a son, a brother or a father. I wasn’t. I understood that. That unwritten code, that subtlety in photography, that civilization is something I can do. Bizarre and arbitrary rules I can’t do. At a deep level they are antithetical to me because they are the fundamental tool of a totalitarian state. Don’t take my word for it. Read Kafka, Borges, Orwell… All three understood that an eternally mutable, utterly opaque and quite dementedly petty legal canon is the most potent weapon of the despot. Laws on criticising the Dear Leader are one thing but ones against photographing, “Even what we would interpret as ‘day to day’ harmless scenes” are quite another. That is straight from “The Trial”, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” or “1984”.
Do you see why? Do you see why 2+2=5 is so powerful? I am by training an astrophysicist. By inclination my view on mathematics tends towards a form of Platonism – the belief that mathematical truth is true because it is real and not a convention. 2+2=4 whether one likes it or not. Like the burning bush, “It is“. Totalitarianism is the invention (by which I mean the betrayal) of reality. True evil, utter evil isn’t just moral evil but ontological evil. That is why it was not enough for Winston Smith to love Big Brother but to genuinely believe false arithmetic. That is why K was never told his alleged crime, that is why the languages of Tlön don’t have nouns. Only without reality is anything possible. The ultimate evil is not Sauron’s orcs -they are trivial, cartoon evil, obvious evil. They are palpable evil because they are even ugly and all that. Utter evil isn’t like that and doesn’t twirl a moustache or have a Persian cat. Some people executed in Stalin’s purges thanked those who ruled them as being deserving of death. They did this genuinely. That is the quintessence of evil. That is 2+2=5. That is the evil of North Korea. That is six impossible things before breakfast time. It is not the mere prosaic evil of rape, pillage and murder (though they follow in it’s wake) but a crime against civilization, common decency and ultimately reality itself.
And that is why I can’t go to North Korea. Because Juche is not just something I disagree with but an assault on rationality and reality themselves. That is the abyss because it isn’t even something I could call wrong in mutually understandable terms with a believer. It is fantasy made real, a semi-consensual hallucination writ in steel, concrete, blood and bone. It is evil beyond the scope of moral philosophy. Bad people do bad things all the time. That is simple evil. Utter evil is beyond that. I guess most criminals know at some level they do bad things. They might try and excuse themselves but they at least have a moral compass. Absolute evil does not. Absolute evil doesn’t just not know or care but is a redefinition of morality. The victory of absolute evil is not to be found in heaps of skulls but in little things. The skulls are the triumph and that comes later. 2+2=5 remember? Because if you can convince enough people to believe the petty lies then… Seriously. If you can convince the population of Nebraska that Wyoming is in Africa then you are well on your way to a heap of skulls to make Ghengis Khan doff his furry hat. Note here I really mean convince. Not parrot the party line but really believe it.
Real evil is not, can not, be just the invention of politics, economics or morality but of reality itself. That is the true abyss. Hell can be built on Earth but only by denying reality. Hell is not just a moral lapse but an ontological one. Hell is 2+2=5. Hell is the absence of the real. Don’t get me wrong. Getting your teeth knocked out with a rubber truncheon in a state re-education camp is real as Hell but it follows exactly from false logic. You might think bad primary school arithmetic doesn’t lead to evil but it does – it is the absolute requirement for the most foul evils. Lucifer fell because he defied God. Lucifer was smart enough to know God was… well, God but he defied that reality. I don’t believe the historical reality of that tale but I believe it’s essential truth. That mythic truth is the reason why Satan is to this day seen as the utter personification of evil. Lucifer’s sin was as much ontological as moral. Indeed I would say the ontological sin logically came before the moral one and that the latter followed from the former.
The wilful invention of reality is not the root of all evil – just of the most pernicious forms.