Friday, 20 December 2013

American dystopia

This year's slice of pre-Christmas cinematic tosh was the second Hunger Games film, which was better than you had any right to expect, and immeasurably better than the tedious second Hobbit.

I confess to a liking for post-apocalyptic dystopias, as long as they make some sort of sense (goodbye, The Road). And this one does, as long as you can swallow the implausibility of a dictatorship transmitting its oppressed people live on television to one another. (The regime appears to have misunderstood the phrase 'reality TV'.)

What struck me with this instalment, however, is how profoundly American this particular dystopia is. I don't simply mean the echoes of the American Revolution: thirteen (yes, it turns out there are thirteen) hardworking districts being oppressed by the brutal, decadent Capitol. Nor the patterns of American political conservatism that can be seen here: the conviction that what tyrants do is deny their people weapons. Plus the nicely-judged decision, ever so slightly flavoured with anti-UN paranoia, to call the brutal, faceless paramilitary police 'Peacekeepers'. Because in fact this story is not so easily politically pigeonholed: the final part of the trilogy makes plain that the revolution is not necessarily much better than the regime it replaces.

The most remarkably American feature of the story, however, is what is not there: the rest of the world. The stories are plainly set in some future North America. Now you would expect a tyrannical regime of this kind to use external threats (real or invented) to bolster its control; and you would expect rebels to be seeking foreign help. But there is, to my recollection, not a single hint in either books or films that the remainder of the planet even exists.

That gives the story a certain simplicity and even innocence. But it also seems to me to speak to an underlying theme in American political thinking, which is impossible but at the same time also admirable and enviable: the conviction that, in the state of nature as it were, the US is and ought to be a world to itself, whose character is itself a kind of Monroe doctrine, neither colony nor coloniser, free of entangling alliances. I appreciate that if you were the Marquis de Lafayette, you might be a little sore about that. But as national myths go, what's not to like?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Glimpses of North Korea

The kind of history I'm used to doing involves people who've been safely dead for a few centuries. But this project on global Protestantism comes right up to the present, and so sometimes close to the bone. I've just been finishing my chapter on Korean Protestantism, which is a remarkable story, but the really chilling and compelling stuff relates to what's happening north of the 38th Parallel.

Of course, we know almost nothing about religion in North Korea. Even a decade or so ago it was possible to believe the official line: that there was an 'opening' in the late 1980s, with two churches built in Pyongyang, hundreds of house churches, and representatives sent to the WCC. But the accounts given by the increasing numbers of refugees to make it out contradict that line too consistently and too profoundly to be ignored. Their testimony is that these are sham organisations created as magnets for foreign aid; and that public profession of Christianity (seen as an imperialist front), possession of a Bible, or any known contact with missionaries is lethally dangerous.

From the testimonies I've read, two elements stood out. First, Kim Yong's detailed account in Long Road Home: Testimonies of a North Korean Camp Survivor (Columbia University Press, 2009). This account left me with the sheer lawlessness of the North Korean gulag, which makes its Stalinist cousin look like a model of due process. There are no crimes, charges, trials or sentences, merely arrests. Kim was suddenly imprisoned midway through a successful career in the regime's bureaucracy because it was discovered that his birth family (he had been adopted at a young age) had been deemed to be traitors during the 1950-3 war. He spent much of the 1990s in Camp No. 14, mining coal for twelve or more hours per day, and only very occasionally saw daylight. Sixty workers shared a bare concrete room with insufficient space for them all to lie down at once. After a day’s mining came an hour’s ‘political struggle’, that is, written self-accusation and criticism of other prisoners’ conduct. ‘There was really nothing to confess, but we all had to come up with something in order to avoid severe punishment.’

Meanwhile all of them were slowly starving to death: their food rations were simply insufficient. It is unclear whether this camp and those like it were deliberately designed as death-by-labour institutions, or whether that is merely their effect. One sign of the extremity is that the camp was almost free of rats. Once, Kim was lucky enough to catch one, in the mine. He killed and ate it ‘head to tail, raw, without skinning it. The meat tasted like honey.’ He was eventually, and very unusually, transferred to a less severe camp: he is, in fact, the only prisoner ever known to have left Camp No. 14 alive. The more lenient regime of his new camp was marked by the prisoners' being given permission to gather grass to supplement their diet: and its lower security eventually allowed him to escape, in the bottom of a coal truck.

Second, the research in a report produced by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2008. As well as interviewing 'ordinary' refugees, they interviewed former members of the Northern security services who had escaped. Their stories largely confirm the extent to which religion in general, and Protestantism in particular, is seen by the Northern regime as an existential threat, and suppressed ferociously. This includes the deliberate creation of fake underground churches in order to trap would-be converts, and of course to foment distrust amongst believers. This much is perhaps predictable, and fits into the agenda which one might imagine USCIRF would be keen to hear (not that I doubt it). But there are some glimpses of something more complicated. One former security official described a remarkable visit to a high-ranking official’s house, at which the two of them and a third official ‘worshipped together in his house with the curtains drawn’. They read the Bible aloud and prayed for Kim Jong Il. The newcomer asked how they reconciled their faith with their official position:
They said that it was a heartbreaking job to catch Christians while they, too, were Christians, but they had to stay in their positions because their situation could turn even worse if an evil-minded person was in that position to ferret out believers. So they keep their positions and sometimes advise people to run away.

Not heroic: but there is a certain kind of plausible courage there. These are the sorts of perilous compromises which are made under those circumstances. In practical terms, there is virtually nothing outsiders can do about these horrors. But it would seem appropriate - and indeed, deeply subversive - to pray.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Bedtime at Bishop

A long day at Bishop Auckland again on Friday, much of it on the nuts and bolts of the redevelopment, which is all exciting but not terribly blogworthy.

But then, at the end of the day, a glimpse of a truly jawdropping object, just acquired: the Paradise Bed, which now seems, pretty clearly, to be the bed made for the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in 1486. It would be nice to say it was the bed in which Prince Arthur and Henry VIII were conceived - and it might be. But it clearly dates from that era, is very high-quality workmanship, and is topped with separate white and red York and Lancaster roses. The united Tudor rose only became a viable symbol once the marriage was made and the prince born.

Best of all, though, is the headboard:

Adam and Eve for a marriage-bed might seem obvious enough, if not subtle. It's been suggested that Adam and Eve's faces are carved to resemble the royal couple, which is possible if not exactly conclusive. But the best bit is the text on the cartouche: 'The sting of death is sinne / The strength of sinne is the law' (I Cor 15:56). Romantic, eh?