Thursday, June 14, 2018

False Equivalence for Dummies

I heard a lot about supposed false equivalence during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, and in almost no case were the allegations accurate.  I believe, however, that I've been seeing some genuine specimens lately, in connection with the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.  Here's a good example, from a reasonably sober commentator:
As someone who supported Trump-Kim summit it’s important to stop referring to outcome of Singapore as a “nuclear deal.” It was a handshake based on a few understandings between two men with few, if any, expert input on the details that typically cause most real deals to collapse.
It's the "two men with few, if any, expert input" that I want to draw your attention to.  I don't dispute that Trump had no expert input from his side, though that was because he wasn't interested in it.  I don't know what input, expert or otherwise, Kim Jong Un drew on, and I doubt this writer does either.  But North Korea has a long history of negotiating with the US, and until there's some evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to suppose that Kim didn't draw on it.  Kim definitely appears to have prepared for his earlier meeting with ROK President Moon Jae In, and behaved sensibly even while he was staging a performance for the cameras. 

And this is milder than most discourse I've seen, which routinely calls both Trump and Kim "deranged" and the like.  I think that's wrong about both men.  Trump is an evil clown, and the cascade of accusations about his mental health have been mere abuse; deserved abuse, but not accurate because of that.  About Kim Jong Un we know less, but I see no reason to think that he's insane either.  Yes, he postures and provokes, as North Korean leaders have often done in dealing with the West (and so did Hugo Chavez, who wasn't insane either).  Similar claims were made about Kim's father, Jong Il, and he definitely wasn't crazy: he also managed negotiations with the US, getting an agreement that only "collapsed" because of US refusal to keep its commitments.

Bruce Cumings wrote about Kim Jong Il in North Korea: Another Country (The New Press, 2003):
Way back when, Kim Jong Il was the same Mad Dog he is said to be today [2003]: a drunk, a womanizer, a playboy, Stalinist fanatic, state terrorist, unstable, psychotic, another David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson—“Public Enemy Number One,” running a country always making “one last lunge for survival.” When the father died, the American media dredged up all these things, but Newsweek perhaps outdid them with its racist cover article: “Korea after Kim: The Headless Beast” (July 18, 1994). According to “one U.S. diplomat,” the son was “irrational, far more dangerous than his father.... No one in his right mind wants to see Kim Jong Il in charge of a nuclear-armed North Korea.” South Korean “experts” told the magazine that the end of the regime was nigh; “great turmoil is on the way.” As for the deceased father, Newsweek’ s intrepid researchers had uncovered what no one else ever did: Kim’s presence with “Stalin’s military” in the Soviet Far East in the 1930s. But “whether he actually fought against the Japanese is a matter of debate.”

Then, six years later, top American officials actually met the Dear Leader, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in preparation for President Bill Clinton’s (aborted-by-Bush) summit with the younger Kim: “He is amazingly well-informed and extremely well-read,” an American who met him related to a reporter; “he is practical, thoughtful, listened very hard. He was making notes. He has a sense of humor. He’s not the madman a lot of people portrayed him as.” A State Department official said, “He can talk about almost any subject . . . market economics, the Internet, coming technologies.” Madame Albright presented him with an NBA basketball signed by his basketball hero, Michael Jordan; Jong Il immediately wanted to take the ball out and dribble it around [Kindle edition, location 796ff].
I quoted this at length partly because I couldn't resist including that bit about Michael Jordan and basketball; the interest in the sport evidently runs in the Kim family.  Cuming's book is out of date by now, but it's short and readable, and if you read it you'll still be better informed about North Korea than most people in the US media or government.

I wouldn't want to take too seriously the "top American officials'" evaluation of Kim Jong Il, but at least they make it clear he was not the cartoon that South Korean hardline and American mainstream propaganda made him out to be.  We don't know much about his son, but I suspect he also is smarter, more serious, and better prepared than Donald Trump.  Obviously that sets the bar quite low, but equating the two men is almost certainly mistaken, another example of the enduring American tendency to underestimate and caricature Koreans, both in the North and the South.  (The US media aren't terribly happy with South Korean President Moon Jae In, either, for presuming to put the interests of his own country and people ahead of American wishes and fantasies.)

It's difficult to find the right balance here.  I'm not denying that Kim Jong Un is a dictator, presiding over a horribly repressive state with many serious human rights abuses.  One can say all that without caricaturing him or lying about him; isn't the truth enough?  Not, it seems, for the American mainstream.  The same could be said of Trump, after all: he's quite bad enough that it shouldn't be necessary to lie about him. It could be said of Obama, or Hillary Clinton.  I find it interesting, though also profoundly depressing, that so many people prefer the fantasies to the truth.

Ignorance about North Korea by Americans is understandable: it's a closed society, and reliable information is hard to come by.  Ignorance about South Korea, which saturates most American coverage of the peninsula, is inexcusable.  But again, it appears that most Americans prefer fantasy to reality in politics.