Why Kim Jong Un build aquariums as his people starve.
Trained dolphins perform in a new Pyongyang aquarium. (KCNA)
When youthful dictator Kim Jong Un spent who knows how much money building and populating a state-of-the-art dolphin aquarium, opened to great fanfare in Pyongyang this week, it would certainly seem like another moment of madness and unhinged narcissism by a regime that is singularly talented at both. And, of course, it is crazy -- North Korea is in the middle of yet another food crisis, and whatever these highly trained animals and their specialized equipment cost probably could have kept some number of North Koreans fed, or perhaps rebuilt the thousands of shoddy homes destroyed in recent flooding.
But there's an internal logic to these obviously wasteful extravagances, a method to the Kim family madness that is both crueler and shrewder than it might seem. Far from silly, these dolphins -- who will likely live better lives than most North Koreans -- are of a piece with the regime's long-running propaganda campaign that is one of the most important pillars of its against-all-odds rule.
Back in the Cold War, when the Soviet Union generously bolstered its easternmost satellite, North Korea was wealthier than South Korea. As far as North Korean propaganda is concerned, their own steep economic decline and the South's amazing rise never happened. The dozens of state-produced films that attract wide audiences every year -- movie tickets are subsidized and there's little other available entertainment -- depict South Korea as a land of poverty and crime. Many North Koreans, as Barbara Demick reported in her excellent book on the country, gratefully believe that they live in relative wealth and that poor South Koreans are desperate to join them.
The other side of this propaganda worldview means playing up North Korea's wealth. For an outsider, this seems absurd: many North Koreans live in absolute poverty, the country's infrastructure is a disaster, and the country spends much of the year in darkness. But these quality-of-life measurements are measured in relative terms; however many homes or however much electricity the country produces, many North Koreans will have no way of knowing that they have less than most of other people.
High-quality dolphinariums and amusement parks, on the other hand -- the latter of which are, by all accounts, state of the art -- are absolute signs of wealth; you have them or you don't. If Kim is trying to reinforce North Koreans' impressions of their national prosperity, building the best possible luxury destinations is probably an effective way to do it.
North Korean propaganda (the other pillar of which is a sort of race-based nationalism) is surprisingly effective at engendering "a significant degree of mass support," B.R. Myers writes in The Cleanest Race, the definitive book on the subject. It's seen as a legitimate protector of the people and of North Korean greatness against a cruel and jealous outside world. That Kim could manage such an indulgence as a lavish dolphinarium despite sanctions would seem to drive this idea home.
That support might not always last, but if there's a major threat to the Kim regime, it's not market liberalization and it's not North Korean poverty, both Myers and a recent International Crisis Group report argue, neither of which seems to have caused them much trouble. It's the slow trickle of information that South Koreans are richer and happier than the propaganda has led them to believe. "This support cannot be sustained for long, because what the masses are taught -- especially in regard to South Korean public opinion -- is coming increasingly into conflict with what [North Koreans] know to be true," Myers writes.
The regime seems to know the threat and is working to stem the inflow of unapproved information. Police, as Blaine Harden reported in his biography of an escaped work camp prisoner, have taken to randomly shutting off power in apartment blocks, then raiding homes to search for unauthorized video CDs that might be stuck in peoples' players. Still, it's difficult to see how they could keep it up forever, and the Crisis Group report notes that defectors increasingly say that they wanted to leave on finally learning of the south's relative wealth and their own poverty.
So what happens when North Koreans figure out that their supposed prosperity is a lie? The Crisis Group predicts that the Kim family can hold out for "decades," with its near-monopoly on information still intact. But Myers more darkly predicts that the regime will replace the lost legitimacy by escalating its acts of random aggression, writing, "The more the North Korean economy loses its distinctiveness vis-a-vis its counterpart to the south, the more the DPRK must demonstrate its legitimacy through military means." It's almost enough to make you wish for more dolphins in Pyongyang.
Trump’s supporters backed a time-honored American political tradition, disavowing racism while promising to enact a broad agenda of discrimination.
THIRTY YEARS AGO, nearly half of Louisiana voted for a Klansman, and the media struggled to explain why.
It was 1990 and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, astonished political observers when he came within striking distance of defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator J. Bennett Johnston, earning 43 percent of the vote. If Johnston’s Republican rival hadn’t dropped out of the race and endorsed him at the last minute, the outcome might have been different.
Was it economic anxiety? The Washington Post reported that the state had “a large working class that has suffered through a long recession.” Was it a blow against the state’s hated political establishment? An editorial from United Press International explained, “Louisianans showed the nation by voting for Duke that they were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.” Was it anti-Washington rage? A Loyola University pollster argued, “There were the voters who liked Duke, those who hated J. Bennett Johnston, and those who just wanted to send a message to Washington.”
After laboring for years to close the gender gap, GOP strategists are suddenly facing a gender chasm.
It turns out those pink kitty-cat hats weren’t just for show after all.
Among its many electrifying aspects, the early Trump era has had a politically galvanizing effect on women. They are organizing in the streets and on social media, running for office in record numbers, training to enter future races, and volunteering on campaigns. And on November 7, they flocked to the polls to officially have their voices heard.
What they had to say more or less boiled down to: Things around here have got to change. Now. Which has many folks in the Republican Party reaching for the Xanax.
By now, you’ve likely heard some of the Election Day stats and stories. In Virginia, women went from holding 17 seats in the House of Delegates to holding 27. Winners include Danica Roem, who became the state’s first transgender delegate-elect by beating an incumbent who bragged of being the state’s “chief homophobe.” In the gubernatorial contest, women favored Democrat Ralph Northram by 22 points—5 points more than Hillary Clinton’s margin among them last fall. Particularly concerning for Republicans: Fifty-eight percent of white college-educated women went for Northram vs. only 50 percent for Hillary.
Lena Dunham’s defense of a Girls writer accused of sexual assault highlights how frequently allegations from women of color are dismissed.
As America’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault continues, the conversation around “believe women” and #MeToo, inevitably, also becomes more complicated and fractured—in particular when it comes to society’s decisions aboutwhich allegations are taken seriously, and which should be subject to deeper scrutiny.
Last Friday, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, co-showrunners for the series Girls, issued a statement defending Murray Miller, a friend and writer on the show, against allegations that he had sexually assaulted the actress Aurora Perrineau when she was 17. (Miller has denied the allegations.) “During every time of change there are also incidences of the culture, in its enthusiasm and zeal, taking down the wrong targets. We believe … that this is the case with Murray Miller,” they wrote in a statement. “While our first instinct is to listen to every woman’s story, our insider knowledge of Murray’s situation makes us confident that sadly this accusation is one of the 3 percent of assault cases that are misreported every year.” After a wave of criticism that her statement was in direct opposition to the feminist beliefs she espouses, Dunham issued another statement apologizing for her remarks; it acknowledged that, regardless of her closeness to the situation, she had used her considerable influence to unduly put “our thumb on the scale.”
“Well, you’re just special. You’re American,” remarked my colleague, smirking from across the coffee table. My other Finnish coworkers, from the school in Helsinki where I teach, nodded in agreement. They had just finished critiquing one of my habits, and they could see that I was on the defensive.
I threw my hands up and snapped, “You’re accusing me of being too friendly? Is that really such a bad thing?”
“Well, when I greet a colleague, I keep track,” she retorted, “so I don’t greet them again during the day!” Another chimed in, “That’s the same for me, too!”
Unbelievable, I thought. According to them, I’m too generous with my hellos.
When I told them I would do my best to greet them just once every day, they told me not to change my ways. They said they understood me. But the thing is, now that I’ve viewed myself from their perspective, I’m not sure I want to remain the same. Change isn’t a bad thing. And since moving to Finland two years ago, I’ve kicked a few bad American habits.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
How did Andrew Anglin go from being an antiracist vegan to the alt-right’s most vicious troll and propagandist—and how might he be stopped?
On December 16, 2016, Tanya Gersh answered her phone and heard gunshots. Startled, she hung up. Gersh, a real-estate agent who lives in Whitefish, Montana, assumed it was a prank call. But the phone rang again. More gunshots. Again, she hung up. Another call. This time, she heard a man’s voice: “This is how we can keep the Holocaust alive,” he said. “We can bury you without touching you.”
When Gersh put down the phone, her hands were shaking. She was one of only about 100 Jews in Whitefish and the surrounding Flathead Valley, and she knew there were white nationalists and “sovereign citizens” in the area. But Gersh had lived in Whitefish for more than 20 years, since just after college, and had always considered the scenic ski town an idyllic place. She didn’t even have a key to her house—she’d never felt the need to lock her door. Now that sense of security was about to be shattered.
The FCC is poised to dismantle common carriage for broadband and wireless providers. That’s bad, but the internet itself is worse.
In a new video advocating for network-neutrality—a name for regulating internet providers like public utilities—the American Civil Liberties Union declares that “Giant internet companies shouldn’t have the power to mess with what we read, watch, and explore online.” The ACLU is referring to broadband and wireless carriers like Comcast and AT&T, who would have the power to throttle, charge for, or even block access to services, websites, or other online resources if the Obama-era rules are rolled back.
Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced the agency’s plans to do precisely that. The plan will likely pass along party lines when at the FCC next meeting, on December 14.
When dealing with opinionated family members, how much alcohol is too much? Has anyone’s stomach actually burst from eating too much? Why am I apparently unable to digest entire kernels of corn?
In what has become an annual tradition, here are this year’s questions about human health and social well-being as they relate to the U.S. holiday known as Thanksgiving.
Can forcing a smile for an extended period of time cause a brain aneurysm?
It’s unlikely. It’s technically possible if forcing a smile means you’re stressed and your blood pressure is high. You’d have to be smiling and experiencing stress for a very long time, though, much longer than a day. Once formed, aneurysms can burst in moments of intense anxiety. But it’s very unlikely, and worrying about this doesn’t help.
A group of neurosurgeons at Cleveland Clinic reported that among male patients, aneurysm ruptures happen most often in late fall. This could be related to the holidays, though the researchers were more convinced by the onset of Ohio winter, writing that their finding “suggests that weather is causally related to aneurysm rupture in men.”
The president broke his silence on the Alabama U.S. Senate race, lending credence to the Republican’s denial of sexual-misconduct claims.
President Trump broke his long silence on the allegations against Roy Moore Tuesday, casting doubt on the various claims against the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Alabama and saying that despite Moore’s past, including allegations of assault and generally creepy behavior around teenage girls, he prefers to see Moore elected to the seat than to lose it to a Democrat.
“I can tell you this one thing for sure,” Trump said as he prepared to leave the White House for Florida for the Thanksgiving holiday. “We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat. Jones, I’ve looked at his record. It’s terrible on crime. It’s terrible on the border. It’s terrible on the military. I can tell you for a fact we do not need somebody that’s going to be bad on crime, bad on borders, bad with the military, bad for the Second Amendment.”
When leaving the service, women are often faced with a slew of challenges as they try to assimilate into civilian life.
I happen to be a woman. This is often inconvenient. It was inconvenient for the military and, now that I’m out of the military, it’s still inconvenient. In multiple surveys and anecdotes, both women who are serving and women who have served repeatedly list gender bias as an issue, though the way it manifests itself differs during and after their time in the military.
The military doesn’t just urge women, it requires them—especially if they want to succeed—to view themselves on the same playing field as their male counterparts. They are also expected to behave and perform in traditionally masculine ways—demonstrating strength, displaying confidence in their abilities, expecting to be judged on their merits and performance, and taking on levels of authority and responsibility that few women get to experience. The uniform and grooming standards work to downplay their physical female characteristics. Additionally, the expectation—explicit or implicit—is that they also downplay other attributes that are traditionally considered feminine, such as open displays of emotion. That’s not to say that gender isn’t going to be noticed or that others aren’t going to make it an issue—they will. But highlighting female characteristics is undesirable. As General Lori J. Robinson, the U.S. military’s first female combatant commander, put it: “I’m a general, a commander, an airman. And I happen to be a woman.”