Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

I resolve to finish the handful of unfinished posts percolating in my draft box. I also resolve to drink less, live more, and figure out how to pay for grad school.

Happy New Year one and all. May midnight find you with an attractive member of whatever sex you prefer, giving you the ol' eye from across the room.

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Peter Beck on North Korean economic progress. It touches a lot of the points I made two days ago but is better informed (and I daresay better written). 
  2. In line with our recent articles on signs of improvement, the Institute for Far East Studies summarizes North Korea's economic progress in 2010. From the always-excellent North Korean Economy Watch.
  3. Also from the North Korean Economy Watch, an amusing list of products and advertisements uniquely North Korean. 
  4. And another article on the organic capitalism springing up in the North, this one from the Economist which focuses on the threats of unstructured reunification by focusing on the comparison to East and West Germany. 
  5. How to improve baseball from The Hardball Times (via The Browser). Discussions of how to improve baseball always make me think fondly of The Sports Guy's rants. 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Teaching English in South Korea


Times have been growing increasingly austere for foreigners teaching English in South Korea. When I first started teaching in 2005, the economy was booming. Korea's newly developed middle class had made their money through fierce competition and, like all parents who had struggled for success, wanted to give their children every advantage. For kids, this translated into an education regimen that would make even the nerdiest westerner blanch. 

The Tyler Cowen

  1. A look back at Foreign Policy's art this year, for which the magazine has been nominated twice by the National Magazine Awards. 
  2. North Korean rice prices jump after the shelling of Yeongpyeong. With currency pegged, economic reactions to world events play out elsewhere. Thanks to the North Korean Economy Watch.
  3. The evolving state of artificial intelligence. It wasn't until we abandoned our attempts to mimic human logic that artificial intelligence started to really take off. Via The Browser. 
  4. After successfully flexing its muscle, a softer South Korea now appears open to more dialogue with the North and is expressing concern about the rights of North Korean citizens. 
  5. Wonderful subway-map inspired understanding of capitalism and misery via Cool Infographics.

Youth and Young Manhood Review

Young kings circa 2003. Might as well be 1973.
I remember first hearing the Kings of Leon while scrolling through the contents of a friend's iPod. (Remember those? The one's with a scroll-wheel? It made the most delightful clicking sound as you wound your way through a list.) The song I heard was none other than Happy Alone off their first full-length album Youth and Young Manhood. In my youthful impatience, I listened to the first few seconds and, deciding I knew what I was in for, flipped to another song before the vocals kicked in. That simple piece of impatience cost me untold cool points as I am just now getting into the band when they are too popular to be considered cool.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mission Statements

Here at BofHam we're facing something of a conundrum. The presence of one of our senior staff in Seoul has shifted the focus of our blog away from pop culture (particularly as it pertains to video games) and toward politics. As a result, we have been forced to better organize BofHam by creating a list of tabs at the top of the page. While the home screen will continue to be the ideological melting pot of our various interests, the reconfigured tabs should give the reader a better idea of where to find the content most appealing to him or her.

Thanks, as always, for your patronage and interest.

The BofHam Team

Darwinism in North Korea

Just how childish is DPRK leadership? Let us count the ways...

  1. They never say thank you.
  2. They throw fits when they don't get their way. 
  3. They don't share.
  4. They lie even when condemning evidence is thrust in their face.
  5. They demand constant entertainment with little thought to the costs.
  6. They want presents upon presents

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Next year's wars by Foreign Policy. Happily, the Korean peninsula is not on their list. (Although their list seems to be solely populated by countries ripe for internal strife.) 
  2. Consumer culture in North Korea
  3. Beautiful piece about snowflakes and how they relate to people from the New Yorker. (Try to ignore the polarizing red herring regarding global warming at the beginning.) Via The Browser. 
Almost 2011 and still yet a flying car in sight. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Embedding videos! Is there nothing we can't do?
  1. 38 North on brinksmanship on the peninsula. Don't know if I agree yet. 
  2. Corrections to the U-bend of happiness. Statisticians think the relationship is pretty weak. 
  3. Stranded Buses
  4. The ever-charming Gawker on Kim Jong-un's popularity
  5. Nice photos of an environmental tragedy

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grand Theft Auto IV Review

Is there any medium more ripe for watchdog scandals than video games? Movies are protected by a culturally-accepted rating system that is generally trusted to keep the more impressionable from consuming the darker stuff. Books, notwithstanding the recent uproar over The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, seem to be past their scandal-causing prime of the Enlightenment. Even music, which as recently as twenty five years ago was knitting Tipper's panties into a knot, seems to have been accepted by the permed-soccer-mom mafia.

Uncertain (as ever) In North Korea

The New York Times wrote about the recent trip to North Korea by Bill Richardson. Some interesting quotes throughout, betraying an ideologically fractured nation. One the one hand, North Korea appears to support the leadership and buy into the statewide propaganda while on the other it is pessimistic about its chances for economic recovery:
“Nuclear weapons mean we cannot be invaded. I really want to say that. We cannot be touched.”
“I heard a rumor that [Kim Jong-un] said we have more bullets than food. So maybe he will be a good leader and feed the people,” 


We put our best man on the job to spruce up the look of the place this weekend. Apologies for any inconvenience during the transition. If you don't like the new look, please forward all complaints to our best man.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


A great short-short story quoted by an English teacher from my old high school. Unfortunately the article is from a magazine that seems to only live in the physical world so I'll have to dust off my old footnoting skills.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Cowen

  1. An incredible set of photos of 2010 from the Boston Globe. Found through the wonderful Marginal Revolution.
  2. Probably not the season for a North Korean Top Gun but we're on the dark side of the moon anyway. Thanks to North Korean Economy Watch.
Merry Christmas from Seoul!

Friday, December 24, 2010

A different perspective on North Korea

A refreshing bit of calm from an expert on North Korea.
"When we consider cases of vulnerable and failed states, the inability to govern and paralysis of national functions presage regime collapse. However, in the case of North Korea, the ruling mechanism is still working."

The Tyler Cowen

  1. A great example of how to do infographics right. The before/after comparison of a bloodtest result shows just how important visualization is to data. 
  2. Merry Christmas indeed!
  3. What was I complaining about before? Something about how no one stands up to ignorance anymore? I take it back.
Happily cavorting into the holidays. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Edward Luttwak has an article praising the South Korean military for taking a harder line on the North. While hindsight is perhaps 20/20, he does (somewhat indirectly) make a good point regarding the complicity in which third parties empower the image of the DPRK.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Snapshots from Seoul

More juicy details of living with threats hanging over our heads:
  • "I'm going to scurry my ass off. That's what they do in the movies right? Shit jumps off and all you see are people scurrying? That'll be me."
  • "Yesterday I woke up when some people were drilling in my basement. I thought the shelling had started. It sounded like those aliens from that Tom Cruise movie, War of the Worlds. Everything was shaking. I decided to try and fall asleep again as quickly as possible. Path of least resistance."
  • "I'm going to have three quick shots of whiskey to numb the fear. It might dampen my intelligence but at least I wont be paralyzed."
  • "Should I just cut my losses and send money home now or try and ride out the storm, hoping the exchange rate will turn around?"
  • "What do I do if I'm in the middle of a class? Herd those little shin-biters all down to the basement? The parking garage? You'd think we would have even a modicum of training for such eventualities."
Good times. 

Life During (Almost?) Wartime

Somewhere roughly 125 miles to the west of me, South Korean shells are presumably (hopefully) plunking harmlessly into the water. And, as always, the sensation of being caught between what I read on CNN and what I see around me is difficult to reconcile. Two large cranes operate just outside my window, constructing a new building as Seoul continues to march further down the path of development. Across the street, students bundled in parkas against the cold rush into a Gimbap Chungook (think traditional Korean McDonald's) for an early dinner before their hogwan starts. Buses filled with people lumber through the all-too-narrow streets and everything crackles with activity.

It is amazing to think of the difference between South and North Korea. Conceptually we all understand the great disparity in standard of living but it's different to really feel it. Put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean for a moment and look again at the scene. The new construction, free of any government planning or party oversight, cropping up organically. The students, unique yet uniform in their stylized self-expression, entering a restaurant overflowing with food and patrons, with ten similar establishments within a two minute walk in any direction. This very building, 8 stories tall with no less than four individual hogwans in it, all doing brisk business. And the streets, a constant stream of traffic, rushing hither and fro, each with unknowable purpose.

It is an overwhelming sensation, an impossibly complex tableau of activity. How can there be so many cars? How can there be so many stores and restaurants? How can organic creation produce such order? The inability of our minds to fully grasp the details of a thriving capitalist system is reason number one why centrally planned economies cannot work. And the very idea that this scene might be threatened by a few errant shells 125 miles to the west is equally confounding. One cannot imagine such a scene from scratch but, now it is laid out before us, one cannot imagine it stopping. Perhaps all it will take to free North Koreans from their indoctrination is an afternoon stroll through Seoul.

The Age of Enlightenment

New evidence from Gallup shows that 40% of Americans believe God created humans 10,000 years ago. Another poll illustrates the relationship between what news you watch and your propensity to believe ideas that are demonstrably false. How susceptible humans are to believing what we're told instead of what we can see with our own eyes. And if this is the situation in America, one of the world's most powerful, educated, and prosperous countries, imagine how long it will take to undo 60 years of propaganda in North Korea.

This is an important reminder how fragile our progress is and how quickly our civilization can be wiped out. New  ways of understanding our world are not permanently solidified in our popular thinking as soon as they have been discovered. We dangle in a loose web of rationality over the gaping maw of the unknown. Should this web be broken, we will once again be surrounded by an incomprehensible universe in the blink of our species' eye. (Not that we've got it all figured out now mind you, but progress is progress.) A second dark age is just a shout away.

What is most confounding about our slow inching toward ignorance is that so little effort is given to reaching out to the blind with cold, hard facts. Those of us who accept the strong scientific evidence on which our theories of evolution and global warming rest, seem to lack the energy or interest in demonstrating this evidence to those who don't believe. Even the rationals have bought into the idea that our positions have more to do with faith than with fact and it is in this folly that the seeds of our undoing are sown.

Faith and fact are the twin pillars of our understanding of this reality. They must coexist but they should not overlap. Fact can explain much but where its descriptive ability fails, it must be filled in with faith. In a way, the two combine to form a geopolitical map of our universe. As the territories claimed by one are lost to the other, overlap and conflict will occur.

In the branch of physics, there are the contested territories of the Big Bang and the Gulf of Gravity along with smaller conflicts in the regions of the Speed of Light and various related sci-fi tropes. In the theater of biology, most of the fighting is on the Plains of Evolution with smaller skirmishes in the Archipelago of Cells, particularly among the Islands of Stem and the Sperm-Egg Strait. Across the theaters of both chemistry and biology, violence plays out along the Environmental Coast.

Too much territory is being given up to faith where facts should be digging in. While it would be nice to destroy those mouthpieces of ignorance, Fox News and various extremists, this would be an ineffective way to win the war. Rather, the facts need only be paraded again and again until their clarifying light wins out. The truth will set us free eventually. No matter how far back into the dark ages we may slip, the human mind will always be swayed by fact as long as the fact is available. We are caught in a shouting match between the ignorant and the educated. It is time for the educated to shout louder.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Well, I didn't die but I've managed to come down with a helluva cold. Everything aches, including my eye-lids. Is it possible to have a headache in your eyelids?

As I sit here typing, I can hear the street vendors outside in the market hawking their wares through loud-speakers and I'm reminded of how scary this place is when you first arrive. You don't speak the language, you know there are threats of a war, and the first time you see a blue truck drive by with a grey loudspeaker on its roof bellowing something, your instinct is to think it's some sort of alarm. Or when you first see one of the huge airbuses rattle overhead and wonder if something went wrong. Or an attack helicopter.

Anyway...enough of my yammering. Good links below.

  • Another nice read from 38North, this one again featuring the mysterious Inspector O. It's funny to think of a few crappy fables cited by a world leader inciting a research craze in Pyonyang. 
  • A slightly corny but still interesting look at the bridge between China and North Korea. These simple indicators of disparity are nicely digestible. 
  • For some reason I've come across a lot of articles on marriage and compatibility today. All the articles come at the issue from different angles but my favorite is the biological importance of odor. Should I be choosing a mate based on friendship and compatibility for a happy marriage in the long-term or based on sweat glands and urine musk for stronger immune systems in my children? Should I just forgo marriage altogether? Am I really to believe that my current girlfriend, for whom I have what feels like a bottomless well of affection, will one day leave me cold? Ah to be 28 years old. 
  • Nice article on the u-bend of happiness. We're at our least happy around the age of 46 as our ambition dies but hasn't yet been replaced by acceptance. But the later years are increasingly happy again. 
  • Although perhaps redundant to our own links, the Atlantic Wire has a nice summary of some of the current thinking around the Korean peninsula.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

  • Fascinating interview with the only surviving North Korean assassin from 1968's failed attempt on then-president Park Chung-Hee. This culture's capacity for forgiveness is truly awe-inspiring. While the story isn't a fairy-tale, the redemption of a man who, in most any other society, would have been locked away for a long time, is beautiful. Unsurprisingly, he falls far on the hawkish side of the spectrum with regards to current South Korean foreign policy against the North. 
  • The first page of Foreign Policy's 'This Week at War' is on the prospects of a North-South war. In the style of these articles, it is terse and to the point, painting a bleak picture of the next few months. They seem to believe that status quo is unsustainable after the shelling of Yeongpyeong: either North Korea will recognize the hard-line and avoid further provocation or things will escalate quickly.
That's all for today. I'm heading out on the town to try and enjoy life lest is be snuffed from me unexpectedly. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Yeah yeah, so I should be reviewing The Prisoner of Azkaban now. Yes, I know I'm jumping ahead. But I lost track of time due to alcohol-related scheduling conflicts (devilishly tricky things, those alcohol-related scheduling conflicts) and here we are on the date of the new movie. So which is more relevant for tonight's show? Episode 3 (in which I'm lead to understand Harry and company cavort around the castle, getting into mischief and avoiding some escaped madman-who-turns-out-to-be-his-father-figure and a werewolf) or episode 6 (in which, I was advised, there are several critical plot twists that need to be viewed in order to appreciate the newest flick)? Love Guillermo though I do, I decided to watch episode 6.

What a difference 6 years makes! It's as if all my complaints from The Chamber of Secrets were magically transported back in time to when The Half Blood Prince was in the planning stages and subsequently taken to heart! While still overly long at two and a half hours, the movie never drags or feels bloated. The plot is streamlined and easy to follow. The special effects are beautiful. And those child actors done growed up!

It's not a flawless piece of entertainment by any means but, given the perspective shift provided by its horrendous  forbearer, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. That glowing commendation being given, there are still a few problems that need pointing out before I can tell you to go watch it:

  1. There are times when the editors knife cuts are a little too apparent. There are a few points in the middle of the movie where, though heeding sound advice, the post-production team was a little too ham-fisted on the chopping block. I'm all for heavy cuts from the middle of an overly long movie, but there is one particular sequence of scenes that was jarringly jumpy. 
  2. What does the "chosen one" really mean? This criticism probably has more to do with the books on which the movies are based but, seriously, what's the deal here? Is this meant to be a super-powerful chosen one like Neo from the Matrix? Because Harry, thus far, seems pretty weak-sauce in everything aside from riding the pine (broomstick). Is he meant to be some kind of spiritual leader a la Moses? Because he can't even keep the attention of a Quidditch team. Or is he more of a Jesus figure who will be sacrificed for the sins of the many? The movie, and I'm assuming the books as well, never really seems to settle on an archetype for the young man and, as a result, every reference to that moniker feels a little clumsy. 
Overall though, the movie is a hoot. There was only one point during my viewing where I cringed at the sight of Harry's agape mouth and then he thankfully filled it with the supple lips of a bonny lass. It was funnier, darker, slicker, and sadder than the previous entries one well worth the 153 minutes.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

To prepare for the Friday release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a few friends and I have decided to re-watch the movies in order. After watching The Chamber of Secrets, I don't know if we'll be able to make it to Friday.

I managed to miss the first film entry, The Sorcerer's Stone due to alcohol-related scheduling conflicts. If The Chamber of Secrets is any indication, I should probably be glad that I did. Harry's second outing is over-long, overwrought, and under-cooked.

"But Jim," you say. "How can it be all three of those?"

Rock, paper, scissors my friend. This movie is caught in a catch-22.

It's over-long because it's under-cooked. 
How many goddamned times did they go into that bathroom with that ear-bleedingly annoying ghost? Like 5? If you're revisiting the same set more than twice in a fantasy movie, you've got fat to trim Chris. There's actually a plot point that takes an entire semester to unravel! This pacing can work in book form because, contrary to popular belief, books are far more accessible than movies. We can really move into the world and enjoy going through the semester with the kids. But in a movie form this feels bloated. The Chamber of Secrets is almost three hours long when it could have been a lean, mean 2 hour adventure if it had just stayed on the editor's grill a little longer.

It's overwrought because it's over-long.
The titular chamber and the violence it inflicts on the denizens of Hogwarts is certainly a worthy MacGuffin. However, with so much space to fill, the plot becomes complicated to the point of confusion. There are tangents twisting everywhere, from a fantasy form of racism to a totally superfluous Quidditch match. There is a house-elf responsible for miles of plot machination whose motives are never explained. When it takes Harry a good thirty minutes to even get to the school, you know it's going to be an overly ornate affair. And these 13 year old actors pinwheel between the three same emotions through all the incomprehensible set-pieces and characters: worry, concern, and fear. If I never see Daniel Radcliff with mouth agape again, it will be too soon.

It's under-cooked because it's overwrought.
With so many scenes to film and characters to enliven, it feels like the post-production team just ran out of gas. From a special effects perspective, it looks like they started with the spiders which are genuinely unsettling. Then they tackled the basilisk. Then they said, "Shit! we still have the bird, the magic, the Quidditch, those little blue fuckers in the cage, the ghosts, the hat, the car, the house, the cake, the...the.... AND WE STILL NEED TO EDIT THIS THING!" The Quidditch match, in particular, looks like it belongs on a TNT Sunday afternoon special. Were there fewer pieces to focus on, those that remain could have been polished to perfection instead of the uneven mess we're left with.

The Chamber of Secrets was doomed in a vicious cycle of follies all sprung from an inability to more forcefully edit the plot down to size. But, even with all that vitriol being spewed, I have to admit the flick is not with out its charms. The discovery of blood-written messages is genuinely unsettling and the arachnaphobe in me was in contortions from the spiders. But a handful of more mature moments do not justify hours of hackneyed torment.

What could have saved this mess? I dunno...Guillermo Del Toro? What's that you say? He directed the third? Oh dear god let's hope it didn't get the better of him.

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Sweet map of NY demographics. The NY Times has some of the best interactive infographics around. 
  2. Another interesting look inside North Korea.
  3. The sun explodes
  4. I wish I knew this in elementary school. (Gizmodo has some great videos today.) 
  5. Ah to have an appetite for complexity and yet not be encumbered by it. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

  1. Article about Miyamoto. Has the balls to explicitly call out the similarity between video games and masturbation.
  2. Wonderful piece about anarchism. I miss reading Benedict Anderson. His focus on communication technology's impact on nationalism is seductive. 
  3. Really beautiful map of the world as drawn by Facebook connections. Should we be concerned that there's a significant tear between Canada and America along most of the northwest border?
  4. Scary blunt words on American engagement with North Korea. "Unless the United States changes course, the threat to its interests and those of its allies will get much worse in the months ahead. Expect more provocations, escalation, and possibly even war." 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Appaloosa Review

Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson, seemingly out of nowhere, decided the time was ripe for a throw-back Western. Thankfully, they're a talented couple of people so the resulting flick was downright enjoyable. Or more accurately, it is enjoyable as long as you can overlook / accept a few key points.
  1. Appaloosa is in the vein of Clint Eastwood westerns of the 60's and 70's. It's a story about terse men living at the edge of civilization where the luxuries of modernity are mostly missing. This starkness extends beyond outhouses (although an outhouse visit weaves its way into the plot) to human interaction. Relationships congeal faster than one would expect. If you are willing to accept certain emotional connections between characters who, five minutes earlier, had just met, as honest depictions of life on the frontier instead of sloppy writing, the core of the movie will pack some punch. Personally, I went for it, assuming that shorter life expectancies and harsher conditions validated relationships built on little foreplay or courtship.
  2. There are more than a few cliches on display here. Church-bells clang doomingly over draws, secondary characters might as well be part of the scenery, and a cowboy goes so far as to ride off into the sunset. Again, if you're already drowning in meta post-modern references, these tropes might seem tired to you. I never felt like the movie was winking at me, however, which is where I draw my threshold for cliche. These scenes didn't feel forced or even self-aware and their honesty made them palatable. 
  3. Renee Zellweger. She is enormously hit-or-miss for me. There's something about the squeaky voice emanating from a face contorted into that twisted half-smile that can really get on my nerves when the movie asks me to find her cute or attractive. Thankfully, Appaloosa didn't ask this of me and her unsettling nature fit well with the setting. 
So what are we left with after you've accepted the above? Two great actors who are having a good time stretching their legs, some snappy direction, and an uncomplicated but engaging plot. Neither role asks much of the two leads but Ed Harris has a few gut-checking moments as his seemingly unflappable tough-guy gets flapped. And Viggo is just fun to watch. He's very comfortable in his role and nothing feels forced, though his is the more stereotypical character by the end. 

So I'm saying it's good. It doesn't break any new ground in re-imagining the classic western but it doesn't do the genre a disservice either. Watch it you princes of Maine, you queens of New New York. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Good reading! Good for your health! Eat up!
  1. Great piece on Wikileaks and the implications of our reaction on net neutrality.
  2. 38 North on what could be the beginning of Kim Jong-un's cult of personality campaign. 
  3. I miss DFW with the intensity of a thousand suns. But this Franzen seems like a decent guy. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

American Exceptionalism

While the topic of Wikileaks is already starting to feel stale (though God knows why it should beyond our insatiable appetite for new gossip), I wanted to drive home a point regarding American exceptionalism using Wikileaks as my hammer.

American exceptionalism is the evolved idea, cherished by many, that the United States is righteous in the realm of international affairs. That the US keeps the greatest good as its highest priority while conducting itself in the international arena. That our foreign policies are primarily aimed at helping the less fortunate and punishing the wicked. Or to put it in the mouth of one of its greatest proponents, "America is a certain kind of country, dedicated to the inherent and equal dignity of human lives. It is this ideal - rooted in faith and our founding - that gives purpose to our power. When we have a chance to do the right thing, we take it." This modern incarnation of our national hubris is sprung from combination of our earlier notions of exceptionalism (the first nation to be created based on an ideology) and our victorious emergence from the Cold War.

American exceptionalism has become an article of faith among a subset of the population that seemingly puts its head in the sand whenever evidence to the contrary arises. The well-documented corruption of Haliburton with regard to the Iraq War, the tacit and explicit support given to dictators and human rights violators across the globe, and the continued exploitation of Central and South American populations by government-backed MNC's all seem to be ignored by those that continue to trumpet America's purity. Given this history of willful ignorance, should we expect the diplomatic cables exposed by Wikileaks to silence America's righteous minority? Only one way to find out!

The diplomatic cables starkly highlight an American international presence that is totally amoral and refreshingly competent. Nowhere in the cables is there any sign of an American ideal 'dedicated to doing the right thing when the chance presents itself.' Nowhere does America appear to be a just monitor of international relations. Rather, American diplomats are fighting tooth and nail for American objectives that are wholly self-centered. America is no different in its diplomatic endeavors than any of the other countries with whom the cables describe our business. 

Ironically, it is in this common ground that part of Bush's above quote is validated: we are equal. Our human lives may not be dignified, particularly when we pull back the PR curtain to see exactly how we behave, but at least we are equal. This is the great hypocrisy of American exceptionalism that is undermining the very foundation its proponents tout so loudly. It implies that, because we value the equal dignity of human lives, America is unique and therefore superior. It is a self-defeating position whose hypocrisy is lost on those for whom it is an article of faith. If we could only accept our commonality with the other players in the international realm, we could avoid further foreign policy mistakes and even start to reclaim some of what has been taken from us since 9/11. 

American exceptionalism has been a cornerstone for justifying our biggest international blunders since the end of World War II and, despite the lessons offered by history, every generation provides a new batch of voters willing to empower those who use its rhetoric. It is surprising that proponents of American exceptionalism not only deny the ample evidence against it but also decry the few instances where American foreign policy seemed to truly be selfless. Our failed involvement in Somalia was used to villainize Clinton by the same people who supported the Gulf War on exceptionalist grounds. Our attempts to end the Serbian genocide were similarly altruistic but have largely been ignored by politicians attempting to list our righteous international affairs. 

But turning this phenomenon into a partisan lightning rod does little to save America from its effects. It is the idea of a superior, morally-just America we must abandon, regardless of our political affiliations. Though its function as a legitimizing rhetoric for wrong-headed foreign policy is dangerous, our self-perception as superior is far more damaging within American borders. Would we be so willing to accept deeper intrusions on our privacy and freedom were we not convinced of our special status? The very word 'exceptionalism' is illustrative. As we crawl further and further into the police-state that will be marked as the beginning of our civilization's decline, we console ourselves with exception. It can't happen to us, we say, as we shred our constitution. We're special. 

We're not special. We're not an exception. We're just another state in web of order dangling over the maw of anarchy. Our diplomats know this, our academics and leaders know this. It is time for the masses to accept this as well. Abandoning this vain misconception is the first step toward understanding the real threats to our way of life that come not from foreign terrorists but from ourselves. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Ship Has Sailed

Well we've hit Friday and I'm still alive (apparently). No reign of fire has smote me yet. A hedonistic last Saturday (all excited but don't know why Prince? maybe its cuz we're all going to die) notwithstanding, everything feels pretty par for the course right now. Koreans are angry at the military for not responding harshly enough (today's Korea Herald has a front page splash showing a satellite image of how badly South Korean shells missed their targets)* but it's a tired sort of frustration. Everyone knows the score. Everyone knows how limited the military options are and no one wants war.

No one, that is, except for my 13 year old students. Still swaddled in their warm psychological blanket of invulnerability, they see the reign of fire as the ultimate snow day. But the joint-military exercises ended Wednesday without much fanfare. Not to knock the Talking Heads, but Life During Wartime here is not exactly as advertised.

But just I'm getting used to it, more gut checks! More inflammatory reports! North Korea has promised to attack before the end of the year? Lusia (her spelling) claims that it will all go to pieces on December 15th? South Korea has committed to a full-scale aerial assault in response to any further North Korean violence? And...and...

And I begin to gain a deeper understanding of what it's like to be a South Korean. News media anywhere in the world make their money by appealing to our attention and what is more attention-grabbing than fear? The difference between South Korea and America is that there is, conceptually, a lot to be scared about over here. In America, soccer moms cluck over bad news abroad and lament the decline of their civilization however it may be presenting itself in that day's headlines. In South Korea (at least in Seoul), everyone is constantly exposed to the very real threat of imminent destruction.

But humans are a basically happy species. (We all want to be happy at any rate, as evidenced by the great lengths, healthy and otherwise, we go to avoid negative human emotions.) A human simply cannot be scared 24/7. Fear can be a nice diversion when it breaks us out of our mundane routines (the ultimate snow day feeling still has its hooks deep within our hearts) but it's not sustainable in the long-term.

When I was here in 2006, I was shocked at how calmly the layman took the news of a North Korean nuclear test. While the media played to my worst fears, my coworkers and friends just met my questions with smiles. At the time, I thought they were just pretending to be tough. It was the first time North Korea tested a nuke!

But now I understand that the threshold for fear, anger, and the host of other negative emotions that attend bad news was too high for the nuclear test. Your body adapts to your environment in an attempt to reach a normal human experience. Unless North Korea does something that physically impacts South Koreans, my friends and coworkers are not going to get too bent out of shape. And here I am, slowly understanding this coping mechanism on more than a purely cerebral level. Nice.

*It seems that the accompanying imagery has since been removed. I've tracked it to and then to the Digital Globe which I'm hoping will be viewable through this link in PDF form. The imagery in question is on page 12. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Tyler Cowen

Links I like:
  1. Kim Jong-il looking at things
  2. Wikileaks restores faith in American diplomats. Is American exceptionalism on its last legs? (Please let it be so.) 
  3. Tyler's own theory of Wikileaks. (His understanding of the impact on China-North Korean relations bears weight on our own.)