In a column I can’t seem to find, Christopher Hitchens made the point that it isn’t harsh regimentation of a totalitarian society that makes it a horror to live in, but the arbitrariness and unpredictability of the whims of the oligarchs. When a leader renames the day of the week after family members or claims he is the reincarnation of a national hero, few people probably believe him. But many more are made to wonder if he really is insane; and with the specter of executive insanity hanging over them, they might take fewer risks against established order, knowing the rules could be rewritten in bizarre and unpredictable ways, making them retroactively guilty of crimes against the state.
But the whims of a dictator do not have to glorify himself or directly infringe the liberty of citizens to oppress them. Quirky choices in the administration of even the most innocuous aspects of life can remind citizens that those aspects of life are out of their control and under that of the state. Take the following case; North Korean television is for the first time breaking its routine of state-generated propaganda “news” and broadcasting its first Western-produced film. The movie is the British coming-of-age dramedy Bend it Like Beckham.
Now, it is probably a very good sign that North Korea is broadcasting a British film; South Korea is trying again to enter six-nation talks with its Northern neighbor, and Britain will be one of the moderators, along with the United States and Russia. The airing of a movie from one of these host-countries could very well be a sign of goodwill on the North’s behalf, or an attempt to curb the anti-British antipathy decades of WPK propaganda has probably ground into the general populace. But one has to ask: Of all the films to show, why Bend it Like Beckham? I don’t mean to say that it’s a bad film. It’s actually quite good on its own terms, like a more fraught and high-stakes version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with people kicking things. But with nearly a century of British cinema to survey, why, of all films, pick a coming-of-age sports flick as the first introduction to Western media?
Possibly, Northern leadership recognized bridge-building potential in the film, as a major theme is the reconciliation of East and West, exemplified by success of the film’s protagonist, a footballer daughter of Punjabi immigrants (Parminder Nagra). However, this theory falls through when one reads that the two-hour film has been gutted to half its running time, mostly at the expense of “subplots about religion and sexuality.” This fact discourages the earlier hopeful interpretation; it is primarily through the lens of the protagonist’s Sikh faith and its attendant obligations that her Eastern identity is examined. North Korean audiences may still be responsive to seeing an Asian woman playing football beside Western women, but the dramatic impact would be muted; her successful synthesizing her two identities cannot be made explicit without giving her family’s faith screen time. However, this is only possible if the virulently racist North Koreans will even sympathize with an Indian heroine.
So, if Beckham’s power to warm a public chilled to the English is only dubious, why show it? Probably just because some WPK stronghand just liked it. No small component of totalitarianism is the transformation of personal preferences into moral obligations enforced en masse by force of law. This decision might be just that–a new addition to the approved collective aesthetic–though it iss possible those in power recognize its greater context: If the film seems like an odd choice to us, it will be even stranger to the North Koreans themselves. The life depicted in it will not match the image of Westerners constructed by the propaganda they have been fed for their entire life; the rules of what can and cannot be said about the West will be reoriented, so much so that many Koreans will say nothing about it at all, for fear of crossing now-blurred lines.
In nations which respect freedom of speech, it is the case that the more information available in the public sphere, more can be said, and the national conversation can reach higher hieghts. But in those wich regulate thought, the opposite is true; the more known, the less is said, lest one make anathema contradictions.