January 27th, 2010


Comrade Pim is a good man

1. Outside, ice glazed the dark jagged rocks, but in the small mining hut lit by fluorescent tubes, decorated with old newspaper pages and heated by three blue kerosene stoves, a dozen of us clinked soju glasses. We ate spiced cabbage and ginger pork, drank the fierce, raw rice liquor, and shouted, sang and laughed until the windows were beaded with condensation.

2. I'm interested in the aesthetics of empathy. I find it easier to project empathically on Eastern people than Western, on poor people than rich, on people from other cultures rather than people from my own, and on people from the past rather than people from the present.

3. The images punctuating this page come from the wonderful NHK documentary The Silk Road (1980), in which a Japanese team -- helped by Chinese soldiers and officials -- travels to inaccessible sites along the Silk Road. Music is by Kitaro, a sort of one-man Japanese Tangerine Dream.

4. I've been watching hour-long segments from The Silk Road all week. Some of the commentary sounds like propaganda -- this was a Japanese-Chinese co-production made in a time when China was still very much communist. The script has clearly been vetted to eradicate any reference to tensions between the Chinese and Japanese, and to make Chinese achievements (like the "Happiness Railway" simulated in film 9, and actually activated before its completion by the Chinese government specifically for the NHK documentary) look good.

5. I don't mind that something is propaganda, in other words is an obvious lie. It can still serve my purposes, for instance embody a kind of plot in which cynicism and negativity has been completely, consciously excluded. It matters less whether something is true or false than whether it takes me somewhere.

6. "A toast to Comrade Pim!" called a colleague dressed in blue jacket and grey cap. "Without him, we could never have discovered the magnificent copper seam!" "To Pim, the model worker!" came the cry from a dozen throats.

7. During last year's Asian Women's Film Festival, the North Korean films fascinated me. I was very interested in how the machinery of plot works when you remove all negativity. I was particularly interested in plots which worked to establish the self-effacing goodness of a character, then showed this character passing due respect on to someone even more benign, diligent, indigent and self-sacrificing. Insofar as conflict drove these plots, it was the conflict of two people insisting on each other's greater worthiness.

8. I demurred, smiling, and held up a hand for silence. "It is our collective diligence that has achieved this breakthrough," I said. "Who built the tunnels that I crawled along to make my lucky discovery?" Comrade Jun smiled and looked at the floor. "Who operated the lift that brought us to the place where fresh copper was just waiting to be discovered?" Comrade Bu grinned bashfully. "And who toiled at ground level in always-difficult circumstances, maintaining the camp in this inhospitable place?" Here Comrade Pi ruffled his own hair, as if in confusion.

9. In a way, altruistic virtue is our society's final taboo. I was interested to read an entry on my Friends List today entitled I am not the weirdo here. Lucy, who wrote this blog, reports that a friend criticized her recently, saying: "You're just too nice. You think people are essentially good and decent." Lucy went on to say she made no apology for being nice, or believing the best of people.

10. "Nevertheless," cried out the foreman, "this great achievement, which came at enormous physical cost to yourself, Comrade Pim, and in the face of great risk, will be reported to the chairman of the mining committee, and he will report it to the local party chief, who will in turn send an electric dispatch to Victory City, where word of this will surely reach the Dear Leader himself!"

11. I assembled a counter-argument in my mind, something I might tell Lucy. What if we weren't simply looking at the dimension of Good - Evil, but also of Boring - Interesting? Might goodness fall on the wrong side of that sometimes, the boring side? Had Lucy read Blake's hellish proverbs ("Energy is eternal delight!")? Had she read Sade's Justine? Or even seen Brecht's plays, with their message that niceness is a luxury most people cannot afford yet? What about TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, with its very Christian awareness of the temptations of martyrdom and sainthood, its caution about spiritual pride?

12. It's not nice to hate, but what if the nice hate the interesting for not being nice enough, and the interesting hate the nice for being boring?

13. Adam Curtis, in his Century of the Self, showed how Cold War games played at the Rand Corporation fed into a Cold War mindset (you can see it in James Bond, The Man from UNCLE, and a thousand other places) of slick mistrust based on the calculability of mutually-assured destruction. He showed that the most dangerous thing, in the eyes of the architects of post-war paranoia, was the altruistic public servant, someone motivated by something other than self-interest. Altruism actually fucks up the economic self-interest and gamesmanship models by making individuals act on the behalf of others.

14. And all glasses were raised to the framed, faded photograph of the Dear Leader, whose eyes seemed to twinkle, now orange, now blue, in the light of the kerosene stove.

15. I'm interested in the challenge of writing (of me writing!) about "old-fashioned" values like altruism, diligence, honour, responsibility, virtue, trustworthiness and empathy. But a devil on my shoulder whispers: "And what if virtue is simply the behaviour -- a sort of non-behaviour -- of those who lack the imagination or the courage to get into trouble? What if nice people are simply too wishy-washy, cautious and conformist to be assholes?"