But the People Are So Friendly


In an excellent book review in the New Yorker, Ian Buruma considers Western admiration for the socialist paradise otherwise known as North Korea:

Bradley Martin quotes a British visitor named Andrew Holloway, who found the "secure and cheerful existence and the comradeship" of the "average" citizen "moving to behold." Despite having written a long book cataloguing torture, famine, and mass murder, Martin approvingly notes that readers of Holloway's account "not consumed with knee-jerk loathing for socialism might be hard-pressed to adjudge as evil beyond redemption a society so apparently successful in inculcating values such as kindness and modesty." My own impression, reinforced by Martin's book, is that North Koreans behave pretty much like all people forced to fight for bare survival: kindness is a dangerous luxury.

The poor-but-oh-so-happy sentiment pops up without fail in any crappy travel magazine version of a visit to Myanmar, Laos, or Nepal (and probably any other desperately poor and badly governed country), in which "the people" are always gleeful, generous, and colorful. I'm not exactly sure what it is about being ruled by insane dictators that makes people so damn nice, but here's an idea: If you're a Western travel writer, or, say, German tourist, and you're going to an impoverished country full of hungry people in which you clearly stand out as someone with money to spend, people might be extra nice to you.

Via Cafe Hayek.

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  1. “If you’re a Western travel writer, or, say, German tourist, and you’re going to an impoverished country full of hungry people in which you clearly stand out as someone with money to spend, people might be extra nice to you.”

    True dat…

  2. The cultural arrogance and selfishness of people like this British guy Holloway! It reminds me of the British guy who, after the Christmas tsunami that killed 250,000 people, walked a beach in Indonesia that had been denuded of anything man made and expressed relief that it had been returned to its natural state. He felt that it was now more pure. As if the tsunami had happened to make life more pleasant for him. It must be nice to be so blind to the suffering of others to walk around North Korea and utter such drivel. Man, now I’m in a bad mood.

  3. Kim Jong-il as noble savage?

    …I’d love to hear what Holloway thinks of us Americans or his fellows in Britain.

    I find myself thinking about Kerouac suggesting that American blacks of his time were the only people who were really free.


  4. This is the first comment out of anyone’s mouth after they visit Cuba.

  5. It reminds me of the British guy who, after the Christmas tsunami that killed 250,000 people
    Ah yes, the guy who became the target of a disapproving H&R post by I think Nick G., which in turn resulted in Insta-Glen declaring that Reason was no longer a libertarian magazine. Fun times.

  6. Ever notice that every place you go on vacation seems so much nicer than home? Well, of course it does! You don’t have to live & work there.

    There’s probably another mechanism at work here which bolsters these positive impressions. I doubt the mad dictator’s regime will allow anything bad to happen to the visitor. I recall that when I visited Eastern Europe in the 80’s that I had a marvellous time (really, it was fantastic!); later, it dawned on me that my travels were well-engineered to insulate me.

  7. People in places with dysfunctional formal economies might actually be more personable and friendly than those who live in functioning economy.

    People in situations like North Korea survive through cultivation of personal networks. Since the formal/legal system does not work they rely on family connections and friends-of-friends to get the necessities of life. When you add in the extra fear that unpopular people might get denounced to the authorities, people have a great incentive to be polite and avoid giving offense.

    One can only be an indifferent jerk in an environment where the rules have no personal element to them. Much of the rudeness and alienation we see in much of the developed world is the result of the functioning rule of law.

  8. Reminds me of the story a couple of months ago where Cameron Diaz was so impressed by the citizens of whatever country because they had animal dung on their walls and they were so “in touch” with nature. Drew Barrymore’s contribution to the discussion was bragging that she had just pooed in the woods.

  9. “The cultural arrogance and selfishness of people like this British guy Holloway!”

    He’s not selfish…just stupid! And thoughtless. Doesn’t seem to have a clue. Reminds me of Shirley MaClane’s visits to Communist China years ago. (lots of years ago.)

  10. pooed in the woods

    That was from MTV’s “Trippin'”, one of the most unintentionally laughable shows ever – so bad it was good.

  11. Thank god for the “end of history.”

  12. Tim,

    Prepare to have your world rocked again . Same (filmmaking) team, but this time, it’s gymnasts! Some more details here. I really want to see an interview with these filmmakers, because I really want to know if there is any nudge-nudge, wink-wink aspect to their whole enterprise.


  13. Actually, I think that one source of this phenomenon is the very strong sense among western aesthetes of the picturesque.

    I have to admit to being vulnerable to this failing myself.

    The striking thing about “primitives” is that from the perspective of the observer [or tourist] they are rooted in their environment in a way that makes the visual tableau of that environment more picturesque. Rooted, and also unselfconscious. Note the tendency of western tourists, even when travelling in the west, to seek out “quaint” places like the Amish country, or the parts of Ireland, Spain and Italy that still had “peasants”, back before such persons disappeared from all of those places. It simply is not very interesting, fun, or aesthetically pleasing to travel to a place and watch thousands of people stand around and camera-phone each other. It is much more pleasant to be the only person with a camera-phone, while everyone else grinds grain by hand, or repairs fishing nets by hand, or marches in some gory Catholic ritual, or whatever.

    Sometimes I wonder, if I made decisions aeshetically instead of ethically, if I’d be much of a libertarian at all. Aesthetically I’m just as vulnerable to the siren call of the picturesque as this Holloway fellow, and instead of “freedom and reason for everyone”, that can lead you to secretly hoping for “freedom and reason for me, serfdom and superstition for the people I want to buy a villa near”.

  14. Rhywun

    That’s right, I couldn’t remember why they were talking about it or even there but I should have assumed it had something to do with MTV.

  15. fluffy

    I’m familiar with the longing for the aesthetically pleasing myself. I spent several months in a tiny English farming village called Grantchester a couple of years back–it had thatched roofs and a little old church and sheep and everything. Quaint. Beautiful. Tourists love it. So did I.

    The locals who cannot find work in the city drink heavily every evening.

  16. Sometimes I wonder, if I made decisions aeshetically instead of ethically, if I’d be much of a libertarian at all.

    Just at a guess, I’d say aesthetic decisions decoupled from ethics are a big part of any totalitarian setup.

  17. I remember watching a travel video for Cuba where the hostess couldn’t stop talkng about how few homeless were in Havana. She obviously didn’t know that people without a permit to live in the capital are periodically rounded up and put to work on sugar cane plantations.

  18. Shannon-
    What you’re saying dovetails nicely with the discussion I had with economist Paul Seabright (the interview’s online here if you care)–essentially that the “impersonality” and “anonymity” of modern life that people bemoan is a sign of a kind of robustness: Institutions give us sufficient assurance that we can do all kinds of transactions with people we don’t necessarily know very well. But what you expect in such situations is tighter bonds with an in-group, coexisting with extreme distrust outside that group.

  19. I wasn’t that happy with Buruma’s review. I thought he was unfair to Martin and took every chance he could to paint him as some kind of North Korean apologist. Read Martin’s book – he may sometimes try to be “even-handed” but you cannot read that book without being appalled at the sheer enormity of what the Kim’s have done. Martin’s book will not create a bunch of NK sympathizers, far from it.

  20. I guess the question I would ask is, if they had jobs AND a quaint place to live, how would there average blood pressure compare with a New Yorker’s?

  21. How’s this for a theory: living in modern, western society turns you into a prick, and everyone else seems nice by comparison.

  22. Capitalists can afford to be assholes.

  23. Joe,

    True liberty is the freedom to be an prick ,and not be jailed or executed for it

  24. Remember the old Twilight Zone episode where Billy Mumy played the psychotic little kid who terrorized the town with his ability to make his every thought come true? Everybody was very friendly and polite there, too. “Oh, Anthony, it’s good that you made the crops die! It’s good that you made the rest of the world disappear! We love living here!”

  25. Hmmm…Kim IS a ruthless little prick of a dictator, he IS responsible for the misery of an entire country, he HAS enslaved and murdered his own people, and he DOES have weapons of mass destruction…

    But since those weapons are not pointed at us, it’s not our concern. Right?

  26. What’ve you done about it, ed?

    Good point, though; for all our posturing about how this sort of thing may not be within the purview of the Feds, what can an individual (or a NGO) do to fight that ruthless little prick? Hold a rally?

  27. I love that Twilight Zone, Jennifer!

    Actually, here on the west side of the US, people are generally pretty polite. I was talking to my friend from Jersey about this, and I was saying it’s because we’re so spread out on the left coast that we don’t have to try to create our own personal space, we just have it. You don’t have that luxury so much in a place like NYC, so you’ve got to be a little more abrasive and in-your-face.

    As for quaint – sure, it’s nice to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Too boring. I would, however, love to have a cabin in the woods or a home in very small town that I could go spend vacation time in.

    I guess it’s “to each his own”.

  28. Nothing, really, unless you want to be a missionary of some sort.

    I did some freelance animation for a group that has missionaries in nations all over the world, and they asked that I not highlight that they had a presence in certain nations.

    They euphemistically refer to entry into nations like N. Korea as “Creative Access.”

  29. Lowdog,

    People in the Jersey suburbs have just as much personal space as people in the LA suburbs. People in the neighborhoods of our older cities are no more obnoxious than people in our suburbs.

  30. Jennifer;

    I remember that TZ episode well. Mostly because, as I was watching it I realized that I had read the story it was based on when I was a kid.

  31. Jack–

    I read the original, too. I have a book of original TZ stories, but I didn’t read them until long after I saw the shows. A lot of the stories are superior to the episodes–I think the “Blind Alley” episode (about the evil old businessman who arranges for the Devil to send him back in time) absolutely slaughtered the original story.

  32. Actually, I think “Blind Alley” was the name of the story, and the episode was titled something like “Of Late I Dream of Cliffordville.”

  33. Jennifer,

    I have “Of Late I Dream of Cliffordville” on my TiVo as I type this.

    What’s the name of the book with the original TZ stories?? I’d love to read some of the stories

  34. ChicagoTom–

    I’ll have to go home to get the exact title, but I believe it’s just “Stories from the Twilight Zone,” or maybe “Twilight Zone: the Original Stories.” I remember it came out in paperback around ’85 (I had a copy); then about ten years later I found a hardcover copy in a remainder bin.

    If you want your heart to break, watch the episode “On Thursday we Leave for Home.”

  35. I’m no grammar expert but shouldn’t that be “poorly governed”?

  36. Just went to Amazon.com; the book is Twilight Zone: the Original Stories. And used copies are available for as little as six bucks.

  37. Lowdog writes:

    “Actually, here on the west side of the US, people are generally pretty polite.”

    True, but somehow it doesn’t correlate to personal space. San Francisco and Boston are both about the same population, both are small and crowded by my standards, but I find people much more laid back and polite in SF than Boston.

  38. How’s this for a theory: living in modern, western society turns you into a prick, and everyone else seems nice by comparison.

    Heh, I was waiting to see how long it would take for joe to spin this one back around. He sounds like someone just kicked his dog.

    I needn’t tell people around here about all the truly nice, friendly folks here in freer-society-land who are pleasant because it’s their nature, and not out of fear of being whipped by government stooges. Chances are you all know some people like that yourselves.

    Except for joe of course. Everyone he’s met in his travels in kapitalschaft are dirty rotten scoundrels. Too bad for him.

  39. Rafuzo–

    Be nice to Joe. Having been raised in Western society, he can’t help how he turned out.

  40. I do make loonies chew the scenery, don’t I.

  41. Guess so, Joe. So was it Western society that turned you into a prick, or just an accident of birth?

  42. I think it’s specific to the Northeast. As you understand so well.

  43. Joe–

    Having been raised in the Southeast, I wholeheartedly concur.

  44. Actually, “On Thursday We Leave for Home” may be pertinent to this entry also, if that’s the one where the people have been marooned on an asteroid and have built a little society for themselves, and when the rescue party shows up the guy who was in charge of the little settlement doesn’t want to leave.

    That protagonist also had a conflict between the actual conditions of his life, and the image he had in his mind of those conditions. Another instance where the romantic image of primitive conditions starts to compete for the heart’s allegiance against the possibility of improvement in those conditions.

    I tell ya, you start to overindulge in art like that episode, or like the Harlan Ellison short story “Jeffty is Five”, or maybe you hang around some Shaker Town museum too long or something, and all sorts of anti-progress heresies start to creep into the mind.

    I don’t think that North Korea would have such an effect, though. You have to be really screwed up for North Korea to tickle your sentimentality bone.

  45. Fluffy–

    But I don’t think “Thursday” relates to the DPRK; unlike Kim Jong-Il, the guy in the story (was his name Benteen?) really WAS a good leader, and the only reason the marooned space travelers were able to stay alive as long as they did. Had Benteen been just another asshole dictator out for personal power, the story would have missed its point.

  46. Am I incorrect, or isn’t admission as a “tourist” into North Korea strictly controlled? And while there, aren’t you tended 24/7 by a government official, and only allowed out with that official, and then only to the places approved for foreigners to see? From what I’ve read, even interaction with N. Korean citizens is severely controlled.

    So given that any visit to North Korea is a highly orchestrated affair tantamout to visiting a “Wonders of North Korea” ride at Disney World (if they don’t have one, they should), isn’t every visitor going to come away with the best impression the government can muster? It’s unlikely they put “mass of starving farmers” on the itinerary, or “cranky old guys who remember things from before the war and hates the current regime.”


  47. I dunno, I’m stickin’ to it. It’s not just a localised phenomenon…as in, Boston and SF are similar in population and density, but SF folks are generally more laid back. I’m saying the overall feel of the west…big cities so far apart, lot’s of countryside.

    I don’t know, I’m mainly talkin’ out me backside, cuz I’ve not travelled in the NE much, but I really do think the regional population density is a factor. People in the SE are generally more laid back, too, for similar reasons, I would suspect.

  48. I remember seeing The Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life” when it was first broadcast, when I was a kid…late 50’s or early 60’s. Years later I came across the short story in a collection called Alfred Hitchcock’s Stories For Late At Night. Included was the novella “The Fly”, from which the movie of the same name was made as well as the remake.

    As for whether Joe is a product of his northeast environment or an accident of birth, well…Perhaps he is a self-made man. Like most of us.

  49. RE: People being nicer on the West coast.

    Speaking as a born and raised Left Coaster myself, I don’t have a lot of comparisons to make. In my travels I did find Midwesterners distant and East Coasters rather brusk. But Southerners seemed nice enough.

    In any case I do know we here in Seattle must be more polite than New Yorkers are used to because I have several friends who moved here from there; and everyone of them has related to me how weird it was for them to have people they didn’t know saying ‘Hello’.

    Me? I thought you were *supposed* to do that, and feel bad when I don’t at least make eye contact once with everyone who passes me.

  50. Jennifer, thanks for the info…(very kind of you to look it up for me)
    I’m gonna pick it up today!!

    As for the “On Thursday..” episode, I just watched it the other day and it is a sad episode. One of the better hour long episodes that they made.

    TZ is one of those things that I never liked when I was younger, and now that I am older I appreciate it much more. My fiance, on the other hand, can’t get past the cheap sets/”overacting” and just finds it cheezy!

  51. You’re quite welcome, Chicago. When I was a very little girl in the days B.C. (before cable), the local indie station showed two-hour blocks of old Twilight Zone episodes on Saturdays from 11 at night through one in the morning. My mother and I watched every week. I thought a lot of them were scary, but I’ve always loved the show.

    And though I’d barely gotten misty-eyed when Bambi’s mother died the week before, I absolutely bawled when Burgess Meredith broke his glasses and couldn’t read his books.

  52. I absolutely bawled when Burgess Meredith broke his glasses and couldn’t read his books.

    I remember my mom telling me about that episode when I was a kid (she had loved Twilight Zone when she was little). Apparently that one made quite an impression on her – and even me since I remember that story well yet I’ve never seen the episode myself.

  53. Anticlimactic Twilight Zone Episodes
    BY JIM STALLARD (at http://www.mcsweeneys.net )
    – – – –

    The Garden

    A spaceship crash-lands on an unknown planet. The two surviving astronauts, a man and a woman, realize the spaceship is damaged beyond repair and that it will be impossible for anyone to come rescue them. They find they are able to live easily off the bountiful vegetation, which provides everything they need?indeed, the setting turns out to be idyllic. Eventually, they procreate and start a family on their new planet. This couple becomes known to later generations as … Richard Benson and Margaret Wilson, crewmembers on NASA’s lost Voyager mission, which disappeared after failing to follow proper emergency procedures.

    All the Time in the World

    A humble bank clerk bemoans the hectic pace of his life because it limits the time he gets to spend with his books. After an H-bomb attack, the clerk emerges from a bank vault to learn that everyone else on Earth has perished. The man becomes ecstatic when he realizes he finally can read as much as he likes. Later, however, he finds he must spend a lot more time foraging for food than he expected, and at the end of the day he just wants to sleep, so the whole thing is a bit of a washout.

    Eye of the Beholder

    In a hospital, her head completely wrapped in bandages, a young woman waits for the result of a last-ditch operation to alter her disfigured face so she will not have to be sent to live at a reservation of outcasts. Throughout the episode, the viewer hears the voices of the doctors and bedside family members but never sees their faces. When the bandages are finally removed, they reveal a plain-faced woman with several visible scars. The woman’s father says the surgeon probably did the best he could under the circumstances and sends his daughter to Sarah Lawrence.

    Where Is Everybody?

    A man emerges from his office to find the hallways mysteriously devoid of co-workers. He wanders the silent, empty building looking for signs of life but finds no trace of humanity other than coffee brewing, purses slung over chairs, and folders lying open on desks. Suddenly, he remembers a mandatory meeting in the first-floor conference room.

    More here.

  54. I fell over laughing at this part:
    Martin ends his book with a bizarre open letter to the Dear Leader, in which, after wishing him all the best, he advises him to hand the country over to “competent and trusted officials,” turn his rule into a monarchy, retire to the South of France or to Hollywood, and thus insure that the Kim dynasty will continue, “perhaps even for thousands of years.”

    Picturing ol’ Kim in Hollywood just brings flashbacks of Team America to my mind.

  55. We of the Film Actors Guild believe in dealing with violent, dangerous people through talk adn reason — that’s the F.A.G. way. One day you’ll all look at the world us actors created and say, ‘Wow. Good going F.A.G. You really made the world a better place, didn’t you, F.A.G.?’

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