Monday, December 29, 2014

Does Korea need laws against hate crimes and hate speech?

Recently, a teenager exploded a homemade acid bomb during a talk show that was held by Shin Eun-mi and Hwang Sun for making pro-North Korean remarks.

In a different case, when a grieving father was going on a hunger strike to protest for an independent investigation to determine what caused the sinking of the Sewol that took his child's life, Ilbe members staged a “binge-eating” counter-protest a walking distance away from the man because they thought that he was being used by progressive lawmakers to destabilize the conservative government.

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According to a Professor Choung Wan, from Kyung Hee University Law School, who was quoted by Claire Lee in the Korea Herald for this article, the former was a terror attack and an act of hate crime whereas the latter was a hate crime that was also an act of violence and discrimination.

In regards to the latter, Professor Choung said, “Expressing your opinion is one thing, but if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”

Hate crimes and hate speech often get lumped together, but I think it is important to distinguish the two. For one, the former is an act that is committed against another individual that violates his right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. On the other hand, the latter is simply a form of speech – though admittedly one of the more vile types.

As such, I thought that it'd be best if I wrote about the two topics separately.

Hate Crimes

As I read what Professor Choung had to say about the matter, I could not help but have some additional thoughts of my own.

Firstly, I had to wonder if Professor Choung thinks it is acceptable to have a government that passes laws that attempt to regulate the content of people's thoughts. A little Big Brother-ish, if you ask me.

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Secondly, even if Professor Choung does think it is acceptable to have such laws, his personal opinion is made irrelevant by the fact that such laws are doomed to fail. Case in point, lawmakers can pass all the laws they want to make people think that prostitution is immoral. None of it will change the fact that prostitution will always remain the world's oldest profession, and theirs the second-oldest; and not by much!

Thirdly, with the exception of those stories that involved the severely mentally ill, I do not recall reading about any crime that was committed against another person out of love. In fact, most criminals either hold indifference or contempt for their victims. Doesn't that mean that almost all crimes are hate crimes? Furthermore, wouldn't that mean that designating some crimes as “hate crimes” but others as not mean that some crimes will be more punitively punished than others for no other reason than some people's arbitrary perceptions of hate?

Furthermore, though it is true that intent matters when a crime is committed, I do not see how designating a crime as being “hateful” does more than the current existing judicial system. For instance, let's say that a man has planned to murder his child in order to collect insurance benefits, and he succeeds in his grisly act. Now let's say there is a second man who planned to murder his child because the child is not his – the child is his wife's whom she had from a prior marriage – and an interracial one at that to boot. This second man despises the child for not being his and for being “a racial abomination.” The second man also succeeds in his grisly act.

In either scenario, would the child be any less or more dead? Would either act be any less or more premeditated?

Yes, intent matters but that is already handled by the justice system.

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Introducing “hate crime” into the justice system does several things:

  • It will attempt to regulate the content of people's thoughts, and will effectively criminalize unpopular thoughts.
  • It will arbitrarily make some laws and crimes worse than others. Though laws can never be completely objective, it is paramount to keep it as objective as possible.
  • It will potentially punitively punish people more than they deserve to be punished. The law is supposed to dispense justice; not revenge. Proportionality is key.
  • It will serve as a redundant law that does nothing that the current legal system does not already do besides serving a political purpose.

What it will NOT do is actually succeed in reducing crimes.

Hate Speech (Part 1)

It's worth repeating that Professor Choung said, “Expressing your opinion is one thing, but if you are hurting others in the process, it’s called violence and discrimination.”

Let's take an example. Let's say there is a man who thinks that all Koreans are an inferior race that ought to be exterminated. Let's also say that this man is very vocal about that belief. However, he does not act upon it, and simply tells whoever is willing to listen that all Koreans should be killed.

Such a man would certainly be considered obnoxious, among other things, but can anyone objectively prove that he has hurt others by speaking his mind? Of course the things that he says could hurt some people's feelings, but hurt feelings are very difficult to quantify. Some people might get into a fit of rage, others might be saddened, while others might not even care.

I doubt that even Einstein can quantify that
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Now if it can be proven that the man incited violence through his words, itself no easy task, then we would be talking about a very different subject. However, like the intent behind the committing of a crime, the incitement of violence is already something that the legal system deals with. The current legal system does not need any further reinforcement from hate speech laws.

Going back to Ilbe's “binge-eating” protest, there is no argument whatsoever that it was done in very bad taste. No one with a properly functioning brain could possibly see that as civilized behavior. But did they actually cause harm to others? I am sure that the grieving father, who has my deepest sympathies, suffered emotional distress. And there are certainly existing laws that deal with that, too. Provided that there is a clever enough lawyer under his employ, I am sure that the man could claim for some damages. However, the man would have been able to do the same had the counter-protesters been members of a French mime troupe who were miming people drowning.

But the important question is whether or not the “binge-eating” counter-protest was an act of violence. Did the act, as atrocious as it was, threaten the man's common rights or civil rights or civil liberties? Did he have to fear for his life or safety? Unless such a case can be made, it is quite farfetched to claim that the counter-protest was an act of violence.

As for Professor Choung's claim that expressing opinions that hurt others is a form of discrimination, I cannot even begin to comprehend how Professor Choung came to that conclusion.

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Hate Speech (Part 2)

Freedom of speech is one of the most important bedrocks of a democratic republic. It is based on the belief that each individual is his own sovereign, and, therefore, has the fundamental right to hold any thought that he deems worthy – even if that thought seems despicable to everyone else in the world. By extension, being prosecuted and/or persecuted for no other reason than for expressing that thought is a violation of that sovereignty.

The fact of the matter is that when people defend the right to free speech, no one ever defends Thomas Jefferson or Nelson Mandela. That is because neither Jefferson nor Mandela needs to be defended. The words that they left behind have moved others to the point that they themselves moved mountains. If humanity ever becomes extinct and we are to be discovered by archaeologists of another species in the future, I greatly hope that they will remember us as the species that produced Jefferson and Mandela, rather than as the species that produced “2 Girls 1 Cup.”

No, we do not need to defend Jefferson or Mandela. What we do need to defend are the dregs – those most offensive and disagreeable. To quote none other than Larry Flynt:

If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you. Because I'm the worst.”

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All over the world, from college campuses to parliaments to anonymous internet forums, more and more people seem to be forgetting just how important free speech is. Many people are all too willing to add a caveat here or a qualification there to say “Hey, I believe in freedom of speech, too, but you can’t say that.”

What many people who accept such a thought hardly ever seem to consider is that the that they consider unacceptable can always change in the future, and not in a way that they might necessarily approve of.

Criminalizing certain actions in order to protect the rights of others is one thing. Criminalizing thought is an entirely different thing that is not only doomed to fail, but also anathema to the principles on which a free society must be based.

Combating Prejudice

What I found most telling about Professor Choung's view of the world was when he reportedly said:

“And there is no ‘natural’ way of combating prejudice. For many, it does not go away ‘naturally.’ That is why we need to regulate hate speech. Seemingly innocuous prejudice may snowball into more pernicious forms (when expressed and shared by many), and result in dangerous consequences.”

Is there truly no “natural” way to combat prejudice? For those who believe that, then by necessity, they must believe that racism in America only began to be combated in 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. Never mind that anti-racist movements can be traced back to the Renaissance. Furthermore, can anyone offer any evidence of regulating hate speech leading to an end or decrease in prejudice?

If Professor Choung is truly afraid of innocuous prejudice snowballing into more pernicious forms when they are expressed and shared by many, wouldn't it make more sense to let people who hold such views to express their thoughts publicly so that they may compete in the free marketplace of ideas? Or does he doubt the strength of his own views that he fears they may wither in the face of binge-eating fools?

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One would hope that a legal scholar would know better than to make statements without offering evidence, and to have given serious thoughts to the unintended consequences of the laws that he proposes.


Article 21, Section 1 of the Republic of Korea Constitution says:

All citizens shall enjoy freedom of speech and the press, and freedom of assembly and association.

Section 4 says:

Neither speech nor the press shall violate the honor or rights of other persons nor undermine public morals or social ethics. Should speech or the press violate the honor or rights of other persons, claims may be made for the damage resulting therefrom.

And Article 37, Section 2 says:

The freedoms and rights of citizens may be restricted by Act only when necessary for national security, the maintenance of law and order or for public welfare. Even when such restriction is imposed, no essential aspect of the freedom or right shall be violated.

The law guarantees the people's right to free speech and already specifies when and how free speech might need to be curtailed. It is true that despite the existence of these laws, people's freedom of speech is not always respected. However, that is a different topic. What is important is that it is difficult enough to protect freedom of speech as it is without having to further contend with hate speech legislation.

The only other argument that those who argue for the passing and implementing of hate speech laws seems to be that other countries have already passed hate speech and hate crime laws. The Korea Herald article makes sure to point out countries like Germany, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Norway, and the Netherlands as paragons of virtue for having passed their hate speech and hate crime laws.

I don't understand how anyone could think that such an argument is convincing or deep.

Engaging in acts that are racist or sexist or any other motive based on hate is ugly. But color me unconvinced and unimpressed when people make baseless claims about the dubious virtues of legislation.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Does Capitalism Breed Nepotism?

By now, most people must have heard about the incident in Korean Air that has been dubbed “Nut Rage.”

For those who are still unaware, a Korean Air executive, Ms. Cho Hyun-ah, who is the airline's head of cabin service and the daughter of the company's boss, created a ruckus on one of her company's planes that was headed from New York to Incheon. Ms. Cho had caused a delay in the flight when she demanded that a senior crew member be removed from the flight when the crew member failed to serve macadamia nuts “properly.” According to the story, the crew member served Ms. Cho the nuts in a bag, instead of serving the nuts on a plate.

When the news broke out on social media, justice was swift and terrible. Ms. Cho resigned from her position as head of cabin service, but continued to be an executive at the company. When that failed to satiate the fury of the Internet mob, she resigned from all of her roles from the company.

Justice had been served. Seemingly.

In a way, I can understand where Ms. Cho came from (assuming that the anger was purely based on her disappointment over improper service; and that her attitude having been the result of being her father's daughter did not play any role in her action).

What she did lack was tact. She could have resolved the situation so much more amicably. She could have given a stern one-on-one pep talk. She could have gently reminded the crew member of the company's regulations about how to properly serve food to first class passengers. However, she chose to be as dramatic as possible and turned herself into a symbol that represents everything that people hate about the rich.

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But we have to go back to the question. Does capitalism, indeed, breed nepotism? This question is not without merit. After all, Ms. Cho is her father's daughter.

However, I am disinclined to agree with the statement. I do not think that capitalism breeds nepotism at all.

Firstly, we have to recognize one thing – no matter how much we may talk about individualism, human society has always revolved around the family. Before meritocracy and individualism, children joining the family was standard practice, and in many ways, it still is.

Well, not all family businesses are created equal
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As time has progressed, with social and economic equality becoming more important to many people, nowadays people like to imagine that they are more ambivalent about family ties. However, there seems very little evidence to say that is actually the case.

Therefore, it would seem that nepotism is far older than capitalism.

Secondly, generally speaking, the children of wealthy parents tend to be highly qualified individuals in their own right. Though admittedly they went to the best schools because their wealthy parents paid for their pricey education, it does not change the fact that they have often gone to the best schools. Furthermore, due to the pressure that is often placed on them to be excellent in whatever they do, they often excel in their own right.

This, too, is much older than capitalism.

Thirdly, what do Benazir Bhutto, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Corazon Aquino, Indira Gandhi, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and Park Geun-hye have in common?

I have heard many people point to these female Asian leaders to express their disappointment with the American people's inability/unwillingness to (yet) elect a woman to the White House. However, those people are only telling a half-truth. What they don't tend to mention is that people from India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Korea appear to be more willing to elect women because people in those societies tend to value family affiliations more.

Whether we like to admit it or not, women's advancement (at least in politics) often seems to begin at the altar.

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Fourth, nepotism is not unique to humans.

So, due to the historical precedence that nepotism has over capitalism, and that it is not unique to humans, it would appear that capitalism does not breed nepotism. However, considering that the rich tend to marry only among themselves, it would seem that at the very least, capitalism does enforce nepotism and vice versa. After all, one of the main reasons why people continue to work to earn more money than they need for themselves is to ensure that they can provide a more comfortable life for their children.

Is there a cure for nepotism? Well, I am not entirely sure if nepotism is actually a disease that requires a cure. More than anything else, it seems like it is an ingrained part of our more inner-psyche that cannot be easily extricated by mere legislation. Perhaps if all humans evolved to treat the rule of law as sacrosanct, we may see changing attitudes toward nepotism (and perhaps even toward the notion of family itself). Until, then, however, whether the prevailing economic system is based on laissez-faire capitalism, crony capitalism, corporatism, welfarism, socialism, communism, or whatever other -ism there is, it seems that we will not be ridding ourselves of nepotism any time soon.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: "A Capitalist in North Korea"

When I saw the book for the first time about three weeks ago, the book called out to me. The title of the book was “A Capitalist in North Korea – My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom.”

As though the title wasn't enough to pique my curiosity, the cover of the book showed a picture of what looks like a typical North Korean propaganda poster – communist revolutionaries looking proudly toward their bright future. However, instead of being represented by a picture of Kim Il-sung or his son or his grandson, the bright future is represented by the Sign of the Dollar.

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I had never heard of either the book or the author, Felix Abt, a Swiss national who was appointed by ABB as its director for North Korea, before. As soon as I saw the book, I knew that I had to read it.

I expected to read about bureaucratic red tape, the effects of sanctions, the “culture shock” of introducing capitalism to a citizenry that has known nothing but the Kim Dynasty's juche, and the slow but sure growth of capitalism in North Korea. I expected to get enlightenment. What I got was disappointment.

The book is only 317 pages long. It should not take more than a couple of days to finish reading such a book. It took me three weeks; and what a painful three weeks it was as I had to figuratively flog myself to finally finish it.

In the first opening pages of the book, he mentions the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan. Despite the mountains of evidence that points to North Korea's involvement in the sinking of the corvette (here, here, here, here, and here), Abt openly doubts North Korea's involvement because “a prominent Korean seismologist and and an Israeli geologist suggested, based on an analysis of seismic and acoustic waves, that the ship probably hit a South Korean mine.”

A bitter taste in my mouth began to form before I even began the first chapter. However, he then immediately says that “all of it plays into a bigger picture of geopolitical bullying.”

The last time I checked, it was the North Koreans who were firing artillery, rockets, missiles, kidnapping foreign citizens, and threatening war against its neighbors.

The book is not without its merits. There were the bits of information that I had hoped for and expected. However, out of the book's 317 pages, relevant information could not have been printed on more than twenty to thirty pages.  The rest of it was utter rubbish.

Abt seems to find it funny as he acknowledges that others have called him North Korea's useful idiot.” But what he does not seem to know is that he also seems to have gone fully native after he had lived in North Korea for so long. By that, I mean that Abt seems to have fully adopted the North Korean method of being as erratically contradictory as often as possible.

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For example, Abt insists that North Koreans are not at all brainwashed. In fact, he compares North Korean propaganda to advertisements that people see in other countries. Specifically, he says “the world businesses engage in another form of propaganda: advertising. The only difference is that it advances a cause of consumerism rather than politics.” To hammer home the point, he also rhetorically asks if Americans “get brainwashed by cravings for McDonald's and Starbucks seeing their logos smothered all over the country.”

Never mind that McDonald's and Starbucks are merely corporations that do not have the ability to arrest or gun down those who do not like their products. But as far as Abt is concerned, they are both morally equivalent.

But I was willing to let it go. Perhaps we did have it all wrong about the North Koreans being brainwashed. After all, he lived in North Korea for seven years. Wouldn't he know better? However, even before I could acclimate myself to believing what he said, he contradicts himself by saying that the patriotic songs that North Koreans sing are not about their love for their country, but rather their love for their leaders. In fact, North Korea's supposedly most popular melody is a catchy tune about how North Koreans cannot exist without “General” Kim Jong-il who has “extraordinary talents and virtues.”

But it's just a song with a catchy tune. Who cares about that? It's true. One song does not brainwash an entire country. But then Abt later says that North Koreans “would jump into torrential floods at the risk of their lives to save portraits of Kim Il-sung.”

He then mentions that “around 40 percent of elementary school classes are on the childhood of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il” and that North Koreans are “taught from an early age to be proud of being Koreans rather than coming from a “less fortunate” race such as the Japanese.” And during art festivals for schoolchildren, kindergartners make drawings titled “Let's cut the throat of US imperialism!”

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According to Abt, North Koreans are so the-opposite-of-brainwashed that a senior party cadre asked rhetorically why North Koreans should have statistics about suicide. After all, “Our people are among the happiest on earth,” the senior party cadre supposedly claimed.

It is a sentiment that Abt seems to share as he adds, “Astoundingly, I never came across people (North Koreans) who would have criticized or even challenged the system, nor did I meet expatriates who had heard about such cases.”

Because your average North Korean, who has learned his whole life to be careful of what he says in front of even those that he loves and trusts, would then outwardly speak ill of the regime to a foreigner?

I suppose Abt thinks that people ought to have their minds so broken that they would become unwitting assassins a la “The Manchurian Candidate” for Abt to consider someone to have become brainwashed.

Another glaring contradiction in his book was about the way Christians are treated in the country. He says:

“A true Christian believer in today's North Korea would be branded as a traitor of the worst kind. During the century before the DPRK was founded, white American Protestants from the Bible belt promoted Christianity as the religion of a superior foreign race, making it today antithetical to the revolution.”

However, a few pages later, he says:

“Despite stereotypes that North Korea overwhelmingly represses the Christian religion, the government usually doesn't see the Lord as a serious threat to its earthly system. I once asked a senior security official if they did not feel threatened by Moon's Unification Church, active in North Korea in the hospitality and car manufacturing industries. He answered quite candidly: “Well, you know, it's a cat-and-mouse game.” It's a never-ending contest that the North Koreans will make sure the other side can never win.”

So which is it? Are North Korean Christians branded as traitors or does the North Korean regime not see Christianity as a threat? As I said, just like the regime itself, Abt appears to have embraced its dual-personality disorder.

At least Jim Carrey tried to be funny
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The part where Abt appears to have accepted North Korean propaganda as his own is when he complains on numerous occasions about the havoc that international sanctions have had on North Korea's economy. He mentions that if it just weren't for the sanctions, the North Koreans would have access to state-of-the-art technology that they so richly deserve.

However, he never once mentions why North Korea is the most heavily sanctioned nation in the world. He mentions North Korea's nuclear tests in passing, but never once stops to ponder that the North Korean leadership has no one to blame for the sanctions that have been placed on it but itself.

Throughout the whole book, Abt does not utter a single word about North Korea being the country that instigated the Korean War or the fact that North Korea secretly bought nuclear technology from Pakistan or that it has launched missiles over its neighbors or kidnapped foreign citizens or conducted terrorist attacks against South Korea in the past (here and here).

The only thing that he said that seemed to make any sense was how ineffective the sanctions were. He claimed that, too often, sanctions do not hurt criminals or government officials, but rather ordinary citizens.

So what does he say when sanctions are finally fine-tuned so that it will only specifically hurt the North Korean leadership? He says:

In July 2012, the UN Security Council released a report on sanctions, according to the AP news agency, which wrote: “No violations involving nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons or ballistic missiles were mentioned in the 74-page report to the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions, published Friday.” On the other hand, the document highlighted North Korea's responsibility for illegally imported luxury goods including tobacco, bottles of sake, secondhand pianos, and several secondhand Mercedes Benz cars. It is stunning that these would be considered serious crimes which the Security Council had to urgently address.”

So now that the Security Council has gotten it right, he thinks it's a waste of time.  How very convenient.

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However, the most outrageous thing that he claims in the book is about the human rights violations in that country, which the world is finally paying some attention to.

Abt admits that anywhere between 120,000 to 200,000 people are being held in prison camps, but then brushes it all aside by saying that that figure “represents less than 1 per cent of the total population.”

He further acts as a North Korea-apologist by comparing that figure to American incarceration rates, because America is “home to the highest documented percentage of prison inmates in the world.” Like as though the conditions of imprisoned Americans could be compared to the North Korean practice of imprisoning three generations of an entire family in gulags for the “political crimes” of one person!

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But then probably to defend himself, he claims:

“While I clearly disavow any human rights abuses in North Korea and anywhere else in the world, I'm a businessman who has never visited any gulag or prison. I am not a human rights expert.”

Seeing how he admits that he is not a human rights expert, one would think that he would remain silent about this topic from here on out. However, he does not.

To be specific, Abt has some choice words about North Korean defectors who speak ill of North Korean human rights violations. He claims that “as 70 percent of them (North Korean defectors) remain jobless in South Korea, they can make a living by selling dubious information.”

There are approximately 27,000 North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea. And there are thousands more who live elsewhere around the world. You would think that if there was, indeed, a conspiracy among North Korean defectors to sell a grand lie, it would be a matter of time before that lie was punctured. But such logic seems to escape Abt.

Abt also adds that “the intelligence services, academics, book authors, journalists, and human rights and political activists who interview these defectors almost ceaselessly after their arrival in South Korea have an impact on their narrative, too. Those who know the North Korean refugee resettlement process in South Korea are aware of how easily individual accounts evolve over time from mild accounts of hunger or seeking economic opportunities to romantic tales of escape against all odds.”

To add the cherry to his insult against North Korean defectors and their testimony, he adds that “while it is a serious issue, North Korea's foes are equally guilty of using rights rhetoric as a political tool to further isolate and corner the regime.”

Like as though the regime did not isolate and corner itself for decades with its juche and songun policies.

In a different but related issue, Abt also says that throughout his seven years in North Korea, he had never seen a single starving person. To be specific, he claims, “In the mid-2000s, I did not come across starving people, though I did see scores of thin Koreans who looked malnourished.”

I suppose that it's possible that Abt had never seen this young woman or others like her (see here, here, and here). But do they not exist because he had never seen them? In his mind, it seems to be so.

And what does Abt have to say about those videos of North Koreans who are foraging for food? They're not starving! He claims that foraging for food is a traditional pastime. To be specific, he says:

“What many outside North Korea generally ignore is that the much-quoted “foraging for food” is an age-old North and South Korean tradition, a result of the absence of arable land in the North to grow crops. For centuries, Koreans from all over the peninsula have consumed wild mushrooms and edibles – long before the foundation of the DPRK – and they still love to eat them.”

Of course. That must be why so many South Koreans also go out to forage for food everyday. Oh right. They don't.

But just so that Abt makes it clear that there is hunger in North Korea and that the North Korean government is doing its best to “take care of its people,” Abt says “Amazingly, Kim Jong-il was, unlike other Asian leaders, highly enthusiastic about potatoes and soybeans and gave them a role in agricultural development.”

Abt never mentions that it is likely that other Asian leaders were not enthusiastic about potatoes or soybeans for their own countries' agricultural development because they did not have to be.

There are far too many other contradictions that he writes, as well as far too many statements that cannot be taken as anything other than the defense of the North Korean dictatorship. In fact, I dog-eared all the pages that I felt contained such statements. If I mentioned every single instance of this, however, I would have to scan and upload the entire book!

Despite Abt's insistence that he is apolitical, this book is essentially a political book more than anything else; and it is excruciatingly awful. In Abt's narrative, North Korea is not evil in the slightest bit. In fact, there are plenty of other evil regimes in the world, which, therefore, naturally, exonerates North Korea of all its sins. And if it has sinned, Abt never saw any of it! He's just a businessman, for heaven's sake! Nobody is either good or bad. Never mind reality!

Truly “A Capitalist in North Korea” can be called enlightening only by devaluing the term.

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Throughout this entire book, it is amazing how Abt manages to sustain an oozy, cynical tone, which is the book's most striking feature. Its sheer stupidity is disgusting and without reprieve. Its sense of morality is non-existent. From almost any page of the book, I could hear a hollow, ghostly voice droning on repeatedly “There is no good or evil – it just is.”

Well, I saw evil in the pages of this book. And I saw that evil was impotent, irrational, stupid, vain, and blind.

If anyone chooses to fork over their hard-earned money for this book, I will certainly not try to dissuade them. After all, who knows how to best spend their own money than the individuals themselves? However, if there is anyone who still wishes to purchase this book, might I suggest a cheaper and more practical brand of toilet paper? Charmin, perhaps?

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Where John Oliver gets Ayn Rand Wrong and Right

A few days ago, John Oliver from HBO's “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” presented a three-and-a-half-minute long segment entitled “Ayn Rand – How is she still a thing?”

To those unaware, I have considered myself a student of Objectivism and have been studying the philosophy for many years. So, when I watched the segment and saw that it was full of the same kinds of ridiculous attacks against Rand that have been around for decades, I simply rolled my eyes and went about the rest of my day. However, I also had the sense that it was only a matter of time before the video would soon spread all over the Internet.

I was right.

There are people who claim that “Last Week Tonight” is a comedy show and that it is meant for a laugh and not to be taken seriously. However, the problem is that people DO take these comedy shows seriously. I have seen a lot of articles that said that Jon Stewart, John Oliver's previous boss, was one of the most trusted names in news (see here and here). And now similar things are being said of John Oliver as well.


Whether that means that people trust comedians a lot, or they just distrust other news shows a lot is a different question. However, the fact of the matter is that comedian pundits have become one of the most seriously-treated modern-day arbiters of “knowledge.” I find it quite disheartening.

Seeing how John Oliver is a well-known and beloved comedian with his own TV show on HBO and I am but a small-time blogger, it is very unlikely that this (admittedly) lengthy post that details where John Oliver went wrong with his criticisms of Ayn Rand will get nearly as much publicity as his three-minute video.

But, well, I have time on my hands today and this is a topic that I am passionate about. So these are the things that John Oliver got wrong about Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

1. “Ayn Rand became famous for her philosophy of Objectivism, which is a nice way of saying being a selfish asshole.”

The people who made this video are either intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting Ayn Rand from the get-go. Yes, the word “selfishness” is very much associated with Ayn Rand. But what did she mean by “selfishness?” Did she mean it the way the makers of this video did by comparing it with Drake's song when he said, “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you,” or when that woman said “I will fucking kill you?”

No, certainly not. To find out what she meant by “selfishness,” check this link here.

One of these things is not like the others

2. Ayn Rand's quote taken out of context – “Why is it good to want others to be happy? You can make others happy when and if those others mean something to you selfishly.”

This was the part of the video that probably got a lot of people thinking that Ayn Rand's selfishness was, indeed, about “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you.”

But you have to take the interview into context. The clip was taken from an interview that she gave to Tom Snyder and you can find the entire 30-minute video here. The philosophical topics being discussed prior to her talking about the happiness of oneself and the happiness of others were about sacrifice, altruism, and Immanuel Kant.

Can you imagine modern-day talk shows talking about such heady subjects?  It would be the fastest way to get canceled!

Now listen to the whole segment of what she said about the topic of happiness in that lecture, instead of the five second clip that those comedians cherry-picked. The segment is from 21:32 to 24:22. It is hardly a case of “It's all about me, don't give a fuck about you.”

3. “Stories of rapey heroes complaining about how nobody appreciates their true genius.” (Part 1)

That snide comment about “rapey heroes” was taken from “The Fountainhead,” when the main character, Howard Roark, supposedly “rapes” the female heroine, Dominique Francon. Thus began the myth that Rand was somehow pro-rape.

I don't have a link to what Rand said about the rape scene so I will copy/paste from the book “Letters of Ayn Rand.”

But the fact is that Roark did not actually rape Dominique; she had asked for it, and he knew that she wanted it. A man who would force himself on a woman against her wishes would be committing a dreadful crime. What Dominique liked about Roark was the fact that he took the responsibility for their romance and for his own actions. Most men nowadays, like Peter Keating, expect to seduce a woman, or rather they let her seduce them and thus shift the responsibility to her. That is what a truly feminine woman would despise. The lesson in the Roark-Dominique romance is one of spiritual strength and self-confidence, not of physical violence.

“It was not an actual rape, but a symbolic action which Dominique all but invited. This was the action she wanted and Howard Roark knew it.”

Now was it unfortunate that she used the word “rape?” It certainly was. The word has some strong meaning behind it and it has gotten much stronger since Ayn Rand used it.

Now there is certainly an interesting factoid about Rand that Professor Jennifer Burns mentioned in her book “Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Free Market.” When “The Fountainhead” had been just published, one of the reasons for the book's success was the torrid love scenes, which some could consider as an early form of BDSM-literature. During a book signing, when a member of the audience asked Rand whether the sex scenes were based on her own sexual experiences, she supposedly uncharacteristically playfully said something along the lines of it merely being her fantasy.

Now, I am a Redditor. And while browsing Reddit over the years, I have come across on numerous occasions when people have made confessions of their BDSM and rape fantasies. The stories were all the same – they were confused, they knew rape to be immoral and illegal, they felt guilty, and they didn't know what to do. Many commenters, however, did not reproach them. In fact, many commenters said that such fantasies were not all that bizarre and that there is a community that engages in “rape fantasies,” all practiced with mutual consent – that the healthy thing to do is to talk openly about it with compassionate people who will not label them as freaks for being different.

People can be very understanding. Until Ayn Rand's name is mentioned. Then she just becomes “rapey.” Seeing how so many people tend to project their life experiences onto out-of-context quotes or misquotes of Ayn Rand, she really is a Rorschach test.

Did you know that this character can also be traced back to Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism?

4. “Stories of rapey heroes complaining about how nobody appreciates their true genius.” (Part 2)

Ayn Rand's four major works of fiction were “The Fountainhead,” “Atlas Shrugged,” “We the Living,” and “Anthem.” I have read them all and not once have I ever come across any of her heroes complaining that nobody appreciated their true genius. In fact, not caring about the opinions of others is one of their central characteristics.

Case in point, this is a clip from the movie adaptation of The Fountainhead,” which the original clip mocked, that shows Howard Roark having a short conversation with the story's main villain, Ellsworth Toohey.

5. The clip that compares Howard Roark's selfishness to the “selfishness” of spoiled children in “Super Sweet Sixteen.”

The following is what Ayn Rand said about pride.

Obviously, those sixteen-year-old children most likely do not possess the pride that Ayn Rand talked about.

So comparing the selfishness, the pride, and the self-esteem that Ayn Rand advocated to that of spoiled children is simply yet another example of intellectual laziness.


6. “Ayn Rand has always been popular with teenagers but she's something you're supposed to grow out of like Ska music or handjobs.”

Firstly, this one sentence contains several logical fallacies and it will take more time than it has already taken to tackle each one of them.

Secondly, I prefer not to respond to insults.

7. “Mark Cuban's favorite book is about a misunderstood visionary who blows things up when he doesn't get his way.”

Please, allow me to set up a hypothetical scenario for you. Let's say you are a photographer who wishes to make it big. And let's say that a bona fide expert said that he likes your photos; that there is real potential for getting them published in a fancy magazine or to open your very own gallery in Gangnam. However, there are conditions.

In order to get more Koreans to like and want to buy your photos, you have to take more pictures of white people eating kimchi while giving a thumbs up. And preferably this will all take place on Dokdo while they are stomping on a Japanese flag. He then assures you that those pictures will be a big hit and that you will earn a generous sum of money for them as well as a glowing review in all the major newspapers in the country.

Would you take such a picture for that kind of prestige or honor or money? Or would you refuse and continue to take photographs the way you like?


Ayn Rand's point was not simply about throwing tantrums if you don't get your way.  Claiming that “The Fountainhead” was a story about an architect and his profession is analogous to claiming that “Animal Farm” was about farm animals.

Assuming that the judgments and decisions that you have made were reached via an intelligent and rational thought process, it was about staying true to your principles; about not giving an inch to those who are mediocre.

8. “Cuban even named his 287-foot yacht “Fountainhead,” because sometimes, having a 287-foot yacht just isn't enough to warn people you're a douchebag.”

Why is owning that big of a yacht a sign of being a douchebag? Now, personally, I have never heard of Mark Cuban before. I don't know him or anything he has said or done. Maybe he IS a douchebag. I don't know if he is or not.

But why is owning a big yacht a sign of being a douchebag? Did he steal it? I think it would be difficult to steal a boat that big and not be questioned by the police, no? Or does being rich automatically make someone a douchebag, no questions asked?

This is what Ayn Rand referred to as Argument from Intimidation.

9. “However, Ayn Rand is an unlikely hero for conservatives.”

The only thing that the video got absolutely right was that she has taken strong positions that conservatives would never agree with, especially in regards to abortion, her atheism, and her opinions of President Ronald Reagan. Conservatives have indeed cherry-picked bits of her ideas that they like while discarding the rest.

The following is what Ayn Rand said about conservatives:

That probably explains why while she was alive, conservatives didn't side with her at all.  Many of them found her views toxic.  Case in point, here is what William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of the National Review, had to say about Ayn Rand:

Modern-day conservatives, who have seemingly conveniently forgotten that they used to abhor her, have attempted a type of revisionist history in their selective embrace of Ayn Rand.

By the way, the people who at least initially attempted to side with her by cherry-picking some of her ideas but discarding those that they did not like were the libertarians. For that reason, Ayn Rand HATED libertarians. To her, libertarians were worse than communists. To use an analogy, she probably would have likened communists to barbarians at the gates, and libertarians to sleeper cells within the besieged walls. She thought that by discarding some of her key philosophical views, which she thought were paramount for Objectivism to work, they were undermining the cause of liberty from within.

It's one of those reasons why I find it annoying when Rand-bashers conflate libertarianism with Objectivism and attack both as one and the same thing.

10. “I do not think they (Native Americans) have a right to live in any country merely because they were born here (the United States) and acted and lived like savages.”

This is the big one – hew view about Native Americans. This was something that the people behind “Last Week Tonight” got partly right. She did say it. It was a response that she gave to a question that she received during a Q&A session at the United States Military Academy at Westpoint. This is the full transcript of what she said.

In her book, “Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution,” she spelled out that she rejected primitivism and tribalism, and argued that they are symptoms of an “anti-industrial” mentality. As far as Rand was concerned, a proper civilization was one that respected individual property rights, because the right to property was one of the requirements for man's survival in this world.  Furthermore, she was adamant that a rights-respecting civilization is paramount in order to free Man from men.

However, she argued that Native Americans did not practice private property rights; that they practiced communal “rights” to property, which they used to eke out a subsistence-based life. Therefore, as Native Americans' practices were primitive and did not respect individual rights, the sort of thing that people need in order to live rational, independent lives, she argued that they were savages.

Therefore, she argued that Western colonialists who came to the New World armed with the knowledge of rights, ipso facto, had the right to take the land for their own use.

So, when she used the word “savage,” contrary to what the video insinuated, she did not mean that they were redskinned humanoids. She was using the word as the word actually means – a member of a people regarded as primitive and uncivilized.

Regardless of what she meant, however, she was wrong.


Yes, it's true. I, a student of Objectivism, am publicly stating that Ayn Rand was wrong about the subject of Native Americans.

For one thing, history has shown that Native Americans DID have private property rights as can be seen here.

Furthermore, the United States Constitution, which Ayn Rand was (mostly) a big fan of, can trace its roots to, among other things, the Iroquois Confederacy.

For other views about Native Americans and private property rights, I found this page on Reddit to be particularly helpful.

The only thing that Ayn Rand knew about Native Americans was that when they were still powerful enough, they killed scores of European colonialists. However, she never mentioned how Europeans took part in the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

Did that mean she was racist? No. Considering what she thought about racism and what she thought about Native Americans, it is unlikely that she cheered their being slaughtered, but it is also unlikely that she was particularly sorry to see them go the way of history. Either way, she was wrong about them being primitive savages.

Now how did Rand, who was such an intelligent person, get this one so dead wrong?

I honestly don't know. She liked to claim that all of her judgments were based on a rational thought process based on the knowledge that was available. So... was she truly being rational all the time and did she not let bias cloud her judgment at all? Perhaps not. I am of the opinion that no one is really unbiased. We can try to be as unbiased as we can (the key word here being “try”), but I think that our own limitations as human beings prevent us from being completely unbiased.

Or was it because history text books at that time weren't giving accurate information about Native American history? I don't know. I'm not an expert about how American history was taught from the 1920s to the 1970s. Perhaps someone else who does know can expound on that topic.

If the way that American history was taught at the time, especially about Native Americans, was, indeed, inaccurate, then I think we can chalk this one up to her being the product of her times.

However, if the way that the history of Native Americans being taught to the general public in that era was not all that different from the way it is taught today, which I find doubtful, then, at least as far as this topic goes, Rand would have been guilty of being intellectually lazy, too.


So, she was wrong about Native Americans. Was she wrong about other things, too? Certainly. I definitely disagree with the way she portrayed the power-dynamics that occur between men and women. She thought that women always had to be “under” men – that women could not be happy if they tried to be “above” men. I disagree with that.

There are things that Rand said that I, and probably other Objectivists, too, disagree with.

So why do I still like Rand so much? Well, firstly, I have concluded that she tended to be right more often than she was wrong.  Secondly, there's a reason why her philosophy is called “Objectivism,” and not “Randianism.”

This is what Ayn Rand said about thinking.

Rand did a lot of thinking in her day. She was right about a lot of things, and she was wrong about some other things. As a student of Objectivism, I think that I owe it to myself to do my own thinking based on new information and knowledge that is presented to me; and not to rely on everything that Ayn Rand said.

For those who disagree with Rand, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with her.  However, if you are going to disagree with Rand, perhaps it might be a good idea to actually familiarize yourself with her work, rather than rely on the biased commentary of others.