Saturday, September 13, 2014

Freedom and the Power of Pop Culture

Living in the Land of the Free as we do in the United States, it’s tragically easy to take our historically unprecedented freedoms for granted. It’s also easy to lose perspective and be unaware of just how significant an impact our culture has on people in less free societies around the world.  

Recently The Guardian reported on a 20-year-old woman now living in Seoul who had managed as a teenager to escape from the totalitarian nightmare of her native North Korea. One example in particular from her tale should serve as a stark lesson for those Americans who have become jaded by the ubiquity of pop culture in our lives, who see its value as limited to mere entertainment.

Park Yeon-mi was nine years old when she and the rest of her school were forced to attend the execution of a classmate’s mother. The poor woman’s capital crime was that she had lent a smuggled South Korean movie to a friend.

Under the brutally repressive regime of the insane Kim Jong-Il (now succeeded by his son, the insane Kim Jong-Un), “there were different levels of punishment” for such a crime, says Park. “If you were caught with a Bollywood or Russian movie you were sent to prison for three years but if it was South Korean or American you were executed.”

And yet Park risked, and others still there continue to risk, their very lives to watch international movies and TV shows smuggled into North Korea and sold on the black market. This contraband – the kind of entertainment to which nearly every American has cheap, casual access 24/7 via YouTube or Redbox or Netflix or iTunes or Amazon or TV with hundreds of cable channels – provided the culturally brainwashed North Koreans with “a window for us to see the outside world.” And that window also gave them insight into their own colorless world.

A single DVD cost about the same as 2 kilos of rice, so her family and her neighbors had to share. “Everyone was hungry so they couldn’t afford to buy many DVDs,” she said. “So if I had Snow White and my friend had James Bond, we would swap.” Getting caught could have meant death, but Park “couldn’t stop watching the movies because there was no fun in North Korea. Everything was so mundane and when I watched them I saw something new and felt hope. Fear didn’t stop me, nor will it stop others.”

As a teenager, it was Hollywood love stories that opened Park’s eyes to the literal and spiritual impoverishment of her native country, she told the Guardian. Among her favorite movies were Titanic and Pretty Woman. “Everything in North Korea was about the leader, all the books, music and TV,” she said. “So what was shocking to me about Titanic was that the guy gave his life for the woman and not for his country – I just couldn’t understand that mindset”:

In North Korean culture, love is a shameful thing and nobody talked about it in public. The regime was not interested in human desires and love stories were banned… That’s when I knew something was wrong. All people, it didn’t matter their color, culture or language, seemed to care about love apart from us – why did the regime not allow us to express it?

“All the foreign movies we saw about love affected me and my generation,” said Park. “Now we no longer want to die for the regime, we want to die for love.” How many of us can grasp the transforming power of such an awakening?

“The other shocking thing about that movie,” she said, “was that it was set 100 years ago, and I realized that our country is in the 21st century and we still haven’t reached that level of development.” That was a life-changing epiphany for the victims of Kim’s culture of propaganda, which insisted that North Korea was a communist utopia. 

Park Yeon-mi’s story should be a sobering revelation for all Americans, but especially conservatives, who too often dismiss pop culture as shallow and decadent, with little if any redeeming qualities. There is a good deal of truth to such criticism, but our TV and movies and music also have the power to inspire hope and a yearning for freedom among people in less fortunate societies. Her tale also highlights the importance of what kinds of messages our pop culture sends abroad – about freedom, morality, prosperity, love, and life.

If only we took our pop culture as seriously as do Park’s compatriots still in North Korea, risking their lives to swap smuggled copies of Titanic and Pretty Woman.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 9/12/14)