Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Thinking for yourself

At The Free Press, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," an excerpt from While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector's Search for Freedom in America by Yeonmi Park. It is a fairly long excerpt, recounting some of what life was like in North Korea, but mostly her rather disappointing experiences after arriving in the United States.
.... It took a long time for me to start thinking for myself, rather than within the boundaries set for me. For the first fourteen years of my life, which is when we learn how to think, there was no thinking for me to do. What kind of haircut should I get? That was a decision made only by the regime. What kind of music should I listen to? The regime decided for us. What kinds of books and movies? The regime, again. There was no opportunity to develop critical human faculties like judgment, imagination, or taste, which of course is the objective of every dictatorial regime.

North Korea is so successful in this respect that once I was finally free in South Korea, I was crippled by the expectation and even the thought that I had to make decisions and think for myself. Which jeans should I wear? I wished someone else would pick for me. Where should I eat dinner? Can’t someone else decide? In the first several months I lived in Seoul, I felt overwhelmed even by small, meaningless decisions like these—so much so that at one point, I remember thinking that if I could be guaranteed a supply of frozen potatoes and an exemption from execution for having defected, I’d like to go back to North Korea.

It was not the education I received at Columbia, or following the American press, that helped me finally break out of this habit. It was reading old books. Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy was one; George Orwell’s collected writings were another. I started to believe, as I still do now, that the only way to think for yourself is to ignore the mainstream media, and largely forget the daily news cycle, and connect instead with the great minds of the past, who know all of our problems better than we do ourselves.

There is a reason why the great books of Western civilization are all banned in dictatorships. Before my father’s arrest, when I was seven or eight years old, I remember that one night in our home, he was sitting with a small glass bottle with cooking oil and a cotton thread inside, which he ignited with a lighter to turn it into a reading lamp. My father was holding a bundle of bound pages with no front or back cover. When I asked him what it was, he said it was part of a book about North Korean soldiers that were captured by the South during the Korean War. I remember him telling me then that the benefit of reading books, if you could find them, was that you could learn common sense, which you don’t get taught in classrooms, because they are filled with propaganda. .... (more)
Yeonmi Park, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," The Free Press, March 22, 2023.

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