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Mar 18, 2013

North Korea as “Bad Guy”: A Multi-Layered Myth

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“The United States is taking the threat of a ballistic missile attack from North Korea very seriously,” Melissa Block informed us on NPR the other day, sounding very serious herself. To protect us from that threat, the U.S. will station 16 more anti-missiles missiles in Alaska.

“The big questions, of course, are this,” NPR’s Tom Bowman explained: “Would North Korea actually launch a missile against the United States, and would these missile interceptors work? And frankly nobody knows for sure, but the Pentagon says, we have high confidence.”

High confidence that the missile defense will work or that the North Koreans would attack the U.S.? No doubt Bowman meant the former (though “the testing has been a bit spotty,” as he tactfully put it).

But the whole project, with all its ballyhoo and its $1 billion price tag, makes no sense unless the Pentagon also has high confidence that North Korea might indeed attack the United States.

Seriously? North Korea is unlikely to have the technical means to attack the U.S., at least not for many years to come. If they ever get that capacity, their nuclear arsenal, like their military capability as a whole, would still be infinitesimal compared to ours. It takes a microscope -- or whatever equivalent CIA analysts use -- even to see it. That’s not going to change.

Any gesture of attack would give the U.S. license to devastate the small, poverty-stricken Asian land. The exercise would be rather effortless for the U.S. North Korea’s leaders must know that attacking the world’s mightiest nation would mean instant national suicide.  

The whole idea of the North Korean mouse attacking the American elephant seems rather absurd, to say the least. Yet the “threat” is widely reported in the U.S. mass media as if it were an undeniable fact. Why?

Bowman offered an important clue when he said that U.S. anti-missile missiles “are the ones that would actually hit an incoming enemy missile from, let's say, North Korea.” His “let’s say” implies that we are defending against a generic threat, of which North Korea is merely one example. North Korea is just the current actor filling the role of “enemy attacker” that the generic script calls for.

It’s much the same mythic scenario that white Americans have been acting out, and basing policy on, ever since the first colonial militias were formed to fend off the Indians -- the scenario twentieth-century Americans came to know (and often love) as “cowboys versus Indians.” Now, some nation or other has to play the role of Indians.

Since the United States was created, only one other nation -- Great Britain -- has actually launched an attack on U.S. soil. That was a full two centuries ago. But the mythology of homeland insecurity, with its picture of an America constantly at risk of enemy invasion, remains powerful. This deeply-rooted and long-regnant mythology -- with America playing the cowboys and some (any) enemy nation the Indians -- is the lens through which the mainstream of American culture sees the world. It seems totally natural. That’s one reason it’s so easy for the U.S. media, and so many American people, to believe in “the North Korean menace.”

What’s more, in our traditional national narrative the “bad guy” enemy is, by definition, “savage” and thus bereft of reason. So he might well do something as totally self-destructive as attacking us. How often have we heard that North Korea’s leaders are erratic, irrational, and indeed “crazy”?  

Digging deeper we find other, more paradoxical, sources for this old myth’s staying power.

It’s getting harder to see the world through the familiar lens of fear. After the Cold War ended, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, complained: “I’m running out of demons.” He knew that an enormous military budget needs “demons” to sustain it.

A mythology of insecurity needs those “demons” just as badly. American culture is deeply invested in its mythology. Many millions of Americans can hardly imagine what it would mean to be a patriotic American if we did not have potential attackers to resist at all costs. In America, the sense of security that comes from a taken-for-granted mythic narrative needs some nation or other to play the Indians.

But if Powell worried about the absence of “demons” twenty years ago, how much more might a Chair of the Joint Chiefs worry now. The whole tradition of courageous resistance to enemy nations may soon be just a quaint relic of a bygone era, unless we keep on finding “threats to our national security.” North Korea may be just what we need to save the worldview of American patriotism.

Let’s go another level deeper. I’ve been re-reading Alan Trachenberg’s fine study of the “Gilded Age,” The Incorporation of America. Trachtenberg makes a key point about the “cowboys versus Indians” narrative. The story depends on a cowboy using his unique combination of skill and courage to save a whole (white) community from “savagery.” The mythic cowboy is a throwback to the knightly bravado of Launcelot and Galahad. He is popular culture’s way of celebrating the same heroic individualism that Frederick Jackson Turner celebrated academically in his famous “frontier thesis”: “that dominant individualism ... that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends.”

Guns were certainly high on the list of material things that the frontier hero masterfully grasped -- and used, though only in self-defense, to effect great ends, as the story assures us. 

Here’s the paradox that Trachtenberg points out: The “cowboys versus Indians” narrative first came to dominate popular culture precisely when the era of rugged individuals determining the destiny of anyone or anything in the West was in rapidly dying. The real emerging power in the post-Civil War era was the corporation: the ever-growing army of anonymous technicians, managers, and accountants who, each day, gained more and more power over the resources, the culture, and the lives of people in the West.

The growing supremacy of corporations triggered a cultural crisis because it raised such a fundamental question: How could Americans continue to base their lives on their familiar worldview and values? Those had grown up at time when Americans still had reason to believe that they might control a substantial part of their lives through their own choices and actions. Would that old way of life have to be abandoned altogether? Or could some part of it be saved?

One way to save it, Trachtenberg argues -- perhaps the only way -- was in imagination, by creating the mythic tale of the heroic cowboy: “Through such popular fictions, the West in its wildness retained older associations with freedom, escape from social restraint, and closeness to nature.” The ultimate, though unseen, point of the story was to hold on to an old worldview precisely because new realities were rapidly rendering it irrelevant.

That may well be the point of today’s popular story, too -- the one that casts North Korea as the “bad guy” who must be defeated by the heroic U.S. military (witness the recent Red Dawn remake). Enemy “demons” have disappeared because resistance to U.S. -- led multinational corporate capitalism has been largely extinguished in the few places it remained: Serbia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan. Apart from North Korea, only Iran remains on America’s list of inarguably evil nations. And the Obama administration still insists that it might be possible to negotiate our difference with Iran.

That leaves North Korea as the sole irredeemable “bad guy,” the only nation left to play the role of Indian in our long-cherished national tale of global “cowboys versus Indians.”  

In a more theoretical vein, analysts of world affairs have been debating for many years whether nation-states will remain significant actors on the global stage in an age of multinational corporate capitalism. Some argue that even now national borders have become, for all practical purposes, irrelevant as they’re swallowed up by the multinational monoliths. Headlines announcing an increase in U.S. anti-missile defenses to meet the North Korean threat may seem to prove them wrong.

But the lesson Alan Trachtenberg draws from the nineteenth-century cowboy narratives teaches just the opposite: Stories may well become prominent precisely because they are irrelevant to, and stoutly deny, the actual facts of life.   

That lesson is all the more convincing if we look at another, closely related aspect of the “Gilded Age”: the growing call for a more “muscular” American military. The president who trumpeted that call the loudest was the “Rough Rider,” Theodore Roosevelt. TR saw the military as one crucial way to revive “the strenuous life” of rugged individualism and its masculine virtues, which he claimed to have learned from the cowboys on the South Dakota frontier.

It’s no coincidence that TR was also the first president to fight against the monopolistic practices of corporations. For him and many of his generation, corporations threatened to sap the individualistic vigor that was essential to the American way of life. Tales of heroic cowboys and soldiers, both defending Americans against savages, pointed the way toward averting the threat posed by the corporate way of life.

Now, with this threat grown global, stories of a muscular American military response to a savage enemy may serve much the same purpose: reassuring Americans (even if unconsciously) that they, as individuals, still matter and still have some control over their ever more corporatized lives.

The ultimate irony, which was already becoming evident in the “Gilded Age,” is totally obvious today: In the story that Americans tell, their security depends on highly technological weapons built by multinational corporations and wielded by anonymous, bureacratized military managers. The 21st century military “cowboy,” the mythic figure so many depend on to resist total corporate domination, has been completely corporatized.

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