A Book, an Outcry, and the Word That Academia Disowned

In Britain, Oxford University has the only department that still bears the title Oriental Studies. Is the name a badge of shame we should be fast to put behind us?

The year is 1978. At the forefront of the British economy, Prime Minister Callaghan and the trade unions lock horns. A succession of strikes permeate the final months of the year, becoming known later by a term, the Winter of Discontent, that paints the politician as a hunchbacked Shakespearean anti-hero. Across the Atlantic ocean, the Palestinian-born public intellectual Edward Said has published a new book. Its title is one word – Orientalism – and with it Said breathes a new field of academic study into existence.

Postcolonialism is born.

His point, put simply, was that the field of Oriental Studies did not aim to present Middle Eastern culture, life, history, and religion, objectively. Instead, existing essays were exercises in self-affirmation. This was not the individuals comprising this corner of academia stroking their ego on a personal level, but stroking the metaphorical ego of the culture that surrounded them. This was, specifically, the culture of the West. The study of the so-called Orient therefore did not exist on its own, and was irrevocably tied to the West, and used as a means of comparison rather than a culture that could be understood by the merits and pitfalls of its own existence.

Indeed, even the word ‘oriental’ seems to reflect this. Used not as an identifier by the people whose cultures the academic field claims to study, it frames the people of the ambiguous, borderless Orient with language the West decided on its own terms during a time of conquest and colonialism. Nowadays, the adjective would be most likely attached to a patterned rug. Applied to people, it holds uncomfortable, fetishizing connotations. This makes it all the more strange that Oxford University, which has been on the receiving end of pressure to “modernise and diversify” for a while, still claims it.

After a YouGov poll revealed that by a measure of three to one, the British public see the Empire as something ‘to be proud of’ rather than ‘ashamed of’, perhaps colonialism is not as dirty a word as it seems. Certainly not, it appears, in the eyes of the majority. By the late 70s, Britain’s age of Empire was a relic of the recent past. In the years that followed the publication of Orientalism, the British Nationality Act 1981 was passed, reclassifying British Crown Colonies as British Dependent Territories, and the term Commonwealth citizen was used to replace British subject. While it may sound pernickety, the change in political language signified a changed attitude, a symbolic end to an age of pain and suffering, and the promise of a new beginning. However the attachment of the prefix post- to the age-old word colonialism suggests these attitudes had far from disappeared.

This is the argument Said puts forward – that cultural domination may no longer be state-mandated (nor with a march of missionaries armed to the teeth with Bibles for those who listen and canes for those that don’t) but it is pervasive, it is not gone, and it is still dangerous.

While it would be inaccurate to say Said was not embroiled with criticism and debate following Orientalism’s publication, it is important to note that most of the literary debates Said found himself marred in came from the scathed side of academia whose work Said used to illustrate his critique. Most notably, was the spat between himself and Bernard Lewis, a British American historian, who derided Said’s work as “anti-West” and and giving “free reign” to his biases. In response, Said disparaged him on a number of occasions in words both eloquent yet undeniably searing.

The arguments of dead scholars may be of questionable influence to the time of now, but it is undeniable that Orientalism had a profound influence on the academic world and its discourse. Becoming the foundational text of Postcolonial Studies, and arguably being the reason for a series of departmental name changes spanning the globe is no small feat. Oriental Studies became Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and Near Eastern Studies, depending on the focus of each respective department. This reflects the acceptance into truth of one of Said’s primary critiques – that the academia he knew viewed anything beyond the borders of the West as monolithic.

While on the African front, the fight against the same view in cultural depictions of the continent and its people continues, when only one university in the United Kingdom, and one in the United States still bear the name it is perhaps not blindly optimistic to wonder if the tides really have changed.

Is the wind blowing the sails of scholarship towards a brighter future of nuance and cultural understanding?

We can hope.

Review: The Propaganda Game

Released in 2015, The Propaganda Game marks my first documentary on North Korea. Significant in that it allows the viewer to formulate their own conclusions, The Propaganda Game avoids succumbing to the same tropes the title suggests it criticises. Directed by Álvaro Longoria, the documentary presents both strong proponents of the regime in North Korean citizens and the unusual character of Alejandro Cao de Benós, a Spanish supporter of the regime who guided the crew, and strong Western critics of the regime.

While creating a sense of balance in the technical sense, the tone of the work as well as the difficult questions it unflinchingly presents makes for an uncomfortable viewing. Rather than establish a position, the documentary simply presents information which the viewer is constantly reminded may be false. Contradictions by both the supporters and opponents of the regime succeed each other, with the material reality of the North Korean nation being called into question at every turn.

Skate parks and smiling citizens may fill frames, but they are anything but visual aids. The construction projects and the people who support them are the topic of the film. Longoria doesn’t invite viewers to passively watch his adventure around the country (albeit guided and controlled), but rather to doubt and challenge.

In this sense, the documentary is masterful in encouraging constant critical thinking. My view on North Korea fluctuated multiple times throughout the course of the documentary’s 98 minute run time. Perhaps my thorough opposition to American imperialism made me susceptible to sympathise with the country a little more so than your average Westerner, but my strong critique of state, indoctrination, and centralisation of power kept me distant. The idea of a country being good or bad feels vastly over simplistic – black and white thinking for a technicolour question – yet the reminder of the crimes against humanity that the regime is accused of committing seem to provide an easier immediate answer than most.

Perhaps it’s unfortunate that the topic of American imperialism wasn’t discussed more. The accusation of the US being inherently dangerous was repeated by the North Koreans (and their strong ally in Alejandro) many times throughout, and a map of the Korean peninsula was displayed on-screen, illustrating the proximity and number of US military bases in the area. There was, however, no mention of the other countries in the world that have horrendous human rights records, yet are not subject to the economic sanctions that North Korea is. Saudi Arabia, with its public executions, use of torture, international law violations, and systematic discrimination against women, is the country that springs to mind, yet its foreign policy with the United States comes in the form of $350 billion arms deals. This, combined with the record of US covert regime change seemingly does give some fair reason to the North Korean view of America, yet this is not presented in the documentary.

What the documentary does present is impressive footage of life within North Korea (or at least the North Korea the guided tour that gives Longoria access to it.) Perhaps the most immediate revelation is that in North Korea there is colour. Far from the greyscale, metropolitan Pyongyang as often portrayed in photographs, the bright attire of North Korean wedding guests dazzles within the first ten minutes. While the eclectic colours would have never been cause for surprise if the setting had been anywhere but North Korea, they were, because it was. The surprise at life in the country, or perhaps the absence of the life Western media has constructed, is addressed by North Koreans familiar with the trickle of foreign tourists and their beliefs. Sensationalist Western media coverage of North Korea is confronted in the documentary. As it turns out, no, Kim Jong-un’s uncle was not fed to dogs, and no, the country never claimed to find a unicorn. Even the strongest Western critics featured in the film denounce these as fake news, with the former originating from a satirical Chinese blog. North Koreans also express surprise at the allegation they only have a number of state approved haircuts to choose from.

In a sense, it’s deeply jarring to see these falsehoods being reported by Western media. I felt an odd but intense flash of anger as a clip played of Bill o’Reilly and his co host reporting the North Korean unicorn tale, laughing and joking about that wild North Korea, what will they do next! There was no invitation to critique, no ‘other side’ of the story to mention. Maybe it was the contrast from Longoria’s direction, which assumes a level of intelligence and critical thinking from its audience and invites them to think for themselves, or maybe it was the overwhelmingly simple narrative to an intensely complex issue that vexed me. Maybe it was the blatant lying. Probably that.

Lying is recognised as fundamentally wrong, regardless of whether it comes in the form of state indoctrination or privately owned media outlets in a society that upholds the right to free speech. Obviously there are different levels to which a lie can damage the lives of others, but as a principle lying is wrong. The presentation of both sides of the wall of misinformation seems to have irritated some outlets, with a reviewer for The Guardian deeming the documentary “flawed by a slightly irritating moral equivalence” but I wouldn’t be so opposed. I very much doubt any Western viewer would begin the film with the average level of distaste for North Korea and end it with love for the country simply for what was shown. The media coverage is presented alongside the state indoctrination the North Koreans education system perpetuates. Never does it feel like both are being presented as equally bad. Seemingly innocent children’s songs and dances transpire into an homage to the Great Leader. The ideology of national unity comes in the form of being Kim Jong-il’s children. He is, according to the members of the country, the father who sacrificed everything to give them their lives. One Western speaker draws parallels between the regime and Christianity. They certainly aren’t unwarranted.

Longoria does not explicitly make his position clear, not for purposes of neutrality, I’m sure, but rather on account of there simply not being enough information for his conclusions to not be treated with the same level of scrutiny as is applied to everyone else who talks over the course of the film. This speaks to a wider point about Longoria’s direction. There is a pleasing absence of an absolute narrative he pushes. I’m sure that makes for frustrating viewing for some, but personally, I welcome it.

The biggest question I was left with beyond the expected so what’s true is one Longoria explicitly asks in the voiceover, and confesses he still has no answer to. Where is the money coming from? How does North Korea fund the vast infrastructure that punctuate so many of the sweeping shots? If not them, who is funding it? From the expenses South Korea would have to undertake for the country to have a Germany-style reunification and the use of the country as a buffer zone between the American military bases and the Chinese border, there are a variety of reasons North Korea’s existence can be beneficial. The North Korean people are notably absent from this. This speaks to a wider theme of all the complexities and questions about what North Korea is perhaps detracting from the real issue of what the regime means for the people who live there.

The Propaganda Game opens with one question but as the film plays out, and more and more conflicting opinions are added, it invites even more questioning and even more doubt. The end shot sees the camera zoom out from Yeonmi Park’s tearful testimony of her experience in the country and her struggle to escape, as more and more media coverage appears. A mix of language blurs and overlaps. North Korean children pledge allegiance to their leader. Footage of nuclear missile launches fill one screen. Both state propaganda and sensationalist Western media coincide within the shot. The Interview plays in the corner. Just before the screen switched to black, I reminded myself, angry I wasn’t already, to look at the screen in which the shot began.

The ending shot provided a visual representation of the propaganda’s influence on the North Korean question. The West are invited by the media to see the country as the embodiment of ridicule. Its leader is to be laughed at. Its people are to be humorously pitied. Kim Jong-un is not given the role of the evil dictator – he is the madman with a God complex. If what Park and Amnesty and UNICEF and every human rights organisation say is true, if Juche is founded not on principles of self-reliance but on subordinating a people to a ruler and a system too strange and complicated when they are never able to accurately assess another system to understand their own, then the sensationalist coverage should be met with condemnation. It takes a question – are the North Korean people subject to human rights violations – twists it into a question of what threat the nation poses to the West to convince viewers that they in fact are the victims of the regime, invites them to laugh and ridicule rather than think and decide, and finally, it profits. That, at least was one of my most confident takeaways from the program. I have no doubt it’s more Marxist than most, but I would hope that other viewers with very different political affiliations would still critique the West. The film certainly won’t condemn you for it.

The Propaganda Game doesn’t answer the viewer’s questions – it invites them to ask more – and it does so masterfully.