Bryan Caplan  

Dear Reader Almost Passes the Ideological Turing Test

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Michael Malice's Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il is not what I expected.  I thought it was going to be a hilarious mockery of North Korean totalitarianism.  Instead, it's an almost pitch-perfect simulation of the autobiography Kim Jong Il would have written.  Except for the conclusion, Malice's book comes close to passing my Ideological Turing Test.  He writes North Korean propaganda like a true believer.  A typical passage:
Day and night, I read the Marshal's works on the Juche idea and made it the sole criterion for the rest of my thinking.  But in order to understand the origins of the Marshal's works, I studied the Marxism-Leninism that inspired him.  And in order to master Marxism-Leninism, I studied the bourgeois philosophers which the founders of Marxism-Leninism read so critically.  I enjoyed reading the classical German philosophy which culminated in Kant and Hegel - and I was put off by the many fallacies preached by the English economists and the French Utopian socialists.


After all my study, I concluded that, in fact, Marxism-Leninism was wholly correct.  It was an indictment of the inhuman nature of capitalism, and it put the worker class on the stage of history.  It was an inspiration, a call to drive bourgeois exploiters and plunderers to destruction.  Yes, Marxism-Leninism was wholly correct - but only under the historical conditions under which it had been founded.

I rejected dogmatism in learning and upheld creativity - and I deduced that Marxism-Leninism was not a dogma but a creative theory.  It had been necessary to creatively apply its principled to develop a new system meeting the new requirements of the new revolution.  And that was precisely what Prime Minister Kim Il Sung had done.
How good is Malice's mimicry?  Compare the text above to Kim Jong Il's Giving Priority to Ideological Work is Essential for Accomplishing SocialismRandom passage:
To maintain socialism and lead it to victory, we must intensify ideological work.  Only when we have solidly armed the popular masses with socialist ideology and strengthened the ideological bulwark of socialism can we consolidate and develop socialism and firmly defend it from any storm.  This has been clearly proved by revolutionary experience.  If it secures ideology, socialism will triumph; it if loses ideology, socialism will go to ruin.  This is a truth that has been substantiated by history.
The downside of Malice's skill is that book isn't very fun to read.  You really feel like you're listening to a Communist dictator rambling on and on.  But if you want to learn how to accurately state views that any sensible person would reject, read Dear Reader!

COMMENTS (6 to date)
Bostonian writes:

The Soviet Union collapsed. China is governed by the Communist Party but is no longer communist. Why has North Korean communism been so resilient?

Tim writes:

This is really disappointing to hear because all the interviews he did panted a picture of someone writing a truly serious work that highlighted the evils of the Kim regime.

What you've described is someone writing a book that apologies for its excesses.

Rick Hull writes:

Where To Invade Next is a great example from 2008. The Amazon reviews are interesting.

Daublin writes:

It rings true to me, based on the passages you quote.

However, you are not the right judge to decide this issue. I am very curious how the book comes off to someone more sympathetic to communism.

Eric D. Dixon writes:

Not all satire amounts to blatant mockery or parody, and the most effective satire doesn't fall into those narrow subcategories.

Dear Reader is maybe most similar in style to the first-person character columnist narratives in The Onion, most of which take an absurd premise and then play it almost entirely straight without obvious winking at the readers.

George Carlin described an extreme form of this comedic style in The Aristocrats, when he pointed out that one of the best ways to make the description of absurdly monstrous acts work as humor is to present them as a completely matter-of-fact narrative, as though you're describing how to assemble a carburator. Treating it like wacky slapstick robs it of its satirical power.

So, yes, there's a surface sense in which this book could pass an ideological Turing test, because it's intended to be presented matter-of-factly from a monstrous first-person perspective. The very fact of that straight presentation in a satirical context, though, ensures that nobody reading the book will come away from it with a favorable view of Kim Jong Il or the rest of the north Korean regime. Rejection of that perspective by sensible people is the whole point of the book. That's how satire works.

Anders Mikkelsen writes:

I think this review might be a bit misleading.

Comparing the two passages Bryan Caplan selected there is a clear difference between them.
The North Korean passage makes the fairly obvious point that for the (totalitarian) state maintaining ideology is essential. Without that the system falls apart.
The part quoted from Michael Malice's book is explaining to the reader how North Korea went from Marxism to it's current system. I think the system described is shocking to people familiar with what Marxism is supposed to be. The book makes it I think clear that it was in fact shocking to other Communist countries. This makes for an obvious question, how did it end up there? Michael Malice's book does the service of both explaining how crazy the system is, even with in the context of other communist countries, and how it got there.

Michael Malice is doing this within the constraints of the evil villain telling his own self serving story. It is a great unreliable narrator book. Particularly impressive is that it is all '100% True.' Michael Malice is using a combination of incidents that actually happened, and the fictions actually published in North Korean propaganda.

I could see how the book is difficult and not fun to read. It does have lots of great hilarious lines, and a lot crazy stories. However it is also about an unpleasant subject, and with an unreliable narrator one has to constantly read between the lines and try to figure out what was really going on. I found certain parts truly heartbreaking and horrifying. I also think listening to an evil villain talk about himself can also be difficult, but I also think it makes for a very unique book and is darkly funny.

If I had any say in the matter I would have recommended the book come with a historical commentator or footnotes, so it easier to understand how the narrative contrasts with the known history of North Korea. It would also be fun to have an edition where Michael Malice gives commentary on parts of the book (maybe multi-media, with videos or audio of Michael Malice talking about the book.)

The book will give some insight in to the questions of the commenters, e.g. Why has North Korean communism been so resilient? It is also not an apology. Anyone closely reading it can tell it is a monstrous system. I can't recommend it for someone who doesn't want to take the time to closely read it, and one may also need to use the google machine on the interwebs to really understand what some parts are actually referring to. All in all it gives a great insightful history of North Korea, a country and state which popular culture has many misconceptions about. Also it really does have some really funny lines. It sure beats slogging through the actual North Korean propaganda.

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