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What Government Oppression Really Looks Like: An Interview with Michael Malice

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On how Americans talk about their political opponents: “I am delighted by our continued polarization and the fact that each side is unable to communicate with the other.”

On March 6th, writer and political commentator Michael Malice joined Alex Baltzegar of Merion West to discuss the nuances of existing in a dictatorship. Malice is the author of “Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il” and runs comedy blog “Overheard in New York.”  Born in the Soviet Union and one of very few American visitors to North Korea in recent years, Malice is more familiar with what living as a citizen under a dictatorship is actually like than the average person. He describes what it’s like to  journey to a country that rarely allows foreigners and to grow up hearing how governments can control their people with fear.

Although you were born in the Soviet Union, you mostly grew up in the United States. Your parents, however, lived under communism for most of their lives. Could you tell us about the kind of oppressive government tactics your family experienced?

There is a lot of stuff that carries over when you leave. For example,  when you are on the phone with someone in the Soviet Union, you know someone else is listening in, so you have to know how to talk in code. You are always in a state of paranoia, wondering who you are talking to and thinking, “What if this person turns on me?” You have to keep that in mind whenever you are having a conversation. I think this kind of mentality was the most germane thing they talked about.

Specific stories would be more humorous, but it was still very much about this kind of mindset. Especially this idea, which Americans are starting to realize: when people have power over, you they will often use that power in arbitrary ways. It’s important to expect and anticipate it.

You are one of the very few Americans who have been to North Korea. How did that trip come to take place?

The thing with the United States is, if a country is big and we hate them, they are our rivals. Think China and Russia. But if they are small and we hate them, they are our enemies. Think North Korea or Cuba. Traveling to North Korea was legal until very recently. Anyone could have gone. There weren’t any problems, except that it is very expensive.

Therea are a couple of tour guide companies that work with the North Korean government. They are Western tour companies, and their job is to basically to vet anyone who wants to go to North Korea. They take full responsibility for the people they bring in. It’s just a matter of writing a huge check. To get there, you need to fly in to China, and there’s only one flight in and out of China per day to Pyongyang.

For how long did you stay in North Korea?

One week.

How was your week? Did you actually enjoy your time there?

“Enjoy” isn’t the word I would use. I wrote a piece about it for Reason Magazine two years ago. It was extremely revelatory. When you see all these people in their natural habit, so to speak, and you realized they are all prisoners for no reason, that should take the enjoyment out of any trip.

How would you compare present-day North Korea to the former Soviet Union?

It is much worse by far, in every way conceivable. There is absolutely no comparison. In 1956, Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his very famous “secret speech” where he denounced Joseph Stalin and he liberalized the Soviet Union very heavily. He started closing down the gulags, and other things like that. He ended the terror. Then, all of the other countries in the world followed suit, for the most part. But not North Korea. They doubled down. They continued down the Stalinist road.

For example, when my family and I left in the late 70’s, there was a huge sense of cynicism in the Soviet Union. You could pretty much say what you wanted to say, and you were very much aware of the outside world to some extent. You listen to popular music. You can wear popular clothes. North Korea doesn’t have any of that.

Even Stalin had fake trials, where people would be forced to make confessions. So there was a pretense of legality. North Korea doesn’t even have that. When you are punished in North Korea, your whole family is taken. And there is no trial. So it’s worse even than Stalinism.

North Korea is also more secretive vis a vis the outside word. Under Stalinism, the newspapers would still talk about the outside world and you would have information– to some extent. There would also be a limited number of times you could enter and leave the country. None of this is true in North Korea.

So you would say there has been no country in the history of the world that has this kind of control, from top to bottom, the way North Korea does?

For this amount of time, correct. Even Hitler, who is the worst of all, still reigned for only a very finite period compared to this. This is going on around 70 years now.

We have heard a lot of talk from the Left about President Trump being  authoritarian or dictator-like. Of course, many on the Right made similar remarks about President Obama. As someone who is more familiar with dictatorships than the average person, what do you make of this rhetoric?

I am delighted by our continued political polarization and the fact that each side is unable to communicate with the other. I think we have had at least two cultures in this country from the beginning. The faster we escalate the breakdown in our alleged political discourse, the better it will be for everyone involved. You hate Obama. You hate Trump. Why are you getting married? Go separate and live your life in peace, and you don’t have to think about each other anymore. Like you said, eight years ago we hear, “Obama was born in Kenya; he’s a Muslim; he wants to destroy America.” Now you hear, “Trump is Hitler; he wants to destroy America; he’s a Russian.” There is really no reason for this to continue. It is just an artifact of our history.

I watched your interview with Dave Rubin and I remember you saying you were an anarchist. As a more conservative/libertarian leaning person, I can agree with you that government isn’t good for many things. Now you say you’re an anarchist. Does that mean you think the best solution to many of our problems is to abolish government completely? Or do you support the sort of constitutional limitations on government like the United States has?

First of all, there aren’t any Constitutional limitations. That’s a lie. It’s a conservative fantasy. The Constitution has never worked as promised since day one. The articles of sedition, which was an attack on free speech, were within what? The Second or Third Congress? Thaddeus Stevens, who was one of the Radical Republicans and in Congress before President Abraham Lincoln, said explicitly, “If we looked at the Constitution, we couldn’t be doing half the crap we’re doing.”

Even President Thomas Jefferson, who was supposedly the big Constitutionalist, as soon as push came to shove with the Louisiana Purchase and other things, he said, “To heck with it. I’m just going to do what I want.” What I find crazy is the conservative appreciation for how bad the government is at doing everything, and inefficient and harmful. Therefore, the conservative answer is, let’s put ourselves in charge of the really important stuff. It is a complete non-sequitur.

Some in the media and in positions of power, especially on the Right, have proposed bombing North Korea to eliminate the threat the country poses to the world. I’m guessing you wouldn’t support that position, but what do you think would be the best way to deal with North Korea?

I think I would rather deal with people who say things like that. If you are advocating bombing 25 million people who are enslaved hostages, you are an abomination of a human being. You should never speak in public ever again. It is vile and reprehensible. Here’s an example: let’s suppose my neighbor came up to me and said very hurtful and nasty things to me. If my response is to kill his family and burn down his house, that is the equivalent to what these people are saying. Plus, you have to make sure you bomb them so well it works, because you are only going to have one shot. The fact that people can say this with a straight face is unconscionable to me.

There is no easy answer to the North Korean situation. They have intentionally dug themselves in very well. This did not happen overnight, as I lay out in my book. But I would say the most important thing to realize is that these people are suffering, and that these citizens would be the first ones to be the victim of any military attack. Make sure to approach this issue with that in mind.

They have been taught since birth that we are going to invade and kill them all, like we tried to do, supposedly, during the Korean War.

Thank you for joining us today.

Thank you for having me.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Follow Michael Malice on Twitter.