Kim Jong-Un as a cult leader

In 2008, on an autumn day in Seoul, my husband and I hiked the mountain behind Yonsei University. Part way we came upon a group of young men in camouflage digging a long ditch. What were they doing, we asked in English. They were South Korean soldiers digging a trench in case North Korea invaded. North Korea’s threat became real to me.

Two semesters in Seoul and one day in North Korea do not qualify me as an expert on the peninsula. The day trip north, though, made me aware of how short a distance the border is from Seoul, one of the planet’s most densely populated cities.

A novel I’m reading, set in the compound of a cult, brings to mind the Jonestown Massacre, where 900 of Jim Jones’s followers drank cyanide-laced fruit punch. If we have learned anything from groups like that, it is that cult leaders don’t operate out of what many of us consider rational behavior. For the leader, at least, submitting to someone else’s authority is worse than death.

It’s no stretch to believe that Kim Jong-un, like his father, is a cult leader. He has convinced the North Korean people that no matter how bad things are, it’s worse everywhere else. He also promotes paranoia: the U.S. is set on annihilating their country. All sacrifices the people make are for a greater good.

In Kim’s apocalyptic world view, violence and destruction are inevitable. He can justify the murder of a half-brother and uncle, the imprisonment and oppression of the North Korean people. Perhaps North Koreans have come to accept that if they are going to die anyway, their Supreme Leader will at least be in control of their final days.

Meanwhile the U. S. military acts as if Kim might respond according to our rationality. Place a battleship nearby, rattle the sabers. He’ll see our resolve and back down.

What we know about cult behavior, though, suggests that it’s hard, if not impossible, to predict the leader’s and his followers’ reactions. An apocalyptic end that includes bombing Seoul may be more alluring than all other options.

Sure, we may prevent Kim from producing a missile that can reach the U.S. But Seoul, with its population of over 10 million, is just 35 miles away.

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Is Hillary so dishonest?

Mom was the nurturer, greeting us when we came home from school, preparing our meals. Dad was the boss, the enforcer of rules, often with the palm of his hand. This clarity of roles gave us a sense of security.

Nowadays Mom goes to work and Dad has relinquished much of his authority. The old order has shifted in other ways. If we’re white or heterosexual we’ve lost assurance of our superiority. Black and white intermarry; homosexuals marry. On the global stage the clear issues of the Cold War have vanished, replaced with a militant Muslim enemy that strikes unexpectedly. Our lifestyle of big cars and unlimited use of electricity is affecting Earth’s climate, a science beyond our comprehension.

We older folks yearn for Mom and Dad—as they once were. Enter Donald Trump, the authority figure who’ll return our country to how it used to be.

But Hillary—she doesn’t behave the way a mother’s supposed to. She’s not a national nurturer but a trained lawyer who as a senator voted on complex issues; who as Secretary of State negotiated with leaders of other countries. She’s been hardened by battle.

Anyone who’s seen TV commercials, even if they’re muted, recognizes the little green creature advertising Geiko and associates the Statue of Liberty with Liberty Mutual. The purpose of repetition in advertising is to keep a product in the viewer’s mind, to repeat an idea so often that it’s finally accepted as truth

So it has been with Hillary’s reputation. Since 2008 Republicans have anticipated her candidacy in this election and committed themselves to eroding the perception of her character. They exploited the Benghazi attack, sponsoring multiple investigations and repeating the message that she couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth. They exploited her using a private email server, though other government officials have done the same. All the while the press allowed itself to be manipulated into continuously analyzing opinions about her integrity—until her dishonesty was taken as fact.

I’m not suggesting Clinton is beyond reproach. Her experience is so broad there’s something in her voting record or foreign policy actions to offend anyone. I am convinced, though, that public perceptions of her dishonesty are the result of a non-stop propaganda campaign.

Our job as voters in this election isn’t to choose the most nurturing mother or the most intimidating father. It’s to select an individual who understands and supports the Constitution, who appreciates the complex web of international relationships, whose knowledge is respected worldwide.

A person who firmly believes in “liberty and justice for all.”

Pope Francis and the world beyond our experiences

Every Friday my high school English teacher tested the class on a list of vocabulary words. Lately one of those words has been swirling around in my mind. Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Until this past week the 2016 campaign—who’s ahead, who’s lagging, who made some ridiculous statement—had lured many of us into thinking American politics, “our own experiences,” defined reality. This belief both entertained us and fueled our animosities. It led us to ignore the rest of the world—except those we fear.

Then Pope Francis arrived and called us out of our solipsistic thinking.

Not by scolding us or denouncing our sinfulness. He did not preach against a self-centeredness that builds a wall along our southern border, or cuts funds to our children’s education. He did not chastise us for denying dignity to those imprisoned or the homeless. Instead he reminded us of our heritage. Before Congress he cited four individuals who exemplify the best in our character: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of us listened and said, “Ah, yes, we ARE people of compassion, courage, hope, and spirituality. People who value all human life and work on behalf of others.”

During the interfaith prayer service at Ground Zero, Muslim and Jew recited a litany of peace. A stage full of women and men whose lives are grounded in different religions prayed to the One who guides them. Francis, by his presence, called us all to open our minds to others’ faith traditions.

Throughout his homilies the Pope reminded us that every refugee has a human face, a personal story. Every individual who lost his or her life because of the attack on 9/11 had a human face, a personal story. Every person trying to survive homelessness has a human face, a personal story. Every woman and man in prison has a human face, a personal story.

Solipsistic: being self-centered; thinking our own experience is the only reality.

Francis came to us not as a man of power wanting to convince us that his reality is the correct one. He came not as a saint, but as a servant. Not as a solipsist, but as one who lives for the world. He reminds us of compassion and generosity, virtues that are part of every culture and religion when practiced with humility.