According to a Japanese university professor, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il died in 2003. Toshimitsu Shimegura, quoted in The Independent on Saturday, claims that a series of doubles has stood in for Kim since his death, including last August when former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with the North Korean leader to arrange the release of two U.S. journalists.
Doppelganger theorists point out that Kim suffered a serious stroke in 2008. But since then, North Korean media reported 122 official visits he made to “factories, state-run farms, military bases and the rest… to prove, presumably, that Mr. Kim was alive and well and very much in charge.”
Which possibility is less likely? That Kim made a miraculous recovery and adopted a grueling ceremonial schedule? Or that a stand-in cut the ribbons and took the bows? Cynics point out that Mr. Clinton himself has not been real since sometime in the 1980s, when he was replaced by an unprincipled testosterone-driven opportunist.
We should not be surprised that international diplomacy is now the practice of surrogates. Many of our military functions are subcontracted to Blackwater, Halliburton and other branches of Murder, Inc. We outsource torture and invade countries with (often mis) guided missiles. We live in the wondrous age of clones and drones.
Our political discourse is as synthetic as the foods we eat, driven by a demagogic logic that bears scant relation to reality. Our print and broadcast pundits prefer to generate outrageous headlines for a quick ratings spike than to craft helpful or thoughtful commentary. Hence the (oxy)moronic “Fox News” network. Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly are as authentic and toxic as Kim Jong-il, alive or dead.
Television substitutes for millions of “personal” lives. Celebrities act as stand-ins for those who would rather watch than live. Sports and movie stars are grotesquely overpaid because mass audiences find it easier and more comforting to cheer and jeer for designated others than to puzzle out their own, less predictable, existences.
Our addictions to chemical additives and fast food in lieu of natural nutrients make us fat. Our addictions to trash talk and the mindless incitements of half-educated pundits and politicians degrade our mental and emotional functions. We are increasingly unable to differentiate garbage calories from natural energy or malignant chat from substantive civil discourse.
Advertisements once cautioned us to “Accept no substitutes.” But substitutes are mostly what we have now. Was the man who ran for president on a platform of positive change and moral responsibility abducted during his pre-inaugural trip to Hawaii? Replaced by the business-as-usual guy now in the White House, who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to Barack Obama?
Birthers who obsess about Obama’s citizenship are sniffing at the wrong fireplug. It’s not where Obama was born that matters, but where he went.
Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the 1830s that a standing army was a threat to democratic society. We now have the largest standing army in world history. Military priorities supercede our increasingly critical social and civic needs. We squander our resources and terrorize innocent human beings by bombing Afghan villages instead of building schools and highways in our own country or providing health care for our citizens.
Perpetual war is not a valid substitute for rational foreign or domestic policies. Where is the president, the politician or the pundit who will say so?
In a world of surrogates, substitutes and clones, a body-double for Kim Jong-il is not so scandalous. The original dictator – son of another dictator – did not seem all that fabulous a fellow anyway. So it’s hard to mourn his passing, or lament that phonies may be impersonating him.
In fact, maybe whoever’s pulling the strings could design a more humane model of Kim for the coming decades. Then we could follow their lead and improve all the ersatz bull dada which rules our own culture and our own lives.
JAMES McENTEER is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Political Documentaries (Praeger 2006). He lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia.