Friday, May 04, 2012

True belief

Imagine this: Elementary school children being taught that their teachers possess the truth, the only truth. Education means memorizing the rules, and learning to marginalize anyone outside of the favored circle. Periodically, the children line up and are required to confess their sins. They invent sins that they believe will satisfy their confessor without provoking excessive punishment. They are taught that they are by inherited nature sinful, and only suffering can repair their fallen nature.

This may sound familiar to those of us who were brought up Roman Catholic a generation or more ago.

But we were not the children I have in mind. I have just read Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14, his chilling account of a young man's escape to the West from one of North Korea's infamous gulags. Shin Dong-hyuk was born in Camp 14, to parents who were selected by the guards and allowed to "breed" as a reward for good behavior. Shin was educated in the camp, if you want to call a smattering of literacy and arithmetic "education." Most instruction was indoctrination and abasement, accompanied by constant hunger and brutal corporeal punishment. I won't detail the horrendous things that happened to Shin in Camp 14, but at age 23 he managed to escape -- as far as Harden knows, uniquely -- and to experience a world beyond the wire that until recently he did not know existed. He was in his 20s before he learned -- from another prisoner -- that Pyongyang existed or that the world was round.

But back to that first paragraph.

I am not suggesting equivalence. As a child, Shin never experienced human kindness, not even from his parents; I was loved by parents and teachers. Shin was savagely beaten as penance for his "sins"; I was once or twice whacked on the palm with a ruler or assigned five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys. When I left elementary school I hadn't read any poet but the Catholics Joyce Kilmer and Alfred Noyes, but I knew that the world was round. Shin's childhood was hell; mine was happy. My teachers, mostly nuns, were dedicated and caring. And the Church of my youth did not have torture chambers, at least not in recent centuries.

Yet, as I read Shin's account of life in the camp I was struck by parallels, and if you've read Bruce Arnold's account of the Catholic industrial schools of Ireland during the same period as my childhood -- The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed Its Innocent Children -- the echoes are more striking. In the case of Ireland, the state betrayed its children by turning their education over to an authoritarian institution that operated on an assumption of Original Sin and without Enlightenment-based oversight.

If there are parallels, they are no doubt common to all authoritarian regimes that claim infallible possession of the truth. The Vatican's recent attempt to bring American nuns into line with the official "party line" is another faint echo from North Korea.

Again, I am not suggesting equivalence, but it would do the patriarchal establishment of the Church no harm to read Blaine Harden's account of Camp 14, and ask themselves if they hear echoes too, no matter how faint and far away.

(It is part of the miracle of Google Earth that you and I can look right down on Camp 14. Given the info in the book, it took me only a few minutes to find it. Click to enlarge.)