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Playing with Dictators
March 17, 2008 6:15 AM   Subscribe

Playing with Dictators - an editorial on the New York Philharmonic's decision to play a concert in North Korea. One musician's account of the performance.
posted by Wolfdog (24 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is the Philharmonic’s decision to “sugar the pill” Western condescension, or flat-out appeasement? You be the judge, for it’s surely one or the other (or both).

All this hand-wringing by the NY Philharmonic over "lending their prestige" to the North Korean dictator. It seems to me it was completely the other way around.

The NY Philharmonic seemed to want to play this gig pretty bad: they were anxious to accept the invitation, they paid their own costs.... North Korea earned nothing on this other than a free concert from a symphony orchestra. Big deal.

What I want to know is why did North Korean dictator lend HIS prestige to the New York orchestra and give them so much free publicity?
posted by three blind mice at 6:47 AM on March 17, 2008


Riiiiight. Or it could just be indicative of a slight thaw in relations that is important in the context of local and international diplomacy. How dare the NYP choose to support that?

And, of course, playing music is part of their mission, not just playing it for NYC. Unless the New York stock exchange should only take local company stocks, or all museums should stop loaning to other museums not in the area.

Worst. Arguments. Ever.
posted by jaduncan at 6:50 AM on March 17, 2008


I really loved the second link, especially since the interviewee was a veteran of concert tours to pre-1989 East Germany. The comparisons he makes are enlightening.

Seems to me that the decision to play Pyongyang will probably have few consequences on the political level-- but on the human level, for the people involved, the consequences were profound. Those North Korean music students will always remember the coaching they got from the New York guys, and it sounds like the members of the Phil will carry any contact they made with locals with them for a long time.

So, yeah, worth it.
posted by Pallas Athena at 7:08 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Worth it. Anything which thaws the relationship is a benefit. Standing on ceremony and refusing to make nice until you get your way, ala GW, only protracts the freeze.
posted by caddis at 7:18 AM on March 17, 2008


Or it could just be indicative of a slight thaw in relations that is important in the context of local and international diplomacy. How dare the NYP choose to support that?

Or any other orchestra for that matter? It was a no-brainer. For the "NYP" it was an opportunity to play for a world audience and gain some awesome publicity.

So they should spare us the gnashing of the teeth over "appeasement".The self-importance of these musicians is too much.
posted by three blind mice at 7:25 AM on March 17, 2008


My take-away: this Potemkin village is really nice!

:(
posted by prefpara at 7:36 AM on March 17, 2008


Wait, the Dictators went to North Korea? Somehow, I don't think 'I Stand Tall,' will be a hit there.
posted by jonmc at 7:37 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm not convinced. I tend to agree with the first link. The NYP made a selfish choice, and part of that choice meant making a dictator look less bad. I think it was a shitty thing to do and that they should be castigated.
posted by OmieWise at 7:38 AM on March 17, 2008


Well, our policy of freezing him out has been disastrous for the citizens of North Korea and it hasn't made him any less evil as a dictator or made him go away. For the sake of appearances we have contributed to the starvation of millions of North Korean citizens. Nice.
posted by caddis at 7:52 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


When do they go to Cuba?
posted by blue_beetle at 8:26 AM on March 17, 2008


When do they go to Cuba?

The Buena Vista Social Club crew jams with the NY Philharmonic!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:38 AM on March 17, 2008


The second link, in which the author wrote of enjoying 16 course meals (in a nation where farmland is protected by machine gun towers to ward off the starving), and the quaint spectacle of policemen directing traffic on virtually vehicle-free roads, left a bad taste in my mouth. I'm sure something equally "humanizing" and appreciative could have been written about the delightful hospitality shown by Nazi Germany during the final spasms of that regime as well.
posted by availablelight at 9:04 AM on March 17, 2008


Music is a world of it's own.
posted by asok at 9:34 AM on March 17, 2008


Well, our policy of freezing him out has been disastrous for the citizens of North Korea and it hasn't made him any less evil as a dictator or made him go away. For the sake of appearances we have contributed to the starvation of millions of North Korean citizens. Nice.

I'm not sure that's such an accurate description of the problem. I've got no problem at all with political engagement, but nor do I think that any dictator's treatment of his people is our fault. It seems a strange argument for a non-neocon to make.

I also don't think that not providing legitimizing opportunities to dictator's counts as doing something "for the sake of appearances," unless you mean that the NYP went to N. Korea to help KJI look better.
posted by OmieWise at 9:37 AM on March 17, 2008


I found the second account fascinating. Availablelight, the author mentions his reluctance to take part in the extravagant meals but notes that to abstain would have been considered rude to his hosts.
posted by arnicae at 10:47 AM on March 17, 2008


Great post. Here is an account written by the Reuters photographer that went with them: Perceptions of North Korea by David Gray.
posted by micayetoca at 12:07 PM on March 17, 2008


micayetoca, thanks for posting that link. Perhaps I am merely revealing my biases, but the photographer's account seemed to me to be much more intelligent than the musician's.
posted by prefpara at 12:24 PM on March 17, 2008


It's interesting to compare the photographer's and the musician's accounts. The musician seems to be aware that the North Koreans he meets have been coached and monitored, but he also seems to hold out more hope that the visit and joint concert will have a positive effect on these oppressed people. In contrast, the photographer makes what are, in my opinion, more trenchant observations about the extremely dire circumstances of everyday North Koreans. It's impossible to get a candid account of everyday life in North Korea from a citizen, since they're so carefully monitored, so both accounts rely on speculation and personal observation. However, I'd be inclined to go with the photographer's sense of what was going on. Ever since reading Guy Delisle's Pyongyang, I've had the suspicion that life in North Korea is probably far more awful than we can really imagine, even in our most pessimistic moments.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:36 PM on March 17, 2008


Diplomacy means making nice with not-so-nice people, sometimes. I think it was important that they went, as the North Koreans clearly wanted to have some kind of feel-good happening outside of the context of the talks. For various reasons they are desperate for American approval, perhaps because further thaws with South Korea lead inevitably toward thorny questions of reunification. But they have definitely made strides toward outcomes that the entire world has wanted, including but not limited to dismantling key parts of their nuclear program, and rewarding good behavior is smart.
posted by dhartung at 5:37 PM on March 17, 2008


It sucks that I don't have time to read the musician's take, because I have work this morning, but what I can say is that I was happy as all get-out when Public Enemy and Nine Inch Nails played here in Beijing last October. And it wasn't just me - it was mostly locals at those concerts.

Beijing isn't even in the same league as North Korea in terms of evilness, but they're not known around the world as the ideal government either. And what I hear from most people, Party members or not, is that politics just doesn't have much to do with them. Ideology gets left outside the door once you get home at night. Beijingers got to see some kick-ass concerts, and everybody was happy that day. If this is any indicator at all of how people around the world cope with living in a dictatorship, I don't imagine anybody in NK minded either.

So get your god damn politics off the music. We just wanna rock (is that what you do at orchestral concerts?). The simple pleasures are what makes life worth living, and when any political system anywhere gets in the way of that for anybody...well, that's politics sticking its nose where it doesn't belong, and that's not so okay.

Mr. Editorial might have a point though, about the NYP not playing enough in New York. I'd be pretty pissed if all I got from my local orchestra was a few free concerts a year in the park....
posted by saysthis at 5:40 PM on March 17, 2008


I'm not convinced. I tend to agree with the first link. The NYP made a selfish choice, and part of that choice meant making a dictator look less bad. I think it was a shitty thing to do and that they should be castigated.

He says sitting on a chair manufactured in China, typing on a computer built out of components manufactured in China, powered by oil from Saudi Arabia. Bad musicians playing music for dictators! You should do what the rest of us do. Fund them.

They were exporting the beautiful products of freedom. That leaves an indelible impression that will last far longer than any illusory prestige by association.
posted by srboisvert at 7:08 AM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


He says sitting on a chair manufactured in China, typing on a computer built out of components manufactured in China, powered by oil from Saudi Arabia. Bad musicians playing music for dictators! You should do what the rest of us do. Fund them.

Well, ad hominem's aside, I think you make a good point that is in concert with how I thought about this. In an uncertain world filled with shades of gray, surely adults can and should weigh the consequences of their actions in pursuit of living ethically. The questions I asked myself when hearing about the NYP going to North Korea were 1) who seems to benefit from this arrangement?; and 2) is it reasonable to argue that this helped the people of North Korea?

The answer to the first question is that the NYP seems to benefit greatly, enhancing it's reputation as a body that might be "diplomatic" in stature, despite the lack of evidence that this is so. KJI also benefits, as he gets the opportunity to present himself as "engaging" in diplomacy with the US without any of the pesky requirements of actually engaging in diplomacy. He also presents himself as cultured to the elites who patronize the NYP, something that's good marketing when you're a dictator.

The second question seems easily answered in the negative. There's no evidence that this built any goodwill with ordinary North Koreans, and substantial evidence that not only were the NYP players fed a line of BS, but that they granted legitimacy to a dictatorial regime. Even the relatively benign comments about their accomodations serve to suggest that life in North Korea isn't all that bad.

(Reasonable people can differ about my conclusions, of course.)

I certainly understand the impulse for cultural exchange. My father spent his career as a diplomat working to export and introduce American culture to other countries in order to foster understanding and sympathy. This is not that.

The issue of who made the chair I'm sitting on is not germane to this discussion for a couple of reasons. The primary one is that I have no cultural, political or diplomatic weight. What I sit on in my office influences no one's opinion. Secondarily, the support (and I agree that it is support) granted to dictatorial regimes by my office furniture is the baseline in the US. Each and every member of the NYP is as culpable, and as a conglomeration, they are much more culpable than I am. Since it is the baseline it should be subtracted from both sides of the equation. (Which is not to say that this isn't a topic worth considering or organizing around. It absolutely is, but it doesn't obviate any of my points in the least.)
posted by OmieWise at 7:33 AM on March 18, 2008


Ok office furniture aside lets examine your arguments, conclusions and the evidence.

The answer to the first question is that the NYP seems to benefit greatly, enhancing it's reputation as a body that might be "diplomatic" in stature, despite the lack of evidence that this is so. KJI also benefits, as he gets the opportunity to present himself as "engaging" in diplomacy with the US without any of the pesky requirements of actually engaging in diplomacy. He also presents himself as cultured to the elites who patronize the NYP, something that's good marketing when you're a dictator.


You're having your cake and eating it too. The NYP gains diplomatic stature while not being diplomatic but KJI gains diplomatic stature by dealing with this non-diploamitc NYP. It seems like the benefits you worry about either NK or the NYP gaining are pretty dubious, illusory and if they exist definitely ephemeral. Nobody is going to say to Kim Jung Il "I'd tell you to stop starving people but you love the symphony" and nobody is going to go see the NYP because they played in NK except maybe North Koreans.

I certainly understand the impulse for cultural exchange. My father spent his career as a diplomat working to export and introduce American culture to other countries in order to foster understanding and sympathy. This is not that.


Begging the question. It most definitely was a cultural exchange. The NYP didn't deliver weapons. The delivered music.



The second question seems easily answered in the negative. There's no evidence that this built any goodwill with ordinary North Koreans, and substantial evidence that not only were the NYP players fed a line of BS, but that they granted legitimacy to a dictatorial regime. Even the relatively benign comments about their accomodations serve to suggest that life in North Korea isn't all that bad.


There is no evidence of benefit? What you would expect or accept as evidence? You could just as easily say there is no evidence of any benefit when the NYP plays in New York. Also how does a philharmonic grant legitimacy to a dictatorial regime?

Evil flourishes behind closed doors and behind walls. Getting people into North Korea for whatever reasons can only be positive (except if they are Nuclear Scientists of the friendly beloved Pakistani flavour of dictatorship). Levi's and pop music did an awful lot against the repression of the Soviet Union. If the memories of the NYP stops one high ranking official following his orders to attack then the trip is a success. If KJI wants more of the same, even if it is just for himself and is cronies, it will still be a success if those cronies or KJI are influenced in any positive way. If it makes KJI want to create a competitive orchestra then it is a success. Every little hole in the dike.

Also it is a bit disingenuous to excuse your own behaviour as baseline while accusing the NYP of being baseline + something. Their behaviour is baseline for a philharmonic. Internationally renowned philharmonics play music internationally.
posted by srboisvert at 9:13 AM on March 18, 2008


You're having your cake and eating it too. The NYP gains diplomatic stature while not being diplomatic but KJI gains diplomatic stature by dealing with this non-diploamitc NYP.

I think you misread me. I said that KJI "presents himself" as engaging in diplomacy. My argument is that he is not, in fact, engaging in diplomacy but that he gives a false appearance of it. You appear to agree with this appearance and appear to grant credit to the NYP for this. That's fine, but we differ.

Begging the question. It most definitely was a cultural exchange. The NYP didn't deliver weapons. The delivered music.

I'm not begging the question, as I suspect you know. What I am doing is disputing that the NYP's actions should be elevated to the level of "cultural exchange," since in my eyes they played a concert for a dictator and his guests/prisoners. In short, I think they played Sun City. You don't. I understand that, but I haven't engaged in any sleight of hand while presenting my opinion.

Also it is a bit disingenuous to excuse your own behaviour as baseline while accusing the NYP of being baseline + something. Their behaviour is baseline for a philharmonic. Internationally renowned philharmonics play music internationally.

While I don't, ultimately, care about what the NYP did all that much, I am surprised by this last bit, in which you seem to read me with as many uncharitable assumptions as you can muster. There's nothing "disingenuous" about my argument relating to office furniture. In fact, I granted you the respect to take seriously an argument that you presented that was an ad hominem dismissal of my opinion. The baseline in question here, one that you introduced, is the support of repressive regimes through the purchase of products manufactured in those regimes. It is not, as you seem to want to suggest, whatever constitutes "normal" behavior, but only behavior that relates to the use of office furniture. I granted that this is something worth considering, but I argued that it wasn't germane, in this case, because engaged in by the philharmonic as well as by me. (I also didn't pursue an examination of what that office furniture is used for, which I feel pretty relatively ethical about given what I do.) You haven't explained why the office furniture is germane, you've just used it a second time to attack me.

Traveling to play for dictators is not the baseline condition of internationally renowned philharmonics. If it were there would be no news here at all and therefore no room for controversy. I'm surprised that in your reading I somehow betray my lying nature by engaging your ad hominem critique.
posted by OmieWise at 10:10 AM on March 18, 2008


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