A Disquieting Parallel

I read with some dismay the story about the athletes from North Korea who have had success and will therefore be welcomed home — and about those who fail and are punished by their government when they return back home. In part, the story reads as follows:

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

The gold medalists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular – new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.. . .

The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

Now we certainly do not punish losers in this country — unless vanishing from the public eye can be regarded as punishment. They are quickly forgotten. But there are some alarming parallels between a country that chooses to ignore its poor and disadvantaged and our country.  Bear in mind that North Korea is in serious trouble because of the failure of its food production and distribution plus the sanctions it has brought down on itself because of its intransigence regarding the continued development of nuclear weapons. The country has thousands of hungry and out-of-work citizens who barely manage to stay alive because the country has put a premium — that is, spending the major portion of their income — on the development of weapons of war.

Therein lies the parallel. No, we are not a Communist (that is, Stalinist) country. But we glory in the gold our champions win (we also pay the winners, big time), relegate our losers to oblivion, and our government has also chosen to put its focus on the development of weapons of war at a time when a two-year drought in the Midwest threatens to further damage farm production, thereby making food more costly at a time when thousands are out of work, and the numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country grows perceptibly.

I do not wish to push the parallel farther than it will go. But the fact that there is any sort of parallel between a supposedly “free” country and one that holds its citizens in chains of intimidation and repression is deeply disturbing. The fact that there are thousands of wealthy people in this country who endorse their government’s decision to continue to spend money on “defense” while it ignores the plight of their neighbors —  neighbors who have no place to live and very little food to put on the table, or who have to work two jobs at minimum wage (if they can find work) to support a hungry family — is also deeply disturbing.

We talk about the 1% who control the wealth in this country but we tend to ignore the plight of  the 1% who are homeless, who sleep in their family van or in a cardboard box, and worry where their next meal is coming from — an average of 842,000 in a given week. And there are thousands more who are not categorized as “homeless” but who live in temporary shelters and suffer from lack of adequate food; 46 million Americans are on food stamps. We call them “bums” but they are people like you and me who have been caught in the “trickle down” [sic] of wealth from the rich to the very rich. It is not something we can be proud of. And given the fact that these people and the government they support continue to build weapons of war while their fellow citizens suffer and they look for another social program to cut is a somewhat alarming parallel between our country and a country that we rightly criticize for being cruel and inhumane.

No, we don’t punish those who lose athletics contests. Not really. But we punish those who cannot keep their heads above water in life and we call them “losers” when it is we who are the losers.

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