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Shin Dong-hyuk strides confidently to the front of the Korean-American church in suburban Seattle. His gray business suit and blue dress shirt cover the scars his slight frame would carry to his grave—arms bowed from childhood labor, back marred from burns inflicted by prison guards, legs and ankles scarred from shackles and the electric barbed wire fencing that failed to keep him inside North Korea's Camp 14 on January 2, 2005.
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Not that he's hiding anything. On the contrary, the 28-year-old refugee speaks for a solid hour, and although his wounds bear perpetual testimony to the physical brutality he suffered, the greater travesty of justice, he tells his audience, is the psychological dehumanization that takes place in the repressive environment. Shin refers to his former self as a predator, trained from birth to inform without remorse on family and fellow prisoners. "The only thing I thought was that I had to prey on others for my survival," he says. "I did not know about sympathy or sadness."
Having lived all his life inside Camp 14, it had taken him years to learn trust, to be emotional, to cry, and to know feelings like other human beings. Even sharing his story this Sunday evening—as he must if he's going to draw world attention to the atrocities in North Korea, now his life's mission—marks a major personal triumph for him.
Secularists who fancy twenty-first-century man as enlightened beyond hunter-gatherer savagery are hard-pressed to come up with an explanation for what Shin represents. But however they may try to explain him away, there he stands: evidence of contemporary man's inhumanity toward his fellow man and a living result of utopian fantasies gone to seed.
History's Utopian Fantasies
Utopianism is alive and well in America, too. Fortunately, America is far from the stage of hidden gulags, but the ideology has nevertheless taken deep root in the free soil painfully won by America's founders, and it has so pervaded the public mind that one must step back and carefully take stock of what utopianism actually is in order to perceive it. Toward that urgently needed end, Mark Levin has produced an excellent tool in his latest book, Ameritopia.
Though the term utopia wasn't coined until 1516, when Sir Thomas More wrote a novel portraying an ideal city-state named Utopia, the quest for the perfect society traces back to Plato's Republic, written in approximately 380 b.c. Plato's ideal city begins with the "noble lie," by which it was instilled in inhabitants from birth that they were born—not of a mother, but of the earth—into one of three classes. If people believed "this myth," Plato explained, "that would have a good effect of making them more inclined to care for the state and one another." Caring for the state, and for one another through the state, was the rule. Therefore, citizens were conditioned to accept their positions and surrender their personal desires for the good of the body politic.
Accordingly, in the ideal city, the nuclear family was abolished. Private property was also done away with, in order that citizens would look to the interests of the whole rather than "tear the City in pieces by differing about 'mine' and 'not mine.'" Eugenics was practiced through state-management of sexual activity, and while much-vaunted medical services were administered free of charge to the injured and temporarily ill, they were withheld from the incurable so as not to burden the rest. Headed by philosopher kings, the most select and elite of all citizens, the government was free to exercise absolute control over the individual. The citizen's sole duty was to obey in submission.
After mentally building and rebuilding his city, Plato eventually abandoned the quest as an impossibility, but the dream lived on. Later works—More's Utopia, Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan, and Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, among others—carried forth the same themes with roughly the same players: (1) a mastermind or cadre of mastermind rulers, (2) an intelligentsia that concocted utopian sophistry and disseminated it as received orthodoxy, and (3) the servile masses, who ostensibly comprised the all-important whole, but who, as individuals, were insignificant and expendable. In all versions of utopia, the individual and his family were subservient to the state, which was ruled by mastermind sovereigns holding all power. When this happens in real life, we call it totalitarianism.
Contrast the utopian model with the American constitutional model, which Levin simply refers to as Americanism, a fitting label since it originated with America. Since laws are indeed necessary for people to peaceably coexist, the founders of America, products of the Enlightenment, first thought deeply about the purpose of government and the form government should take. Having been subject to a monarch prone to despotism, they were heavily influenced by the English thinker John Locke, who has been called the Father of Classical Liberalism (not to be confused with modern liberalism).
Locke didn't begin by envisioning the ideal state, as did the utopians, but rather by observing the nature of man. Locke saw that, far from being an imbecile requiring tutelage and control, the individual possessed a formidable capacity for self-rule, and for reason, ingenuity, productive labor, and responsible management of his own affairs. Moreover, the individual had value, dignity, and worth that preceded and transcended government. Locke's observations formed the foundational premise of natural human rights, which derived from natural law, which derived from God:
The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure.
To wantonly violate another man's natural right to "life, health, liberty, or possessions," therefore, was not just an offense against man; it was an offense against God, the rightful Master of all men. Political power exerted in violation of man's natural rights constituted tyranny, to which no man has any right, and was therefore necessarily illegitimate.
This revolutionary concept became the basis upon which all future political liberties and human rights would rest. Americans should recognize Locke's ideas in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator [not the state] with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
The Centrality of Property Rights
A brief note about property rights is in order here. Thomas Jefferson's substitution of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" for Locke's "life, health, liberty, or possessions" has been the subject of much speculation. Most hold that the right to "the Pursuit of Happiness" includes property rights and more, the word "happiness" being rooted in the word "happen," and thus referring to one's "happenings" or "happenstances."
Regardless of Jefferson's reasoning, only the first two of the Declaration's trilogy of rights made it into the Constitution, but property rights were explicitly provided for in the Fifth Amendment. This was essential to liberty, writes Levin, because, to Locke and America's founders, a man's property represented the fruit of his productive labor. Furthermore, says Levin, applying this principle to one of the pressing issues of today:
Locke explained that the coercive redistribution of wealth through government's abuse of law and misapplication of rights destroys individual liberty; ambition, productivity, and wealth. . . . In this sense, property rights are the great equalizer, not of outcomes but opportunity.
Governments were instituted, the Declaration continued, not to provide for the everyday needs of the governed—free men must do that for themselves—but "to secure these rights." The purpose of government, therefore, was to secure and protect its citizens' natural rights, including the right to own and control the use of their personal property, in accordance with natural law under God. The remainder of the Declaration was basically a Bill of Particulars against King George III, listing 27 allegations of tyranny on his part and grounds, therefore, for American independence from his illegitimate rule.
Liberty, based on God-given inalienable rights secured by legitimate government structures, is the heritage of the American people. But liberty in America today is under perilous threat from a utopian creep, which has for nearly a century been turning America into, in Levin's words, "a post-constitutional, democratic utopia of sorts . . . [with] a centralized, administrative statism that has become a power unto itself": an Ameritopia.
Consider that this Ameritopia's Leviathan-sized federal government has become the nation's largest creditor, debtor, lender, contractor, grantor, insurer, health-care provider, regulator, and pension guarantor, to name only a few of the many extra-constitutional roles Uncle Sam has assumed. Worse, an alarming segment of the population has foregone self-reliance and individual industry in favor of dependence on the rest. In such an environment, those traits which represent the best in the nature of man—initiative, drive, and selflessness—inevitably languish and falter, while, as Shin Dong-hyuk warns, those which represent the worst—indolence, envy, and predation—thrive.
Tyranny, as Levin broadly defines it, "is the use of power to dehumanize the individual and delegitimize his nature. Political utopianism is tyranny disguised as a desirable, workable, and even paradisiacal governing ideology." Shin's native country, whose Central News Agency to this day hails the "thriving socialist nation" with "no 'human rights issue' in the country as everybody leads the most dignified and happy life," is utopia-driven tyranny epitomized, and it should be viewed as a stark warning of the inexorable end of utopian ideology fully implemented politically.
"All that really stands between the individual and tyranny," Levin warns, "is a resolute and sober people." If America-inspired liberty is going to endure in the free world, sober people must take that warning very, very seriously. It is literally a matter of life and death. •
Shin Dong-hyuk's story is told in Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden.
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