In an excellent talk last week about North Korea — linked to his book The Cleanest Race — Brian Myers, a professor in South Korea, said that people don’t fear dying, they fear dying without significance. Without their life having meant something. Life in North Korea is far more attractive than Americans realize, he said. The border between North Korea and China is easy to cross, and about half of the North Koreans who go to China later return, in spite of North Korea’s poverty. How does the North Korean government do such a good job under such difficult circumstances? Partly by playing up external threats (U.S. troops in South Korea), the obvious way politicians win support, but also by telling the North Korean people they are special. Maybe it plays this card because it has to — they can’t afford a police state — but there is no denying how well it works. In contrast, Myers said, the South Korean government offers its citizens no more than consumerism. That doesn’t work well, and South Korea, in spite of high per capita income, has high rates of depression and suicide.
I think the attractiveness of North Korean life has a lot to do with why Penn State students like Penn State so much. This American Life did a show about Penn State a few months ago. Life at the nation’s top party school said the description. Sounds boring, I thought, so I waited to listen to it until I’d run out of stuff to listen to. It turned out to be one of their best shows ever. Mostly it’s about the large amount of drinking — this is why they did the show — but at the very end is a short segment about how much Penn State students love their school. Not much detail but I was convinced. The attractive school cheer (“We Are Penn State”) comes up in conversation! A few people reading this won’t know that Penn State has an extremely successful football team. A large fraction of the students attend its games. After graduation, a lot of them continue to attend the games.
Here is a powerful and neglected force in human life. The bland technical term is group identity.Â As the South Korea comparison indicates, governments don’t routinely use it to govern. As Penn State exceptionalism indicates, colleges don’t routinely use it either. Faculty routinely disparage football. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education was written by a professor — of course. The Penn State chancellor seemed mystified that his students were so proud and supportive of their school. (They’re just that way, he seemed to say.) A lot of my self-experimentation has been about discovering what we need to be healthy, such as morning faces. I can’t self-experiment about this but I would if I could. It’s yet another thing that people must have routinely gotten in Stone-Age life but don’t get any more — unless you happen to be a rabid sports fan or an alumnus of a college with a sufficiently successful football team. Or live in North Korea.