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Scarier than Nukes

The situation in North Korea highlights student apathy

By Mark A. Adomanis

The People’s Republic of Korea is a country that has flummoxed many a better writer than I. Indeed I am especially wary of treating this topic as one of my would-be classmates, the infamous Blair Hornstine, had her admission offer rescinded in large part because she plagiarized a newspaper column on, you guessed it, North Korea.

Fittingly for a country that very closely resembles a dystopian nightmare, the supposed nuclear test has occurred under circumstances that are diplomatically defined as “vague” but are probably more accurately defined as “bizarre.” What is clear as of the writing of this column is that something exploded underground on Oct. 8. Whether it was a full-out nuclear explosion, a failed test, or simply a hoax—some have speculated the always-wily North Koreans simply stockpiled a lot of TNT and blew it up—remains unclear.

Now I don’t think that a discussion over the practical options available for dealing with North Korea is productive because, realistically, there aren’t many. Regardless of how exactly they unfold every military scenario is pretty uniformly, and bloodcurdlingly, awful. I don’t think any of the oft-demonized neocons, even in their most fevered dreams of post-Saddam Iraqi bliss, ever imagined that the military “option” for dealing with North Korea was anything other than an extreme last resort. Sanctions are already being tried but, to have any real effect, they would need China’s active and enthusiastic approval, something which seems unlikely, though not impossible.

What, then, do I hope to add to the conversation?

While terrifying, the prospect of North Korean nuclear arms is moderately less frightening to me than the almost total on-campus silence regarding the hermit kingdom. Over the past week and a half, I, a supremely observant and talkative individual, have heard North Korea’s nukes mentioned in conversation precisely once. This single mention was a minute part of a far larger, and less serious, dinner time conversation whose main topic, I believe, was the various manifestations of awkwardness on campus. And while I can’t truthfully say that I read every single one of the 10,000 student publications here, I haven’t happened across anything dealing with North Korea in any depth or substance. If such a piece exists, as it very well might, I haven’t heard any mention of it.

One would hope that a student body as highly-touted, and intellectually talented, as Harvard’s would have a bit more of a reaction to this than “Man, that sucks.”

I don’t expect my fellow students to be a ravenous pack of insomniac news hounds, going to the Drudge Report and frantically clicking “refresh” instead of paying attention in lecture or section. In fact I hope that never happens because, if it did, Harvard would become an even more awkward and unwelcoming place (it stretches the imagination, I know, but I’m reasonably sure it’s possible having heard anecdotes about life at MIT).

I do, however, hope that Harvard students might be able to transfer some of the energy they now devote to checking webmail, poking (stalking) attractive freshmen on the facebook, discussing the UC or any Boston sport franchise, to reading about, some of the more pressing issues facing the world today.

This would accomplish two main objectives that anyone who cherishes truth and justice will appreciate. First of all, it would help craft “global citizens” much more quickly, and much more cheaply, than any of the plans Harvard currently has on its shelf. While some administrators seem to think that knowledge of advanced calculus or cellular biology are critical for citizens in our modern and [insert cliché here] world, basic knowledge of current events seems to be far more critical, ie if you don’t know where North Korea is, why it wants nuclear weapons so badly, and why it was in our interest that it not get such weapons, then the quality of your “global perspective” is in doubt.

Secondly, if Harvard students as a collective started to—gasp!—talk about something substantive, it might even make the campus a more enjoyable and social place. This entails a risk, I know, and I myself can easily picture dining hall conversations gone bad—“NO, we shouldn’t put an embargo on North Korea! I hate you! I am going to cancel our facebook friendship like right now!”

Yet if I have gained one lesson in my first three years at Harvard it is that anything worth doing involves a risk and, given the weak to non-existent content of much of what students talk about on a daily basis, I don’t feel we can’t do a whole lot worse. The ability to argue forcefully while remaining respectful and measured is a critical skill, and one that is rarely developed in classrooms anymore because of the almost complete abandonment of public speaking, and the palpable sense of apathy which infects most discussion sections.

As just 5 minutes in expos or virtually any core class will tell you, contemporary Harvard often seems to be engaged in a mighty struggle to reinvent the wheel. I would suggest that Harvard students could do quite a bit to liven up the campus, and increase the quality and depths of their worldviews, by devoting just a little bit out of their day to becoming better informed about what is going on in the world around them and then talking about it. Simple? Yes. Radical? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely.

Mark A. Adomanis ‘07 is a government concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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