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Totalitarian Tears: Does the Crowd Really Mean It?

By William Mazzarella

Cite As:
Mazzarella, William. 2015. “Totalitarian Tears: Does the Crowd Really Mean It?.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 1: 91–112.


In this essay I explore the reaction, in Western media commentary, to the announcement of North Korean premier Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011. I focus in particular on responses to the widely circulated images of crowds crying on the streets of Pyongyang. These responses obsessively returned to a single question: Do they really mean it? I do not attempt to answer this question. Rather, by considering a series of subsidiary questions that clustered around it (Can these tears be real? Are these people insane? Why are they such good/such bad actors? Is mass crying something that Asians are particularly likely to engage in?), I ask in turn why the sincerity of the North Korean crying crowds came to seem at once so necessary and so impossible to Western observers. I argue that the obsessive return to the question about whether they really meant it expressed a deep liberal anxiety—not, as one might suppose, an anxiety that North Korean totalitarianism would continue indefinitely, but a much more profound worry that it would come to a sudden end.


totalitarianism; crowds; public affect; liberalism; North Korea