Saturday, February 16, 2008

Stupid Is As Stupid Says, or How the Korean Media Learned to Conflate Namdaemun, Kwangju, and 9/11 Beyond Any Sense of Historical or Emotional Meaning

Popular Gusts put it perfectly: "A Collapse in Perspective."

Now, I think the fire at Seoul historical South Gate is a tragedy, one I feel deep in the gut, because I value the culture and history that Seungyemun embodies. That's also why the destruction of the old National Museum formerly in front of the Kyeongbokkung on account of having been the headquarters of the Japanese colonial administration during the Japanese occupation similarly made me feel sick to my stomach.

Yes, it had been built by the Japanese, but it was also the home to the first and successive Korean presidential administrations, and its cold, marble walls had been home base for much of South Korea's modern history. Period. For better or for worse. The Republic of South Korea had been signed into existence there, for Pete's sake.

Using the same argument, one would then have to tear down City Hall, the old Seoul Station, the Bank of Korea, rip out much of the railroads, redo the entire #1 subway line (after all, the reason you have to get on the #1 on the "wrong" -- left -- side of the tracks to get on is because that line is most directly connected to the KORAIL train system, which has trains running on the left because major railroad construction in Korea was started by guess who), etc. Once one follows that line of logic, it doesn't actually go anywhere useful but burrow even deeper into a state of blissful historical amnesia.

Hey, I understand that – Korean history throughout the 20th century pretty much sucked. Loss of sovereignty and military occupation; forced labor and forced conscription into the Pacific War; occupation again; an incredibly horrific civil war; martial law; authoritarian rule; the suppression of unions, free speech, and the exploitation of feminized labor; Kwangju and military crackdown; then, finally real democracy not even two decades ago.

But the way many people collapse not "history", but the collective lived experience of real pain, instability, and general suffering, even as it exists, readily accessible within the realm of presently living memory, is what defines the real "perspective compression" for me. Put in simpler terms, it's like this:

Imagine your female coworker, who sits at the desk next to yours, is kidnapped on a Monday. You hear she was beaten on a Tuesday, tortured all Wednesday, then gang-raped and sexually humiliated all Thursday through. On Friday, the beatings have started again to the point that Monday seemed like a good day, when, suddenly and unexpectedly, she is found and liberated by the police late on Saturday.

She spends all day Sunday "recovering" before she gets some sleep and performs the best cover-up makeup job in the history of mankind and shows up to work as if nothing happened. You're shocked to see her, after hearing about what she had just gone through, but as obvious as it is that she doesn't want to talk about it, you find it strange when she smiles and asked you how YOUR week was.

Yeah, the analogy doesn't hold up upon close logical inspection, but I think it to be a useful emotional metaphor for the sheer terror that was the 20th century for South Korea, even as people cluck about a few physical vestiges of colonial rule, even as everyone buys their $6 Starbucks coffees, worry about whether the free break at Outback steakhouse is too dry this time, and complain about "slow" 100 mbps internet connections.

Perspective, anyone?

And I know that history isn't experienced by a country in the same way that an individual experiences one's life. The collective memory of historical "knowledge" has to be actively taught and passed on from generation to generation – which is why I find the emotional authenticity of young, Korean 20-somethings who "hate" Japan about as flimsy as their love seems true for Playstations, Nikons, and DVD's (guess who invented that?).

What's fascinating about the Korean case is that much of the "hard knock life" for many people here is well within one's own living memory, or at least those in close emotional proximity to even the youngest of the young: these are the brothers, aunts, parents, and grandparents who bring emotional weight to a pretty difficult past.

Yet, Namdaemun is being called the "Korean 9/11." Give me a break. That's not just insulting to my sensibilities as an American, but just insulting to anyone who who bothers to think for 5 seconds about Korean history before saying utterly silly things like this.

Is the patently ridiculous notion of a single, vindictive ajussi burning down one of the nation's most prized cultural possessions really on the par of the military coup of Pak Chung Hee in 1961, his assassination in 1979, the Kwangju Massacre in 1980, or the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge and Sampoong Department Store in 1995, the Taegu gas fire explosion in 1996, or...?

Do I really need to go on here?

Talk about a "collapse of perspective." I don't mean just in terms of saying that the Seungyemun fire cannot be to Koreans what Pearl Harbor or 9/11 was to modern Americans, or the Alamo to die-hard Texans, or the Wounded Knee Massacre to the Lakota Sioux; I also mean this in terms of a collapsed and historically amnesiatic Korean perspective, in which an admittedly horrible incident (in which no lives were lost, by the way, and the perpetrator immediately caught) gets compared to moments that quite literally changed the course of a nation's history.

Yeah, I'm sad. But this isn't the first fire there, and it isn't even the first time Seungyemun has been reconstructed (or in need of complete reconstruction). My incredulity at empty, rhetorically suspect statements such as "this is Korea's 9/11" lies in the fact that Korea's already HAD a "9/11" – many, in fact.

The fire that presently occupies the minds of many here is the Mini-me of historical tragedies, or moments where you remember "what you were doing when you heard." If and when I'm 90 years old, I may remember getting up in the morning, reading the Marmot's Hole, and being extremely saddened by watching the old South Gate burn; but I just as likely won't.

See, compared to 9 frickin' 11 – this can't reach the level of sheer horror, fright, and anger at watching the twin towers collapse, wondering how many thousands of people deaths I had just witnessed on live television, hearing that the Pentagon had been attacked and rumors that the White House was next, and fearing that World War III might be at hand. This is because many of us came to the creeping realization that it might not mark just several thousand Americans perhaps having died, but perhaps might be the harbinger of doom for thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions more to come.

In an instant, I realized that Pearl Harbor had just been demoted to #2 as the worst attack on American "soil", except for the fact that much of Pearl Harbor hadn't been on soil, and that, sneaky-deaky as it was, was still an attack on a military target. 9/11 was some shit you might see in a Hollywood blockbuster movie trailer and sneer while picking through your popcorn, "Bullshit. That could never happen."

And I wondered about my friends in NYC, especially the ones working in finance and Wall Street. And I continued to wonder as "all trunk lines are busy now" when they wouldn't answer their phones. I wondered if some people I actually knew were dead. And I came to find out that yeah, someone I knew from high school had actually lost his life in the very moment I saw his building collapse on TV.

So the Korean newspapers can spare me the 9/11 comparison. And it's not as if it had been just Americans watching and thinking thoughts like mine, but people around the world. Did not Koreans remember where they were when they heard the horrible news of September 11, 2001?

Which makes silly rhetorical reaches such as "Korea's 9/11" even more stupid. But as Denzel said, "Shit gets deeper."

'Cause when you think about it, such dumb rhetorical devices don't do justice to Korean history, or the Korean sense of loss in a moment like this. How about an incident that actually changed the course of Korean history, that actually involved people dying in large number at the hands of others, that define true "memories of murder?"

Kwangju? Hello, McFly?! Helllllllo?!

Is the "thin tin pot" (quick to boil, quick to cool) memory of the Korean people actually so shallow, or is the Korean news media really as vulgar and stupid as it seems? On this one, I'm going to have to go with the latter and simply *tsk, tsk* along with many Korean folks at the yellow news media, slow-to-act authorities, and dumb stuffed suits who seem to be in collusion in making sure that, all too often, "stupid is as stupid does" in this country.

Or, as stupid says.


Now for comments on above article...

Sure, the media's overreacting -- but you know, hyperbole is, like, the greatest invention ever in the history of anything ever!!!!!!

Also: re using 9/11: bud, my Korean students start talking to me about 5-18 and 6-25, assuming I know what they mean, in the same way. I think it's a generally acknowledged fact that Met sometimes overstates his case in order to get people talking and thinking -- I believe that's the reason why discussion boards here are more lively and interesting than any other Korea blog -- because people feel strongly enough to say their piece, after reading Met's stance.

I see the 9/11 parallel insofar as
1. it had the same "I can't believe my eyes" kind of shock value,
2. something fell in a big cloud of smoke and ashes,
3. it was broadcast as it happened on live TV
4. it was COMPLETELY unexpected
5. it hit Korea "where it hurts" the same way the NYC attack hit America where it hurt
6. everybody was sad and stunned the next day.

However, that's where the parallels end -- my shocked emotion watching the gate go down was the same disbelieving feeling I felt when I watched the Twin Towers fall, in the same way that constipation and intestinal cancer are both bowel problems.

When Sungnyemun collapsed, here are things that DIDN'T happen, unlike after 9/11:

1. older men didn't stay home for fear of street violence and reprisals, and none were threatened or bullied at work
2. no pojang machas or soju tents were firebombed or vandalized
3. there were no videos of self-hating second generation Korean immigrants celebrating in the streets of LA (the way there was video of street celebrations in certain america-hating countries and districts)
4. Korea will not go to war because of this
5. no anarchist, or hate-founded organization was found responsible for the attack, and found to have intentions to continue with other attacks
6. no televangelist blamed the attack on their country's tolerance of gays
7. 3000+ people didn't freaking die!

Meanwhile, let's go easy on Korea and the media during this sad time. Not everyone's calling it the Korean 9/11, and they don't seem to be reverting to the usual ideological scapegoats and "evildoers", either -- even Roh Moo-hyun hasn't found a way to make it LMB's fault. . . yet.

No comments: