Tuesday, June 10, 2008


The Jeong of Poo

I do admit that my previous post was a bit more snide and sarcastic than is helpful (thanks, JH) if one reads this post alone, So I thought I'd explain my own emotional rationale more clearly, since I think my own irritation and derision is coming out a little too strong and stinking up the whole dish.

My main emotional basis for having an allergy to the Korean left has to do with thinking that any "side" that smears with dung the house of the scientist PD Diary, or throws human feces at Lotte Department Store workers (I would understand top management a bit more, rather than workers in a similar class position as the protesters!), or who regularly engage in violence then try to blame it on the police -- I simply have very little sympathy for them, since I have no respect for them. To the extent that the American left sometimes veers into the realm of the irritatingly thickheaded, my hackles do go up for them as well. I try to keep the same standards for both sides. Unfortunately, I think the Korean protesting style is far deeper into the realm of what I call morally offensive and contradictory behavior than in the American left.

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Obviously, this is informed by perhaps an American tradition of non-violence in protesting that is the legacy of the Civil Right movement, but even that was informed by the commonsense calculation that violent protests don't garner much support, no matter how right one is, and that allowing the other side to embarrassingly display the immorality of its position by its own actions was a better move while the side of "right" simply held its moral and physical ground. That's obviously where I'm coming from.

And my feeling is that the protesters were instigating violent responses from the police and waiting with their cameras (and I knew they would eventually get violent, especially in front of a sympathetic crowd of civvies), which is why I refused to allow my high school students to go, even when some parents in the school were giving permission. Everyone insisted that this was a non-violent "candlelight vigil", like back in 2002-2003, none of which ever got violent. I knew, though, that the anti-FTA people were wolves in sheep's clothing, but it wouldn't stay so.

Guess who was right?

What I can't abide is how parents show up with their children (I've seen a picture of this) to these things, then blame the government for the inevitable shenanigans that ensue. It's like going to an anti-World Bank protest in Seattle, knowing the history of these kinds of protests, and being shocked when windows are broken and their children exposed to bad life examples. Given the history and behavior of a different kind of protest, in contrast, American anti-Iraq War protests were large, effective in their goals, and peaceful. I would allow my children to see such an example of democracy in action.

Perhaps this speaks to "cultural" differences, but one has to admit that these differences do occupy different ticks on the moral compass as well. One involves violence, one does not. One involves mental violence against fellow workers in a similar class position, the other does not.

Korean protesting style involves making as much noise as possible and being so annoying that everyone wants the problem to go away. Hence, the playing of loud and irritating music in front of the bank/building you're striking from at 7 in the morning on Sunday morning (which was the case in my neighborhood for 1.5 YEARS!) -- how many bank workers were there on Sunday morning? That'd be a zero. This was holding a gun to the people living in the neighborhood to do something, or else! Or else, no sleep for you.

You know, I'm radical enough to even accept this as an appropriate tactic, if that's when you want to stage your protest. The problem is that NONE OF THE PROTESTERS ARE THERE. They just send a van with a speaker, and a guy to man it. Guess he picked the short straw -- the rest of them are asleep in their beds. I can't abide that -- one should have the decency to at least SHOW UP for one's own protest.

The same is true of the speaker placed outside carious buildings in Myeongdong, where I work -- no protesters to be seen. Or the idiots who physically attacked me at the NewCore building, after a kindly ajumma protester told me to go in the back entrance if we wanted to return a pair of shoes. Hey, we were technically crossing the picket line, but we had also ASKED, and had been there just two hours before, when there WAS no picket line. And none of the people in view seemed angry or about to get violent about it -- they were sitting on the ground chatting and chilling. In fact, she was the one who told me to go in the back entrance. But then again, they were all in their 50's, and actually worked in the store. The ones who attacked me out of the blue were all 20-somethings with the red vests on and seemingly without the possession of the any common sense.

If you can't convince someone to not cross your picket line out of the moral force of the argument, what right do you have to touch them? Or restrain them? And what use is it, anyway? Not crossing picket lines is something you have to CONVINCE people not to do -- not physically restrain them from doing. This isn't 1880's America, nor 1960's Korea -- both labor and protest movements have come a long way since then, and have access to each others' histories. And I hold them morally responsible for their actions.

Saying this is not right for a foreigner to say anything, or to even be angry about this, is in itself not right. I live here, pay taxes, rent, and participate in the economy. I want the right to eat American beef not because I am American and the special American cell or genes or DNA I allegedly possess will interact with the special Americanness of American beef in a cold fusion reaction of nationalist recognition that will cause me to stand up and sing the Star-Spangled Banner, tears streaming down my cheeks, as I stuff my mouth full of American hamburger and steak -- which Koreans STILL mistakenly think Americans eat every day.

No, I am not even ANGRY about not being able to eat beef at 1/5 of the price it's presently being sold. If people want to carry out their political protests, so be it. If the people are slightly inconvenienced, I'm also willing to accept that. The traffic problems that result from large protests are to be accepted -- I can buy that as part of people's democratic right to fight the powers that be.

But the reason I am angry is because of the unreasoning, irrational, mentally and physically violent nature of both the hardcore, professional protesters (from whom this is, unfortunately, to be expected, even if not accepted), as well as the unthinking reception that turns the majority of Korean people I meet into Korean versions of the Red Guard.

And anyone who has been here, either in times of late or in late 2002, knows what I mean. I know a lot of Koreans now in their late 20's and early 30's who chuckle at the silliness of 2002, and lip service was given to that fact when the Cho Seung-hui incident happened, and Koreans were all shocked and impressed that Koreans weren't being assaulted and chased down in the streets. They certainly expected to be, which is why many Korean exchange students were seen going into hiding, or at least not going to school for a couple weeks. News stories were done on both sides of the ocean on this phenomenon, although there was some irritation and offense taken on the American side, since no one really expected that to happen.

Yet, on the Korean side of the water, both foreigners and Koreans alike knew what would happen were the situation reversed. Say some American guy popped caps in dozens of people, taking the lives of around 20 of them, some of them children. Jeezus -- I wouldn't leave my house for a month. And not doing so would be justified. Koreans know this. Foreigners living here know this. We know how different the Korean reaction would be -- and regardless of history, or culture, or whatever else explanative matrices get activated to let Koreans off the moral hook, in the end, hate crimes would have been committed here in large numbers, whereas that simply did not happen in the US.

After Cho Seung-hee, what are typical major news stories, specifically about Korean kids coming to study in the US? Not only a puff piece on how foreign language high schools are "heaven" for Korean kids coming to study in the US, but a more interesting cultural angle piece on the "goose father" syndrome and sending more Korean kids overseas.

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My point? That yes, the American media is more responsible, and holds itself up to higher journalistic standards than the Korean media. Has it always been? No. Are there markedly different histories between our democratic traditions and the government's relationship with the media? Of course.

But that doesn't change the force of my critique. One side is still markedly unprofessional, doesn't double-confirm sources, doesn't take notes or record during interviews, and even regularly engages in the making up of facts in stories as a common practice. The other side engages in such practices at great professional peril. The blacklisting of a photographer for altering a piece of foreground in a West Bank picture, or the infamous Jayson Blair case are actually examples of overall journalistic integrity in the US, and reassuring. Because the exact practices that caused the ends of careers and huge professional embarrassment to entire organizations are common practice in Korean journalism.

And hence, one point of my argument -- that the Korean media's unprofessionalism was a huge source of the problem in this case -- should be clear, and it is a problem particular to Korea, not a function of the dismissive "well, it's the same anywhere." No, it isn't.

And if you push a Korean friend on the opposite side of the fence, as I have started to very recently, by asking the question, "Do you mean to tell me that you think Korean journalism has the same standards as American journalism?" the answer will be clear. Koreans are very dissatisfied with their OWN newspapers and journalism. Everyone was a media expert and amateur omsbudsman when "PD Diary" revealed Hwang Woo Suk's Great Lie to the people. They received death threats and the show was taken off the air for some time. People criticized their means of new gathering, their journalistic ethics, their sources, on and on. But it was all for naught, since the conclusion was ever the same -- he had lied, he had fabricated data. In the end, the conclusion was hard, concrete, incontrovertible. The public shrieking for blood had no choice but to reluctantly -- very reluctantly -- give it up.

But what makes the Korean public so willing to believe everything coming out of PD Diary's mouth this time, and with claims that seem so obviously sensationalistic and scientifically questionable this time? Where are the amateur omsbudspeople now? What's the difference?

I say, and I'll say it again, is that the factors are different this time and boosted by political winds puffing the sails in the same general direction -- patriotic sentiment, dissatisfaction with the government, and a healthy dose of anti-Americanism.

Actually, the shitstorm that took place in the wake of PD Diary's revelation took place along nearly the same fault lines: How dare the show disgrace the nation like that? Why didn't the government know better than to trust such a man? Isn't this just the Americans trying to take away a small nation's pride? Few remember that in the immediate wake of the revelation, there was some pushing to focus attention on perhaps the other lead American author having been the problem and trying to pass it off on Hwang. These things get lost in the shuffle of the big story, especially if you're not looking hard.

My thing is, one has every right to hold the fire right under the ass of the Korean media, to call "idiots" people who act as such, to expect people to hold higher critical thinking standards for themselves, especially when they do hold them, to a fault, for any issue not related to foreigners or hot-button issues such as American beef, or middle school girls who get run over by an American armored car, or even some speed skater named Ohno, who did nothing but compete to win. If anyone should have been vilified, it should have been the referee who made the bad call. That is, IF you're going to embarrass your collective self by vilifying anyone over a sports call.

People who say I'm a cultural imperialist, or some unapologetic nationalist for holding people to high moral standards, or who constantly say that "you can't compare" are actually doing the very thing they're accusing ME of doing, on a deeper level. Sure, I try to stick to my self-defined standards I outlined in my "Why Be Critical" post, but the funny thing is that this is one of the areas in which KOREANS COMPARE THEMSELVES ALL THE TIME. Journalistic standards, media responsibility, and even these days, the excesses of kneejerk nationalism -- they're all being constantly reexamined and lamented by a lot of Korean folks.

People bemoan the low quality of all kinds of newspapers here all the time (with the exception of their newspaper), wonder why Korean television is so crappy (with the exception of the drama they happen to like), and now generally dismiss the "danil minjok" idea as silliness (except when one attacks a sacred cow they happen to like). But the critiques and the comparisons are there. As is the inherent problem that one can't say anything about anything in a society without resorting to some degree of generalization, since patterns of thought and behavior DO exist; it's just most important to be careful about the limit of one's claims.

But if I really did "look down" on Korea, if I were reproducing the mode of thinking of a 1930's-era, white, American anthropologist studying the Hmong for the first time in Western scholarship, I'd just simply dismiss their "emotionalism" as "quaint and unavoidable", since they are simple people who don't know any better. Who haven't been given a modern education. Who hadn't been exposed -- incessantly, no less -- to our own media, infused largely with the same values, whose very government and nation-state hadn't been intertwined with our own since its very inception in 1948.

The Korean people aren't a subject of colonialistic anthropological study, nor do they deserve such kid glove treatment. To me, that's the ultimate insult to Koreans -- well, there's nothing you can do about it -- they're KOREAN, after all. To me, there are no fixed, inherent aspects to being "Korean", and no reason to invoke the Federation's "prime directive" of non-interference, because the Koreans are not some pre-contact people living in the Amazonian rain forest.

To me, the ultimate respect is to get out there and treat the Korean "side" of the argument as equals, and not as children to be humored, constantly "pardoned", or given a free pass when intellectual thuggery rears its occasional head, or when rampant emotionalism gets amplified by political dissatisfaction and nationalism to the point of no longer being anything other than a problem to itself.

In any case, one can debate with my points of fact, with my logic, has the right to get down and dusty with my arguments. But to say, like some foreigners and many Koreans do, that I don't have either the right to say something, or that someone like me is being inherently colonial in criticizing at all. I don't think that's fair to say, and in the end, doesn't do "Korea" any good.

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The only argument on the other side is about "Korea's image" in the world -- but I think that's a pretty weak argument, especially considering the fact that Koreans themselves, both as individuals who create negative impressions by virtue of drunken shouting at foreigners, racist patterns of media representations of them, overzealous government and media persecutions of any foreign company that dare turn a profit on Korean commodities, as well in the aggregate by attracting undue international attention in a kneejerk nationalist mode over thing such as sports calls, traffic accidents, and "mad cow" beef -- Koreans seem to be doing a pretty good job of tarnishing any international "image" all by themselves. Or the fact that foreign investment has dropped to nearly nothing, small hagwons are having trouble staying open because the number of foreigners is apparently dropping, and that the racial harassment experience is getting common enough to appear in major American newspapers now -- why aren't people worried about the "national image" then? I'd say word-of-mouth bad PR trumps any "Korea, Sparkling" video, even if you put Rain in it.

To me, the ultimate respect is caring enough to roll up one's sleeves, cancel one's appointments for the day, and put one's energy into dealing with your friend or family member. If I truly didn't give a flying frack, or had washed my hands of this place, I would have left a long time ago. Or I would actually treat them like immature, petulant children.

One doesn't spend the time I do writing this blog or engaging in the real work that I do outside of it -- of which, unfortunately, doesn't get reflected in a public way such that I appear more well-rounded than I do here, which is where I vent and try to mount some kind of social critique that gets above the emotional noise floor of my intense frustrations with this society -- one doesn't expend this kind of energy if one doesn't truly consider oneself part of the family, or the group.

I bitch and moan and complain and don't leave. Most Koreans who see couples like that stick together even when they're bristling and being irritated at each other would call that "jung" -- the mystical, allegedly especially Korean force that binds people together far more permanently than the seemingly "stronger" forces of fleeting romantic love or friendships of convenience. That's gotta be why I'm in Korea -- it's the jeong, people. Because the girls in short dresses, beautiful palaces, and the other "sparkling" aspects of Korean life just can't be the explanation.

I ask myself the same question from time to time, but I do at least know the answer when it comes up. Thank God, because otherwise, I'd have packed it all up years ago.

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