Friday, June 20, 2008

Told Ya So, Or Why Memories of the Panic Is All Is Going Down the Memory Hole Again


On the day when protest numbers peaked, I said that the beef protests would be dead within 4-6 weeks, especially after getting wind that the two middle school girls incident was planning to be inserted into the mix, as well as other issues.

I was more right than I could have hoped.

Of course, things could flare up again, and you might get more people back out there in response to new decisions made here and there, but I think the large protests are indeed over, and things will go back to normal, since this wasn't a "movement" so much as public venting.

Still, I don't buy the whole revisionist thinking that many Koreans have, that this was "never about anti-Americanism" and people trying to act like this was a peaceful, thoughtful expression of public will, akin to a people's referendum on the president's decision-making style.

It was what it was. At first, it was pure, irrational panic over the story that broke on PD Notebook, the Korean equivalent of the American show 60 Minutes, except that the former is a piece of sensationalist yellow journalism, whereas the latter is generally seen as setting the standard for in-depth, professional journalism.

Koreans not only failed to see the ridiculousness of many claims on their face, but also instantly forgot the history of the show itself, including its reputation for questionable ethics and having received intense criticism from the KOREAN PUBLIC for its previous reporting, which was perceived to have been done more for ratings than for the public good. It had actually been taken off the air because of the intensity of public demands -- yet Koreans were for some reason looking at the obviously specious claims and stringing together of flimsy evidence as gospel.

That is and was disturbing, and no attempt to spin this all as some rational reaction to the president's policies will work, since anyone here at the time should be able to tell you that that is NOT what this was about. Now that the beef thing has become embarrassing, as more and more information has come out, people are rationalizing this away as actually having been about something else, but it wasn't -- it simply wasn't.

I and many other foreign observers with some distance from the issue saw this in terms of other public panics to which we had also been witness -- it's just that the recent one was shown to be bullshit quickly, whereas the Ohno or middle school girls incidents didn't have such a clear and simple way of debunking: the genetic susceptibility argument was shown to be ridiculous (why that was even news is still shocking to me), the downer cows shown had nothing to do with CJD (a fact that was also obvious at the time, yet that didn't seem to make any difference), the woman the show claimed to have died from mad cow in fact didn't (a fact readily available from any of the Korean journalists who have the same access to foreign news media as I do), combined with the fact that the Korean beef industry actually has lower standards than every point for which the American beef industry was being taken to task.

Eventually, the bullshit's gotta float to the surface.

And now, as people shift their initial anger into the rationalizations that take place after one realizes that they've overreacted, or that they are even wrong, now the media is getting a lot of criticism for having "deceived" the people. Hey -- I was saying all this from day ONE, back at the beginning of May (see here and here). So why am I OK today, but I was an asshole at the beginning of June? My position hasn't changed one iota, yet everything I said then is now socially acceptable all of a sudden. To all those people who were nearly rabid with fury at possibly getting mad cow, how they might get it from using everything from maxi-pads to makeup, but now are suddenly possessed of omsbudsman-like media criticism skills and are jumping down the throats of the newspapers, I do have to allow myself an uncensored moment:

Give me a fucking break.

This is why Korean public discourse is counterproductive and embarrassing, in that is mercurial and irrational. When PD Notebook aired its "expose", people around me were parroting those pieces of evidence, to which I replied exactly as I did in the paragraph above. People accused me of being an apologist for American empire, which I wasn't, or simply being defensive, which I wasn't. And PD Notebook isn't doing anything they haven't ALWAYS been doing, nor the newspapers.

Yet, now when people are coming around, instead of using the realization that they were simply overreacting to think more deeply about WHY they were so overreacting and why they were so easily snookered and manipulated in the first place, people have just decided to throw what happened down the memory hole and simply remember events as something they weren't at that time.

That is what continues to frustrate me about this and the inevitable future protests to come. At the same time, the cycle of overreaction, mass demonstration, and petering out seems to be much shorter than I anticipated -- but again, I wonder if that was because this issue has such a relatively easier "right answer" that would eventually see the light of day, more than a sign of popular patience for this sort of thing having gotten shorter, i.e. people have "learned something" from all this.

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