Romanticism and Nations

Ever since about a month ago, I’ve had a kind of niggling little problem eating away at my thinking. At that time, I was discussion nationalism and the rule of law with my famous Northstar class. I asked the class about what they thought of the Geneva Conventions and the justifiability of war… basically asking if the idea of a “just war” philosophy or tradition is acceptable, since the validity of that idea is something the code outlined in the Geneva Conventions to some degree implies.

One of the students got herself into what I thought was a conundrum. Except that she didn’t seem to see any conundrum at all. This disturbed me somewhat, since the thinking was far more alien than any other “alien” thing I’ve encountered since I left Canada.

We had just been discussing the history of expansionism as a facet of the unified state. Now, in some form or other, unified states seem to me to be an older phenomenon in Asia than in Europe. In Europe the unified state isn’t so old, but in Asia ancient and very important wars were fought, over unification. Once you understand that (by, for example, examining both the Chinese and the Korean Three Kingdoms periods), you can make more sense of that much-mentioned and often-lampooned Korean fixation on unification. It’s such an ancient element in this culture that it’s no longer very surprising to me that it guides so much of the politics in Korea (and in China, and other East Asian countries as far as I know). I’m not saying I think that the propagandistic approach to education on this subject is justified (and leaves many adult Koreans I know either highly skeptical, or highly optimistic but with little or nothing to base their hopes on besides promises of riches and power that are unlikely to be delivered if the reunification of Germany is any guide).

This brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend of mine. We were waiting for a variety show to begin, and on a huge screen on the stage, a film advertisement was being run. Except it wasn’t an advertisement. It was propaganda, propaganda for reunification. I asked her why they were playing that particular film at that particular event, and she kind of looked at me blankly and said, “Because we must someday reunify with North Korea.” As if that explained everything. It didn’t even seem to register for her as propaganda, the way it immediately did for me.

However, I am not saying that I agree with the critics who dismiss the whole question of reunification without even the slightest of pause – especially, but not only, foreigners who do so. I think that if their attitudes are baseless, or, worse, mere reactionary posturing (disagreeing with Koreans merely for the sake of disagreement), their comments are not worth being listened to… let alone responded to.


In any case, this kind of fundamental tension was, for me, present during discussions of Korean history. This particular student made, in several different classes, a few effusive comments about the history of Korea. It was not outrageous, unusual stuff… not that I agree with the validity of those comments. I don’t believe that Korea never commited acts of military aggression against anyone. I certainly don’t believe the idea that Korea as a nation consists of one blood, or even that it did so until foreigners arrived here… after all, colonization by Japan and China, a long history of trading with merchants from the Orient (what Europeans call the Near East), and even a presence of foreigners in the royal family for a time all make it an unbelievable claim. But what makes comments like that unremarkable is that I have heard them from other students, before… female students, usually, but sometimes men too.

In any case, this student described on period where she tacitly admitted that Koreans had been militarily aggressive: during the period of a certain Jae Wang (Great King) Kwan Gae Toh. (That’s probably wrong.) This fellow apparently directed an expansionist war that claimed some land quite far north that is now part of the People’s Republic of China. I asked if this was a good or a bad thing; considering the comments that many students had made about American aggression in the present time.

What happened instead was rather interesting. Part of the apologetics of defending the historical Korean expansionism was predicated on necessity: the claim was, as far as was clear to me, that it was at the time necessary for Korea to engage in expansionist warfare on account of a serious lack in material resources in the area. It was expressed to me as a need for farmland, although I have to wonder how much farming went toward anything beyond mere subsistence agriculture.

But more surprising to me – and the crux of what I mentioned earlier, the truly alien thing more alien than anything else I’d heard since leaving Canada – was the same student’s defense of the actions of that king and his army: “When something benefits my country, I am for it. If it doesn’t, then I don’t care, or I don’t want it.”

Granted, one can hear this sort of thing in America… quite easily, actually. And that’s what I grabbed right away, in responding to the student with a question… sometimes I am fiendish that way, playing Devil’s Advocate:

“So you must really admire America for its aggressive foreign policy which, after all, its leaders implement at least in part because they believe it’s important to the security of the USA… economic, political, or whatever security.” Okay, since this was a language class I was using simpler language, which means it took longer to say what I just expressed, but the above is the boiled-down version of what I said.

Of course, there was no answer, so I thought out loud, saying, “Oh, so wars are justifiable because people can never rise above war and self-interest to recognize a common good rooted in peaceful resolution of disagreements, right?” (Again, boiled-down paraphrase.) “And we will never see past the idea of nations to understand ourselves as one species who needs all of us to do well and survive, huh? So the Geneva Conventions are necessary and important. Great!”

What I actually said wasn’t anywhere near as sarcastic, of course, but I guess there was a lot of tension in the air. Most people were quiet, though one very bright student contributed an important point: that change like the kind I described takes an immense amount of time and effort, and while ideally we should be absolute pacifists, we must also recognize that it’s a very dangerous, perhaps untenable stance for a nation in the world of today.

But that’s secondary to my main point. Which is?

Which is that when my student looked me in the face and said something baldly nationalistic, I didn’t know how to respond.

On the one hand… I am a foreigner here. Maybe I shouldn’t walk about declaring things “propaganda” or “jingoistic” before I fully understand them. There are enough foreigners who make that their main hobby, we don’t need one more whining white guy here. It’s especially important to remember that the conversation was taking place at a significant communicative and rhetorical disadvantage… it was in the second or third language of most of its participants (although most people taking part could more than hold their own in the arena of self-expression).

On the other hand… I think to some degree, as a teacher, I do have an obligation to try to make truth, however shaky and ostensible and unreliable it might be, somewhat more easily available. In this sense, I think teaching is a subcategory of philosophy. Knowledge in some part must contain or be touched by the notion of “widsom”, which to me means an unshaking value in the reality rather than the rhetoric, in the facts as opposed to the fantasies.

There was a young guy I was working on a map with the other day. We were assembling a world map with little velcro tags attaching nametags to each nation in the world, as an exercise for learning country names, which incidentally is more difficult in English than in Korean… in English plenty of names are anglicized, while Korean simply approximates the native name for most countries – the name for the country in the dominant national language. (Same goes for cities, such as “Moscoba” and “Roma”). He asked me a few questions and eventually we ended up having a country-by-country discussion about the history of the most recent European-dominated colonial period, and about national rivalries. (If you ever need to explain tribal conflicts in places like Somalia, comparing rivalry between Korea and Japan does the trick shockingly well.)

In any case, talking about that history, I still felt the same anxiety. This guy’s map was hand-colored, and guess what two countries were the same color? That’s right, North and South Korea. Dared I to say anything? Nope. Why? Because it’s very hard to fight a huge, ubiquitous, and effectively (at least partly) invisible propaganda machine. However, I hope that by explaining to the best of my ability both sides of the situation, by talking about enough national rivalries and conflicts, I can get this fellow thinking critically, always trying to see both sides of things, even just a little more than before.

Back to the in-class conversation. “So,” I continued, unable to resist a restatement: “I guess you must admire America a lot, huh?”

No response, really, beyond claiming that what’s good for Korea is good, what’s not is irrelevant. I didn’t know how far would be too far in terms of directly pointing out the problems inherent in this position, so I didn’t do it. Because it’s not actually a logical problem, it’s rather a problem involving starting principles, including attitudes towards nation states and one’s value of that idea.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the claims are unassailable. Happily, in one class, a student seriously challenged the idea that this student has often presented, in which reunification with North Korea will empower and enrich Korea as a nation to the point where the rest of the world will need to submit and learn Korean, and Koreans will no longer study English.

The student’s refutation of this idea left me free to bemusedly note that while I am highly skeptical, it’s possible, given a long long time and a great deal of care, innovation, and luck: after all, I am in Korea teaching what is now the elite’s global language, which is the native language of a small and, say, from the perspective of ancient Rome, backwater little island off the coast of Europe. But, I also could say I thought it unlikely in anything like the next 400 years or so.

That said, I don’t know what’s the best way to approach criticizing things that are the result of propagandistic education. With people who have reasoned arguments, I can reason with them, ask them the right questions. But with those who simply believe something because it’s an article of faith – like Christians who don’t drink, despite the first miracle attributed to Jesus directly involving the making of wine for a celebration – there’s not much I can do to help them see more clearly except ask them for some solid reasoning and then ask them to think once they stumble on the fact they can’t produce any.

That’s a somewhat humiliating thing to do to a student, and I don’t think I have any premium on truth or “the real reality” but I also don’t think I can just sit by and listen to someone insisting on things that are patently, provably false, or misguided, or misleading. I still don’t know what response would have been best. I actually would love some comments on this, from anyone and everyone. Thanks…

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