The Day the Ruling Party’s Website Went Offline

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Beef Protests '08

Dancing Cat

Why was this image placed on the website of the ruling political party’s website? Why was some hacker logged on there as an admin, and responding to all commenter’s complaints with the same phrase: “Myung Bak is asleep!” What could possess anyone to do something so foolhardy?

That’s the question I’m trying to answer in this post. It takes a while to get to, but I hope the read is worth it.

(Note: This post is mostly for the benefit of those outside Korea. Those within Korea mostly are reading the lowest-common-denominator commentary at Marmot’s where, as usual, the sport of the day is mocking Koreans.)

Last night, two people were one person was blinded [partially] by the water cannons that police turned on protestors who had converged on Cheong Wa Dae, that is, the “Blue House.” (Yes, “The White House” of Korea.)

(UPDATE: Another person — at least one — got a skull fracture and is under observation, as reported by the woman who treated her, one of the most-read articles on Daum right now. [And while some commenters are claiming she’s not even a doctor, I have it on good authority that she is, for she was a classmate of someone I know!]; another protester got a brain hemorrhage in the same way, and many, many people have reported ruptured eardrums. This casts serious doubt on the honesty of claims by police officials that it’s impossible for the water cannons to cause seriously injury.)

The protests going on are huge these days. The streets have been utterly filled with people — I’ve heard claims that last night’s demonstrations peaked at 70,000 people in Seoul, and probably 100,000 nationwide. They’ve brought ladders with them, so they can go over the police buses that are blocking the roads. They’ve brought raincoats and food, so that they needn’t leave the scene and can fend off at least some of the water from the water cannons being used on them.

But the truncheons are out, and the Korean media has, finally, stopped pretending that everyone at these demonstrations are middle schoolers. It was a lie from the start — I know because I was at the first two demonstrations, and saw the vast majority of people were adults with my own two eyes; Lime saw the same the other day, with Catholic clergy and office workers and mommies with babies in tow all together — and the lie has outworn its usefulness. (Foreign commentators on Marmot’s persist in clinging to it, unsurprisingly.)

President Lee Myung Bak’s response last night, shown on TV, was, “Who bought all those candles? Who’s behind all this?” This is precisely the same sort of response that Korean’s Big (and Right-Wing) Media has been asking for a while.

(Apparently, college students have replied, “Uh… I spent my pocket money?” and some of them have been jokingly claiming, as did Matt, that it’s the candle companies and paper cup manufacturers behind it all.)

But this idea that there must be someone backing this movement, from the shadows… it’s the same attitude that is referred to — uncritically, I might add, as if it were not just as easy to mock — at Marmot’s as a search for “string pullers,” betrays a belief common in the right wing in Korea that anyone who disagrees must be a ninny being manipulated by Communists. Because, after all, the common people would never actually, you know, self-mobilize or give a crap about anything, right?

Dancing Cat

Get.

It.

Into.

Your.

Thick.

Heads:

The protests aren’t really about beef at all, as Iambe commented at Marmot’s recently — a comment so good, I have to quote it here:

There is a slight uniformity of opinion on the comment board here over this issue, and a combination of that opportunistic idiot Sohn and “I don’t want to die” wailing high school kids are granted, ripe for ridicule and render sympathy for their cause a little hard, but it is a little more complicated than “irrational fear of BSE”. I am playing devil’s advocate to a certain extent here, but allow me to elaborate:
The health issue has proven to be a catalyst for some very deep grievances about the LMB administration (his plummeting approval rating is not just amoung the left).
And they go like this:
Dear Lee: Beef was not part of the FTA deal. Given that the FTA is arguably unlikely to pass Congress anyway, capitulating to the US beef lobby just so you could get a Camp David photo opportunity was bound to go down like a lead balloon.
You claim to be the best person to ‘fix’ Korea’s economy. But letting the won drop that far against the dollar just to boost exports is stupid, inflation is rampant, and you just made oil more expensive for unhappy consumers here.
Cack-handed attempts to stifle protests, no matter how irrational the latter are, remind emotional youngsters – keen to emulate the glory of their 386 predecessors – of authoritarianism in the ’70s and ’80s. Given that your party has publicly ridiculed the past two administrations – who, whatever their faults, were committed to democracy and all the raucous frictions that that entails – as a historical anomaly, I don’t find that so suprising.
Your penchant for running things in a highly personalised manner, using personal weight rather than structural tweaking to get things done, again goes down badly with people now used to an almost functioning legal system. (Weber’s rational/legal vs traditional domination). You represent the latter to a lot of people, no matter whether you are right or wrong on the issues.
And when you try and privatise a number of banks, water etc, the right is going to bay for your head too for selling off the national silverware.

Opting for a bragging-rights photo op in an earthquake zone while this is going on at home looks shit too.
By the way. “Arrghhh I don’t want to die from BSE”

(Predictably, other commenters at the site have completely ignored this comment in favor of calling Koreans idiots and making fun of them. Par for the course over there.)

Iambe is perfectly correct: beef was the catalyst, beef is a vehicle, and it’s certainly a “folk devil.” (I cannot remember who used that term recently, but it’s the best use of the time I’ve seen.) It’s very easy to understand why some Koreans are panicked about it, given the kind of information they’ve been given by the media — but also the lack of any other information from the government, and given the horrid track record of beef in Britain and the fact that beef is still used in feed in the US. Slim chance or not, it’s easy to see why people would worry. (And anyway, as mentioned here, even some Americans think the American beef industry is note safe.)

And even if you think it’s irrational, that’s no reason to tell people they have no right to fear, to get angry, and to demonstrate. If opposition kills the FTA, it kills the FTA; life will go on, someho, and to be honest, I have other issues with the FTA, especially the very crappy implications for IP law, the very nature of the Internet, and by implication, not just the electronic freedom but also Korea’s future technical competitiveness.

“Shut up, I’m the boss of you!” does nothing to allay fears, founded or unfounded. It also does little to quell the anger that people have been voicing in these protests. Anger that has much more to with the very attitude with which responses have come.

The protesters, whatever you think about the vehicle, are busily figuring out that their voice can actually make a difference, and that when people gather, they can make and impact. Back in 2002, a friend of mine told me this was what she discovered during a trip to Seoul, during the World Cup soccer game, which was really interesting. She was the one who first mentioned the active promotion of sports (along with sex and… what was the third s? songs? (UPDATE: screen! as in movies!)) as a way of depoliticizing the Korean public during the long postwar dictatorships. Baseball leagues, it began with. But, she said, this was different. Even if it was weird, and silly, and strange, she said, people realized that they could organize, they could gather, and that there was a force that came of gathering in that way.

They didn’t win the soccer games, of course. The force is not magical. But Korea’s democratization was never really completed, as I’ve been saying for some time now. Getting to vote who screws you for the next four or five years isn’t democracy… it’s not all of it. I’ve cited Lawrence Lessig many times before, and I’ll do it again, this time at great length, from his book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (freely available online):

[D]emocracy has never just been about elections. Democracy means rule by the people, but rule means something more than mere elections. In our tradition, it also means control through reasoned dis-
course. This was the idea that captured the imagination of Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French lawyer who wrote the most important account of early “Democracy in America.” It wasn’t popular elections that fascinated him—it was the jury, an institution that gave ordinary people the right to choose life or death for other citizens. And most fascinating for him was that the jury didn’t just vote about the outcome they would impose. They deliberated. Members argued about the “right” result; they tried to persuade each other of the “right” result, and in criminal cases at least, they had to agree upon a unanimous result for the process to come to an end.

Yet even this institution flags in American life today. And in its place, there is no systematic effort to enable citizen deliberation. Some are pushing to create just such an institution. And in some towns in New England, something close to deliberation remains. But for most of us for most of the time, there is no time or place for “democratic deliberation” to occur.

More bizarrely, there is generally not even permission for it to occur. We, the most powerful democracy in the world, have developed a strong norm against talking about politics. It’s fine to talk about politics with people you agree with. But it is rude to argue about politics with people you disagree with. Political discourse becomes isolated, and isolated discourse becomes more extreme. We say what our friends want to hear, and hear very little beyond what our friends say.

Enter the blog. The blog’s very architecture solves one part of this problem. People post when they want to post, and people read when they want to read. The most difficult time is synchronous time. Technologies that enable asynchronous communication, such as e-mail, increase the opportunity for communication. Blogs allow for public discourse without the public ever needing to gather in a single public place.

But beyond architecture, blogs also have solved the problem of norms. There’s no norm (yet) in blog space not to talk about politics. Indeed, the space is filled with political speech, on both the right and the left. Some of the most popular sites are conservative or libertarian, but there are many of all political stripes. And even blogs that are not political cover political issues when the occasion merits.

(Emphases mine.)

Two things are notable: the first is that, in Korea, the notion of citizen deliberation never really got coupled into democracy. That’s not surprising, since there it’s a big tradition of citizen deliberation.The tradition is of monarchs until only a hundred years ago, and then foreign occupiers until fifty years ago, and then dictators until pretty close to 20 years ago.

This is clearly visible in the election process, described in vivid detail here, so I’ll summarize: there are no debates, no town hall meetings, and there is very little intelligent reportage. Worse, at times when elections are approaching, South Korean citizens are indeed forbidden to post their personal opinions online if the posting is an effort to affect the election. You got that right: citizens can be fined or jailed for posting information — true or false — or even just opinions online if those opinions are deemed to have been posted in order to affect the elections.

Lessig argues that the tradition of citizen deliberation is flagging in America, being forgotten; in Korea, it never actually even got soldered onto the imported, second-hand democratic machinery. Democracy doesn’t really come with a user’s handbook, but there is a history to learn and study. That didn’t get sone here; instead, educators were relentlessly opposed to “Americanizing” education, and fled into the solipsistic lion’s den of building national identity by importing from a much more problematic source: race-based nationalism, bloodline-fetishism, and more of what Japan imported from Central Europe and left lying around in the ruins of their colony in Korea.

And since democracy has actually arrived, there hasn’t really been a concerted effort to fill in the gaps. Political debates for elections? Why? Intellectual discussion of politics on TV? Why, when we can have tin-pan-lid-karaoke? That’s not to say Koreans have no inkling of democracy, of course. Peasant uprisings in the past have segued rather neatly into anti-colonial protests, and the “demos” throughout the dictatorships. And that’s what we’re really looking at here: the postmodern equivalent of a peasant uprising. The rhetoric surrounding it may not be reasoned, the motivations may not be expressed in a reasoned way, but peasant uprisings are always bad for the rulers, and dangerous to the status quo. They have been a kind of stopgap democratic force, in history… but always short-lived, and rarely all that effective in the achievement of any shared social goals, or formation of a consensus. And they have often been conducted in ways that look a lot like peasant uprisings must have done.

This is probably why the restrictions on demonstrations are so much more strict here than in the West. When a wall was built in Quebec City to cordon off the protesters during the Summit of the Americas meeting there in 2001, my friends and I were struck with the bizarre strangeness of it; limiting people’s movements could be understood to some degree — nobody wanted any would-be assassin to use the protest as a cover, for example — but a wall? And mass use of tear gas and rubber bullets?

In Korea, if you want to demonstrate, you have to book it ahead. You do not have the right of assembly, meaning that if your protest was not booked ahead of time, it is illegal and you can be dispersed or arrested by the police. This is, obviously, a remnant of the era of dictators, but it’s still in place and was recently thrown in the face of protesters: at the second demonstration I witnessed in Seoul, the police were saying, “This protest was registered as having so-and-so many participants! You have too many people now, so this is illegal! Go home!”

And then there’s the cordon. I stood by the cordon, watching police prevent people from coming or going into the protest area. Now, if you think for a moment, that’s a very interesting thing: why cordon off the area of protest? Why not just have cops at the perimeter? Why make it harder for people to come and go than it has to be? The answer, of course, has nothing to do with public safety: the location of the protest must be booked as well. At the second protest I was at, the location of the protest had been booked, but there was also an impromptu stage (that appeared overnight, seemingly) covered with half-naked Korean women bellydancing and rappers rapping. The music from their “performance” overpowered even the megaphones-and-microphones of the protesters. One wondered just whom it was who booked this “Street Culture Festival,” and when. It wasn’t too festive: the same three groups performed constantly during the time I was there.

The cordon is really a reminder to every protester present: We are still in control. We control you. You can protest here, because we give you that freedom. But don’t you dare imagine you are free to do this anywhere else.

And this is the rule that the protesters have finally broken: now that Lee is back in Korea — back from making friendly with China — the protesters decided it was time to move their protest to the front of the Blue House, and they marched there. The cops blocked the road well in advance, but they broke past, en masse, and demonstrated.

Now, far be it from me to excuse all that the protesters have been doing. Trying to get into the Blue House is utter stupidity, and would in any developed country be begging for arrest and long incarceration. But the problem is, Koreans haven’t really figured out what to do when protests get out of hand. Korea doesn’t have a tradition for that, because really, protests led to crackdowns, and things never ended well. Kwangju is only one example, the most extreme perhaps. The longer that the government dismisses protesters, though, the longer that the government fails to provide some argument to back up its policies — something tangible for opponents to busy themselves disagreeing with — the worse these demonstrations are going to get. Lee’s now the President with the quickest shift in Korean history from election (albeit in the most apathetic election yet, and with only 48.7% support) tobeing subject to popular demands for impeachment.

Netizens in Korea have a bad reputation in the mainstream media, and sometimes they deserve it. But right now some netizens are essentially attempting to use the Net to do the only thing they know how, absent the tradition of citizen deliberation:

They’re lashing out.

At least the lashing out online is good for our amusement. I’ve already mentioned the amusing “Fuck You” donations made to Shim Jae Chulin in order to deplete his discretionary budget. Well, this morning the website for President Lee’s party, the Han Nara Party, was down. (It’s inaccessible right now, having experienced the Korean equivalent of being Slashdotted or BoingBoinged or DOS attacked, too.) The reason?

As reported on Daum this morning, the site got pwned. Here are a couple of screenshots (and if you click on ’em, you can see bigger versions):

First screenshot

Second screenshot

And last but not least, here’s that animated image of that dancing cat mentioned above:

Dancing Cat

The finer points of the reference are probably not necessary, but the pointed implication is an unflattering comparison between the President and the rodents which cats are usually relied upon to catch and eat. Personally, not my kind of humor, but hey, it’s a dancing cat, and the Internet was made for the posting of Cat Pictures. So… well, there it is. Today, only a few months into Lee’s tenure as President, his website got hacked and cat pics were used to insult him online.

My prediction? Watch for Lee’s already-considerable love affair with censorship to bloom into some kind of full-blown crackdown on the Internet. After all, if he’s so buddy-buddy with China, and enough morons in Korea are willing to swallow just about any excuse for a crackdown, as long as it contains the word “left” or “communist.”

The problem is that all this restriction will not really punish the kinds of people who hack government web pages. They punish everyone, and they effectively will be the equivalent of performing an abortion on the nascent online movement of citizen deliberation that could, in the long run, come of Korean “netizen” culture which, after all, is still in its early infancy — something most commentators have constantly and almost studiously failed to recognize.

As I’ve written before, Lee’s Administration is not unique in its love of censorship: they are, however, alarmingly more comfortable with it. This isn’t a surprise, but it should be cause for alarm and vigilance. I suspect the days where installing some privacy software, and for me to establish a separate blog for comments on Korean politics, may be fast approaching.

That’s why I think the cat was posted: it’s like the peasant-uprising styled behaviour on the street, where people are fighting for the right to say something, somewhere, but not used to knowing what to do when that chance is finally found, and not knowing quite what to say.

Is hacking okay? No. But neither are censoring people and shutting down the large, messy processes of what remains here still only nascent democracy.

UPDATE: I meant also to post about this — more humor used to fight back against the government’s retrogressive ways — but you can read it for yourself.

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24 thoughts on “The Day the Ruling Party’s Website Went Offline

  1. If you make a separate blog about Korean politics, post about it or email folks . . . I know I’ll want to keep reading it. I didn’t truly realize until now the education to be had about international relations online and what I can do to be useful inside my own country. yeah, I read random stuff, but this is reportage, or certainly closer to real reportage than half the poorly argued fluff in the newspapers and even in some alternative media. I’m continually astounded by folks who can string a sentence together but can’t make a logical argument to save their lives . . .

    Based on the state of mainstream media, bloggers can be an antidote to the distorting mirror effect folks can get if they consume news (its another product now, after all) only from within one country, or even (increasingly) one source language, if that language is English.

    Yes, people say bloggers are too unprofessional, each have their own axe to grind . . . but that’s true of all news sources, whether that bias is obvious or subtle, and once you assemble a patchwork of perspectives I imagine you can get a much clearer view of an event than from reading even five well-worded, only subtly biased articles that agree with one another.

    It would be nice…and maybe someone has and I don’t know . . . to invent a software tool to scoop across press coverage and blogs for adjective clouds . . . for adjectives reveal so much. Would probably have to be too context sensitive . . .

    I know I have to fight it in myself, make myself at least skim some coverage by people I disagree with if they’re not idiots. There’s the reflex to just read or watch media you agree with in this country and it makes it harder for folks to communicate with each other, to find commonalities, I think.

    Anyway . . . sorry to blather, but keep it up. You may not intend to be a “Korea-blogger”, but you are covering interesting stuff about the country . . . and I value this window.

  2. Val,

    Thanks!

    Actually, on the adjective cloud scoop, I suggested the same kind of thing to a guy (ex-reporter, if I remember right) I knew named Nick Arnett long ago. He did up some kind of perl script that mined mailing lists for it, and it was linked to some startup he got going — he might have had the idea independently, though, I can’t remember.

    I’m sure there are much more sophisticated gidgets and gadgets online now, though. My original suggestion was to try map how specific rote phrases explode from mainstream media to discussions — this is a lot clearer in blogging, but still, if one could get a bit of software to tune out the blockquotes, I bet we’d still see huge amounts of imitative text woven into “original” posts. We are an imitative species, after all.

    Anyway, I’m just trying to provide some alternative coverage to what the more jaded, right-wing English-language sources on Korea provide. (I know Robert at Marmot’s is a Libertarian, but the site itself comes off quite right-wing in the long run.)

    Anyway, if I do make an independent and anonymous Korean politics blog site, I’ll probably link it from here and also invite a few others in on it. Maybe a Left-of-center alternative to the Marmot’s Right?

    But remember, some (many?) people with similar opinions to mine would call my perspective skewed and imbalanced, too! :)

  3. Honestly, I don’t know why political participation (like writing a novel) is seen as summum bonum of a person’s existence. I don’t regard elections as a matter of life or death, which is probably one reason why I have a Ron Paul button on my site.

    Citing the New England model is all well and good, but what happens when those politically active and aware citizens send Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1984 with a landslide victory? Or the PA voters, who as Obama put it in his speech in San Francisco, who can’t let go of god and guns?

    The New England model works so well because the people involved are stakeholders. Either they’ve lived in the area for generations (and own property that’s been passed down through the family) or their wealthy yuppies who have scooped up some nice real estate in the area.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m comfortable with a majority rules philosophy, regardless of which way the wind is blowing. Are you?

  4. Hey Gord,

    I don’t really know much about Korean politics; this is just a response to the Lessig quotation. I have to question how effective blogs really are at spurring political dialogue. I’ve been reading blogs for years now, and I don’t recall coming across a single non-ironic conservative statement. Not even one. Perhaps there’s a preponderance of liberal blogging (I wouldn’t be surprised), but even so it’s pretty astounding that I haven’t encountered ANY serious conservative thought. The more likely explanation is that I’m unconsciously screening the blogs I read to maximize the likelihood of getting political opinions I agree with.

    I’m not saying I run away from conservative content — out of anthropological interest I sometimes click over to foxnews.com, just to see what the other side is up to — but when I follow links from one blog to another, scanning the first few lines before deciding whether to keep reading or move on, all I’m consciously screening for is content that’s likely to interest me. Somehow in the process I manage to screen out all right-wing political content — if it’s even there in the first place. Perhaps I’ve already screened it out by beginning the chain of clicks at a friend’s blog. Lessig writes that conservative and libertarian blogs are some of the most popular, but I’d be willing to be that they’re popular exclusively among conservative and libertarian readers. Indeed, after writing this sentence, it seems so obvious as to be redundant. To call a blog “conservative” or “progressive” is to describe its readership as much as its content.

    So here we are in our Vingean belief circles. Even if “the blog’s very architecture” solves the problem of talking about politics, there are cognitive filters in place determining how we use the technology that allegedly connects us. How can blogs solve the problem of talking about politics if we haven’t solved the problem of taking the other side seriously in the first place? This is how I conceptualize Lessig’s social norm against talking about politics — or at least a big chunk of it. People who hold beliefs opposite to ours are either incapable of reason or are reasoning from baldly insane first premises (such as belief in a Jewish zombie who blessed everyone with His very conditional love, or, from the other side, belief in a universe ruled by randomness, devoid of purpose or guiding intelligence). Even if you’re curious why, for god’s sake, someone would hold those beliefs, conversation with such a person is unlikely to be fruitful due to their aforementioned insanity. Consciously or not, this is how most of us approach political discourse. I know it’s what I do when I click over to Fox News, with a protective half-smile already in place. It’s what we do when we happen to overhear a pair of conservatives talking and we think, “My god, they really do sound like Steven Colbert.”

    This has become a little bit rantier than I wanted it to, but the problem troubles me: what good does any communicative technology do us if we lack the spirit of citizen juries — the drive to reconcile opposing ideas?

  5. on adjective clouds: cool that a tool exists. I hope to come across it some day.

    on marmot: haven’t read much there, but I’ll look out of curiosity. Although how is Libertarian and right-wing different, at least among folks in the US? They seem to get along rather well, esp considering all the yutzes that supported Ron Paul who was against choice (something that would set off freedom alarm bells for any sane Libertarian according to their definition, although how should I know I’m fairly socialist affiliated).

    Is it just me, or could this so turn into a discussion not only about media but about education (esp comp classes…admittedly my training and background biased me) can help folks build the sort of critical thinking skills they need to evaluate this stuff, which may also spur them to look at the arguments of those who disagree with them.

  6. I think that sense of irony and humor was a big selling point for conservative commentators, reporters, and bloggers, at least for me. I’m not as enamored of Mark Steyn’s opinions as I used to be, but his sense of humor, and passion for musicals, movies, and the theater was what drew me to him as a political commentator. As an English Lit major, it was easier to relate to his take on the world than a bunch of bloodless wonks.

    Christopher Buckley and P.J. O’Rourke are an even bigger influences on me, and I think very few writers can match them in terms of talent, wit, and skill. When it comes to getting ideas across, O’Rourke and Buckley can do it with panache, flair, and style to burn.

    The Cato Institute and Reason magazine have a knack for getting the really cool kids on board, like Penn & Teller, the aforementioned P.J. O’Rourke, Matt Stone, Trey Parker, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Drew Carey, and John “the Buttman” Stagliano. Maybe it’s the nut point of view, hell maybe their wrong and I’m not that bright for paying any attention to them, but it’s a much more interesting crew than what everybody else has.

  7. Gord,
    I completely agree with you about the comments at the Marmot’s Hole. I read there to keep abreast of Korean news (especially translated) but usually avoid the comments.

    Loved this post – incredibly well written and thought out. You should be writing for the Marmot’s hole – or at least your blog should have greater traffic here in Korea. Posts like this are true gems.

  8. So much to reply to:

    Mark: you’re conflating elections with democratic participation, just like I said we shouldn’t do. I don’t think elections are usually life and death, but they can make huge differences in how people live, and this is why having an atmosphere where political discussion is necessary. Otherwise, votes are just coin tosses in a void.

    I think you are only free not to see participation in politics because of the freedoms you enjoy because others participated actively in politics. These freedoms, by the way, are use-it-or-lose-it freedoms. The liberties you enjoy are far from the norm in human history.

    Majority rules philosophy is useless if debate and discussion cannot be part of it. Majority rules without discussion gets us slavery, forced conversion to Christianity, and so on. There have to be ground rules, and there has to be a space where deliberation and debate can occur among the people.

    I’ve long found it sad we build temples to consumption (shopping malls) but not to citizenship and democratic participation.

    Tristan,

    I think you’re right about the ideological isolation that occurs online, but I think that in the fringes surrounding the polarized debates of right and left, a lot is going on where minor bloggers are trying to grapple with what “the other side” has to say in an intellectual manner. This is bottom-up, not top-down, so I expect it’ll take a long time before we start to see blogging come into its own. Maybe when live videoblogging debates take off? Blogging is still a new technology, and I think it took a LONG time before books were used constructively and in a sophisticated manner, even after the invention of writing.

    The Vingean belief circles have to clash and meld, I think, eventually. Scootch-a-mouthis will be wandering among the Hacekian critters eventually, it just takes time. As I argued above, Korean society is just starting to realize that social participation is part of democracy, and even now it’s only a small part of society that gets how crucial it is.

    Val,

    I’m between bookmark lists, but I think some of these apps and thesecould probably retooled to do something like what we discussed.

    I am not the best person to discuss the difference between libertarianism and conservativism, except to say that I find both tend to be all too eager to ignore any of the more complex social, cultural, and economic factors that impede “liberty.” The differences seem to be about just how little we need to fund and intervene, and Libertarians seem simply to think Republicans haven’t abandoned enough of what liberals consider the purpose and function (and duties) of good government.

    I think you’re right about the importance of education, especially of the development of critical thinking skills. Foreign teachers here routinely argue that this is what’s needed most severely in Korean education, which is (broadly speaking) rote-memorization based and exam-centered, to some degree even in universities. Watching Koreans debate things can sometimes be frustrating, as opposing arguments much more often get thrown aside or dodged than picked apart or even acknowledged.

    And back to Mark,

    Yeah, but irony wears thin. I noticed in grad school that all the cool kids, the cynical, world-wise, and very ironic kids, were the ones who had nothing much to say about the world. I’m sure your favorite writers have style, but the things by O’Rourke that you’ve linked or that I’ve come across after reading your praise of him leave me nonplussed. Style and wit are nice, but underneath it all he usually seems (to me) to be saying very little besides, “Ha! Those dolts! They believe in something!”

    Sometimes he’s right, and they are dolts but I irony in the place of basic convictions doesn’t move me. In fact, I think we could do with a little more conviction in our world — conviction and commitment to the world of ideas and of discussion, that is, and not just to specific ideologies or supernatural beliefs. Irony’s no substitute for giving a damn about something enough to be willing to be proven wrong.

  9. Thanks, EFL Geek.

    I don’t think the average crowd at Marmot’s would read to the end of my posts, actually. To be honest, the comments there I like best — like the one I quoted here — tend to get ignored completely. So I don’t think I’d be happy contributing there. But more traffic would be nice, if it helped get an alternative perspective on Korea out there. Frustrating as I find this place sometimes, the depiction I see on blogs like Marmor’s is just unfair and far from helpful. Which is why I’m typing up corrections klate at night far more often than I’d like.

  10. Gord, good post. I have been attending the protests daily since I live in the area, and while I agree they are a democratic expression of popular will, there is also a troubling totalitarian aspect to them as well. If you agree with the protesters’ fears of 30-month-plus US beef and hatred of “ChoJoongDong” (the top three “conservative” dailies) fine, but if you try to offer alternate views most people really don’t want to hear it — to the point of turning hysterical at times. A week ago I raised questions about PD Such’op’s biased coverage of this issue, for example, and I was suddenly surrounded by a dozen angry people all trying to shut me up and not even listening to the rational points I was trying to make. In another case, Hankyoreh completely misquoted me simply because I offered a view that didn’t jibe with their pre-formed opinions on this issue. I will say that I have meet some people who are willing to debate issues such as media sensationalism rationally, as well as troubling aspects of Korea’s own livestock industry, for instance, but they generally have been the exception. So there seems to be a conflcit between democracy and totalitarian group-think here, but doesn’t democracy mean respecting differences of opinion, or at least hearing out the other side first? On a few occasions I have seen the crowd screaming angrily when they discovered that a certain member of the media was from Chosun or JoongAng and getting quite rabid about it. When people cross the line in such cases, it is just mob rule in my opinion and has the potential to transform into much dangerous stuff if the conditions are right for that to happen.

  11. King Baeksu,

    Thanks! You raise some good points worth talking about.

    For one thing, and I know this is unfortunate, but you’re not the guy who’s going to get people to see reason, no matter how sensible you are. Maybe in a few hundred years Koreans will be over the poisonous race-fetish that was injected into their education (as an “alternative” to Americanized or Communist education) but for now, most will not see you as anything but an intruding American, no matter how much you care for their society or try to help. That’s where they are as a society: even if plenty of individuals are living in the 21st century, the social mores aren’t even close to the 20th yet. And there’s not much we can do about it, unfortunately.

    Let enlightened Koreans raise the distortions aired on TV. Let those same people do consciousness-raising here. I’m not going to the demos for a reason: Korean society has to figure out this stuff for itself, and I’m no messiah; I’m not sent to shepherd anyone anywhere, regardless of how some seem to think I feel.

    (I’m not saying you feel you’re a Messiah, I’m saying that I don’t feel participating in the demos will help anyone.)

    In my class today, some students debated the whole Mad Cow issue, and the people on the cons side actually made some good points. Unfortunately, the student with the best English mostly just spouted “trust the government!” silliness — and it is silliness, not because we should fear US beef but because we should never trust a government farther than we can throw it — but the other two on her team were moderates and raised a lot of good points, including many that snide foreigners love to imply aren’t on Koreans’ radar.

    As for mob rule, well, periodic outbursts of that are also part of figuring out what the hell democracy is. I got the same fearful feeling during World Cup soccer madness, but it didn’t become anything dark then. I have to wonder if part of all that fear of dark stuff isn’t a fear of democracy itself. Not the watered-down vote-for-me shit that I (and I presume you) grew up with, but the voice of the people. Democracy is dangerous, which is why most governments fear it explicitly and fight to quell it implicitly. And combined with those toxic one-blood-fantasies, it really can become something awful. Honestly, I worry about what will happen when all those mail-order-brides’ kids are 18-20 and pissed off at being unable to get any jobs despite being Korean citizens. Things could become very dark then, and nobody’s thinking enough about how to head off that awfulness at the pass.

    I don’t know… the French made a bloody hash of their democratization, enroute to finding their way. Many other societies since them have also failed to learn from their mistakes. I don’t see guillotines being wheeled out in the streets yet, so I don’t think it’s going that way. There’s hope yet. But this is a very long haul, and I’m dubious this stuff will get resolved in any of the generations I’ll live to see.

    But a start is a start. Like I say, sometimes you need to discover that you have a voice before you figure out what the hell is worth saying.

    Mark,

    Coulter is just disgusting and pathetic, and Maher is too. I haven’t seen O’Rourke not sneer and actually say what he does stand for, and it’s a turnoff. Making fun of dolts is like shooting fish in the barrel: saying, “Hey, all kidding aside, this matters!” about something of significance is a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

    (And yes, I do think there are objective standards for what kinds of things matter; it’s a property of being fragile creatures in a harsh physical universe.)

    But like I said, I’ve not read much of him, and maybe he does take a stand on something significant somewhere. I just haven’t seen him do it, whilst he is often what you described elsewhere as “glib,” and this makes me less than eager to read him.

  12. Gord, well, to be fair, it was mostly older generation types who seemed pretty close-minded on debating this issue at the demos. The younger folks have been pretty cool and are generally quite friendly, and my nationality has never been an issue (several Koreans have even called me “Korean” after I tell them how long I’ve been here). Anyway, I’m less concerned about the poisonous racial stuff to which you refer than just the general disinterest in politics and political conciousness here. Hopefully this movement will wake a few people up here and make them care more about these social and civic issues so that they won’t vote for such an idiot the next time around.

  13. Yeah, I’m hoping that last thing you mentioned, too. One of my students started a conversation about Lee with me; I was guarded until she said, “See, I think it’s a good thing. He’s so bad that young people will get angry, and become politically active.”

    I’m hoping people will start demanding debates before the election, and not just random sycophants gathered around the subway station in white gloves singing and dancing.

  14. Oh, and back to Tristan’s point: I’ve been thinking all day, and I’m not sure that things will necessarily lead us to real rapprochement, but on the other hand, one has to hope that we can, with all our extra time and resources, become even as good at it as polities of the past. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I put a little stock in the way John Ralston Saul characterizes the heights from which intellectual Canadian politics has fallen. (Not completely — I kind of distrust some of his claims — but there’s something to what he’s saying, I reckon.)

    But you’re right: Lessig’s maybe blueskying blogs a little. At the same time, I wonder if they maybe do break down a step that you and I don’t feel is there, but is: talking about politics at all? If he’s right, a lot of people are conditioned just not to go there.

    Maybe the trashiness of the blogosphere, and of usenet back in the day, are comparable? Maybe it’s all growing pains?

    I’m starting to really appreciate how slow social and political change is on the ground, regardless of how rapid technological and intellectual change might be. It’s an interesting mess.

    One more thing: I was going to say, Lime and I went a few rounds on the “banishing right-wing reporters” thing. People seem to be scared of being photographed by plainclothes cops — which is maybe paranoid, but I’m also willing to think it a sane fear given not-so-old-history and the authortarian gait of the current President — and their antipathy towards reporters also seems to come of those reporters being told they’re not welcome, and lying about their credentials. (Claiming to be from other media, like Oh My News for example.)

    I think this is all a tactical mistake. If they were smart, and hip to the technology they’re using, they would be letting the reporters report, and then shaming them into telling the truth, or documenting them at the gate (photos, ID, die papieren!) and then cybermobbing the ones who lie in print. Dog Poop Girl was ridiculous, but similar power used to force reforms and accountability in the media would quite possibly be fair play, and I’d have trouble sympathizing with the many reporters who’ve built a career out of partisan distortions, racist claptrap, hate-mongering, and the like.

    But I can understand protesters’ desire to simply shut out the corrupt media, whom they know will misrepresent them in the interests of the same forces they’re rallying against, instead of wading into the cesspool to fight them on their own grounds. I just don’t think it’s good tactics. (When they publish distortions, how can protesters complain? It’s not like they let the reporters see for themselves!)

  15. I always found O’Rourke pretty upbeat, and there is a certain optimism to his work I’ve always found refreshing. It was nice – and thoughtful – of you to give O’Rourke a try. I’m not really looking to make converts though. When I was an English Instructor, if could recommend a book that a student or colleague might enjoy, I was happy with that. And that’s really my point – I enjoy the wit, humor, and irony of all these people, and agree with the basic philosophy or principles they espouse so that’s all that matters to me. Reading Alan Moore or Martin Amis and worrying about nuclear war doesn’t do anything for me, so I go with what works. I’d be lieing to myself, and other people, if I feigned concerned about “the big issues and concerns of the day”. I’m comfortable in my own skin – it’s one of the reasons I can get through most books sy quickly – because I genuinely take delight and joy in the authors I read. If that makes me cynical, color me cynical

  16. Mark, just wait till the K-Netijens find out how much you like O’Rourke! You’ll be the next Poop Girl for sure! Anyway, O’Rourke will be forgotten in a few years and in the meantime, Martin Amis’ London Fields well continued to be read as the true classic that it is.

  17. I love the bit O’Rourke did on Seoul. If you like London Fields, I’m cool with that. I’d rather enjoy reading something disposable than read a “true classic” and not take anything away from it. If it expands your horizons, and you enjoy it, more power to you. Life is too short to waste on books you don’t like – whether they are written by O’Rourke or Amis.

  18. Just as a follow up, I’d like to add that I’ve read enough Amis pere et fils to know that they take people to task for their pretensions, not tastes that are sincerely enjoyed.

  19. I don’t think the average crowd at Marmot’s would read to the end of my posts, actually. To be honest, the comments there I like best — like the one I quoted here — tend to get ignored completely. So I don’t think I’d be happy contributing there. But more traffic would be nice, if it helped get an alternative perspective on Korea out there.

    Well, if you ever decided you wanted to, you’d always be welcome. Yes, my commenters are the way they are, and my personal biases are what they are, but I’d always welcome a new perspective.

  20. Robert,

    That’s a very generous invitation on your part, considering how I slammed your readers and even your personal biases in this very post. I don’t think I really have time to do more of anything at the moment — I’m trying to cut back on the energy I put into this blog so I can do more fiction-writing (and other paid writing work).

    I also discovered I’m grinding my teeth in my sleep, probably because of stress, and I honestly must say I think reading Marmot’s Hole-styled comments on my own posts would probably just send me over the edge. I’ll think about it, but I’m leery at the moment.

    However, if you want, I could certainly add a category to my site that I could use to mark posts I think might be of interest at your site, and you could use the cat feed for syndication of those posts. But again, I don’t want to turn out like this guy — and I know I probably would, at some point (I blame my mother’s French blood) — so I’m not sure I’d be reading the comments too often.

    Oh, and King Baeksu/Mark,

    How ironic. I write SF — the genre that dates itself almost as quickly as the kind of books O’Rourke writers — yet I also find his stuff too throwaway to actually buy. Or even concentrate on for too long at a time. Hmmm.

    And sadly, I haven’t read either of the Amis men’s books at all.

    (I was put off by a VERY long rant by a friend whose opinion I probably would not take as seriously now as I did at the time of her rant, but now I have so many books I find it hard to justify buying more. I shall be on a reading binge this summer, though, since I’ll mostly be stuck in Korea.)

    I dunno. I read Charles Stross, but I also read Ezra Pound. I find a variety of perspectives is good for me. I have a VERY hard time reading certain older books that are “classics” — Jane Austen bores the living hell out of me, except when she’s funny and then I can tolerate her, like in Northanger Abbey, but even there it was a slog by the end.

    But these days? Mostly I’m just trying to catch up on the SF genre(s), and keep up to date with two main issues — computer/copyright/media/corporate-power and green-tech/climate change/resource usage/corporate power. You can guess where it all intersects for me.

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