Subverting Democracy, One Vote at a Time

UPDATE (26 AUG 2011): So, the referendum failed due to low turnout. Er, hooray for talking people out of exercising their right to vote? Sigh. Well, at least the mayor resigned. Off, not doubt, to his fortified castle in Kangwon Province, to begin a long training session of necromantic rituals in preparation for the 2016 Presidential elections…

ORIGINAL POST: There’s a referendum tomorrow, regarding with the lunches of schoolchildren should be subsidized by the government. This is an issue that has been building up, with the standard rhetoric on both sides:

  • Right Wing: If we feed all the kids in schools, they’ll grow up with a beggar mentality. Feeding all kids in school — even those who don’t need it — is unsustainable.
  • Left Wing: Many kids are living in poor or low-income families, and need help, and we should help them; the social environment of Korea — and the tendencies of its government to cut benefits for anything that only helps the poor — necessitates that we feed all schoolchildren in Korea, even those who don’t need it.

There are things that are right, and things that are ridiculous, on both sides of this debate, as usual for any political argument. Were I able to vote — and citizens of Seoul, including foreigners who’ve lived there a certain amount of time, can vote — I know which way I’d go, but I am not really impressed with either side’s arguments.

On the Right, I am shocked but have to agree: a school lunch program feeding everyone even though most kids come from families that can afford food for their kids is crazy. But this crap about kids growing up with a beggar’s mindset is pure garbage, and something only a person who has never experienced charity firsthand (on the receiving end) could say. Most people who receive charity do so only by overcoming their sense of shame and embarrassment: they need it, they have no other options, and it’s difficult to get oneself to be willing to do so.

There are, of course, leeches in any society: any complex ecosystem has parasites. But just because you’re right about 1% of recipients, doesn’t mean the other 99% are parasitic too.

Meanwhile, what the left has to say about poor kids needing help is correct: indeed, I know someone who was involved in surveys of children’s nutrition in Kyeonggi Province, who said it was downright distressing how, even in poorer families, parents opted to spend money on private education (ie. hakwons) rather than food for their kids’ meals… in the hope of schooling their kids into a better job and higher tax bracket, to escape the cycle of poverty.

Yes, that’s stupid, but it is what it is, and of course, there’s a whole echelon of people who are even poorer than that — people for  whom the idea of sending one’s kid to hakwon is a distant, impossible dream.

After all, this is why people on the left think that the lunch programs should be universal — because:

  • kids who have to apply for aid are put through the rigmarole of having to demonstrate need, and also are exposed to shame, risking social outcasthood and discrimination from teachers
  • lunch programs aimed at helping only the poor will be more susceptible to budget cuts

Personally, I am dubious that the solution to a social problem — discrimination against the poor — can realistically and sustainably be solved by insisting that everyone be fed by the government. Many families can and will feed their kids, and I’d rather the money that would be unnecessarily spent feeding those kids (the ones who don’t need it) be invested instead in programs that would actually help those kids escape the cycle of poverty — afterschool tutoring and mentoring programs, fighting for anti-discrimination legislation in terms of education, social awareness PDAs, and training teachers and students in sensitivity to the plight of these kids and their families.

(And while rightwingers might laugh at that last point, I think the anti-racism PDAs on TV, and stickers and posters I saw around my college campus did make a difference; I think the classes that included discussions of racism and prejudice in the schools I attended did, too. My attitudes were different that those of my parents’ generation (though in some ways my folks were, even then, relatively more progressive than their Canadian peers); that had to come from somewhere.)

My tendency in Korean politics, as in Canadian politics, is to side with the left because, after all, I think compassion is not just sensible and human — it is a natural human impulse — but because it’s also good for everyone. Social safety nets do reduce the pressure on individuals and families to find a way — however risky — to make ends meet. If you can’t imagine poor people, seeing no other options before them, unhappily resorting to crime (or worse) to do so, then, once again, you’ve just never been poor enough to know what you’re talking about.

This is relevant to the discussion:

But of course, the discussion that’s going on isn’t really focused on any of that.

As one might expect, the referendum has become about something else altogether. Cue Oh Se-hoon:

Click image for source.

One expects a mayor to appear like the above: smiling, confident, answering questions.

Not so much like this:


Fake humility? We can totally do that. Click image for source.

Or like this:


Crocodile tears, too. Click image for source.

Lest anyone out there be about to step up and remind me that the rules about bowing down before people, or weeping openly, are cultural, I would agree: in Medieval Europe, men wept openly too, especially for the purposes of political posturing. (It was a way of demonstrating one’s emotional investment in an issue, and one’s compassion.) But I hardly think anyone would be doing Oh any favors by comparing him to the medievals, would they?

Oh went on ahead and turned this referendum into something else, by saying that if 33.3% of voters did not turn out, he would quit his job as mayor.

Of course, since anyone who isn’t rich hates his guts, and the whole left wants him to quit, this is an encouragement not to turn out and vote — which, quite predictably, is what the left has been urging, and what most people on the left whom I know are doing: refusing to vote.

Meanwhile, churches in Korea have been urging their adherents to vote. Messages are being sent out from major churches (or, rather, under the names of those churches) urging adherents to vote lest kids in Korea will grow up to be gay — among other things (like being unable to go to chapel in religious schools, and being likely to join protests like they supposedly did in 2008.) No, seriously, and that’s because the Education Minister, an enemy of Mayor Oh’s, is supposedly openly anti-homophobic. The original article is in Korean, if you’re interested.

Now, think about it for a moment: if people on the left don’t vote, then the referendum will be invalidated — and thus, no referendum will actually have been held on the subject, leaving it open for another (expensive) referendum, or attempts to legislate less democratically. Meanwhile, if they do vote, then they’re stuck with this guy as a mayor for who knows how much longer?

Right away, people suggested that Oh was trying to win in two ways: to have his referendum go through, and win the bid for the 2012 Presidential election. Oh dismissed that, saying he would not be running in 2012…

… but anyone who’s signed a contract in Korea knows that such promises can and do get broken. Besides, I wasn’t expecting Oh to run for President in 2012 anyway: people are puking-their-guts-out sick of the current right-wing administration I expect the votes to swing left, and hard, and it’d be much wiser, strategically, of Oh to wait until 2016 to run for President.

But my main point is: after mounting such a huge, expensive referendum, it’s mind-boggling that Oh would have the arrogance to turn it into a confidence vote for his mayorality in such a way that outright discourages those who oppose him to participate in the vote. This is, frankly, a subversion of the whole referendum, a political ploy that clearly will have much more effect on Oh’s political future than on solving the issue of how to sort out the wealth disparity that is tearing Korean society in half.

What’s sadder is that the response among the left is typical of a group of people who missed the point about democracy: that voting his policy down would be a more powerful message than simply abstaining, and that voting down the policy could turn into a momentum driver for the next mayoral election. People are willing to think short term, and gamble that enough people will sit out to flush Oh out of the office.

If the Left does not show up and demonstrate its opposition, then Oh and the Korean Right come out on top: either the referendum turnout is big enough, and Oh gets his way (success for the Right) or turnout is too low and the referendum is invalidated, allowing Oh to become a “martyr” to the right, and the perfect figure to step in when, in 2016, people are annoyed with the Leftist leader that is likely to be voted in during 2012.

Meanwhile, everyone is talking about Oh Se-hoon, and the discussion has moved completely away from the issue. Not that I’m surprised, but… it’s so frustrating to see people behave in this way… as if shooting oneself in the foot were something people can’t learn to stop doing. (Surely we can, can’t we?)

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