Monday, June 16, 2008

Conservatize Me

Here’s something to notice in today’s online Korea Herald: an article describes how President Lee Myeong-bak “moves to embrace conservative rivals.” I’m not sure what “conservative” means in such a new democracy, but it would make sense for a Korean conservative to want to preserve the planned economy and social support resources that had made South Korea an “Asian Tiger” to begin with. (In fairness, he or she might also want to preserve such dubious features as the fanatical anti-Communism that causes so many older Koreans to see Kim Jong Il behind every proposal for reform.)

Lee and other “conservatives”, by contrast, want to radically remake Korean society, while keeping power and wealth as concentrated in its upper reaches as possible. In this they resemble their American “conservative” counterparts. In the U.S. conservatism should mean preserving the New Deal and Great Society social programs that saved capitalism in the mid-twentieth century. But the radical statists of the New Right – Goldwater, Reagan, the “neo-conservatives” of the Bush II administration (many of whom first tasted power under Reagan) – want to dismantle the programs that have made life better for the majority of Americans.

True, both groups tend to live in the past. The Reaganites were notorious for their fantasies of a pristine white (except for maids and Pullman porters) America, and today’s American liberals harp on returning to the days when America encouraged democracy in the world and didn’t torture. Every Korean I’ve encountered who opposes the candlelight vigils, whether in person or in print, keeps bringing up the Korean War. There was a demo near City Hall yesterday, I think by Lee supporters (almost all of them appeared to be over 40), whose whole presentation was huge blowups of Korean War photographs and atrocity photos in garish color. The South has plenty of atrocities of its own, of course, but the real question is what all this has to do with U.S. beef imports, the privatization of public institutions (Lee wants to privatize the publicly-owned mass media too), the concentration of Korean wealth in ever-smaller circles.

The Commies were the excuse for maintaining a military dictatorship, for blocking elections, for massacring thousands, for imprisoning and torturing untold numbers more, just as they were the excuse for using water cannons on peaceful demonstrators this summer. I’m sure that the democracy movement of 1987 was also attacked as a North Korean front, too. There’s nothing like conservatism: if a tactic works, hang on to it -- you never know when it will come in handy.