Monday, June 30, 2008

No More Mr. Nice Guy

The Korean police, urged on by President Lee Myeong-bak, have escalated their violence against the candlelight vigils. On June 28, according to Hankyoreh, about 300 protesters were injured (against 112 cops) when the police began to trample the crowd.

“How can a government that uses violence against citizens who are maintaining a nonviolent tone have the right to say the candlelight protests are violent?” asked Yi Hak-kyeong, an activist and secretary-general of the Korean national YMCA. I take this to be a rhetorical question, for violent states always do exactly that. During the Vietnam War, for example, apologists for US state violence, which killed millions of Vietnamese and injured millions more, would scold the occasional American antiwar protester who engaged in violence on a tiny scale.

Mainstream white Americans became quite overwrought about Malcolm X's argument that black Americans were entitled to defend themselves against white violence, since the US government would not defend them at any level. Is self-defense such a radical idea? Yes. It was such moderate statements that caused hysterical whites to accuse Malcolm of espousing violence, though they would not do anything to stop white violence against blacks, which continues to this day.

Even the nonviolent Martin Luther King, Jr. made most whites uncomfortable, and as recently as the 1990s a white undergraduate told me that King "used violence." Well, he explained when I challenged him, he used the threat of violence by making himself the nonviolent alternative to violent blacks like Malcolm X. It's true, Americans are astoundingly ignorant about their history, but this kid's statement goes beyond ignorance to vicious distortion.

That's the way of the privileged, though. It's not surprising that Lee Myeong-bak and the corporate interests (both Korean and American) he represents are fighting back against the upstart citizens who dared to oppose them. It's not surprising that Lee is furious that he had to back down on his pet projects, which would have enriched so much of his base. How dare mere citizens -- employees of Korea Inc. as Lee sees them -- speak up against their betters? It can now be seen that "democracy" in Korea means basically what it means in the US: the freedom to vote for the carefully vetted rich guy of your choice, as long as you understand that your vote will have no effect whatsoever on policy or practice.

Meanwhile, according to the Korea Times, a Korean importer is gearing up to try to dump American beef on the Korean market at low prices. Whether this tactic will move the beef will have to be seen. The candlelight vigils will continue -- and their numbers, according the Hankyoreh article, have jumped back up to pre-June 10 levels -- but now Lee and his new gang of administrators are dropping all pretense of tolerating them. Maybe now progressives worldwide will pay more attention? Does it take heads being broken in the streets to make a protest newsworthy?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Bells of St. Clement's

Yet another book review from Gay Community News, probably published in 1988 or 1989, posted here as a space marker. In the words of Granny Weatherwax, I aten't dead. Though sometimes I wonder.

I'm not sure where the past week has gone. All the news is depressing, from Obama's support for telecom immunity to the apparent increase in violence at the Korean candlelight vigils, and I've felt too dispirited to do any writing. Or maybe just burned out -- I did write a lot in the past month. And returning to work after a month's vacation is not easy.

At least I've been reading. I finally finished Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, a truly wonderful book that I'll be referring to and quoting here in the future, and it nudged me to dig out some 19th century fiction (I think I'll be reading Thomas Hardy for the foreseeable future, plus giving Wuthering Heights another try), and to track down Brother to the Ox, a memoir by an English farm worker named Fred Kitchen, originally published in 1942. I also read Dale Martin's Inventing Superstition, which has given me some useful ideas for the New Atheist wars. I watched Love Crazy, a 1930s vehicle for Bill Powell and Myrna Loy that was entertaining and mildly raunchy for its day; and the pilot film of The L Word, to be followed by more of its first season as I find time. Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis also just came out on DVD, and I'm eager to see it. There's a lot to do.

Oranges and Lemons: Stories by Gay Men, edited by David Rees and Peter Robins. London:Third House, 1987. 136 pp. 3.95

Flux, by David Rees. London: Third House, 1988. 176 pp. $7.50

I became a reviewer not just because I wanted to write, but also because I love to read. Despite a fulltime job, I manage to read an average of about 200 books a year, plus magazines and newspapers. When I read a book that I think is good, I’m filled with envy and admiration for the author. When I read a book that I think is bad, I feel not only anger -- for the waste of my time -- but embarrassment for the author. It’s like a bad dream of walking onstage minus my pants, or of playing a whole set with my guitar obnoxiously out of tune. If I identify so closely with authors of bad fiction, it’s because I have, buried in the chaos of my files, some bad stories of my own. And some of the stories in Oranges and Lemons share enough of their faults to make me think with a shudder: That could be me, making a public spectacle of myself! Maybe I’m rationalizing, but I think that a writer must have the courage not just to persist in seeking publication, but also to recognize that his or her work is not yet good enough.

But what do I know? One of the worst stories in Oranges and Lemons, the title story, is by Peter Robins, one of the editors and apparently an established writer. Oranges and Lemons” is quasi-science-fiction, set in a future British police state, and stars an old revolutionary who has sold out to the new regime. As he waits for death, he is abducted by some young revolutionaries in league with his long-lost lover Mitch -- but as luck would have it, a stray bullet snatches away “any possibility of an autumnal love”. Ironically enough, his loss cements his resolve to join the young rebels.... Written in a depressingly jaunty style, “Oranges and Lemons” is less a story than a sketch for a story. Its failings are typical of the weaker stories in the collection: imprecise style, too much aimless dialogue, and annoying didacticism. The other problem is that many of these ideas have been done before -- Rodney Mills’ “Nothing Like”, about the problems of a gay teacher of adolescent boys, or Chris Payne’s “Popping the Question”, in which a gay man alleviates his boredom at his sister’s wedding by spotting other gay men there – and the versions here add nothing to the clich├ęs.

But there are some good things here. “Dominoes, Draughts and Tea”, by Ian Hutson, is a playlet about two old lovers planning their vacation; Hutson has caught exactly the way talk becomes a caress in a long-term relationship, and lets us in on the private jokes. Martin Foreman’s “Room with No View” successfully evokes the claustrophobia of obsession. “The Solitary Collector” by Paul Davies actually manages to be rather funny, and James Macveigh’s “Tomboy” is an unsettling mix of Lolita and Wallace Hamilton’s Kevin. One of the best stories is “Winter Light”, by the collection’s other editor, David Rees. It’s about two teenaged boys drafted for a local church’s performance of Everyman who fall in love, and while nothing out-of-the-way happens, Rees evokes the situation so skillfully and tenderly that I didn’t want it to end.

Fortunately, I had at hand Flux, a whole collection of stories by David Rees. The opening trio of related stories, “Perspectives”, is about a teenaged boy’s coming-out. “Cousins” gives you parallel lives of two cousins, a gay one and a straight one. Watsonville” is about the peril of fiddling around with the foundations of even the longest and most stable relationships. The title novella is the story of one of those mixed-signals affairs, in which two men who’ve seen each other around the bars for years get involved with each other for all the wrong reasons. And there’s more, with characters ranging from pubescent to middle-aged, traveling from Mendocino to Moscow. Again, everything here is pretty low-key, but Rees is able to bring off his slices of life so smoothly that he makes it look easy. I could wish for a bit more humor, but Rees never gets too earnest. I’m not sure whether Oranges and Lemons is worth three pounds ninety-five pence, but Flux is a good buy, one of those books that reminds me by its good example not only of why I write, but why I read.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

It's Not Over 'Til It's Over

When will I learn? I should have known that just because Lee Myung-bak’s administration and the US government announced that they’d made adjustments in their beef import agreement, that doesn’t mean that the changes are substantive or adequate. As the Korea Herald whined in an editorial, “No More Hassle,” just because the new agreement isn’t perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s no good: “But if an agreement between governments cannot be trusted, what can?” (Can the writer really be serious? Agreements between governments are the last things you should trust.) “Now antigovernment groups would do well to stop their candlelight protests.” (The writer still can't grasp that, although various groups have hitched their wagons to the protests, they were started by a spontaneous mass movement that can't be stopped by the orders of NGOs or right-wing journalists.)
But Lee should have known that Koreans haven’t taken their eyes off him. On Saturday night, there was another candlelight vigil in downtown Seoul, with about 10,000 in attendance. (Pictures, with Korean text, at OhMyNews.)
Hankyoreh has a good editorial on Lee’s reshuffling of his cabinet, noting that he didn’t look for much in the way of expertise or experience in his new appointees: one or two know what they’re doing, but others are just political cronies. The idea, as with the beef negotiations, is to make it seem that there’s been change without any actual change taking place. (Lee will probably get along as well with Obama as he has with Bush.) Maybe it would help if, instead of viewing citizens as employees, Lee thought of them as customers or even shareholders.
The government is trying to retaliate against its critics by attacking the Internet.
Earlier in the day, Justice Minister Kim Kyung-han ordered prosecutors to thoroughly crack down on activities against advertisers, saying “People are significantly worried as the activities of defamation, spreading false rumors and threatening companies to stop placing ads were recently reaching a dangerous level on some parts of the Internet.”
Would this concern extend, say, to President Lee’s attempts to smear the candlelight vigils as the work of North Korea? Or to the Korea Herald’s claim that the protesters have brought “chaos” and “anarchy” to the country? Where would government and business officials be without the freedom to lie? (I’m gratified by this Hankyoreh editorial that basically agrees with what I’ve been saying about right-wing attacks on the vigils themselves.) Not surprisingly for a former CEO, Lee Myung-bak doesn’t grasp the concepts of dissent or free speech. For better or worse, freedom of speech means the freedom to say things that are stupid, vicious, and downright false. It’s not obvious, though, that the protesters have been notably irresponsible, compared to their opponents, who basically feel that any criticism of Lee’s government is violent and dishonest.
Lee promised to back down on privatization, but it appears he’s lying there too. The camel of commercialized medical services is poking its nose into the tent, and the right-wing media are urging more privatization. A Korea Herald editorial (“No More Backtracking”) points to a recent mismanagement scandal at Korea Coal Corporation, which certainly calls for scrutiny and correction. But private corporations have more than their share of scandal, mismanagement, and misappropriation of funds for personal enrichment. Shouldn’t they therefore be nationalized, since they show the inability of private business to regulate itself?
The Korea Times presents the second in its series of interviews with advocates of privatization. (Where are the interviews with the critics of privatization?) This guy offers former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a role model for President Lee:
Thatcher faced a strong backlash from the public when she tried to privatize nationalized enterprises in coal, iron and steel, gas, electricity, water supply, railways, trucking, airlines and telecommunications.

However, she refused to succumb to the public pressure and opted for a head-on collision with the unions. Finally, she won concessions from them and succeeded in transforming non-competitive, bloated public enterprises into competitive ones, he said.
Pardon me if I don’t quite believe that happy ending. But Mr. Sunny Yi does put his cards on the table, doesn’t he? It doesn’t matter what the public thinks – government leaders should simply run roughshod over public opinion. He also points to the American General George S. Patton as a good example, forgetting that Korea is no longer run by military dictators, and that Lee has demonstrated that his arrogant authoritarian style is not all that effective in a democracy. But that doesn’t keep him from trying.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Promiscuous Meets Uncommon

The Uncommon Reader: a novella by Alan Bennett. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007.

I stumbled on this slim (120 pages) volume at the public library the day after I got back home. I was in the mood for something less engulfing than Rabih Alameddine’s ocean of story The Hakawati, which I’d just finished, and I knew that Bennett was a fine writer. Writing Home, a collection of his journalism and diaries I’d found at a library book sale last year, contained some fine essays on Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, and John Gielgud. Mostly Bennett’s known as a playwright and screenwriter (The History Boys, Prick Up Your Ears, The Madness of King George), and according to the “Also By Alan Bennett” page, his only other prose fiction is a collection of three stories.

The title character of The Uncommon Reader is none other than Queen Elizabeth II, whose corgis lead her one day to what we Yanks would call a bookmobile, parked “next to the bins outside one of the kitchen doors.” Stepping aboard to apologize for the dogs’ noise, the Queen falls into conversation with the librarian and the one other patron, a young dishwasher named Norman Seakins. More from a vague sense of regal obligation than real interest, she decides to borrow a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett (“I made her a dame”). Not the best choice for a novice reader. She lucks out the next time, though, with Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which draws her into the murky twilight world between the covers of the compulsive reader. Norman, promoted to page, becomes her first guide:
The commission caused him some anxiety. Well-read up to a point, he was largely self-taught, his reading tended to be determined by whether the author was gay or not. Fairly wide remit though this was, it did narrow things down a bit, particularly when choosing a book for someone else, and the more so when that someone else happened to be the Queen.
Starting with J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and branching out from there to E. M. Forster and others, Her Majesty is soon asking the President of France his opinion of Jean Genet. “What she was finding also was also how one book led to another, doors kept opening wherever she turned and the days weren’t long enough for the reading she wanted to do.”
But whether it was Jane Austen or feminism or even Dostoevsky, the Queen eventually got around to it and to much else besides, but never without regret. ... Too late. It was all too late. But she went on, determined as ever and always trying to catch up.
This reader’s progress will be familiar to any compulsive reader. The Queen finds herself impatient with routine duties, hiding a book beneath the coach window as she is driven down the Mall, waving to her subjects. Her staff, her consort, the Prime Minister, even her dogs become impatient with her preoccupation and jealous of the attention she’s lavishing on those little cardboard rectangles. Commoners presented to her must be prepped to be asked what they’re reading currently. Finally, her private secretary Sir Kevin Scatchard chides her:
“To read is to withdraw. To make oneself unavailable. One would feel easier about it if the pursuit itself were not less … selfish.”
“Selfish?” [One hears an echo of Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell here; see clip above.]
“Perhaps I should say solipsistic.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Sir Kevin plunged on. “Were we able to harness your reading to some larger purpose – the literacy of the nation as a whole, for instance, the improvement of reading standards among the young …”
“One reads for pleasure,” said the Queen. “It is not a public duty.”
“Perhaps,” said Sir Kevin, “it should be.”
If one recognizes oneself in that exchange, as the Promiscuous Reader certainly does, The Uncommon Reader will be an entertaining and solipsistic read. The only weak point, to one’s mind, is the ending, which feels too neat. But Bennett has managed to make a monarch into Everywoman, a distinct promotion. It’s also fun to compare one’s own reading with the author’s, and perhaps pick up a recommendation or two.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Back At My Post

Okay: back to work, I guess.
The Korean truckers’ strike appears to be over, the truckers having won some cautious concessions. That’s good news, along with the apparent fine-tuning (not renegotiation! anyone who calls it renegotiation, let him be anathema!) of the beef import provisions of the Free Trade Agreement with the US. President Lee has apologized again for having failed to take the people’s wishes into account. He replaced his secretaries, promised to abandon his canal project “if the people are opposed,” and maybe some of his privatization plans as well. Maybe; he was carefully evasive in his language, as numerous Koreans have noticed. What’s the matter, don’t you trust President Lee? About as far as I trust an American president.
For the Korea Herald, the key concern about canceling the canal is that “Construction companies are likely to face some financial setbacks because the government has scrapped its plans to build a cross-country canal” (“Cancellation of canal project leaves builders in the lurch”). (P.S. And I see that I forgot all about real-estate speculation, another windfall for Lee's moneyed supporters that won't pay off now.) You know, there must be other construction projects the government could undertake that wouldn’t harm the countryside or throw people out of their homes.
The Herald also has some editorials that deserve notice. In “No More Apologies,” the editorialist complains, “Even so, two apologies in a month are too many. It is all the more so, given that his apology this time was once more for the mishandling of the U.S. beef import deal.” If Lee had responded to public objections more sensibly and promptly, he might not have had to apologize twice in a month. I believe, myself, that it’s better for anyone, in private as well as public life, to err on the side of apologizing too much rather than too little; but I’ve always been something of a guilt junky.
(The Korea Times site also has an editorial called “No more apologies,” but its point is that he should show his contrition through action, rather than talking: “There are also other signs showing the President has yet to fully realize what's gone wrong and what should be done additionally to return things to normality. A case in point is Lee's seemingly begrudging retreat from his signature "Grand Canal" project. It would have been much better if he had flatly renounced the pet project without attaching the precondition of "if the people oppose it.'' Numerous surveys have shown a majority of people are against the cross-country waterway construction.”)
Next, in “For common good”, the Herald commends the Korean business sector for doing its share to build up the economy, by hiring slightly more recent college graduates than it had promised to. But not to worry: the numbers will drop in the second half of this year.
Then, in “Time to wrap up,” the editorialist is gleeful that numbers at the candlelight vigils have dropped precipitously in the past few days, from “a peak of tens of thousands down to several hundred, and it is not due to the start of the rainy season.” No, he contends, it’s because
Those young students, housewives and office workers who had gathered there to vent their anxiety over U.S. beef imports left when the protest became politicized by others who had different agenda.
After the massive demonstrations on June 10, the candlelight vigils changed shape. Men and women from all kinds of radical civic groups and labor unions also lit up candles and shouted all sorts of slogans, which invariably included "Lee Myung-bak out!" They opposed the Grand Canal project, the privatization of public corporations, the government's media policy and many other things.
This, of course, is nonsense – I think it’s not going too far to call it a lie. Calls for the removal of Lee Myung-bak had been part of the vigils since the beginning of May, when an online petition demanding Lee’s impeachment collected a million supporters. “Lee Myung-bak out!” had been a slogan in chants and on signs well before the June 10 demonstrations. Lee prepared to scrap his cabinet and other high officials as early as the end of May, in hopes of distracting the protesters from his own responsibility. The Grand Canal project, privatization, and other issues had been on the table all along, even if beef imports were the initial rallying cry. The vigils continued to grow despite, or maybe because of this broadening of issues. But then the Herald has been trying to mislead its readers all along.
The Times, to my surprise, criticized Barack Obama’s remarks on Korea and Free Trade. (Maybe they felt free to do so because Obama isn’t President yet.)
The Democrat presidential nominee said, “You can't get beef into Japan and Korea, even though we have the highest safety standards of anybody. If South Korea is selling hundreds of thousands of cars to the United States and we can only sell less than 5,000 in South Korea, something is wrong,” he added.

Some of Sen. Obama's aides should have told him that Australian and European beef products are being sold here with no problem, as they meet quarantine standards required by Seoul. Also, while made-in-U.S. vehicles are struggling here, some Japanese and European models are rapidly expanding their market shares by satisfying Korean motorists' tastes far better, not because there is any discriminations among imported cars. In short, Washington pried open the Korean market, but U.S. firms have failed to meet local consumers' demands, watching their foreign rivals reap the benefits of economic liberalization here.
It’s worth comparing the Korea Herald’s (“University students clash over vigils” and “Candleight flickers as issues diverge”) and Hankyoreh’s takes on the dwindling numbers at the vigils. The Herald, as I mentioned before, is gloating: all these commies tried to hijack the innocent, pure protests (of course their purity didn’t keep the Herald from attacking them for creating chaos and anarchy and undermining President Lee), but it didn’t work! hahahaha! Hankyoreh acknowledges differences among the protesters, but treats them as part of the larger picture. The Herald demands lockstep unanimity from the protestors, but of course if such unanimity existed, they’d treat it as evidence that the vigils were being controlled by diabolical agents of the North. Neither shows much evidence of what the participants actually say or think.
My own guess (and it’s only a guess) is that, aside from the arrival of the rainy season, many Koreans are ready for a rest. The vigils took place nightly for over forty days, and they were remarkably successful, shaking up not only Lee’s administration but the US government. Now is as good a time as any to sit back and see what President Lee does, if he honors his word to change his policies, or if he takes the relaxation of pressure as an excuse to revert. The corporate news media have been urging Koreans to pull back and give Lee a chance to make good on his promises. That's what they appear to be doing. If Lee reneges, the vigils can easily begin again in force.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


I'm returning to the States tomorrow, so posting will be light for a while, as we bloggers say.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in what's happening in Korea, look at the news sites I've linked to before, and check out the site of The Hankyoreh, an independent newspaper founded in 1988. It has some tasty features for the Korean-challenged, such as translations of political cartoons like this one.

Come to think of it, I should add a Korean blogroll when I get settled back in at home.

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.

The Wolves Guarding the Sheepfold

The right, in Korea and elsewhere, is beginning to mount a counterattack against the anti-U.S. beef import protests. (It may be too late -- according to this item, the U.S. has apparently decided to rework the beef import deal, and according to this one, talks are underway to try to end the truckers' strike.)

I don’t only mean the pitiful showing by Lee Myeong-bak’s supporters last Friday. Monday’s online Korea Times says that 8000 rallied, some of them demonstrating outside the Korean Broadcasting System headquarters to complain that KBS was being unfair to President Lee:
The protesters took issue with the country's television broadcast companies -- the publicly funded Korean Broadcast System (KBS) and the Munhwa Broadcasting Company (MBC) -- and the way they have been portraying the beef import issue and the danger of mad cow disease. The groups claimed that both KBS and MBC were involved in biased reporting and in inflating and exaggerating the issue associated with U.S. beef.

The representative from “Free Citizens' Alliance of Korea” said that KBS and MBC have been unfairly targeting President Lee and his administration. The broadcasters needlessly incited young people with their exaggerated claims regarding mad cow disease, the representative said.

”The Lee administration is taking its first steps. It's only 100 days old. Broadcast companies shouldn't be involved in criticizing this fledgling administration. What they are doing is tantamount to interfering and undermining national affairs,” the group said.
The protesters were particularly upset at MBC TV's popular news magazine program ‘PD Notebook,’ which in April aired a segment on the safety of U.S. cattle. Critics of the program argue that the segment exaggerated dangers associated with U.S. cattle. Some protesters chanted slogans like “Let's destroy MBC's PD Notebook” and “Stop unfair reporting.”
Maybe this guy was correct, and Koreans expect their media to toe the government and corporate party line. But then he’d also be wrong, because the Korean media aren’t marching in perfect lockstep behind Lee. It would be fun to watch “GI Korea” take on the Korean veterans on this issue, telling them that their media should interfere and undermine national affairs. (I’m still wondering how these folks felt about the attempt to remove Lee’s predecessor, Noh Mu-hyeon, from office by impeachment in 2004.)

You’d never guess this media rebellion from the Korea Herald and Korea Times, though. This morning’s Herald features an anonymous op-ed (“What’s behind the U.S. beef protests”) denouncing the vigils as the work of – you guessed it – a bunch of radical leftists:
But beef imports could well be a surrogate issue. The real problem underlying the current unrest is Lee's image as a conservative leader intent on undoing the past government's policies, ranging from relations with North Korea to privatization and deregulation. His hard-line policy on the North, giving food aid only when it makes progress on the nuclear issue, has fired up the radical community as well as the opposition United Democratic Party. His new line on education policy, emphasizing quality control and elitism over left-wing school teachers clamoring for "equal opportunity" and "egalitarianism" has alienated teachers and students. Trade unionists and farmers have joined hands to oppose market opening, privatization and restructuring that would hit their interests. …
At home, no less worrisome are the implications of Lee's failure to push through robust economic reform. The swelling protests have made it impossible for him to trim the size of the civil bureaucracy, deregulate the market and promote more privatization and corporate restructuring to improve the country's overall competitiveness. On these issues, the government and protesters stand far apart.
The writer concedes that Lee’s administration is riddled with cronyism and corruption, which only goes to show that Korea’s fabled “crony capitalism” can get along just fine with U.S. economic strong-arm policies.

The Korea Times goes further. It has an interview, titled “Korea’s image, brand in trouble” with a grandfatherly white guy named Dominic Barton, the Chairman of McKinsey & Company Asia. My ears perked up when I saw Korea referred to as a “brand.” Some may remember how, as the US waged aggressive war in the Middle East, it hired PR flacks to improve our “image” there and promote loyalty to “brand America.” (It hasn’t worked.)

More in sorrow than in anger, speaking as one Korean to another, Barton opined that Lee is the right guy to sell Brand Korea to the rest of the world (read: multinational corporations and financial traders, which are only a rather small, if disproportionately powerful, part of the rest of the world).
“Other countries have a choice regarding which companies and countries they work with. They will not work with our companies if our image is that of being rough, tough and aggressive,” he said.

He pointed out that people outside of Korea do not have the context to understand issues here, such as the U.S. beef issue and protests against the free trade agreement (FTA).

”Sometimes it can be good to have discussion and lively debate, but if it's not in the right context, people may say, 'oh my god what's happening there,'” he said.

Korea used to be known as a country of the "miracle" due to its rapid transformation from a war-ravaged agricultural economy into a manufacturing powerhouse, but it has lost its glorious image and is now turning into a republic of "protest" and a country of "xenophobia." …

The global consultant's view is not a groundless concern. Some indicators suggest that foreigners have turned their back on Korea over the past years amid the falling image of the world's 13th largest economy. ...

Barton, who is chairman of the International Advisory Committee to the President of South Korea on National Future and Vision, said that Lee and his administration are going in the right direction in the long term.

”He is the guy who can make big changes that will benefit the country, but things will not change overnight,” he said.

”I think from an external point of view, in the global scene, it's very positive because he is seen as very open, very market-oriented, very interested in different ideas, very determined to make some moves,” he added.

His assessment on Lee and his team is in stark contrast to Lee's popularity that has recently hit rock bottom, battered by the U.S. beef import issue. …
But Barton bravely urges Lee not to be cowed by the public.“I don't think a leader should run the government based on opinion polls,” he said.  Barton apparently likes Lee’s stance as CEO of Korea, Inc., even if most Koreans don’t.

To read this stuff, you’d think that what Korea needs is more deregulation, privatization, and “opening” to foreign ownership, and that those multinationals and financial markets only have the benefit of the Korean people in mind. That’s open to doubt. Just a decade ago, the Korean government (along with several other countries) was forced to implement such policies, with disastrous results. I recently read Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine (Holt), which recounts the tale and puts it into depressing global context.

Korea, like other “Asian Tigers”, had maintained trade and finance barriers to protect itself against destructive speculation. It was these policies, at odds with “free trade” mythology, that produced the “economic miracles” for which the Tigers were famed. (The US, Europe, and Japan didn’t achieve their economic power by granting unimpeded access to their markets either. Generally a country only abandons protectionism in favor of “free trade” when it deals with a weaker country it can expect to overwhelm – and even then, as with the US, it keeps plenty of barriers up.) Says Klein,
The situation did not please Western and Japanese investment banks and multinational firms; watching Asia’s consumer market explode, they understandably longed for unfettered access to the region to sell their products. They also wanted the right to buy up the best of the Tigers’ corporations – particularly Korea’s impressive conglomerates like Daewoo, Hyundai, Samsung and LG. In the mid-nineties, under pressure from the IMF and the newly created World Trade Organization, Asian governments agreed to split the difference: they would maintain the laws that protected national firms from foreign ownership and resist pressure to privatize their key state companies, but they would lift barriers to their financial sectors, allowing a surge of paper investing and currency trading.

In 1997, when the flood of hot money suddenly reversed current in Asia, it was a direct result of this kind of speculative investment, which was legalized only because of Western pressure [page 267].
The Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s was the result of greater openness to outside interests. As Korea plummeted into a catastrophic trade deficit, the International Monetary Fund, a body whose ostensible function is to prevent such disasters, stood by and watched while investors rubbed their hands with glee:
Top investment analysts instantly recognized the crisis as the chance to level the remaining barriers protecting Asia’s markets once and for all. [Jay] Pelosky, the Morgan Stanley strategist, was particularly forthright about the logic: if the crisis was left to worsen, all foreign currency would be drained from the region and Asian-owned companies would have either to close down or to sell themselves to Western firms – both beneficial outcomes for Morgan Stanley. “I’d like to see closure of companies and asset sales. … Asset sales are very difficult; typically owners don’t want to sell unless they’re forced to. Therefore, we need more bad news to continue to put the pressure on these corporates to sell their companies” [267]
More bad news duly arrived. When the IMF finally got around to doing something, it imposed harsh conditions on Korea and other countries that needed aid: it required Korea’s banking industry to downsize by 50 percent (later amended to 30 percent), demanded deep governmental budget cuts, and other austerity measures. (According to Klein, the head of the IMF negotiators later admitted that the crisis in Korea was unrelated to government overspending [269], which means that the downsizing wasn't economically necessary.) In addition,
the end of the IMF negotiations coincided with scheduled presidential elections in which two of the candidates were running on anti-IMF platforms. In an extraordinary act of interference with a sovereign nation’s political process, the IMF refused to release the money until it had commitments from all four candidates that they would stick to new rules if they won. With the country effectively held at ransom, the IMF was triumphant: each candidate pledged his support in writing. Never before had the central Chicago School mission to protect economic matters from the reach of democracy been more explicit: you can vote, South Koreans were told, but your vote can have no bearing on the managing and organization of the economy. (The day the deal was signed was instantly dubbed Korea’s “National Humiliation Day” [270].)
This might be forgettable, though not forgivable, if the IMF program had worked – but it didn’t. Instead of recovering, the financial markets panicked anew, and Korea’s economy was pushed even further into the hole. “Korea was losing $1 billion a day and its debt was downgraded to junk bond status” (Klein, 272). Unemployment tripled by 1999, the suicide rate continued to climb, and the number of Koreans identifying as middle-class dropped by nearly half, from 63.7 to 38.4 percent. Nor has the Korean economy recovered to this day:
Employment rates have still not reached pre-1997 levels in Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea. And it’s not just that workers who lost their jobs during the crisis never got them back. The layoffs have continued, with new foreign owners demanding ever-higher profits for their investments. The suicides have also continued: in South Korea, suicide is the fourth most common cause of death, more than double the pre-crisis rate, with thirty-eight people taking their lives every day [Klein, 276].
If Korea’s people suffered, the international business community made out like bandits:
The hot money may have been spooked by the IMF’s drastic measures, but large investment houses and multinational firms were emboldened.“Of course these markets are highly volatile,” said Jerome Booth, head of research at London’s Ashmore Investment management. “That’s what makes them fun.” These fun-seeking firms understood that as a result of the IMF’s “adjustments,” pretty much everything in Asia was now up for sale – and the more the market panicked, the more desperate Asian companies would be to sell, pushing their prices through the floor [276].
Klein details how multinational companies gobbled up Asian corporations at bargain-basement prices (274-276), with “186 major mergers and acquisitions of firms in Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines … in a span of only twenty months” (276). As a result, she says, not only was there public rage against the IMF and the WTO, but governments revolted too. In Seattle in 1999, “developing countries formed a voting bloc and rejected demands for deeper trade concessions as long as Europe and the U.S. continued to protect and subsidize their domestic industries” (278).

Emboldened by the way Bechtel and Halliburton have cleaned up in Iraq, and the boom in what Klein calls “disaster capitalism” (Hurricane Katrina, the December 2004 tsunami), the dogs of globalization are yapping at Korea’s heels again. With Korea’s recent history in mind, I have to wonder how Dominic Barton can make the recommendations he does. He must know the disastrous effect such policies had, not only in Korea but in much of Asia, ten years ago. To be charitable, Barton’s audience is not the mass of Koreans but the elites, the CEOs and crony capitalists who rode out the 1998 crisis with a minimum of pain. (He’s also entangled in what I’d call a conflict of interest, since he’s chairman of a euphemistically titled advisory group to President Lee and the head of a firm doing business in Korea. The wolf should not be guarding the sheepfold.) It isn’t that Barton wants ordinary Koreans to suffer; they just don’t show up on his radar.

But they show up on mine. When I see people (mostly neatly dressed and dignified) hawking trinkets for a dollar apiece on the subway; or a tiny old woman sitting silently next to a basket of gum she’s trying to sell; or when I eat in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant run by a family whose middle-aged father seems glum but dutiful; or when I see a sixty-something woman mopping a subway platform, wearing a pearl necklace under her smock – then I wonder where they were and what they did ten years ago, before the deluge.

Koreans (and I don’t mean the former Daewoo Group chairman who was just evicted from his Seoul Hilton penthouse, which he was leasing for 31 cents a day – he’s not going to end up sleeping under a bridge) are in a difficult spot. If they defy US pressure for the Free Trade Agreement (and both Obama and McCain have vowed to keep up the pressure), they’ll be punished and their economy will suffer. If they give in to US pressure, their economy will suffer anyway. But they’re right to reject the advice of people like Dominic Barton and the anonymous op-ed writer for the Korea Herald, who may have the best of intentions but as Korea’s recent history shows, are lethally wrong.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

If You Can't Say Something Nice ...

Have I really not posted this review before? It appeared in the March 12-18, 1989 Gay Community News. All dialogue guaranteed overheard.

Everybody Loves You: Further Adventures in Gay Manhattan
by Ethan Mordden
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
308 pp.
$16.95 clothbound

The Promiscuous Reader opened the dish machine’s drains, then got his book and notebook and went on break. Several people he knew were sitting at one of the tables, so he got a Diet Coke (just before Carolyn locked the Coke machine) and went to join them.

“Hello, Duncan,” Liz said, without looking up from her needles and yarn as he sat down. Lately she’d taken up knitting (or was it crocheting?), which the Promiscuous Reader thought clashed nicely with her Girl Punk/Jock look: crooked nose and three-inch-long blonde flat-top. “What are you reading today?” He held up the book for her to see: Ethan Mordden’s Everybody Loves You. “Oh, you're still reading that?”

“Well, no,” he answered, “I finished it while I was at lunch. Now I’ve got to write the review. My editor said it was an extra copy, and someone else was going to review it; but when I talked to her on the phone last week she said the other guy wanted to see what I thought first. But I already have the first paragraph.” He flipped through his notebook and read aloud: “I suppose there must come a moment in every reviewer’s career when, just as his or her mind is poised to swoop down on the prey and strike, there comes the memory of Mother saying, ‘If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all!’” Everyone at the table laughed, and some finished the proverb with him as he read it. “So,” he said, laying the book in the middle of the table, “I'm thinking of nice things to say about Everybody Loves You.”

Dan picked it up and began examining it. He was one of those long-lashed, full-lipped, brown-eyed straight boys who were just a bit too pretty for their own good. Several gay boys known to the Promiscuous Reader in the dorm had entertained major crushes on him, like a sort of flu making the rounds from one to the next. The Promiscuous Reader seemed to be immune to it, though he had been impressed when Dan had gotten his long and elegant nose broken demonstrating in Washington the previous October against U.S. policy in El Salvador. “The drawing on the cover is nice,” Dan offered, pointing to the charcoal or pencil drawing on the dust jacket: a muscular young man, lying nude on a bed with his face hidden by his shoulder, with the top of pine trees visible against the sea through the window behind him.

Dan passed the book to Lindsey on his left. She was a perky blonde woman whom the Promiscuous Reader had met only a day before. She flipped through the book and grinned, “The print is big.” “And the words are short and so are the sentences,” offered the Promiscuous Reader. The woman sitting next to Lindsey pointed to the bottom of the page: “There are cute little decorations around the page numbers,” she said, and handed the book back to the Promiscuous Reader. Everyone laughed, just a little maliciously.

“I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish it,” the Promiscuous Reader said, “till it turned out I had to. I don’t know what it is, he’s not a bad writer, there’s just something wrong with the way he writes.”

“I was looking at it the other day when you brought it in,” said Liz. “It was sort of like ... porridge; I don't know.”

“Well, the image that occurred to me was …” The Promiscuous Reader began to search through his notebook. “It's that terminal cuteness, you know, like the blurb on the dust jacket.” He picked up the book again and read: “'Ethan Mordden lives in and writes about gay Manhattan, which is a state of mind.' There are story titles like ‘Do-It-Yourself S & M’. His first book of fiction was called I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore; he’s also written something called Pooh’s Workout Book. Well, a writer’s gotta eat,” he sighed, setting the book back down; someone else picked it back up and began leafing through it. “Anyway, sometimes he says things that I like -- here’s a great line: ‘I found Mitch and Billy wildly smooching on the couch like two frat brothers after a hell night.’ But then Little Kiwi says something adorable, and I start to go into diabetic coma. I had written something in my notes about it... Here: ‘It’s as if someone served you a steak with pink icing and marzipan glaze on it.’” Everyone grimaced.

“Little Kiwi?” someone asked.

“Yeah, that's Dennis Savage’s houseboy-slash-lover. They all have names like that...Tom Adverse, Champ McQuest, Cosgrove Replenin, (what did I write here?) Kern Loften, Jensen Drinker... and little Kiwi’s real name is Virgil Brown. It must be Mordden’s revenge for having been named Ethan Mordden.” He frowned. “And I really don’t like most of his characters. I don’t like the way his big butch men, like Dennis Savage, have ditzy little housewives like Little Kiwi whom they won’t let grow up, sort of I Love Lucy in gay Manhattan only not funny. And you know what the happy ending is? Bud Mordden – that’s what Mordden is called in the book – who’s been playing I Am a Camera, or maybe I Am A Bachelor, is presented with a houseboy of his very own by Dennis Savage and Little Kiwi, I mean Virgil.”

“Awwww,” said Liz.

“I suspect Mordden’s gotten some bad reviews before, though,” said the Promiscuous Reader, “because he's trying to get in a few licks in advance.” He glanced at his notebook, then searched through the book. “'The left-out gay writers who have to publish in porn slicks or local newspapers of occult circulation--'” The Promiscuous Reader looked around the table and raised his eyebrows meaningfully, then went on: “'--try to cheer themselves up by hating what they think of as the Pines School of Fiction, so to say. And yes, I can see why tales of men getting men threaten them, because they don’t get anything.' Well, I like much of the fiction he's talking about here – Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, even Armistead Maupin writes about men getting men. But those guys can write. There was some other thing... ‘The Pines-hating leftouts must be screaming by now, because the thing they can't abide is to hear that the love they couldn't get in touch with actually exists.’ ...Well, I have news for Bud, it also exists elsewhere than the Pines.” He flipped over another page or two.

“What’re the Pines?” someone asked.

“It's a gay male neighborhood on Fire Island,” the Promiscuous Reader answered. “Oh, here it is. Somebody asks, ‘Where are all the self-hating gays now?’ And Bud answers: ‘They’re writing book reviews.’” Everyone laughed derisively; the Promiscuous Reader looked up grinning. But then he sobered. “I have to admit though, I envy even Bud Mordden a little. He writes badly, but he writes, and he publishes. I wish I could write fiction.”

“Well, why don’t you write the review as a story?” Liz suggested. “Put us all in it.”

“That's an idea,” said the Promiscuous Reader after a surprised moment. "I don't know how it'll turn out, but it's worth a try.”

“That'd be good!” Dan said. “Even if you don’t send it in, let us see it, okay?"

“Oh, of course,” the Promiscuous Reader said, then noticed the clock. “Oops, it's time to go back to Hell.” He put his hairnet back on quickly, grabbed his books, and stood up. “I’ll see you folks later!” he said as he walked back to the kitchen.

“Bye, Duncan!” they chorused, and he went back to the dishroom smiling, the review already taking shape in his mind, thanking whatever gods might be for his friends.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Keep On Keepin' On

After a couple days' rest, Koreans returned to the streets last night in memory of two schoolgirls who were killed accidentally by a US military transport in 2002. A US military court acquitted the soldiers who were driving the transport, which touched off protests.

This was not unreasonable: US soldiers who commit certain crimes can usually expect cover-ups and amazing lenience from their superiors. When a gay American sailor was brutally murdered by fellow sailors in 1992, for example, the Navy tried to claim he'd killed himself by accident. It took a protracted campaign by the victim's mother to get the Navy to bring the killers to trial. US forces in Korea and elsewhere have often exhibited a disturbing casualness about the lives of the locals. Here's an interesting right-wing take on the incident, ostensibly by an American GI, full of Red-baiting and resentment against unappreciative locals, and this remarkable howler:

Korean journalists do not report the news in the sense that people in West expect. Citizens from western countries expect their news outlets to serve as a check and balance on the government and big business and provide factually based news. In Korea the media often reports what the government and big business want reported as well as what British journalist Michael Breen calls, “speculation, trial balloons, rumour, and deliberate distortions” in the name of ratings.

It takes real chutzpah to say in 2008, after US media complicity with "the government and big business" to stir up support for the invasion of Iraq, and now of Iran as well, that western news outlets provide factually based news at odds with their governments. It's certainly true that the Korean media I've seen have reported what the Korean government and business want about this summer's protests, but that has hardly made them "anti-American" or friendly to the protesters -- very much the opposite. This sort of distortion makes me doubt everything in "GI Korea's" article. And really, if Koreans are so unappreciative of Americans' sacrifices for them, if Koreans are so easily swayed by troublemakers in the pay of Kim Jong Il, why not just pull American troops out of the peninsula?

Last night's memorial vigil drew thousands. According to the Korea Herald ("Candlelight vigils mark death of girls"),

Some 5,000 members of the Free Citizens' Alliance of Korea held a rally in front of Seoul Station at 3 p.m., denouncing the candlelight vigils and marched towards Cheonggye Plaza through Namdaemun and Gwangyo.

"Social instability continues because of candlelight vigil participants," said the alliance of conservative civic groups. "They must immediately stop disrupting state affairs and illegally marching on the roads at night."

If the Free Citizens' Alliance could only draw 5,000, having had plenty of time to prepare and publicize their rally, President Lee is in serious trouble. But then, you knew that. Today both the English-language Korea Herald ("Truckers' strike disrupts supply chain") and Korea Times have lead articles on the truckers' strike. The Times also has an article quoting Korean economists on the problems with Lee's economic policies, and another on the World Bank's downgrading of Korea's "business-friendly" status.

The photo above shows some Korean Vietnam veterans punching a protester. Since the Herald doesn't mention this skirmish, I think it's a safe bet that the vets started the fight. From this photo, it appears that they started by overturning an information table. (Their target bending over the fallen table could be the man I photographed the other day.) Notice the other Korean in the background, in military garb, impassively watching the assault.

And here's an opinion piece on the protests from English OhMyNews, by another foreigner.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

All Quiet on the Eastern Front

Things seem kind of quiet in Korea today, if you ignore the truckers' strike, and both the English Korea Herald and Korea Times did their best. The government has announced plans to "freeze or minimize hikes in public utility and transportation charges" to take some pressure off low-income Koreans. Former Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, a conservative dissident who spent many years in prison and was nearly assassinated by the Park Cheong-hee dictatorship, endorsed the candlelight vigils in a speech today (?). Kim hailed the current protests as "the practice of direct democracy" comparable to that in "Athens 2,000 years ago."

Well, not quite -- it was more like 2,500 years ago, and the protests aren't really direct democracy: they aren't binding on the government. But it's the thought that counts, and for someone of Kim's stature to endorse the vigil puts paid to the "anti-American" and "outraged radicals" smears that Lee Myeong-bak's apologists have been throwing around. In a mostly pretty decent history of the vigils in today's Korea Herald ("Deja vu? Candlelight vigils in 2002 and present"), Henry Shinn points out:
Today's candlelight vigils are not as overtly anti-American [as those of 2002], but they are definitely anti-Lee Myung-bak.

Yes, the issue that sparked the outcry was U.S. beef. And yes, there are some radical protesters who harbor anti-American sentiments. Anti-American sentiment may grow depending on how the situation unfolds, but it does not reflect of the vast majority of protesters so far.

An interesting irony in the beef outrage is apparent through recent polling that shows the majority of the protesters still support the KORUS FTA and the benefits it may bring. Koreans on the streets may arguably be confused or conflicted, but to say everyone bearing a lit candle is anti-American would be inaccurate.

However, if one listens to the chants of the protesters and the signs posted all over Seoul, it is apparent the overriding anger of the populace has been squarely pointed at Lee, not at the United States.
Shinn quotes Lee's predecessor Noh Mu-hyeon saying last week that "the march to Cheong Wa Dae was a meaningless act and that, 'Even if the beef deal was wrong ... it is still wrong to push for the removal of the (Lee) administration. It's unconstitutional and undemocratic.'" Well, maybe. But was the attempted march to the Blue House meaningless? I don't think so, if only because the police resorted to violence to stop it. It also made explicit that it was Lee, not his cabinet, his ministers, or his secretaries, whom the protesters held accountable.
Shinn also seems a bit too eager for "ideological clashes" as the "progressive leaning" demonstrators "witness counter-protests by conservative groups who are saying 'enough is enough.'" Conflict, ideological and otherwise, is just part of the democratic process; apparently it makes Shinn (like many American journalists) nervous. And there's a certain punitive relish in that "enough is enough." Couldn't the stance of the candlelight vigils be boiled down to the same slogan? Why it is only the Right who get to clean house?

One of today's editorials sternly orders the nation "Back to work".

Now that those who have grievances have vented their anger, they are urged to stay away from the streets. They can afford to go back to work, wait and see what action the administration takes. Moreover, a prolonged protest will do more harm than good to the nation and to them eventually, if not immediately.
Okay, I can figure out that it is the editoralist and the Korean right generally that are 'urging' those who have grievances to stay away from the streets. But are the protesters staying away from work? The vigils took place at night, when even the famously overworked Koreans have some free time. One can work for Samsung or LG and for democracy too. And a vast number of Koreans simply watched the vigils online. The vague threat of "more harm than good ... to them eventually, if not immediately" may have in mind problems like US Wall Street's latest attempt to bring Korea to heel, but I can't help thinking that the writer has something more immediate in mind, however vaguely. Still, after having read the Herald's editorials on and off for over eight years now, I must say that their writers are as out of touch with reality as the editors of the Wall Street Journal.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Just Say No

Photos from OhMyNews (1) (2) (3); see this page for more.

Last night’s big rallies around Korea apparently went off smoothly, with little conflict between protesters and police. The schoolkids and families were joined by members of several major Korean labor unions, the Korea Federation of Public Services and Transportation Workers’ Unions, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers’ Union, and the Korean Government Employees’ Union. It’s likely, of course, that there was considerable overlap between the union members and the adults who’d joined the vigils previously: teachers, transportation and public service workers, and government employees are also parents.

The huge barrier made of containers (see the photo above), derisively named “Myeong-bak’s Castle”, was dismantled Wednesday morning, says the Korea Times.

The protesters claim a million participants around the country; the police claim it was fewer. This is normal for large public gatherings, but it doesn’t matter, the demonstration was a huge success. There will be more vigils in days to come, in memory of two schoolgirls accidentally run over and killed by a US Army truck in 2002. Next, says the Korea Herald (“Rallies to continue in Seoul,

Also tomorrow, the Korea Cargo Transport Workers Union will go on strike. It is demanding that the government formulate countermeasures to lesson the burden created by soaring oil prices. The union has linked its planned walkout to the ongoing popular protests against the beef import deal.

On Saturday, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, the biggest umbrella labor group, will vote whether and when to stage a walkout. Members of the KCTU have participated in the vigils.

Also on Saturday, a funeral ceremony will be held for Lee Byeong-ryeol in Seoul and other parts of the nation. Lee, 43, set himself on fire on May 25 in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, after calling for the toppling of the government. He died on Monday.

Marking the 8th anniversary of the June 15 inter-Korean joint declaration, various civic groups, including the KCTU, will hold a massive commemorative event.

Koreans will continue holding President Lee Myeong-bak’s feet to the fire, and although so far he still doesn’t want to renegotiate the import deal for US beef, his administration is floating new policies to help low-income families, small businesses, cargo truckers, and the elderly (“Lee refocuses policy agenda amid crisis”). Lee is preparing to reorganize his government as his Prime Minister, Cabinet, and senior secretaries resign. (This article from the Korea Times has some useful background on Lee, and this opinion piece deplores the calls by “outraged radicals” for Lee’s ouster in familiar terms -- “I personally find this inappropriate, since changing the President is not like changing radio stations” -- and descends into handwringing about “hardened Lee-haters.” Check out those outraged radical Lee-haters in the middle photo above.)

Last night I had an odd conversation with a young Korean who studied in the US before doing his military service. (All male Koreans are required to serve for about two years; the exact period varies with the branch they enter.) He was explaining to another foreigner at our table that the vigils happened because Koreans are changeable and don’t know what they want. He also blamed the vigils on young kids who are just anti-American because it’s trendy, who want US troops to withdraw from Korea even though they are all that stand between South Korea and a North Korean invasion. I observed that as far as I could tell, Koreans aren’t particularly changeable – they just don’t want the policies of privatization and corporate privilege that Lee wishes to impose. They opposed such policies under his predecessor Noh Mu-hyeon as well. If they voted Lee into office, it was more because they objected to Noh’s failings than because they liked what Lee wanted to do. (A mistake that voters in other countries have also made.)

I don’t pretend to know how dangerous North Korea is. I do know that the US has been lowering the number of US forces stationed in South Korea ever since the Carter administration at least, so it would seem that the US doesn’t consider the North as grave a threat as formerly (despite its posturing about Pyeongyang’s nuclear program). But this was a diversion from the main issue, probably a result of the immersion in military propaganda that every soldier undergoes; I’ve heard the same line from US soldiers stationed in Korea. I don’t doubt that many of the college-age and twenty- to thirty-something protesters would welcome a US withdrawal, though the grandmothers and grandfathers might disagree.

But the present demonstrations are about trade and economic policy, not military issues. The epithet “anti-American” is often used to dismiss the concerns of Koreans and others, including Americans who are critical of their / our government, but it’s misleading. Koreans, like people in many countries, are quite capable of distinguishing between the American government and American people. They want the US to change its policies and conduct, as do people in many countries, but first of all they want their own government to be responsive to their needs and wishes.

Coming home on the subway late last night, I sat across from two young Koreans, a man and a woman, both smiling happily at me. Only as they got up at their stop did I see the big Candle Girl sticker on the man’s t-shirt. I wanted to ask them if they’d been at the vigil (dumb question, of course), but didn’t have time. They surely knew that I was American, but all they had for me was smiles. Nor have I encountered any hostility from Koreans on this visit, nor during my previous ones, even though virtually all the Koreans I know support the protests. To accuse the protesters of anti-Americanism is stupid and insulting.

Surrender the Pink(er)

Another commenter at WhoIsIOZ challenged me to explain why I’d said that Steven Pinker’s quoting Camille Paglia on rape discredited him. The commenter helpfully posted the quotation itself:
For a decade, feminists have drilled their disciples to say, "Rape is a crime of violence but not sex." This sugar-coated Shirley Temple nonsense has exposed young women to disaster. Misled by feminism, they do not expect rape from nice boys from good homes who sit next to them in class....
These girls say, "Well, I should be able to get drunk at a fraternity party and go upstairs to a guy's room without anything happening." And I say, "Oh, really? And when you drive your car to New York City, do you leave your keys on the hood?" My point is that if your car is stolen after you do something like that, yes, the police should pursue the thief and he should be punished. But at the same time, the police---and I---have the right to say to you, "You stupid idiot, what the hell were you thinking?"
That first paragraph is a stunning non sequitur. What’s the connection between rape as a crime of violence and rape as a crime committed by nice boys from good homes? None that I can see. Nor do I see where she gets “sugar-coated Shirley Temple nonsense”. (P.S. Maybe she thinks that nice boys won't commit crimes of violence, but will commit crimes of sex?)

The second sentence of that paragraph is not only false, it’s the opposite of the truth. Since the 1970s at least, feminists have been arguing (with evidence from empirical studies) that most rapists are not dark-skinned brutes leaping from the bushes to ravish white virgins, but ordinary men like any others, and that most women are raped by people they know, not by strangers. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975) argued the point at length, as I recall (it’s been close to 30 years since I read it).

Feminists were vilified for supposedly sowing discord between the sexes, for allegedly teaching young women to regard every nice young man as a potential if not actual rapist. Paglia herself attacked the concept of “date rape,” not on the ground that rape is rape regardless of the status of the rapist, but … well, I admit I’m not sure. Maybe because if a girl goes out with a boy, she should expect to put out? Paglia is not known for the coherence of her thought.
As for the second paragraph, it’s not even clear that those girls actually do get drunk at fraternity parties and go to guys’ rooms “without anything happening.” What they seem to be saying is that going to a guy’s room does not, in itself, constitute consent to intercourse, whether the girl is drunk or sober, let alone passed out. This is a less controversial doctrine than it would have been, say, forty years ago. But at the university where I work, female students are advised not to drink excessively, to be careful where they go and with whom, to stay alert and aware. Male students are advised that a woman’s presence in their room, drunk or sober, is not in itself consent to sex.

That’s not to say that idiotic things don’t get said at times. One earnest male student, working under the head counselor at the dorm where I work (notorious on campus for its “political correctness”), put together an alarmist information sheet which advised that since most rape is acquaintance rape, you shouldn’t go on a date with someone you don’t know well. How, I wondered, would one get to know another person well, if not by spending time in their company? The student evidently interpreted “acquaintance” to mean “someone to whom you’ve been introduced but don’t yet know intimately,” as though women weren’t raped by boyfriends and husbands too.

I wouldn’t put an absolute divide between rape as violence and rape as sex: I would expect that rapists are no more consistent in their motives than anyone else. But I can’t understand how anyone could deny that men do sometimes rape women (or men, for that matter) as punishment (for being in the “wrong” place, for daring to say No to their importunings, and so on), not just because they’re overwhelmed by lust and have to have an outlet. The use of words like “violation” for forced sex is itself an indication that it is traditionally seen as an act of aggression, even to the exclusion of desire.

Consider this passage from chapter 16 of the book of the prophet Ezekiel, in the Authorized (King James) Version. Yahweh is addressing Jerusalem metaphorically as a “harlot”:
36Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them;
37Behold, therefore I will gather all thy lovers, with whom thou hast taken pleasure, and all them that thou hast loved, with all them that thou hast hated; I will even gather them round about against thee, and will discover thy nakedness unto them, that they may see all thy nakedness.
38And I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock and shed blood are judged; and I will give thee blood in fury and jealousy.
39And I will also give thee into their hand, and they shall throw down thine eminent place, and shall break down thy high places: they shall strip thee also of thy clothes, and shall take thy fair jewels, and leave thee naked and bare.
Uncovering nakedness in the Hebrew Bible is often a euphemism for copulation, as in the prohibitions of uncovering the nakedness of near relatives in Leviticus 18:6-7. This passage, like others in the Bible, is a maelstrom of sexual violence. Yahweh does not propose to strip Jerusalem naked before her lovers out of erotic desire, but to shame and punish her. Similar fantasies appear in Hosea chapter 2, and in the New Testament Revelation 17, and they recur in later Western literature. Feminists didn’t invent the conflation of sex and violence – men did. Considering that Paglia made her name as a literary critic, she can hardly be unaware of this.

Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer purported to have shown that rape is not at all an act of violence. When I get back to the US, I plan to read the rest of their Natural History of Rape, to see just how they manage to do it.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Autarchy In The ROK

Funny thing: the Korea Herald has been yammering that the evil candleight vigils interfere with decent people's lives, spreading chaos and anarchy, and blocking traffic. So what do you call this?
And it wasn't Candle Girl who put those barriers in place.

(Photos, again, from OhMyNews.) These containers were mounted and anchored here in preparation for tonight's vigil commemorating the pro-democracy movement of 1987. (Yay, I can link individual articles at the Korea Times! The articles, however, are thinner on both information and propaganda than at the Korea Herald.) There's talk of a million people gathering in cities around the country. I wouldn't be surprised if there were more than that.

Meanwhile, the young woman who was stomped by Korean cops a week or two back refuses to try to prosecute the police: she wants action taken against those who ordered the cops to use violence ("Tension mounts as one million gather for vigils" at the Korea Herald site).

The Right is having conniptions. According to the Herald there will also be a counter-rally tonight, organized by right-wing groups, and there are two editorials lamenting the weakness of neo-liberalism in Korea today. One ("Pleading no strike") attacks truck and taxi drivers for threatening to strike if they aren't allowed to raise their rates because of soaring fuel prices, accusing them of "seeing the present political and social turmoil as an opportunity to demonstrate their power against the government, which has chosen a business-friendly policy." Hell, yeah: that's how politics works. As for "business-friendly", truck drivers and taxi drivers are also "business" -- they just don't have the clout and access to the President that the conglomerates, Korean and foreign, enjoy. Why shouldn't they raise their rates to cover their costs? The editorialist complains "their strikes will cause serious problems to the nation's industries and further aggravate the social atmosphere."

We understand the difficulties that the skyrocketing oil prices have caused for truckers and public transport businesses. Yet memories are still vivid of the nationwide truckers' strike in 2003, which resulted in total losses of $540 million to the manufacturing and export businesses. At that time, the truckers' action had the justifiable reason of correcting an inadequate hiring system involving corporate consignors and the drivers, who were mostly the owners of the vehicles they drive.

How much do you want to bet that in 2003, the Herald opposed the strike and scolded the truckers for costing their betters so much money? It's always easier to support popular movements in hindsight. It seems to me that the truckers and taxi drivers today also have a justifiable reason for action. The writer concludes:

It is time for all to show restraint and allow businesses and the government the space to breathe. Collective action should be limited to delivering each group's demands to the authorities. Everyone should deeply consider the consequences of their moves. A strike at this time will undermine public trust in the labor movement, and plunge the nation into sheer hopelessness.

I love this sweet reasonableness, but most Koreans also need some space to breathe, after years of rising prices and high unemployment. It's time that the government and the conglomerates felt the squeeze for a while, and "deeply considered the consequences of their moves" to enrich themselves while the mass of Koreans suffered.

The Herald's other editorial scolding today's youth ("Not for disorder") waves its hindsight around even more blatantly. It begins by eulogizing the movement that brought down the dictatorship. But, but, but ....

However, everyone should calmly ponder how relevant the democratization struggles of past years are to the present candlelight vigils in Seoul Plaza. The only connection we see between them is that those young people on the lawn circle are enjoying the fruits of the fight against dictatorship throughout the 1960s, 70s and the 80s. The middle and high school boys and girls there may not know the history well, but their parents should.

Their parents know the history very well; that's Lee's problem. And if the kids didn't know the history, they're learning it quickly as Lee tries to restage the repression. If the editorialist can't see the connection between this movement and its predecessor, many (most?) Korean citizens can.

Anti-U.S. beef demonstrations have developed into antigovernment actions, which have at last produced deplorable scenes of youths using steel pipes, ropes and ladders to destroy police buses. Political groups have joined citizens, who had benign intentions, to snatch what they were unable to gain through the regular political process. The situation is approaching a flash point where the nation could face a breakdown of the democratic order achieved through decades of dedicated struggles.

Of course, the deplorable scenes of youths using steel pipes to destroy police buses were preceded by deplorable scenes of police using clubs, boots, shields, and water cannons to injure and intimidate the protesters. And it's noteworthy, as I've noticed before, that while this writer and other Lee supporters deplore the idea that troublemakers are trying to remove a democratically elected President before his term is over, it didn't bother them when the Right tried to impeach Lee's predecessor Noh, an elite move very different from the popular anger Korea is seeing now. Was the impeachment attempt also an "antigovernment move"? Antigovernment moves are okay for me, but not for thee.

The Right is also spluttering that you can't go around rewriting laws as you find it convenient! The beef import agreement was signed, sealed and delivered, and it would be wrong to renege on it. As if governments didn't do such things all the time, often in much more serious matters. The Herald editorialist inadvertently provides a counterexample:

Twenty-one years ago on June 10, massive demonstrations by students and office workers forced military rulers to give up an attempt to prolong their time in power. Protesters were agitated by the news of the death of Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol, who was hit on the head by a tear gas grenade the day before. Earlier in the year, Seoul National University student Pak Jong-cheol was tortured to death in a police interrogation room.

On June 29 that year, the Chun Doo-hwan government agreed to rewrite the Constitution to reintroduce direct presidential elections and allow opposition leaders to run in the election. June 10, 1987 is thus remembered as a milestone in the nation's democratic advancement. However, people power in the Republic of Korea had been built up strenuously via bloodbaths in 1960 and 1980 and numerous protests and great suffering in the name of freedom and human rights.

How's that again? The Chun regime rewrote the Constitution to appease the violent rabble? Yet the editorialist -- rightly -- admits that the 6.10 movement is remembered as a milestone in the nation's democratic advancement. The Lee regime, though elected as Chun was not, equally wishes to override democracy by pushing through policies that the overwhelming majority of Koreans oppose, and Lee has tried to keep his power through Red-baiting and police violence. Despite the writer's handwringing, it's the popular opposition to Lee that represents the democratic heritage Koreans have worked for so long to build.

P.S. Just as I thought! I found the text of a Herald editorial from September 3, 2003, that I'd saved in e-mail. As I expected, far from granting that Korean workers had "justifiable reasons" for striking, the writer fulminates that they're scaring away foreign investors:

Thanks to brisk international media coverage, South Korea has earned an unwanted reputation as home of the most militant labor activism. Red headbands with long tails and clenched fists punching the air to a regular beat have become trademarks of Korea's unionized workers, whose calendars are always marked with a "spring strike" often extended to a "summer struggle."

Over the past decade, the labor movement in Korea has turned increasingly uncompromising and foreign-invested firms were not spared from the pattern, or some bore the brunt of trouble. As if they have collectively decided that they have had enough, foreign CEOs in Korea are issuing a spate of complaints and demands to the government on labor policies.

And so on. The writer concedes that "
businessmen must end their attempts to create illegal funds for themselves and for use in currying favor with political power," but all in all he assumes that the fault for labor unrest lies entirely with the workers, not with those foreign (and domestic) investors seeking "a cheaper and more peaceful labor market." In practice that means no environmental or work-area safety regulations, brutal suppression of union organizing (let alone striking), and huge tax incentives for the investors. Koreans are right to resist any attempt to impose these conditions on them.