Monday, August 18, 2008

Am I Blue?

The Seoul Police overstepped a bit this weekend. I’d been wondering why they were using colored water in their water cannons; turns out it was to mark demonstrators for arrest. (On August 5 they used red coloring; on August 15, they used blue.) According to The Hankyoreh, though, quite a few passersby were hit by the spray and then arrested, as were some undercover police officers in the crowd. (Photo from OhMyNews, who also have a slideshow here.)

“A judge with the Seoul Central District Court said that if police are going to arrest people with coloring on them for flagrant offenses, they need to prove that they fired the water cannon at demonstration participants only, and that nobody besides them was hit.” But those who support authoritarian regimes in collaboration with global corporate capital shouldn’t worry: the repressive elements in Lee Myeong-bak’s administration, including Lee himself, will find other ways to intimidate and stifle dissent in Korea.

Korea Dispatch caught my attention with “The ‘bulldozer’ and the Buddha’: Korea’s dangerous middle”. “Militant” (?) organizers of the candlelight vigils have taken sanctuary in Jogye Temple from the Lee administration’s attempts to arrest them. Some of the monks are engaged in a "very public hunger strike against what they say is a government hostile to Buddhism.” (What point would there be to a private hunger strike? I ask merely for information.)

“Politics in Korea has for centuries been polarized by bitter factionalism,” writes Dispatch blogger Peter Schurmann. Unlike, say, the US? I’m always baffled when I read statements like this. “… That division continued into the twentieth century, the most glaring example being the line dividing North from South, with nothing in the middle but guns and explosives.” And of course, outside forces had nothing to do with that division, it was entirely a result of Korean factionalism. This description of Korea (which is by no means unique to Schurmann, as readers of this blog will know; here, for example) seems the knee-jerk reverse of many Koreans’ and outsiders’ claim that Korea rejects Western binaries and divisions. Both positions are caricatures.

From a personal standpoint, as a quasi-Buddhist I think of the teaching of the middle way, and wonder why these striking monks aren’t doing the same. Rather than widening the gulf that already exists in this country’s political and religious landscape, a gulf far wider and more damaging than any national canal could possibly be, why not — as one of the few groups with any authority capable of doing so — operate in the middle? In a country divided between black and white, their grey robes should stand for something more.

Gee, that sounds so reasonable -- only an extremist could disagree. I don’t even rate as a quasi-Buddhist, but Schurmann’s invocation of the doctrine of the middle way reminds me of people who say that Einstein’s theory of Relativity proved that “everything is relative.” I’ve been wary of people who talk about seeking the Golden Mean between extremes ever since I first encountered the doctrine in freshman Philosophy class in 1969. It immediately made me think of the new US President at the time, Richard Milhous Nixon, who could have gone to one extreme and killed all the Vietnamese, or to the other extreme and killed no Vietnamese, so he chose the Middle Way and killed only a few million of them.

The beauty of the Golden Mean is that you can use it to justify any course of action you like. Just select or invent positions that differ from what you want to do, and dismiss them as “extremes” that you moderately and reasonably choose to avoid. It can be manipulated easily to support the status quo, as Ellen Willis showed in one of her early satirical pieces: “For example, the feminist bias is that women are equal to men and the male chauvinist bias is that women are inferior to men. The unbiased view is that the truth lies somewhere in between.” (“Glossary for the Eighties,” reprinted in Beginning to See the Light, [Knopf 1981], p. 146)

But one of the more powerful answers to the Golden Mean appears in Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail. As you can see, King tells how at first he tried to cast himself as a moderate between two extremes, but then changed his mind:

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of the extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of "somebodiness" that they have adjusted to segregation, and, of a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and because at points they profit by segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement.... I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need not follow the "do-nothingism" of the complacent or the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest....

But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice ... Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ ... So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice --or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? ...

I had hoped that the white moderate would see this. Maybe I was too optimistic.

King could have also quoted Jesus’ condemnation of the middle way from Revelation 3:16 (“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth”). I don’t share King’s Christianity, of course, but I like his take on this question. From what little I know of the Buddha, his doctrine of the Middle Path didn’t keep him from taking strong positions, nor from being wrong (as in his misogyny, though maybe his eventual acceptance of ordaining nuns, despite his reluctance, was a golden mean position of some kind).

I wonder what sort of Middle Way Peter Schurmann envisions for the fugitive protestors and the hunger-striking monks at Jogye. Maybe the temple should just hand over some of the protestors to Lee’s cops? Or should the monks moderate their hunger strike to a diet? Schurmann insists on framing the conflict as one between extremes, but I think it’s at least arguable that the response to Lee’s policies has mostly been quite moderate, the middle way of predominantly peaceful assembly to which Lee responded with paranoid Red-baiting and repression. A Middle Way would begin with a more balanced view of the situation.