Saturday, June 27, 2009

No Matter Who Is President of the US, They Would Bomb Afghanistan

The libertarian blogger Will Wilkinson's latest post is on Iran, mostly drawing on an article by an Iranian exile, Lila Ghobady. Wilkinson allows that he doesn't know much about Iran, and so defers to Ghobady. That's a good idea, but unfortunately Ghobady doesn't know much about countries outside of Iran. Like these United States.

One commenter beat me to pointing out that Ghobady didn't go far enough when she declared that "Iran has not had a democratic, free election for the past 30 years." The reality is that Iran hasn't had a democratic, free election for the past 55 years, since 1953. The extra quarter century of repression is courtesy of the United States and Britain, which objected to the free, democratic election of Mohammad Mossedegh and sponsored a coup, followed by the accession of the Shah Rezi Pahlevi. The Shah ruled Iran harshly, with murder and torture, until he was finally overthrown in 1979.

Ghobady also wrote, correctly, that
There has been no real election. Candidates are all hand-picked and cleared by a central religious committee. It is a farcical imitation of the free nomination/ election process that we have pictured in the free world. There is no possibility that a secular, pluralistic, freedom-loving democratic person who loves his or her country can become a candidate to run for president (or any other office) in Iran.
True enough. But by these criteria, there hasn't been a free election in the US for a long time either. (Notice that in his day, the Shah's regime was numbered among those of the free world, along with many other brutal but non-Communist dictatorships.) Candidates for the Presidency of the US must pass muster by corporate elites and their allies in the two major parties, and a pro-corporate press genuflecting to a narrow caricature of religion, which effectively rules out the possibility of a secular, pluralistic, freedom-loving democratic person becoming a candidate for president, or any other major office, in the United States. When the Republicans stole the 2000 election, they bused in thugs to intimidate the vote counters in Florida, with no response from the Democrats and no popular response in the streets. But then, mass dissent in the US is reviled, penned in, and subject to state violence no less than in Iran -- I have the right to say such things as an individual, but getting together with others would subject us all to surveillance and eventual repression.

That doesn't mean things aren't worse in Iran, only that the posturing of the US media and some media figures is tiresome in its hypocrisy. The saddest part is that many of the protesters in Iran may have believed that the "free world" was watching their struggle, when our leaders were only interested in what political hay they could make of it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Poetry Friday -- How can I call you beautiful?

How can I call you beautiful? In any
bar you entered you would turn no heads
but mine -- you are no ikon for the many
to carry off and kneel to in their beds.
Nor do I think: "But dress him properly,
find him a better barber -- yes, and please,
shave off that awful mustache!" No. To me
you're fine in tennis shoes and dungarees.
Oh, if I wanted Class (Class only in
the vulgar sense), I know the marketplace
where it's on sale: Take home a mannequin,
a perfect body and an empty face.
Let other people queue up for what sells
most dearly. I want you. And no one else.

April 19, 1978

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Chocolate Rations Raised Again!

Okay, let's see, where was I? Oh, yeah: President Obama has severely disappointed many of his gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and queer supporters by by permitting the Department of Justice to issue a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and then committing damage control with a derisory executive memo offering minimal benefits to same-sex partners of Civil Service Workers. Cue the reaction shot:

Now some of the mainstream GLBT organizations are fighting back, not only by de-friending the President on Facebook but by aiming at any politician's most vulnerable spot, his fundraising: "a steady stream of usually dependable Democratic stalwarts dropped out of a normally prestigious and well-attended LGBT DNC fund-raiser being hosted by Vice President Joe Biden on June 25 -- David Mixner, blogger Andy Towle, the Human Rights Campaign's Marty Rouse, former Clinton adviser Richard Socarides, millionaire Bruce Bastian, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders attorney Mary Bonauto, and the National Stonewall Democrats, to name a few," Kelly Eleveld reported at the Advocate website. Such a daring move, though some other high-profile homos are going to attend anyway. (P.S. June 26: And it didn't keep the DNC from raising even more money at that dinner than last year.) How long they'll be able to hold out before they rush back under the safety of his wings, I don't know.

The more discussion I've seen on this dust-up, the less I'm inclined to support same-sex marriage. I don't support mixed-sex marriage either, after all. Far from being a matter of equality, as the advocates of same-sex marriage keep saying, marriage is a matter of inequality: inequality between the spouses, and inequality between married couples and other family arrangements -- or between married couples and single persons. One commenter at Alison Bechdel's blog, for example, complained that she and her English partner cannot be together because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents them from being "married in the eyes of the federal government and therefore she has no immigration rights." As the writer said, this is "heartbreaking," but why should someone have to get married to get "immigration rights"? (She didn't explain why she doesn't move to England, where she could marry her partner.) In his book The sexuality of migration: border crossings and Mexican immigrant men (NYU Press, 2009), the scholar Lionel CantĂș, Jr. quoted a representative of a gay organization working on immigration issues that changed its focus from "just talking about immigration categories being too restricted because they didn’t recognize different kinds of families." When marriage became a hot issue, he said, "what we were trying to push for was opening it up" (66). By stressing just one kind of family, albeit the most prestigious kind, I'd say they were pushing to close it down. Besides, marriage doesn't automatically, naturally, magically solve the problem of immigration. In the early years of the 20th century, American women could lose their American citizenship if they married a foreign (especially non-white) man. Not until 1936 was this changed.

Why should someone have to get married to get a pension, or health insurance? Why should someone have to get married to visit a sick person in the hospital? On the subject of children, Nancy Polikoff has written in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008),
It’s especially troubling when marriage-equality advocates make similar assertions [to those of the religious marriage movement]. The constitutional mandate and law reform of efforts of the late 1960s and 1970s reflected the understanding that children are not supposed to suffer harm as a result of having unmarried parents. The lifelong disabilities of “illegitimacy” have been erased. If a law discriminates between a child born to married parents and a child born to unmarried parents, it is subject to heightened scrutiny under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

… Some who urge marriage as the solution to children’s needs fail to distinguish between consequences of marriage and consequences of parenthood. For example, a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force publication refers to the lack of educational assistance for the children of deceased public safety officers “who lack legal recognition of the parent-child relationship due to the lack of marriage rights of their parents.” But a child does not need his parents to be married to get these rights; the child needs his parent to be legally recognized as his parent. The same is true for children of heterosexual parents.... [100-101]

Marriage-equality supporters also invoke the specter of illegitimacy and quote marriage-movement rhetoric about child well-being. The American Psychological Association, in its briefs in same-sex marriage cases, has argued that children of gay and lesbian couples will benefit from their parents’ marriage because nonmarital birth is widely viewed as undesirable. Referring to the historical stigma of “illegitimacy” and “bastardy”, it argues that “this stigma … will not be visited upon the children of same-sex couples when those couples can legally marry.”

… Herdt and Kertzner assert that “marriage denial has had particular effects on the well-being of children reared by lesbians and gay men by undermining family stability and perpetuating false claims about parental fitness.” But the research on children of gay parents uniformly finds no damage to them. The claims for marriage equality made for the sake of the children unfortunately echo claims the marriage movement makes when it blames poor child outcomes on parents’ failure to marry.

Evan Wolfson, of Freedom to Marry, wrote that “all children deserve to know that their family is worthy of respect in the eyes of the law. … That respect come[s] with the freedom to marry.” I agree with Wolfson’s premise but not his conclusion; the respect comes from the law equally valuing all family forms ... [102-103].
Some might argue that once same-sex marriage gets legal recognition, these little problems can be dealt with, and all other family forms will also be valued. I doubt it. Even granting the best intentions to the advocates of marriage, I would expect them to want a rest, in terms of time and energy as well as money, from such political activism. And I'm not inclined to take their goodwill for granted. As Polikoff shows, they are too willing to buy into the marriage-supremacist rhetoric of the religious Right where the well-being of children is concerned. Suppose that same-sex marriage were legalized in every state and at the federal level. What would happen to a couple from different countries who want to be together, but don't want to marry? From what I've seen, I don't believe they'd get much sympathy from the gay marriage movement. Why wouldn't they want to marry? Why are they so selfish and immature and ungrateful? Why not exercise the rights they've been granted, thanks to the hard work of dedicated activists over many years?

I believe the appeal of marriage as a solution to so many problems is due to inequality -- the prestige of marriage over other kinds of family bonds. That's not something I am inclined to support or encourage. While Obama's waffling doesn't make him look any better to me, he couldn't fix that by reversing course and putting a full effort into advancing the recognition of same-sex marriage in the US. There's too much else wrong with him.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Even though he links to Andrew Sullivan way too much, I like Homo Superior Curates the Web. He puts together a nice mix of images and links, useful and entertaining. Among the images and links are sexy pictures of nekkid men, which are pleasant, but are generally -- all right, nearly always -- typical of what I see on gay male sites: twentyish youths, lean and lightly muscled, pretty, all within a very narrow range of variation; usually white, but even the non-white ones are products of the same mould. I enjoy looking at them, but pretty soon I start wondering why they all look so much alike.

It reminds me of a passage in Marge Piercy's novel Small Changes (Doubleday, 1973), where the character Beth, hiding out in a friend's apartment from her estranged husband until she can divorce him, picks up
some magazines from the coffee table and began leafing through.

They were not exactly like the magazines she'd read in high school. There was more about sex and more about food. The girls' magazines assumed you went to school with lots of boys you had to attract and know how to handle ("How to Say No without Losing Him"). These magazines assumed you had to go out and find men and spouted suggestions for joining activities where They would be sure to be found. They also seemed to assume that you went to bed. ...

There were articles about getting back in circulation after divorce, about making more glamorous dinners than you could afford, about sewing clothes that would look more expensive than you could afford, about buying lots and lots more clothes in new styles, about meeting men at the office, about how roommates could spend their entire joint salary for month giving a New Year's Eve party, and ten articles on beauty. If she followed the directions in even one or two of them, the upkeep on her body would consume her entire free existence.

There were many stories in which women got men in various ways or lost them. The stories were sexier than those she had used to read. The effect of reading them was to feel discontented and sad and vaguely stirred up, as if something were wrong with her.... [315-16]
This describes most gay male magazines nowadays, and the commercial gay websites, which is why they're of limited use to people like me. But it also describes what I feel looking at the photos featured on Homo Superior and the sites they come from: discontented and sad and vaguely stirred up. Which is why I don't look at them much.

So this entry, "The Need for Natural," at HomoSuperior took me by surprise:
The endless stream of zero-body fat model-boys on queer tumblr (At least most of them have retained their natural body-hair…) really numbs my mind after awhile.
Doesn’t anybody like boys/men with a little heft? And who don’t get paid for looking good?
You do realize that’s the reason they look good, right? Um, you do, don’t you?
Oh, I do realize it, I do. But if he feels that way, why do almost all the guys in the pictures on Homo Superior Curates the Web (including most of a page of images from fit exactly that description: zero body-fat model-boys? Even when he links to Real Men of New York, the photo he chooses to accompany the link is of a tattooed guy who doesn't have much more than zero body fat. Which might be a come-on to get his readers to click on the link and have their horizons widened, because most of the men pictured at Real Men of New York are not model-boys. Some are muscular, some are young, but some are older, even old, and some are not In Shape by any criterion, and they come in a variety of colors and types. They're real men, not in the sense of men who've passed the National Machismo Standards Test, but in the sense of actual men rather than fantasy men. "Natural" has nothing to do with it, of course; a lot of these bodies are the products of dedicated gym work, and the outfits are no more "natural" in their calculatedness than a body waxing.

I've written about this syndrome before, in one of the first posts on this blog.

Lamenting gay men's shallow obsession with looks is always good for livening up a slow session in a chat room or for taking a break while guy-watching at the bar. Of course, the complaint is almost always about other gay men's shallowness. I can't recall ever having heard someone moan, "I'm so shallow -- all I care about is looks. Personality doesn't matter to me at all." ...

Let me try to make this as clear as possible: I am not telling gay men (or anyone else) to have sex with people they're not attracted to. I am not arguing that gay men should change their sexual tastes, trying through sheer will-power to crave non-buff non-hunks; if anything, it's most critics of gay male looksism who talk as if they believed that. (Close your eyes, think of England and fuck his personality. It's an odd notion to encounter in individuals who believe that we are born with our sexual desires genetically programmed into us, and that they are absolutely impossible to change.) I'm not even saying that my taste in men is superior to that of most gay men. What I am saying is that our tastes are already broader than we admit.
So, if you like boys/men with a little heft, why not post more pictures of them to your blog, along with all the model-boys, if only for some variety? It isn't only men who are paid to look good who look good.

(Images from The Real Men of New York, via HomoSuperior.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Gracehoper


Poor little ant, you work so hard and save
so much. So practical, constructing mounds
of earth and stones and food and wealth; so brave
in most things, coward where it really counts.
And I the grasshopper -- you wouldn't take
me home to show to Mother, I who squander
all that Nature gave me. What I make
I toss away, I seem content to wander
on the earth you make your home beneath.
I am boat-rocker, dancer, and nose-thumber.
You'll have shelter from the winter's teeth,
while I can flourish only while it's summer.
Yet I often think that by your grace
I might find summer always in one place.

[early 1979]

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thanks to President Obama for Increasing Our Chocolate Ration

I'm not doing the "I Told You So" dance, exactly, nor am I feeling much Schadenfreude. I am feeling some grim satisfaction that gay and pro-gay Obama fans are finally experiencing a crisis of faith. It took them long enough!

The occasion of their discomfiture is twofold: the first was the Department of Justice's decision to defend the Defense of Marriage Act against a court challenge, put in terms that seem almost calculated to incense nice liberals. (Omighod! they totally compare us to child molesters!) The second was Obama's announcement that he was tossing a few crumbs to US Civil Service employees with same-sex partners. Maybe because it came so quickly after the first provocation, many of Obama's former defenders are actually skeptical (via) of their Messiah this time. And rightly so: Obama has not issued an executive order, but a non-binding memo; the benefits being extended may not even be new; the benefits are limited by the provisions of the same Defense of Marriage Act that Obama's DOJ is defending. Why, it's as if he doesn't care about us! It's as if this is just an empty public relations move!

Some of the faithful have not fallen away, of course: he hasn't had time yet, or he's playing eleven-dimensional chess with the Republicans, but in the end we will see that he really, really was on our side all along. The difference between them and those who are now mad as hell is mainly a matter of degree, though. The latter were able to overlook Obama's overtures to antigay Christians via Donnie McClurkin, his faith-based (and therefore irrelevant) opposition to same-sex marriage, and his buddying up with Rick Warren. More seriously to my mind, they were able to make the same excuses when Obama appointed a staff made up mainly of Reagan Democrats and Bush holdovers; when he continued the Bush-Paulson bailout of the financial industry (but then, he'd been part of it all along); when he played a shell game with US prisoners at Guantanamo; when he protected American war criminals and torturers from even the threat of prosecution; when he extended the blockade of Cuba, kept silent during the Israeli assault on Gaza, and escalated the US war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing many innocent people. Through all of this Obama's fans lightly dismissed his critics: give him time, he's got a plan, he needs our support not our criticism. On the one hand I welcome them to the fold of naysayers on Mount Disdain; on the other, I notice that they only got upset when their own ox was being gored.

More on this later ... I'm in Incheon Airport, waiting for my flight back to the US.

(P.S. -- I'd have preferred the "Will and Grace" version, but you work with the "I Told You So" dance you have. Or the one that's available on YouTube, anyway.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hellspawn of Dude, I'm a Fag

Aside from getting ready to return to the US on Friday, I've been writing comments on other people's blogs instead of writing posts for my own. It's occurred to me that some of those comments could, with a little more work, be adapted and posted here. In particular the one that underlies what I'm writing now, in which I was struggling to articulate what I meant. I'll try again here.

So, from here I went to here, which made me go Huh. I thought I'd look to see what else the blogger had written, and found this. Some people are now up in arms about the phrase, "Just sayin'." According to Virtual Lee, the phrase is "most often used at the end of a rant or at the end of suggestion ameliorating a hot pitch with a shrug and an I don’t care." That's not how I recall having seen it used, or having used it myself. Gawker wants it banned, which seems to me like a good reason to keep using it. The writer at Gawker signed off with:
If you didn’t mean what you said or if there was no import to it, don’t say it. Why say it? Don’t say it. But worse than that, you obviously did mean what you said so don’t veil it with pretending you didn’t. Last month was the R-Word Month, during which the public was meant to avoid saying “retard” as an insult. Let’s make this the month of not saying Just Sayin’. It’s dumb and retarded. Just sayin’.
Lee, I think, missed what the Gawker writer meant to do. According to both of them, "Just sayin'" is like adding "Not!" to the end of a possibly incendiary sentence, or "No Homo", or pretending that you didn't mean a slur or other insult, you were just joking, geez, don't be so PC, chill out! "Dumb and retarded" was, I thought, intended to be an example of what the writer meant, since he had already established that calling someone or something "retarded" is a no-no. But Lee huffed,
... ‘Just sayin” is certainly not as hurtfull [sic] as accusing someone of having a specific neurological illness. Easy to ban, not so easy to dscern [sic]. Just sayin’
The word "accusing" struck me strange. Maybe calling someone a retard is an accusation, but it doesn't make much sense as one. Having a low IQ is not a moral, let alone a criminal failing; it's nonvoluntary. (And Down Syndrome, which I think is what most people associate with mental retardation nowadays, is a chromosomological disorder, not really a neurological one. I'm just sayin'.) The same goes for a lot of slurs. Naomi Klein reminded Barack Obama during last year's election campaign that "being called a Muslim is not a smear"; treating it as if it were only surrenders to the attacker. Being called gay, or even queer, is not an accusation, though many gay people inexplicably act as if it were. (Oh, not inexplicably -- it's because they agree that being gay is bad, only We Can't Help It, It's In Our Genes.) Refusing to use the smarts Nature gave you, however, arguably is a moral failing, and calling someone a retard is a good example of same.

I suppose that the people who throw around insults like "retard" mostly know that their targets aren't retarded, just as they know that the people they call "faggots" aren't gay. Which doesn't mean that they wouldn't pick on real retarded or gay people, of course; they probably would. They know it's not an accusation; rather it's a taunt, thrown to see if it will draw blood. That's why kids call each other "fag," "queer," "dumb," "fat," "girl," to see if the target will flinch. But I'm not being fair to kids there, since so many adults never outgrow this practice. The right 'accuses' Michael Moore of being fat; the left and the near right 'accuse' Rush Limbaugh of being fat. It would be one thing if such childishness were a way of letting off steam before moving on to more substantive matters, but in many cases it's all they know how to do. (As shown by the popular jape: "Arguing on the Internet is like entering the Special Olympics -- even if you win, your [sic -- they always write it this way] still retarded." In other words, they don't know how to debate or argue or think, which are done pretty much the same on the Internet as elsewhere, and they think their incapacity makes them superior. Superior to whom? To just about everybody, from their tone.

In our national political discourse, it matters a lot more how much you weigh, how you dress, your accent, your hairstyle, the "message" you're sending, than what you believe or do, and why. It matters more that you be "responsible," "positive," and "civil" than that you have any idea what you're talking about. Liberals dwelt much more on Dubya's inability to pronounce "nuclear" than on his real crimes, and now they're much more interested in Obama's comparative eloquence, his poise, how good he is with children (American ones, that is -- what he's done to Afghan and Pakistani children is not to be mentioned), what a great couple he and Michelle are, than in his policies and actions.

I suppose the same reason underlies the panic so many adults exhibit when someone throws a slur in their direction -- they've never outgrown the panic children feel when a gang of other kids call them names. Mommy! they're being mean to me! Still, we need to outgrow it. It's so much easier to try to ban words we don't like than to get people to change their ideas and feelings. (I bet the Gawker's R-Word Month made a big difference, don't you?)

Once, when I was about twelve, I fell off my bike, scraping my knee and hand. It was the first time I'd done that in a long time. I reflexively drew in a breath to start crying, which is what you're supposed to do when you fall and hurt yourself, but then stopped when I realized that though the scrapes hurt, they didn't hurt that much. After pondering this for a moment, I got back on the bike and rode on. I've had much the same reaction to some of the slurs and insults that were directed at me as an adult: they don't hurt that much, not enough to keep me from riding figuratively on -- and when possible, all over the person who used the slur. If I've left tire marks on their souls, then my life has not been entirely in vain.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Queer Culture Festival, Seoul 2009

I made it to the 10th Annual Korean Queer Culture Festival yesterday. Having read about it and written about those reports last summer, I wanted to see what it was like for myself. And it was pretty nice. (That's a section of the Berlin Wall next to the sign.)

Yes, it was smaller than such an event would be in an American or European city of comparable size. That mainly made me nostalgic, since I am old enough to remember when public gay gatherings in the US were generally much smaller than they are today. Yes, it was relatively tame -- the foreign gays were the loudest participants -- but I can live with tame quite happily. (It's one thing to be noisy and sassy because you feel like it, and another to be so because you think that's what you're supposed to do.) And it was relatively closeted: people with cameras were required to register as Press whether we were press or not, with admonition not to take (or at least "use") pictures of people wearing no-photo stickers. That's okay, and I was mainly pleased by the level of organization in getting that message across. I insist on everyone's right to be no more out than they are ready to be, and not many queer Koreans are ready to have their pictures splashed all over the Internet. (Though I also still insist that it's not honest to speak of Gay Pride until you can get rid of the masks, the paper bags, the no-photo stickers. Since this is called the Queer Culture Festival, though, that's not an issue.) I was frustrated that so many people with the best costumes were wearing no-photo stickers, though not, happily, all of them:

Speaking of the foreign contingent, special mention goes to the blog-friendly tank top slogan worn by the young woman below:

I especially regret that almost all the performers in the mostly-female Farmers' Dance group were wearing no-photo stickers, because they did a great job and were glowing with pleasure in their performance, but so it goes.

The number of organizations involved was fairly small, but it's growing and there was more attention this year to gay youth. (A lot of the people wearing no-photo stickers were very young, probably high school students, and anonymity / invisibility for people that age is still a good idea for most in the US too.)

The Pink Revolution group had a "2MB OUT" sign (against President Lee Myung-bak) hanging inside their tent, but most of the revolutionaries were wearing no-photo stickers so I was never able to get a picture.

The entertainment was predictable. Korean techno and hiphop played over the loudspeakers most of the time. MC's were in various kinds of drag.

There were two different gay men's choruses, both of which performed the traditional Korean ballad "Like a Vorgin." ("Virgin" is very difficult for Koreans to pronounce.) G-Voice were the better singers, and even had a CD, which I bought in solidarity even though gay men's choruses put me to sleep.

The parade took off at around 4 p.m. I don't know how many people participated in it directly. The organizers warned that those who wanted to participate should register in advance, or they'd have to follow behind the parade. I think they overestimated the impermeability of the barrier, especially in Pride Parades, between onlookers and participants.

Time was when the Queer Culture Festival was staged in Itaewon, a district associated with foreigners: American soldiers stationed in Korea often go there on the weekends to party and shop, as their Japanese predecessors did during the colonial period. Tourists also like Itaewon, because venders accept a wide range of currencies. There are lots of restaurants of foreign cuisine, especially Middle Eastern and South Asian. Also a fair number of gay bars that try to cater to foreigners, which made it a natural for Queer Culture Fest.

But a year or so ago the Festival moved to the plaza in front of a commercial building in Euljiro-3-ga, a district near City Hall, very Korean. Most of the onlookers and passersby were Korean, including older men who looked on with the kind of anxious bemusement I haven't seen in the US for years. I shouldn't be too sure about them, though: some may have been gay. At any rate, I didn't notice any harassment of the participants, as apparently happened last year. Some families passing by stopped to get their children's faces painted, which led to the spectacle of four- and five-year-olds happily carrying Queer Pride balloons; other parents grimly dragged their loinfruit from the decadent scene.

Other people who caught my notice but not my lens: the big-framed high school boy who, after performing a lip-synch routine with some of his friends, put on a high school girl's uniform and Mickey Mouse ears and walked around for a few hours, sometimes making small graceful hand movements at odds with his size. The (white, I think) guy in backless leather chaps (but underpants) and harness, with false moustache who strutted delicately around with his Korean boyfriend, often being photographed with some of the other attendees; later his boyfriend put on the leather and the moustache and strutted around himself. The skinny boy in a little black dress with gorgeous red shoes who I had to hear talking before I was sure he was a boy.

Thanks to Alicia, who offered to take my picture.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch ...

... we have this reminder that President Lee Myung-bak knows all about rioting in the streets and undermining the lawful government:

The Hankyoreh reports.
DP Lawmaker Song Young-kil reveals a picture that shows then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak holding up a candle at a demonstration held in 2005. The demonstration was held in protest of then President Roh Moo-hyun’s education policies.
This confirms my skepticism about Jon Huer's claim of a fascist-like atmosphere under Noh that threatened chaos and repression, one step away from an anti-democratic abandonment of social order and discipline. If Lee had been photographed at a rally supporting Noh's educational policies, it would be different, but consider that we see here the Mayor of Seoul participating in a peaceful candlelight vigil against Noh's policies. Were he and his fellow agents of Kim Jong-il harassed by water cannons, beaten with clubs, sprayed with tear gas, knocked down by police shields? It doesn't appear so. If anyone seems to be trying to stir up a chaotic eruption, a mad stampede of overwrought rhetoric, it's Jon Huer and the other Lee Myung-bak supporters who panicked at the sight of schoolgirls and young families with candles. (Yeah, but how do you know those candles weren't loaded? Huh?) Maybe he'd be happier in a country like this one, which does a better job of policing social order and discipline.

Is Autocracy Imperiled in Korea?

I saw bits of this video clip last night on a TV in the restaurant/bar my friends and I had gone to. I couldn't understand the newscasters' commentary, of course, but what was going on was clear enough. I could reasonably guess that it had happened on June 10, when 100,000 people had gathered in Seoul to celebrate the 22th anniversary of the June 10 Democracy Movement, which toppled the dictatorship that had ruled South Korea since 1945. I knew that the rally was going to happen despite the efforts of President Lee Myung-bak's administration to stop it; I'd seen police gathering around Seoul Plaza on Wednesday afternoon. The same TV showed us former President Kim Dae-jung criticizing President Lee, and encouraging the Korean people to reclaim their democracy. (Kim is not just an armchair critic: he's an almost lifelong dissident who put his life on the line against the Park dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s. He was jailed for long periods, kidnapped by the Korean secret police, and would have been killed by them if the US hadn't intervened. [Bad form, boys, mustn't be too obviously repressive.] He won the Nobel Peace Prize, and became the first dissident to be elected President of the newly democratic Republic. He's also a devout Catholic and strong anti-Communist.) Kim had endorsed last summer's candlelight vigils, too. Of course conservatives attacked him, in terms that will be familiar from American political controversy.

Besides, I knew that I could find out what was going on once I got home. The news is always there on the English-language sites of various Korean newspapers. It took only a couple of minutes to track down the video clip.

There's no doubt what's happening here: the police aren't just accidentally bumping people with their shields, they're deliberately hitting them in the head and neck to knock them down. As you can see, it works very well, and it looks like a move that has been practiced. The people are running, not fighting back. If any of the protestors were armed, the police ignored them in favor of unarmed people.

President Lee issued a statement on June 10, charging that "ideologies that prioritize violence and group self-interest were perverting democracy." Exhibiting the charming lack of self-awareness that often characterizes politicians, Lee evidently didn't realize that he was describing his own government much better than he was describing the protestors. The Korean National Police Agency initially denied allegations that their men had used excessive force, but then,
when the video sources were revealed it said the culprits within its ranks would be punished.

A spokesman said hitting an individual with armor is a violation of police regulations and that the use of sticks had not been authorized.
Given the familiar pattern of damage control, I think we may doubt that the use of such force had not been authorized. It may take time for the truth to emerge, of course.

Then I found this op-ed column at the Korea Times. It's an impressive performance in its way. John Huer, the writer, argues that the problem in Korea is not too little democracy, it's too much democracy. He evidently hopes for another military coup like the one that ended a brief period of respite from dictatorship in 1960-61.
Let's recall those days. By April 1960, the [Seungman] Rhee government and his Liberal Party collapsed under student protests that raged across the country. After the collapse, the hitherto-opposition group, the Democratic (Minju) Party took power. But internally weakened by factionalism and beholden to the students for their ascendancy, the Democrats were not strong enough to maintain law and order in Korea ...

The nation was so chaotic and disorderly, politically, economically and culturally, that when the military finally took over the government in May 1961, many people in Korea felt the writing had been on the wall the whole time and welcomed the coup.
The student protests weren't all that brought down Rhee's government: his own corruption and lack of concern for the people he was ruling contributed materially to his downfall. In those days, the South was desperately poor, lagging behind the Communist North. I'm not an expert on Korean history, but I think that in listing the factors that ended the democratic interlude, Mr. Huer is overlooking US distaste for democracy in the South. This was not the first time that a democratically elected government would be left to fall by the United States, which then supported the new repressive regime with a lot more enthusiasm.

I also wonder about the "many people [who] welcomed the coup." I have no doubt that many did, mainly those who'd been comfortable under the dictatorship and profited from it. No change in a society is ever welcomed by everyone, including the success of the 1987 Democracy Movement, and those who preferred the old order will not stop working to turn back the clock.

My skepticism about Mr. Huer is supported by his characterization of the 2008 candlelight protests against US beef imports.
The famed mad-cow protests had nothing to do with democracy. Neither against government tyranny (as the government had not been set up yet), nor against real health hazards (as there was no scientific proof of any kind available), the mad-cow candlelight protests, which once physically threatened the Blue House, proved to be sheer emotional outbursts and extreme mass paranoia. Thoughtful observers might say that the current Lee government was so crippled then, mentally and systematically, from this trauma that it has actually never recovered into a fully functioning government. As a belated reaction to the threat to its own survival, and under pressure from the electorate to toughen up, the Lee administration finally began to show some measure of face-saving, by bringing charges against those disorderly destructions and civil disorders.
Lee's government had indeed been set up when the candlelight vigils began, and there was already an Internet petition attacking him that had gained a million signatures for his autocratic style -- as a former CEO, he viewed citizens as employees, to be ordered around rather than served -- and his programs, which included unpopular projects like building a canal across the Korean peninsula (a windfall for land speculators), and privatizing healthcare and the water supply. There was already evidence of corruption in his administration. As for US beef imports, it's true that there was no clear evidence of danger from them; but the US refused to meet safety standards that other beef producers, such as Australia, had not objected to, and a massive recall of hamburger in the US at the time confirmed that our safety procedures were laxer than they should be. As for scientific evidence, I wrote last summer, "
Would you trust a Bush official’s claims about what is scientific and what isn’t?" As for the allegation that Lee began to "toughen up" only "finally," "under pressure from the electorate", the police violence began early on during the vigils, with beatings and water cannons. "The electorate" must refer to corporate elites and US business interests, since Lee was and remained unpopular among most Korean citizens.
Lee, quite different from Roh,[*] is a timid political soul with little or no charisma and can command neither the ability nor personality to rally the country around him. His government drifts and floats, reacting to one crisis after another, but without energy or creativity. And his ruling party is merely squandering its majority in the National Assembly amid factionalism and a lack of direction.

It is wholly unlike the picture that threatens democracy with repression and tyranny, as the SNU professors declare.
I don't see how anyone who's watched the Korean scene for the past couple of years can say that Lee is "a timid political soul." His reaction to last year's protests was swift and decisive, directing the police to respond to the vigils with violence, fuming that the protesters were doing Kim Jong-il's work, and acting to hunt down his critics and prosecute them; even if many of the prosecutions were thrown out of court, Lee meant to intimidate those who might criticize him publicly in the future. It seems he hasn't succeeded, if only because real repression at this stage would create an uproar that might bring down his regime immediately, but "timid" is certainly the wrong word for Lee Myung-bak. Since he can't "rally the country around him," which would entail abandoning his unpopular and regressive policies, he really has no alternative but to try to intimidate it instead.

This is why I retained my skepticism as Huer worked himself into a fine lather:
In my 15 years in Korea, the only time I have really felt threatened by repression and chaos was during the Roh era. Roh was a man of enormous charisma. The power of his words and actions was quite capable of causing powerful reactions in Korea's emotional and tribal reservoir of energy.

During the five years of his tenure, the underlying tension for chaotic eruption, incendiary for its populist and mass appeal, was quite palpable everywhere, for both Koreans and foreigners alike.

It was as if Korea under Roh was just one step away from an anti-democratic illiberal abandonment of social order and discipline. Even in death, Roh is quite capable of creating these fascist-like reactions from Koreans who would hit the streets under any pretext. Just now, Korea reminds me of the buffalo herd that is gathering into a huge mass, and its amassed energy is ready to explode in a mad stampede. All it needs is just one well-placed emotional spark to trigger it.
I have to tip my hat to a man who can create fascist-like conditions from the grave. Though I can't disprove Heur's impressions (which by definition are subjective -- if he says he felt it, then that is what he felt, but it doesn't mean he's right), I have my own impressions (ditto). I was in Korea for extended periods during Noh Mu-hyun's administration, and never had any sense of an "underlying tension for chaotic eruption." Even during the great candlelight vigils of last summer, I didn't see any chaos in the center of Seoul -- though that was just my impression. What I heard from the Noh supporters I knew was not support for his fascist-like, populist, tribal agenda, but frustration that he had backed down from his initial stance and become more conciliatory to the Korean right and to US pressure. He got onto Bush's bad side almost immediately, but gained some favor by contributing Korean troops to Bush's invasion of Iraq (very unpopular among Koreans), privatizing banks and other public institutions (also unpopular), clamping down on the labor movement (ditto), and ultimately negotiating a "free trade agreement" with the US (double ditto). All this selling out didn't save Noh from being impeached by his right-wing opponents, barely escaping removal from office, or from a politically-motivated corruption investigation, now abandoned, that hounded him to suicide. It's hard to see him as the all-powerful undead figure threatening Korean democracy from the tomb. While Jon Huer is entitled to his impressions, I think there's good reason to distrust them. In fact, it's my impression that Huer is busily insisting that black is white, up is down, and democracy is fascism, in defiance of Korean reality.

One very good piece of evidence that democracy is imperiled in Korea is Saturday's pronouncement by the Prime Minister:
Prime Minister Han Seung-soo ... reaffirmed that South Korea is a democratic country in his response to growing public criticism that the country's democracy is backpedaling under the Lee Myung-bak administration.

"Our country is not an autocratic country but a democratic nation," Yonhap News Agency reported citing Han as saying.
You could call this the "I am not a crook" strategem: when a high government official troubles himself to deny that something is the case, it probably is the case.

(* "Roh" is an alternate spelling of "Noh.")

P.S. 7 December 2009: The original copy of the video clip was removed from Youtube by the user who posted it sometime after I embedded it here. As far as I can tell, the clip above contains the same content. I suppose it is still online because it was posted from the US. The Lee administration has been trying to control what gets onto the Internet from Korea, to discourage if not suppress criticism of its policies. See the "Minerva" scandal for a notorious example, though the prosecution ultimately failed. I posted about it, with links, here, here, and here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Poetry Friday -- I haven't even spoken to you for

I haven't even spoken to you for
a year now; still you lurk in all I write.
How foolish, since I never touched you, nor
had reason to expect I ever might.
Then Dante was a fool, whose girlchild muse
seems hardly to have known he was alive
much less loved back. So why should I not choose
an awkward, nervous boy of twenty-five,
who friend I tried, and tried, and failed to be?
For Heaven's not my goal. I choose to stay
in the Inferno of my poetry,
and write for you till ages pass away.
You'll never know, of course, how you've been used,
and just as well -- you wouldn't be amused.

early 1978

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nerd-Rock Meets K-Pop

Jang Gi Ha and the Faces seem to be the hot new item on the K-Pop scene, at least according to their fans. I don't know their demographic -- college students seeking Coolness, perhaps? A friend recommended them to me, so I looked them up. See what you think.

I'm not entirely sure what I think about them yet, even after several viewings of this video; I haven't listened to their CD yet. The song itself is sort of abstract: the title ("The Moon Is Getting Fuller -- Let's Go!") sets the tone. Jang Gi Ha, the lead singer, has an interesting voice and sings well. Though I enjoyed his choreography with the Mimi Sisters, it suggests to me a robotic alienation from the body that I both identify with and dis-identify with. Jang's look reminded me of the Feelies, whose first album I bought in 1980 just because of the way they looked:

And of Maynard G. Krebs, one of my most enduring early media crushes:

And the self-conscious oddness of the early B-52s:

Which I guess is not such a bad combination.

(P.S. July 1, 2009: Here's another musical forerunner of this song, and perhaps of Jang's performance style, though David Byrne is buggin' out compared to Jang's introversion:)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

I played tourist this weekend, and that combined with general discombobulation is why things have been quiet around here. They probably will continue so for a few days more, since I'm planning to travel outside Seoul again tomorrow. When I get back, I hope to be more productive.

Yesterday a friend took me with him to Jebu Island, just off the western coast of South Korea. (Not to be confused with Jeju [also spelled Cheju] Island, to the south.) He was meeting some friends he'd known since elementary school there. They're all in their mid-40s now. One of them has run a hotel on Jebu for about ten years, and the friends gather there three times a year. This impresses me, because I'm not in touch with anyone from my elementary school years.

I'd been to Jebu once before, about five years ago. It's an island you don't need a ferry ride to visit: instead there's a raised, winding road that takes you through the tidal flats that surround the island, a road that is covered when the tide is high. (Photo of the submerged road here.) You have to check the times when the road is above water. It's not the most picturesque scenery, with hundreds of yards of mud on either side. We passed other tourists as we neared the island itself, wearing boots as they dug in the mud for shellfish, squids, and whatever else they could find. Since it was a long holiday weekend, we found a line of cars ahead of us when we turned onto the approach to the island, and progress was slow.

It wasn't a big reunion, just eight or nine of my friend's classmates and their wives and children, but (or maybe because of that) it was fun: lots of food, lots of soju (Korean rice vodka), lots of conversation, lots of karaoke. (The soju commercial below has been inescapable while I've been here; featuring the pop singer Lee Hyori.) Several people spoke at least some English, and the others were patient and encouraging about my fumbling, inadequate Korean.

After breakfast this morning, under gray skies and occasional drizzle, a bunch of hotel guests rode out to the edge of the tidal flats to see what were in the hotelier's nets there. We put on borrowed / rented boots and disposable plastic raincoats and climbed onto the back of three vehicles like the one below:

Driven by the hotelier and two of his workers, they took us out to check the nets. We collected an octopus, some clams and crabs, and some small fish. (Or rather, the other folks did. I just wandered around a bit, distracted by a very hot fisherman I found it hard not to keep looking at, and who does not appear in these photos.*)

The fish were cleaned and eaten fresh and raw, with soju, where we were.

After which we rode back to the hotel, the tide slowly rising behind us, for a hot lunch.

One of my host's friends is a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and as we were finishing our meal a bunch of people he knew rode up.

Very nice, friendly people. The first bikers I've encountered in Korea, some of them smoking the first cigars I've seen being smoked here. They all sat down to lunch too. Shortly afterward my host and I returned to Seoul.

*It may be worth mentioning, considering questions I've occasionally been asked and a complaint I've received, that despite the title of this blog, not everything or everyone it discusses is gay. The fact that I was drooling over this fisherman, for example, doesn't mean he drooled back. (Even if he were gay, he probably wouldn't.) This is a misapprehension of which I've often run afoul in the 30-odd years since I came out: straights and gays alike tend to assume that everyone I know must be gay (and that I'm having sex with all the gay ones), even though both groups should know better. The straights who know me, after all, have themselves as evidence that not everyone I know is gay, and the gays (who aren't sleeping with me) have straight friends themselves. Being openly gay has meant that I've blended the two populations together most of the time without much thought. Often it's the very people who gripe about queers ghettoizing ourselves who assume that the wall of separation is high and unbreachable. So, verb. sap.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Poetry Friday -- Marriage 2: The Homely War

Marriage 2: The Homely War

Come, I besiege you, let us lay each other waste,
contrive to breach one another's defenses,
engage in combat earnestly till death draws us apart.
Not, my proud beauty, for god or country,
nor for honor do I brave the clash of arms
to call for your surrender: for private glory only,
mirrored in your eyes like smoke and flame.
But sweet it is, and fitting, I should die at your gates,
gnarled and gray and garrulous from waiting.
I will never retreat, I promise you,
the years will not attrite my faith.

Come, less us have a battle, you and I,
while scavenger birds wheel in the sky.
Let us step to the music of their ragged cries
till we are stretched bloody side by side
and must be dragged away to mend and meet again.
I see you full of years, old buzzard,
gaunt and tough, tattooed with scars I gave you,
married to the sword and well prepared to die by it.

Come, let us do away with one another,
unhurriedly, for we have world enough and time.
I am a crafty man, milord,
you won't grow tired of my tricks.
You'll see how I insinuate myself into the cracks in your mortar,
how I entwine your turrets like ivy.
My spies are cunning, they'll whisper me everything,
your shoddiest secrets shall be as my own.
Lay on then merrily, do your stuff,
and damnd be him who first cries, Hold, enough.

18 March 1978
29 March 1978

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Out and About

I've been away from the computer for the past few days, except to check e-mail. One of the great conveniences in Korea is the multitude of PC bangs ("bang" is "room" in Korean), which are mostly used by adolescent boys of all ages to play games, but are just as useful for other computer functions. There's at least one on every block, it seems, and the rates are reasonable.

It's always hard to be sure that what I notice as changes now aren't really just things I hadn't noticed before. But it seems to me that I see a lot more people riding bicycles this year, perhaps to save gas or mass-transit fares. Gas is not cheap in Korea, as in most countries, and the train and bus system is very good, but the fares do mount up. Korea's economy has rebounded better from last year's crisis than people expected (and better than the US has, it seems), but it may be that many people have decided to economize.

When I ride the subway, I've noticed more older people collecting discarded newspapers. The first time I saw this, the man was wearing a vest with printing on the back, which made me think he was a subway employee keeping the car tidy. But other people came along later and collected the next batch of papers. And so on. Can they make money by selling them for recycling? I don't know, and my Korean is inadequate for asking. And the same older lady I noticed last year was mopping the platform at Incheon Station with a string of pearls around her neck under her work smock.