Saturday, 14 June 2008

More mad cow. Cripes I'm tired of this.

Soundtrack time: hit play and start reading. From Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim: West Side Story: The Prologue - Korea's taken to the streets!

OK. There are a few things:

1. for background, Ask A Korean has a pretty good summary of how this mess began, and what Koreans are saying and reading about the Mad Cow Scare, which has blown way out of proportion here, as opportunist rabble-rousers use it as a hook to hang their anti-americanism/anti-president-lee-ism upon.

There's a good article about it in the Asia Sentinel, and another one in Reuters that calls out Korean netizens for being irrational and spreading misinformation/believing lies. NYT has also tried to put it into some historical perspective, though perspective seems to be something lacking right now among netizens and protesters. Whether netizens start to open their eyes and investigate other sources of information, or respond the way Chinese netizens did to CNN's critical reports on China's handling of Tibetan protests (counterattack, rather than pause, listen, and have a moment of self-reflection that might lead to a teachable moment) remains to be seen. (most of these links courtesy of either ROK Drop or The Marmot's Hole - see sidebar for links)

This is the best article I've read so far about the way the internet can spread misinformation in Korea (because it's exciting, and makes good copy) more easily than sober-minded information -- the better story gets forwarded more often than the more rigorously researched article, because stories are more fun than statistics. This is why, as I wrote here before, the internet, as it is now, will not reach its full potential for social change.

If this situation continues, there will be more reports like the above from international sources, each in turn more incredulous at how irrational the discourse is, and how driven it is by myths, rumors, and bald-faced lies, and maybe Korean netizens will start a site called, the way Chinese netizens started Blog buddy Brian has been attacked personally by the same irrational netizens who still believe a single bite of US Beef will kill you, because they read it on the internet, even though it's been scientifically proven that kimchi kills mad cow prions. (More scientific evidence here.)

2. It's now the anniversary of the deaths of two girls who were run over by a U.S. Armoured vehicle near an army base north of Seoul. ROK Drop has a really amazingly excellent write-up on what happens when misinformation, lack of critical thinking, and toxic nationalism intersect (re: that 2002 armoured car incident) that shows just how far you can go on anti-american emotion here in Korea (all the way to the presidency, for Roh Moo-hyun - as mentioned also in the NYT article linked above). See here also for more on anti-americanism in general, and see here for more about the armoured vehicle incident, and how the demagogues and politicos hijacked these two little girls' lives to promote their ideology, with the media mostly complicit. Those two girls were invoked again, concerning this, as well as Lee Myung Bak being likened to Korea's last dictator - Chun Doo Hwan. Ironically, those saying Lee Myung Bak is worse than Chun Doo Hwan have done so without fear of being arrested, or having their names put on a watch list, for saying so. (also ironically, people are protesting Lee MyungBak at the head of Chunggyecheon Stream, the public park area that President Lee built, back when he was Mayor of Seoul.)

In both the 2002 incident, and this year, the thing I've come away with more than any other impression, is how shamefully the korean media has acted. The Korean left wing has proven their savvy in mobilizing young people using comment boards, internet connections, and even text messages -- that's arguably how they got Roh Moo-Hyun into the blue house as president (see NYT article linked above) -- the way the internet in Korea has been manipulated by agenda-driven yahoos blows my mind, but it's also pretty impressive -- ya gotta hand it to the activists, you know? Now, if the conservative President and his party had any wits about them, they'd get on the web too, because right now, in the war to influence the thoughts of Koreans, controlling the internet and message boards is about tantamount to having superior air power in a real war.

(generalization time:) Because of Korea's very confucian culture, the people are raised, all the way from childhood, not to question authority -- asking a question in class is bad, because you could embarrass the teacher if he doesn't know the answer. Anything that might embarrass the teacher is Wrong. It's the same with newspapers and TV's -- my students (some of them well-educated and quite intelligent) have admitted to me, point blank, that they don't usually question what they read in the newspaper -- even when it's one of the hot-button issues where biases usually come up. I had an interesting conversation with one class, where I ended up explaining to my student, a mother and substitute teacher in her forties, that critical thinking, though it includes the word "critical" does not simply mean criticizing everything, and looking for flaws in everything, but questioning the sources of information, and possible agendas those distributing the information might be hiding, at the same time as taking in the raw data. (She was the same one who came into my class two months later and regurgitated literally every myth, half-truth, and lie pertaining to American Beef that she'd heard on the internet, or on the slanted news-reports, one after the other, as I calmly answered her objections.)

This deference to seemingly authoritative sources is compounded by the collectivism prevalent in Korea, wherein people will go along with the crowd, because it's a crowd, and if they disagree with the crowd, they'll stay quiet rather than object, for the sake of the group harmony. An example of this is going out for dinner with a group of Koreans: I had an interesting talk with Matt and his wife about this cultural disconnect.

Let's say, my eight Korean buddies and I are going out for dinner. They want to eat pork cutlets, but my pet iguana died of food poisoning after eating a stale cutlet, so I hate them, because the taste reminds me of the porky-smell of poor Izzy's death rattle.

Now, if my eight buddies and I were Canadian, Matt and I agreed that the thing we would do, in that case, is to say, "well, you guys have pork cutlets, but I'm gonna pick up some drive-thru on my way to the cutlet place; I'll sit with you, but not eat."

or "I'll grab a bite at my favourite burger joint, and join up with you guys when you move on to the pub where we'll drink together after dinner." This would be the most considerate thing to my Canadian sensibilities -- rather than eat cutlets and sulk, or insist all my friends ignore their cutlet jones and come with me to White Spot, I just do my thing, let them do theirs, and join up later.

but Matt's Korean wife interjected, "but that's so selfish! To go away from the group maybe the group will think you don't like them! You'll ruin the group atmosphere by putting your own needs first!" -- basically, in Korea, for the sake of group harmony, if you disagree with the crowd, you shut up and bite the bullet. Even getting out of the way to let them do their pleasure isn't good enough: you have to go along with the crowd, and pretend you're having fun. Dissent = wet blanket = killjoy = why do you hate us?

And so, you have a population where the credulous are more than ready to get demonstrative when somebody pushes the right buttons, and the more sensible are perfectly content to stay quiet until it all blows over. This gives the ones who do get excited free rein to go beyond the pale, if they so choose, because they can basically retort "why are you spoiling my fun" to anyone who questions their actions. When nationalism is mixed in, the retort is often the over-simplified, black-and-white, "why do you hate Korea?"

In such a climate, a great, great deal of responsibility is placed upon the leaders and media of Korea: in a place where people have been programmed from childhood not to question authority, it behooves those in positions of influence to use their power responsibly. So far, Korea has had the exact opposite of that, on both sides. Mike Hurt, again, on the Korean media, part of which I'll quote here:

...the American media is more responsible, and holds itself up to higher
journalistic standards than the Korean media. Has it always been? No. Are
there markedly different histories between our democratic traditions and the
government's relationship with the media? Of course.

But that doesn't change the force of my critique. One side is still markedly unprofessional, doesn't double-confirm sources, doesn't take notes or record during interviews, and even regularly engages in the making up of facts in stories as a common practice. The other side engages in such practices at great professional peril. The blacklisting of a photographer for altering a piece of foreground in a West Bank
picture, or the infamous Jayson Blair case are actually examples of overall journalistic integrity in the US, and reassuring. Because the exact practices that caused the ends of careers and huge professional embarrassment to entire organizations are common practice in Korean journalism.

And hence, one point of my argument -- that the Korean media's unprofessionalism was a huge source of the problem in this case -- should be clear, and it is a problem particular to Korea, not a function of the dismissive "well, it's the same anywhere." No, it isn't.

And if you push a Korean friend on the opposite side of the fence, as
I have started to very recently, by asking the question, "Do you mean to tell me
that you think Korean journalism has the same standards as American journalism?"
the answer will be clear. Koreans are very dissatisfied with their OWN
newspapers and journalism.

Korea has been betrayed again, by a media more interested in sensationalism than truth, following the emotion, or the narrative they want to follow, rather than exploring a topic without any pre-conceived notions they seek to confirm. A media's duty is toward the truth, not toward one political party or the other (easier said than done, but even as they take sides, America's news sources don't intentionally spread brazen lies; they just over-report some stuff and under-report other stuff.) Here in Korea, most of the papers have taken sides unashamedly: the Choson Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, and Dong-a Ilbo, Korea's three conservative papers, have actually had their reporters chased from protest sites, because the protesters don't like the way those three papers have reported the situation. The crowds took a break from chanting "Lee Myung-Bak, Get OUT!" to chant, "Choson, Joongang, Dong-a are CRAP!" in the middle of their protest.

For me, when the Choson daily reports 70 000 people came to a protest, and the Hangyoreh (the left wing paper) reports 400 000, I lose a little faith in the credibility of both papers. My student asked me if I thought the congressional political system (like the USA) or the parliamentary system (like Canada) works best, and I realized that it doesn't really matter which system is in place, if the media is doing its job, digging around, asking questions, calling out the finks, and plugging away towards true accountability and transparency, and TRUTH, and that's where most of my disgust lies in this situation, because the MEDIA should be saying that Korea deserves better leadership, more accountability, and actual statesperson-like behaviour frome their lawmakers, instead of some barely-read blogger.

Meanwhile, Korea's leaders are leaning on authority or emotion, rabble-rousing or shouting slogans, rather than being leaders and lawmakers and statesmen and stateswomen. This is not how a nation's leaders should behave! Misinformation campaigns? What the hell! A good statesman should be digging to the truth of the matter and spreading that information as much as possible, rather than chanting slogans and twisting the words of their opponents. Korea deserves better than the grand-standing, pissing contest they have, where the minority is currently refusing to report to the national assembly before their demands concerning beef laws are met -- blackmail, basically (probably because they know they're outnumbered in the house, and will be overruled) -- preferring to mill about with the angry crowds over doing their job in the assembly.

Yeah, Korea's democracy is young (21 years), and the media is also only 21 years from being an arm of the government, and they're still figuring things out, but this kind of political brinksmanship, this kind of irresponsibility has got to stop, and Korea deserves better than the leaders and the media they have right now. How can anything get better when politicians are throwing chairs in the national assembly, refusing to show up until their demands are met, or going on hunger strikes? Cut the crap!

Soundtrack: Wallzeys dance remix: Anarchy in the UK

woo hoo.

That being said, there are three good things that have come out of this mad beef mess:

1. Ex-CEO Lee Myung-Bak is learning that you can't run a country the way a CEO runs a company. This is a good thing. His entire cabinet tendered their resignations, and this is a chance for him to become a statesman instead of a CEO, to bring in the best people instead of his old buddies and yes-men. He has the opportunity to become the pragmatic president he promised to be from the beginning. I sure hope he learns his lesson. He's gone from the biggest landslide election victory in Korea's history to the shortest time from inaguration to impeachment calls.

2. The protests have, by and large, been more peaceful and orderly than any other protests of this scale in Korea's history, and that's a really good sign. Hopefully, next time, the people will, you know, vote, and contact their representatives, rather than taking to the streets to be heard. And hopefully those representatives will be where they should be, in the National Assembly, communicating what their constituents are saying. But peaceful instead of violent protests is a good thing.

3. most exciting of all: on Tuesday, June 10th, we had what is, as far as I and my students know, a first: a counter-demonstration. While masses gathered for the anti-LMB demonstration in front of Gwanghwamun, a group of Lee Myungbak supporters mustered (surrounded by national guard police four-deep, to keep the factions from having a west-side-story-style rumble) in front of City Hall to show support for the president, American beef imports, and the KorUs Free Trade Agreement. As far as I know, this is the first time we've seen the other side sound out their voice at the same time as the protesters are shouting, rather than staying quiet during the histrionics, and then coming out of the woodworks later, during the post-riot hangover, when the rabble-rousers have been discredited and everyone feels a bit foolish, crowing, "I knew it all along"! Public discourse, instead of storms of public emotion, a true representation of both voices rather than the angriest side shouting down the other side with slogans, would be a welcome change to the way public discourse is done in Korea. Democracy's still taking root here, but this is a good sign.

The artists are in on the mad beef mess: warning. Some of these images are not for kids.

this sculpture has been up around City Hall all week. It's grotesque, disgusting.

This painting was displayed prominently at other Anti-American protests (I got it from Brian in Jeollanamdo's page) -- it was at City Hall on Saturday,But some pro-US supporters had had enough of it.Ditto for this one: the painting shows an armoured car, and the image on the right is of the two girls killed in the 2002 armoured car incident: a lurid, disgusting picture that was spread ALL around the internet and printed up on protest signs in huge, graphic, disgusting detail. I'm not linking or showing the picture here, because it's revolting: there are viscera strewn around and you can see that the girls are literally crushed. The parents actually had to beg the crass activists to stop flashing around the picture of their daughters' eviscerated bodies to promote their causes. Well, somebody'd also had enough of this one.More referencing the 2002 armoured vehicle incident: the empty schoolgirl shirt has the nametag of one of the girls killed.The good old mad cow.

This sculpture had notes posted to it.
I'm guessing it's modeled on this photo, which I think is a still-capture from the piece of yellow journalism MBC documentary that started this whole outrage.

Ironically, that same image (if it is the same one) has been debunked: MBC erroneously posted the caption "Mad Cow" at the bottom of the screen; it's a downer cow, and slaughtering downer cows is also illegal in American slaughterhouses, but it's not mad. But then, what do facts matter? It sure is a striking image! Another partner piece:
No explanation needed there, except:

Close up of the stars on the second picture:on the first one (red white and blue), on the left side are images of American products -- coke bottle, razer blade, umbrella -- they look nice and norman rockwell.

On the right side, each of the images from the left are used in some violent way -- the coke bottle's smashed on someone's head, and let's not forget America's third favourite pasttime after baseball and football: umbrella sodomy! On the other one (the black flag) there isn't even any attempt at irony or juxtaposition. Just lurid, disgusting and shocking images of violence, which I assume are intended to be associated with the US. Who need umbrella sodomy when there's umbrella rape to be had? Note the man dressed in green on the left: presumably a soldier?
Meanwhile, every single other person who's ever had a gripe with the president has thrown their complaints on top of the pile: I bumped into this paramedics demonstration (really loud: they ALL had their sirens going, while the first one had a speaker playing patriotic songs on that managed to actually be louder than the sirens. Police were lined up to block the ambulances from entering the City Hall block.
Dog-piling the president doesn't seem like the most productive thing to me: if the trucker's union, and the teachers, and the media, and the opposition party, and the Korean farmers association, and the anti-canal people, and the democracy demonstrators, are all shouting different things, it turns into static, and decreases its chance of affecting change.

Meanwhile, Sohn Hakkyu has overplayed his hand, and (in my opinion) stands to lose the most in this mess. Once international sources notice how he's playing the masses like a violin, with slogans and rhetoric, twisting words and stirring up fears rather than leaning on hard facts and logic, he'll take the blame when Korea gets embarrassed by more reports like the Reuters "Look at this silliness" piece. He'll lose all his credibility, for playing to the home crowd so much he forgot how he looks on the outside, allowing misinformation to be the basis of his platform.

This is bad, because he has some legitimate gripes about the president's headstrong ways in his first 100 days, but by lumping that together with the FTA, and the mad cow stuff, he runs the risk of having ALL his points disregarded, once people really realize how stupid and unscientific the mad-cow junk is. He comes across like the irrational one in a lover's argument, who starts hauling up junk from the past when he/she realizes s/he's losing the current argument: "What about when you forgot my birthday last year?"

The president has a lot to lose, too, but in the end, he still controls the national assembly, and he's still the president, so he stands to lose less than the minority leader.

Every time I write about this, I hope it's the last.

Saturday's protests were smaller and more sedate than last weekend. I'd be really happy if this fustercluck finally blows over.

Update: It does look like it's blowing over; sunday night the roads in front of Gyungbok palace were open for the first weekend night in a while. Finally.

Joshing Gnome: duly noted, sir. I, too, hope this is the last time I write about it.




Intelligent design

The Korean government are forward thinkers. Some bright spark at the internal affairs office realised that instead of buying costly street sweepers they could just use bored middle aged women. Thusly every Korean mother or aunt is bowlegged, shaped like a question mark and smells of bins. But those street corners, wow.


ageekinkorea said...

The process you are describing where people are described as "buzzkills" for disagreeing with the harmony of the group is called "눈치" or "nuen-chi" (pronounced like noon-chi)

It's one of the frustrating things that make the difference between Korean and Western cultures. I had an argument just like you did when I said I thought a movie was bad when the rest of the group liked it. I was told to shut up and not disagree when a greater number of people thought differently than I did.

When I the Korean insisted I must change my opinion to make the group feel harmonious, I didn't take it very kindly.

Don't worry, not all Koreans are big on group think. A lot of people hate it as much as you do.