Sunday, 31 August 2014

News Rundown: Sewol Standoff, Dog Meat, That Pub, and Depression

A few news items have been blazing across my Facebook wall, and I'd like to weigh in briefly on a few of them. I'll be as concise as I can.

Sewol Ferry Law, Riot Police Overkill and Overreaching

The National assembly is deadlocked, as the ruling party and the opposition party cannot agree to the conditions for a special investigation into the Sewol Ferry disaster, and the opposition party are boycotting participation in any other parliamentary actions while waiting for the leading party to capitulate to their demands. Read up here. And here. And this one is my favorite. This longer piece at The Marmot's Hole looks into the motivations of the political players.

At the same time, the Gwanghwamun area, which I regularly travel through and around in my weekly schedule, is also deadlocked, with police buses and riot troops turning broad roadways into traffic bottlenecks. In my opinion, the number of police sent out there is overkill by a magnitude of order. There look to be 10 police for every one protestor I've seen. On the other hand... perhaps that mad overkill is what dissuades larger crowds from bothering to show up... and I can remember back to 2008 and 2009, when protesters would overrun police barriers and block traffic all weekend in Gwanghwamun, just because they could, misguidedly thinking that snarling the entire downtown would gain sympathy, rather than turning every driver against their cause... and well, at least the police keep one lane open.

I'm annoyed by both situations, because both dumb deadlocks are based on one side presuming that the other side will go nuclear - protestors getting violent and destroying police buses and attacking police, and politicians headhunting the president at every opportunity - given the tiniest shred of leeway. The problem, in both cases, is that in the past both protestors and opposition politicians have done exactly that, given any opportunity, so while I really hate all this recalcitrance and stubbornness, I see where it's coming from, and while I really hope the Sewol families get justice, and a full accounting for what went wrong, and they don't seem to be getting that from the ruling party, it's a shame they have to align with the political left, who come across (as usual) as if they're in it more for the damage they can inflict on the ruling party than out of any actual concern for the families devastated in this tragedy. I knew this Sewol thing would get politicised eventually, but I'm disgusted by how it's happened.

I keep going back and forth, like Louis CK.

On the one side... when a party acts as if it's hiding wrongdoing (perhaps simply out of habit), after a while people start guessing it's because there is some serious wrongdoing just waiting for the right rock to be overturned.

On the other side, it makes sense that they are acting defensively, trying to pre-emptively prevent the investigative committee from turning into a presidential head-hunting team, because the progressive party goes after the president whenever they can. Given their track record for overreaching, they've given the conservatives no reason to expect they won't do it again. Nor me.

Part of the story hinges on the formation, and composition, of a "fact finding committee" -- and the formation of special committees has always been fraught in South Korea, where everyone suspects everyone has an agenda, and/or has something to hide. The sordid track record of politicising Truth and Reconciliation Commissions is a good place to start for the way grievances never seem to get resolved in South Korea, especially when they involve powerful people.

It's a mess. It's a quagmire. It's the reason Korean people don't have faith in their government. It's the reason Korean people latch onto newcomers who promise to "change the way politics is done" -- as if it could be done, when every politician except that one person has something to lose in the case of actual change. Koreans seem to expect the worst of their politicians, yet Korean politicians have repeatedly lived down, and then sunk below that expectation.

Could the president have done something to make the Sewol tragedy unfold differently than it did? Probably, but not on the day it happened. There are heads that richly deserve to roll, and people who did get away with stuff. Who have covered up their shame more cleverly and subtly than the Sewol captain, and who'll probably get away with it. Shit is still happening that shows that actual concern for safety hasn't been impressed on the rank and file, those to whom we trust our safety (Saemangeum seawall workers were out having dinner instead of warning boats not to approach the seawall while the gate was open).

Dog meat: On the way out

I wrote about dog meat a few times before. Here. And here, with ruminations on the nature of online debate.

A recent article in Yahoo Finance, of all places, discusses the closing of a famous dog meat restaurant -- where presidents themselves ate -- and the slow decline of dog meat consumption, in the absence of young people eating it. The comment I put on my Facebook page was this:

Dog meat is a generational thing, and if foreign lobby groups had ignored it in 1988, causing certain people to cling to "our culture" mainly because "dem furriners" were telling them not to, and screw them! I believe dog meat would probably already be nearly extinct.  
Humanity and cruelty aside, it's economics that will do dog dishes in, and there just isn't a future in the market for it, when nearly every consumer is grey-haired. It'll go the way of bbundaegi (which is also slowly vanishing, with much less fanfare, because foreign lobby groups never convinced a group of Koreans it's part of "their" culture).
An academic paper I came across while researching the '88 olympics, discovered these outcomes from global pressure to ban dog meat in Korea during the buildup to the olympics:
The goal of this paper has been to assess the world polity perspective for one empirical case: the debate surrounding dog meat consumption in South Korea. In this case, global cultural scripts rejecting dog meat consumption did not translate directly or in a predictable fashion to conforming Korea’s practices into the world system. In this case, integration of world cultural norms has transformed existing cultural practices into something not quite resembling what came before (traditional dog meat eating practices) nor what the adherents of the world polity perspective might predict (the abolition of dog meat). Rather, dog meat eating practices have transformed into a more widespread cultural activity legitimised by greater protections against animal cruelty and greater awareness of the role of dog meat consumption within the discourse of South Korean national pride.
*Minjoo Oh & Jeffrey Jackson (2011) "Animal Rights vs. Cultural Rights: Exploring the Dog Meat Debate in South Korea from a World Polity Perspective." Journal of Intercultural Studies. 32.1, 31-56.

That is to say, by trying to ban dog meat, global animal rights groups created a backlash, causing a practice that had been dying out anyways on its own, to be practiced and cherished as a site for practicing and celebrating cultural identity. That cultural pride association had become strong enough by 2002 (World Cup) that anti-dog lobbyers were met with resistance that used the language of respect for cultural uniqueness. If international animal rights folks had said nothing in 1986-7, I think dog meat would probably have died away on its own before 2000, lacking any wind in its sagging sails.

I said in previous posts -- meat is meat, and I have trouble accepting arguments that it's OK to eat one critter, but not another, and I've always argued that Korean society will age out of dog meat in its own sweet time. Interesting to see I'm being proven right.

The Pub Thing

The offensive sign in the pub, and the outraged response, has been beaten into the ground on Facebook, and was blogged about at Asia PunditsAdam R Carr's blog (which tries to sniff through the (in?)sincerity of the proprietors' initial responses and denials), and Korea Observer, who attended the "apology" night, where the owner got too drunk to apologize (yikes!). A surprising number of people have come out on Facebook to defend or pooh-pooh outrage over an action that is indefensible in any way.

Mostly this summary was an excuse to share this
funny image from the Dokdo is Ours post.
For the record, the signs were only up at the location for about an hour, but the same article by Korea Observer that mentions that fact, seems also to give us a clue as to the real motivations for putting up the sign: a group of bar patrons from ... um... a country that would be excluded if all Africans were banned... who were bothering females in the club. Even Dokdo Is Ours (hey hey!) got in on the feeding frenzy, ending with a joke about the way so many people have trouble naming more than a handful of countries in Africa, and talking about Africa as if it were a single, undifferentiated country.

If I were the bar owner, I'd close down for a week and re-open under a new name. But honestly, given now many people attending bars in Itaewon either aren't tuned into expat facebook activism anyway, and how short expat memory is because of high turnover, not to mention how many people drinking in Itaewon aren't even foreigners anymore these days, I doubt a Facebook activist run boycott (if anybody bothered to organise one) would even have a serious effect. The location probably matters more than whether the proprietors are or aren't racist, but next time we suggest a sign saying "the management reserves the right to refuse service to any customer at any time" instead of "No Africans because... um... Ebola, I guess."

You can hear more of my thoughts on that issue at the Cafe Seoul Podcast -- some of my blogging energy has been going into the Cafe Seoul Podcast lately, and I am rather pleased with it. It's put together by my friend Eugene, and a couple of other pals, and our last few episodes have all made me happy. Maybe they will make you happy, too.

Here's the Ebola Pub episode. IBlug won't embed for some reason, so you'll just have to click on the link.

You can also search "Cafe Seoul Podcast" on iTunes, or click here.

Robin Williams and Depression

I, like everyone else of my generation, was staggered by the unexpected passing of Robin Williams: we were raised on his movies. There were conversations about which Robin Williams movies we loved (Hook, Aladdin, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, Dead Poets' Society, are my top five), the ones we not-quite-loved (Death To Smoochy, What Dreams May Come, and Jakob the Liar were two of the movies that taught me that even actors I like can make bad movies), and who can forget his appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway, topped only by Richard Simmons' "Possibly The Best Five Minutes On The Internet", or his stand-up.

And the conversation veered into discussions of suicide. Cracked had the subtly titled "Why Funny People Kill Themselves", and my sister-in-law wrote this beautiful bit on her blog, which I'm copying but not linking, because I didn't ask permission, and if she wants my readers on her blog, she can put the link in the comments. Perhaps she doesn't.

Cancer, and diabetes, and kidney disease, and strokes, and fatal heart attacks, and Alzheimers are all horrible illnesses.  But you know what happens at the end of them?
The person dies OF the disease. 
We say, "Shirley died OF cancer,"  "James kidneys failed him," "Bonnie had a horrible stroke."  The disease killed them, got them, attacked them.  The disease was not associated at all with WHO they were, quite the opposite in fact, the disease got them.     
I don't know why it is that this isn't the case in with mental illness.  We likely won't speak of Robin Williams "dying of depression," or being the victim of "brain failure." Forever his death will be tainted with the tag "suicide," and in that, just so many complicated and avoided issues.  
...When people commit suicide, they are sick.  End of story.  They are sick like any dying person laying in a hospital bed, only they are likely getting far less comfort, love, and compassion in the hours leading to their passing. 
They die OF something.  They do not choose to die.  The disease has killed them, at least any shred left of who they once were. 
Similar sentiments here. Fact is, depression and mental illness still face a stigma other diseases don't. Nobody goes into the cancer ward saying "Why don't you just... not have cancer any more?" and if they did they've be acknowledged without debate as an ignorant asshole. But people do that for depression. "I'm getting tired of you and all this leukaemia shit. Snap out of it!" Said no-one, ever. "You know, maybe a little exercise is what you need for that liver failure." "Some volunteering might help put your muscular dystrophy in perspective." "I think you're just having tuberculosis for attention." So... it's terribly sad we've lost another hero of my childhood, particularly for his family and the people around him. Hopefully it will start more conversations about mental health, which will have positive outcomes in the end. But if that happens, to be clear, it doesn't mean it was worth it that even one more person, famous or not, lost the battle with depression. Every life lost is a deep tragedy.

Lest we miss an opportunity to share this information, you may have heard suicide is a pretty serious social problem in Korea. Here are some Korean suicide resources: and some other international suicide help lines. Share others you know about in the comments.

Those are a few of the things floating across my brain-dar these days. Hope it was interesting for you to read, and that the thoughts are mostly well-formed, rather than half-baked.

That is all for now.

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