Monday, August 20, 2012

The Dokdo Flag, The Olympics and Antagonistic Nationalism

The Olympics came and went. And all the flag waving with it. I've been busy -- I got a very unexpected promotion at work, and between doing the "Blog Buzz" section at TBS This Morning every week for quite a while, and also writing a "Blog Of The Month" thingy for 10 Magazine, I seem to have gotten blogged out... more on that later, perhaps. So I didn't comment on the Olympics as they were happening. Tough nuts.

And that Korean soccer player may or may not get his bronze medal after holding up a sign that said "Dokdo Is Our Land," and there's been buzz that he may even still have to do his military service, which would happen in Korea's soccer or olympic organizations don't want the IOC or FIFA to be mad. Or maybe he still won't, because now that the Korean media's picked this up, he may come out of this a minor hero.

Sigh. Grumble grumble grumble.

The whole news story is pretty much stupid from top to bottom.

To begin, the idea that the Olympics are not political is just stupid from the start. The Olympics always have been. After World War II, cities from all the major Axis nations were each awarded Olympics games, partly to symbolize normalization with the rest of the world (Munich, Rome and Tokyo), but not before London crowed in 1948 (Who won the war? Fuck yeah! We did!). Those city selections were political choices, no doubt about it. Apartheid and cold war politics saw mass boycotts of the Olympics through the 70s and 80s.

The awarding of the games to a particular host city has ALWAYS been a huge granting of status, and a form of validation in the international arena that is all the more powerful for its rarity -- after all, there's only one Summer and one Winter games every four years - that scarcity makes it a much bigger deal than if, say, the Superbowl, which happens EVERY year, went to a different city worldwide each year. And you can't award the Olympics to Beijing, but not the political prisons. The games go to the host city, baggage and all.

And the Olympics have turned a blind eye to some awful shit in their day, hiding behind "The Olympics are not political" when their hypocrisy becomes too glaring -- a few year after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the president of the IOC was encouraging china to make an Olympic hosting bid for the 2000 games that went to Sydney. Seoul got the 1988 games in 1981, only about a year after Korea's military massacred democracy protesters in Gwangju.

But while the International Olympic Committee goes through the paces of not being about politics, it's always been about politics. And money. And prestige. The countries being awarded the games have always been western countries, or countries that can put on a mask of appearing similar enough to the West to make the high-up mucky-mucks feel assured of their superiority.

So the idea that the Olympics are not political is rubbish. They're intensely, intrinsically political, and you only get smacked for being political if your politics don't agree with theirs.

And in fact, I'd rather they were MORE political, if it meant they were a little less commercial. Banning logos and making it illegal for companies that weren't official sponsors of the Olympics to use the word "London" and "2012" too close together -- and the amount of resources spent policing the above -- let everyone know what the Olympics are about now. And it made me pine a little for some political showboating, if only because the black power fist doesn't translate onto a Wheaties box.

At the more "mass" level, the Olympics are about nationalist chest-thumping and flag waving. I realize I'm not saying anything new. The Olympics have also always been about nationalist chest-thumping and flag-waving. Leading up to the 1908 Olympics (also in London), the Olympic project was in trouble. A handful of other potential host cities had balked at the cost, and Rome actually cancelled after repairs from Mt. Vesuvius' eruption drained public coffers. The Olympics had no home, and London became the host on short notice, because it was hosting the World Expo at the time. Can't even find a host city? The Olympics were in rough shape.

But then the guy carrying the American Flag refused to dip the US flag as the US contingent passed in front of the British King's box (all the other nations had), and that insult, followed by some misunderstandings about the rules for a few sports, led to an acrimonious rivalry developing between British and American athletes. These territorial controversies made the olympics much more interesting than some high-minded nobles prancing their horses around, and the Olympics started down a path it would not be able to return from.

Olympics have always been about nationalism -- all the way from that fifth Olympiad. Before that, the Olympics mostly ran as afterthoughts concurrent with and overshadowed by a few world fairs, in Paris and St. Louis. In fact, I'm gonna say that if nationalism hadn't gotten tied into the Olympics, the whole project would have sputtered, and the world would give about as much a damn about the Olympics as the world gave about  the 2011 World Athletics Championships (who hosted them? Quick! Without google! Betcha nobody outside the host country can tell you) or the 1986 World Expo (Betcha nobody outside the host city can tell you were that was). For what it's worth, cheering for a country helps people get excited about the Olympics -- it gives us a hook to hang our interest on, when otherwise nobody'd give a damn about mixed pairs badminton or synchronized diving.

I don't think nationalism is going anywhere regardless, just because a nation is a large enough unit for human beings to feel aggrandized by connecting their identity to it, but a small enough unit that we can remain provincial and prejudiced toward outsiders, and wrap our minds around that morsel of identity in a way that sets up an ingroup and outgroup. That ingroup-outgroup shit seems to matter with us homo sapiens.

And what of Park Jong-woo?

Well, to begin with, he didn't make the sign himself. But he could read it. But he had just won a medal by beating his country's (percieved) nastiest rival. But he had to expect what was coming.

Honestly, I'd do some dumb shit too if I'd just won an Olympic medal. The people I blame are the Korean fans who handed him the sign.

I hope they really feel like shit.

Not just for getting a guy stripped of his medal, but in the larger picture, for making, and bringing, such a shithead sign to an event that (despite my descriptions of the IOC's hypocrisy above) is supposed to be a celebration of excellence, and is described as an opportunity to resolve, or at least suspend, national differences through competition. Resolving rivalries through competition is ass-backwards thinking... but then, would a billion people world wide turn their TVs on to watch the open ceremonies of the "International Leadership and Team Building Activitiad"?  "Bulgaria won a gold medal in the trust fall on Tuesday, but their representative placed dead last in the 'Back-pat and Multi-step Handshake' event."

They're kinda dumbasses... but I can hardly blame them, because if THEY missed the point of the Olympics, then EVERYBODY's been missing the point of the Olympics since 1908.

I've been reading about nationalism for some of the papers I wrote last semester, and this Dokdo sign stupidity is just another iteration of other historical real and perceived grievances in the arena... as for Dokdo itself, go read this article. I like it.

But as for antagonistic nationalism in East Asia?

Well, you know how the basketball or soccer team where the players are making the extra pass and sacrificing their own stats for the sake of team success, are usually the teams that win the big games? And how the teams where players are trying to run up their statistical totals for the sake of their next payday... usually don't win the big game?

And you know how in the long run, history is kinder to the athletes who pass on individual glory for the sake of the team, and those guys who score lots of points for the last-place team get forgotten, while everybody remembers the folks who lift the trophies?

Well right now, all the countries in East Asia are the players gunning for individual stats, rather than trying to figure out how to win the effing game.

The USA and China will benefit from this, because if the smaller countries can't get their shit together, they'll keep setting up the pieces to dominate the pacific rim, and the Asian continent, by continuing to pitch smaller countries against each other.

The smaller countries in Asia will either be forced to choose between USA or China, or allowed to keep vacillating, which renders their influence in the region pretty much impotent.

I mean... Europe's not doing so hot right now economically... but if you look a little closer, the idea that "We're in this together, and we've got to help each other out of this" underpins most of the debates about what comes next for the EU... and that shared experience of mutual support is going to pay dividends in the future, when nations begin to trust the institution of the EU more.

And Korea and Japan and China will probably still be screeching at each other about this island, and that mountain, and the truth about some historical events.

And that's just stupid. That's all.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Hi there all.

In case you haven't heard, first of all, congratulations to Seoul-->Suburban, on their upcoming book publication (link), and also, if you're a Seoul-based street photographer looking to get involved in a really cool project, you might be interested to know the Seoul-->Suburban photographer, Elizabeth, is moving away from Seoul, and this leaves the site in need of a new photographer. More info here.

Oh yeah... an in their latest post, they cover one of my favorite stretches of the Cheonggyecheon, and the surrounding area. Check it out.

Monday, August 06, 2012

High Street Low Street: Seoul Photography by Dayv Mattt

Dayv Mattt, also known as Chiam, is a photographer I've admired for quite a while now- he's had a handful of different blogs, and can currently be found at

Disclosure: he contacted me and offered to send me a copy of his book for free, in exchange for a review. I insisted on paying for it, because I admire his photography and want to support it, and because I still don't want my readers to feel like they have to doubt my writing because I've used my blog to get free stuff.

But more to the point... I simply love his photography. The man seems to wander around the same parts of Seoul that I do -- not to say the same parts geographically, but the same types of corners and  neighborhoods seem to attract his camera's eye. The search for a good subject leads him up hillsides and into alleyways instead of down the main streets - the grittier and more crumbled, the better, so his photos end up showing a Seoul that City Officials and Official Guidebooks rarely highlight in their urgent attempt to dazzle visitors with shiny lights and huge displays of pointless technology: places that pretend war in the long past, dictators in the nearer past, and poverty and class strife right goddamn now have never touched Seoul, which is a well-meant, but an outright lie.

Mattt's camera's eye also gives clear evidence that he has lived in Seoul for a long time, paid his dues: the tourist would not notice from their hotel room, or not realize how important and common an element of Seoul life they are, to include uniformed school kids swarming into the streets when the hogwans close, or the way people react when a pigeon explodes into flight. It takes a long time living here, and an observant eye, to know that some of the things documented in his book, actually are important parts of living in Seoul: more so, even, than touchscreen thingies on streetsides in Kangnam, or the ornate corners of austere hanok buildings against blue skies - which you have to go looking for, rather than walking by them on the way to the subway stop every day, and which even tourists can  catch in a point-and-click, and feel like they've captured something about Seoul that matters.

The crumbling stoop where somebody's grandmother is husking garlic cloves, the side-alley where middle-school kids linger between hogwan classes, or taxi drivers pull over for a smoke and a piss, where even the chicken delivery guy gets lost; random stoops decorated with drunken salarymen and graffiti-covered police buses get perceptive, and even loving treatment here, and this is why High Street Low Street is a new favorite book of Seoul photography.

The book is huge - A3 size, for those of you who feed paper into photocopiers, and beautiful, glossy and rich in color, with around a hundred full color, heavy paper pages. Mattt has self-published these beautiful editions, and is selling them independently, to help himself buy a replacement for his old camera.

Maybe the best thing I can say about the book is this: after spending some time with it, I feel like DayvMattt lives in the same Seoul I live in, and I bow to him for capturing in images the feelings of the Seoul I've lived in, and loved, cracks, uneven cobblestones, blind corners with sudden night views, pig faces and foul-mouthed middle-schoolers and night streetlights making old houses magical, and all.

I highly recommend this beautiful book of Seoul street photography. I will protect it from my baby for as long as I can, and I recommend you buy a copy at his website, through bank transfer or paypal, to support an artist trying to make something beautiful on his own terms.

The "buy my book" link. You won't regret it. I might order two more copies for my dad and step-mom when they come to Seoul.