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[OUTLOOK]Scholars and the Seduction of Power

The foundation of our intellectual society is scholars who spend their time at study, not chasing po

May 22,2001
Intellectuals always seem to get into hot water when they dabble in politics. As it is today, so it always was.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a relevant episode. In the final days of the Han dynasty in China, a period of great upheaval, there were two famous scholars, Guan Ning and Hua Xin. Hua showed a great interest in money and gold; Guan did not. Hua was fascinated by the trappings of power; Guan was not. Hua helped overthrow a dynasty; Guan stayed in his pavilion, refusing to tread the ground of the Wei usurpers.

I was reminded of these stories when I thought about our intellectual society. Whenever political power changes hands, there are rumors about this team and that committee and secret think tanks. When I look at the background of the professors and scholars named to senior government positions, I see that many were said to have rendered meritorious service by helping win the election through their participation in such committees.

There is a similar phenomenon in the United States. In the Kennedy administration, Harvard University supplied government officials. Now people say Yale University runs the Bush administration. It is desirable that the special knowledge accumulated in universities, research institutes, and Wall Street be used in government, but in Korea, intellectuals in politics are seen as apostates begging for senior jobs. Intellectuals supported Yushin (disguised martial law) in the days of President Park Chung Hee, trying their best get close to his inner circle and then offering theories of legitimacy for the usurpation of power and corrupt authoritarianism of the following two military regimes of Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae-woo. These intellectuals enjoyed the compensation of distinguished offices and wealth for providing legitimacy to illegitimate power. A saying at the time went that some grabbed strong ropes and pulled themselves to power, while others grabbed frayed ropes which broke and left them powerless.

Such a mood has also been apparent in the first civilian administration and the current administration. A group of intellectuals who once bravely supported liberal doctrines and democratization struggles of the opposition parties have been rewarded with ministerial positions, heads of national institutes, presidents of universities and even chiefs of research institutes. They must have grabbed a strong rope. Are those appropriate rewards for persons who had to risk their jobs, let alone hopes for high office in the future, by participating in secret meetings and turning in secret reports? In our political cultures, they would have been punished if their support to the opposition had been revealed to the ruling camp.

The Grand National Party established a "National Reform Committee" and people are talking about the 200-odd persons supposedly participating. The ruling party is shouting its war cry as if "national" is a trademark only they can use. Law enforcement authorities have supposedly started preliminary investigations. If the intellectuals are taking part in real politics simply in the hope they will land in a high office, or to use their participation as a launching pad for their own power grab, taking advantage of their special knowledge as intellectuals in the past did, they should be criticized. Especially because the Grand National Party's candidate is likely to be our next president, their participation should be looked at carefully.

But the real problem is a political culture that does not allow intellectuals in this country to take part in real politics straightforwardly. There is a pollution in an intellectual society that asks the authorities to enforce silence on other intellectuals under the pretense of reform, and divides intellectuals into groupings. Were the democracy they asked for and the spirit of criticism they supported no more than a propensity based on regionalism and ideology?

There is a book series called "Knowledge," published for required courses at Tokyo University, which became a best seller. One passage goes: "One of the basic political activities of knowledge is criticism.... Knowledge can not help but resist unconditionally and absolutely against a system of general mobilization that excludes others."

Our knowledge and our intellectuals are not up to that statement. Some intellectuals are actually trying to stifle criticism of this government. How different it is when scholars' opposition to military authoritarianism turns into stifling criticism by relying on those in power?

As the presidential election approaches, we have to expect that people like Hua Xin will be rampant again. Such persons would ridicule people like Guan Ning, saying that his pavilion was built on the land of Wei dynasty even though he pledged not to tread the land.

I support the people like Guan Ning in our society, those who spend their time at computer monitors or surrounded by the musty odor of books with no interest in lining up behind political heavyweights. They are the pillars of our intellectual society.


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The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Kim Young-bae




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