[INSIGHT]'Isms' Distract Us From the Problems

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[INSIGHT]'Isms' Distract Us From the Problems

The period 1919-20 was a watershed in contemporary Chinese history. On May 4, 1919, students at Beijing University began a nationwide revolutionary drive under the slogans of anti-imperialism and anti-feudalism.

In August 1920, the parent of the Chinese Communist Party was founded in Shanghai, and in July 1921, the formation of the Chinese Communist Party itself was announced.

The May 4 Movement was led by Hu Shi and the formation of the Communist party was initiated by Li Dazhao. Both were professors at Beijing University and leaders of China's intellectual community at the time.

The two figures argued about, in a rough rendering of the Chinese phrase, "problems and isms." Hu was the first to criticize the overabundance of "isms" in the intellectual climate - between democracy and communism, progressivism and conservatism.

Hu even conjured up a motto for his campaign - "Discuss more problems, use fewer isms." He asserted that intellectuals should devote their time to solving practical social problems, not getting mired in debate with little practical import.

Li retorted that it was necessary to bring people to realize that personal problems are connected with social problems. "Isms," he said, provide the paradigms that allow people with vision and direction to understand and solve social problems.

The debate divided China's intellectuals. It continued year after year with no conclusion until finally each side went its own way.

What's going on in our society now? Petty fights between reformists and anti-reformists, progressives and conservatives started long ago. Elders and intellectuals are standing up to warn that leading the nation into the confrontational dichotomy of "enemy" and "comrade" will make the nation lurch into chaos.

Why is our society rehashing the old "problems and isms" debate that took place a century ago? How come at the threshold of the 21st century we cannot escape from the obsolete antagonism of "left-wing" and "right-wing"?

We have fallen into a trap. We have started labeling those who uphold egalitarianism as "progressives" and those who oppose it as "conservatives."

I think the most important criterion to discern progressive from conservative is whether one looks forward or backward. This misunderstanding instigates conflicts and confusion in the beat-up framework of dichotomous ideologies.

Progressive or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, ruling party or opposition party - each has approached the problem with excessive ideological baggage - just the situation Hu scorned. This approach aggravates conflicts.

In case of the problem of drug overuse in Korea, especially antibiotics, the government has approached the problem using egalitarianism : everyone should benefit and suffer in equal measure. It has implemented a strict division of roles between doctors and pharmacists and forced the populace to sign up for medical insurance, instead of coming up with devices to stop the abuse.

When it comes to media reform, the ruling party is trying to introduce a cap on shareholder stakes in media companies instead of searching for an institutionalized separation of ownership from management, management from editing. The ruling party is ignoring the real problem while doing battle with the ism.

In a capitalist society, there should be a social security net for the poor. But whenever any policy related to social security comes up, the opposition party opposes it, calling it socialist and drawing it onto the stage of ideology.

To mitigate the military confrontation between North and South Korea and to open a new era of reconciliation and cooperation, there are few solutions other than the "sunshine" policy. Those who approve of this policy are considered a progressive force for reunification and those who oppose it are a conservative force against reunification.

Anyone who raises questions about North Korea policy or suggests these policies to be referred to public opinion is denounced as a wobbler. Both sides are rummaging for old ledgers and dichotomizing the debate into that between enemy and friend - leaving the problem to be dealt with later on.

If educational competitiveness is national competitiveness, various future-oriented systems should be introduced. If the medical insurance coffers are nearly empty, private medical insurance should be introduced.

Why do those who pursue past-oriented egalitarianism call themselves progressive and criticize those who adopt future-oriented approach as conservatives?

Social problems can never be solved by using ideologies that belong to the past.


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The writer is the editorial page editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kwon Young-bin

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