[OUTLOOK]How societies fare: Culture matters

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[OUTLOOK]How societies fare: Culture matters

The past is what travelers go to India to see, and so did we - the Taj Mahal and other great monuments of the Moghul period, the colorful Hindu temples, the sites where the Buddha achieved enlightenment and preached his first sermon, the Ganges River "ghats," steps where pilgrims cleanse themselves of sin. Even the spaciously laid out avenues and government buildings of "New" Delhi belong to the British colonial past.

What is to be seen of India's present? Well, apart from a number of pleasant meetings with intelligent and interesting people, the visitor from Korea's dominant impressions are of poverty and grime.

India has a highly educated population and is a world center of software engineering. But what strikes the eye is how appallingly disheveled everything is. Strewn trash litters the roadside. Every building seems to need a coat of paint. Beggars are ubiquitous. New Delhi has a few modern hotels and office buildings, but nothing to compare with Seoul.

Of course, India is a poor country. Development takes time. But only 50 years ago Korea was poorer, and war-torn to boot. Look at it now.

Population is often blamed for India's poverty, and it is certainly true that there are a great many able-bodied men in India with too little to do. They stand or squat by the road and watch the cars go by.

But those men have hands as well as bellies. They constitute an enormous labor resource. Indians in masses once built the Taj Mahal; Can they be put to work now to build a modern India? One fashionable geopolitical theory is that the 21st century will belong to the population-massive countries, China and India, as improvements in public administration make it easier to organize populations.

It will be easier in China than in India. In three books, V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate in literature, has tried to understand India. Naipaul's ancestors migrated from India to the Caribbean island of Trinidad in the 19th century. He grew up with an idea of India that did not prepare him for the shock of his first visit to the country he found 40 years ago.

Naipaul locates the roots of India's "wounded civilization" in the oppressive burden of its past, and in religion and caste. A thousand years of conquest by outsiders, from Muslims to British, have encouraged Indians to look not to this world for salvation. Hence, the dedication to spiritual perfection. Hence, the romanticization of poverty and simplicity.

Hence also, the filth. Could not someone organize all those idle men to pick up the trash that litters Indian streets? Not likely, given the realities of caste. "Sweeping" is the work of the lowest castes. For everyone else, it is unclean to pursue public cleanliness.

Until Indians believe that poverty and grime are national blemishes to be overcome, rather than signs of holiness or social status, Naipaul argued, only the past will matter in India: "The fantasy of past splendor is accommodated within an acceptance of present squalor."

Naipaul's views are controversial in India, and not everyone will agree with all his points. But the conclusion remains: Culture matters. And not only in India.

When Argentina humiliatingly lost control of its finances, initial blame fell on the Internation-al Monetary Fund. But before long questions arose: How did a country with abundant natural resources and few social problems end up having to rely on bum advice from the IMF? Only a century ago, Argentina was one of the world's richest countries. Do Argentines bear no responsibility for their fate?

The Sept. 11 terror attacks evoked immediate reassurances that Islam itself was not to blame. Of course it is not. But what is the source of the anger boiling out of so many Islamic countries? Is everything really somebody else's fault, or have these societies failed to adjust to modernity? Have they been held back by cultural factors?

Korea's culture of friendship and favor trading is often blamed for its many money corruption scandals. But it has also produced a people willing to dare and to look to the future.

One reason it seems that there are so many scandals is that we read about them in the newspapers. Not long ago, such doings were hushed up. This increasing transparency is also becoming a part of Korea's culture. Korea is often called a conservative, tradition-oriented society. So it is, but its culture, at least in this generation, also seems to reward those who look for better ways of doing things.

I returned to Seoul with respect for India's past and affection for its people; and with renewed confidence in Korea's future.


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The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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