[INSIGHT]Still fighting yesterday’s warsCriticism of President Roh Moo-hyun and his administration is coming from all sides. Whether the person is a taxi driver or the president of a large company, a housewife in the market or a college professor, he or she cannot seem strike up a conversation without criticizing the president.
Mr. Roh is in a tight corner, surrounded by enemies. How did he come to be in this situation?
Many intellectuals ascribe it to the administration’s anti-intellectual self-righteousness. In a recent lecture at Seoul National University, writer Park Kyung-lee deplored the current political climate, which does not acknowledge the existence of other people with different opinions. She said, “When ‘I and you,’ ‘we and they’ are divided into dichotomies and fighting each other, our future cannot but lead to despair.”
In an article titled “Remembrance and Forgiveness” in the fall issue of the quarterly publication Dangdae Bipyeong (“Criticism of the Present Age”), Ahn Kyung-hwan, a law professor at Seoul National University, says it is difficult to find balance, reason, cultivation and intellect in Korea now. Mr. Ahn laments that he is frightened by those who dash to idealistic conclusions, skipping over many stages of reasoning.
For example, he says, some young scholars think that South Korea has been unable to build a just society because the country did not clear up the issue of pro-Japanese collaboration immediately after liberation. He also reports that 80 percent of students at a prestigious university said that the reason businesses exist is to return their wealth to society.
Professor Ahn emphasizes that the mission of setting history straight, under a flamboyant slogan with which to defeat other political forces, can easily lead to lies and distortions, and that we cannot run toward the future as long as our eyes are fixed on the past.
Therefore, he concludes, we should forget what should be forgotten, and remember what should be remembered.
In an Oct. 29 discussion with Seoul National University faculty, under the theme “The Intellectual Crisis and its Historic Background,” Professor Lee In-ho, a former ambassador to Russia, saw the social instability of this age as a factor in that crisis.
Professor Lee analyzed the tragedy of our intellectual history through the history of the past century. During the Japanese occupation, when independence fighters and intellectuals did not mix, a substantial number of those intellectuals became “abnormal” intellectuals, accepting Marxist-Leninism or Christianity as their gospel.
After liberation, they were engaged in factional confrontation. During the military dictatorships, the intellectuals were divided between resistance fighters and bystanders. Particularly since the 1980 pro-democracy uprising in Gwangju, the two camps have developed a hostile relationship, and boundaries that neither side can cross have appeared.
In this intellectual climate, Professor Lee said, the “386” generation succeeded in creating a new political force by appealing to the Internet generation’s sentiments of anti-Americanism and anti-elitism, just as the people’s anger over the corruption of the political establishment was reaching a peak.
Anti-intellectualism does not simply mean a lack of intellectual ability. It stymies the possibility of reasonable dialogue because of the extreme egotism and self-righteousness with which abstract causes like reform, equality and love for one’s countrymen are advocated.
As a result, Mr. Lee said, the operation of state affairs has shown symptoms of division, and the social atmosphere has became impoverished and merciless.
Many intellectuals believe that because the present administration, with its one-sided self-righteousness, sees the other parties as immoral individuals ―and because the administration clings to idealism instead of reality, yesterday’s guilt or innocence instead of life in the present, and moral fundamentalism instead of reasonable judgment ― national opinion is divided, and social integrity cannot be achieved.
How can we overcome this anti-intellectual climate?
I hope both camps will be liberated from the “original sin” of the Gwangju struggle. The intellectual climate cannot be improved unless we get away from the dichotomous thinking that measures (and divides) others according to their answer to the question, “What did you do at the time of the Gwangju struggle?”
Today, now that politicians from the “386” generation have gained political power, their thoughts and sentiments are expressed in the so-called four major reform bills. As long as the Roh administration puts all its energy into passing those bills, the division and conflict in our society will never be healed.
Despite the moral and idealistic goals of these bills, the way they are being handled is one-sided and anti-intellectual.
Let’s skip over the faults of these bills (and the alternative bills presented by the opposition); they have been discussed enough. What we need to examine is why the Roh administration is so attached to these wasteful bills.
Perhaps when the “386” politicians were students, in the 1980s, the targets of these bills ―the three major dailies, private schools, pro-Japanese collaborators and the National Security Law ―were their enemies. Yesterday’s students are in power today, but isn’t it true that they are measuring the present by the yardstick of the past, and viewing the aforementioned institutions with the kind of hatred one would have for a serpent?
With more than 20 years having passed, the Roh administration ―though victimized by those forces in the past ― should embrace them, to profit from the wisdom of integration and coexistence, and revive the intellectual climate.
As Uri Party chairman Lee Bu-young has said, the administration can open up a new future only when it shows the wisdom of flexibility― when it can walk around the big mountain, and cross the river where it is shallow.
* The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kwon Young-bin