[Outlook]Eternal sadness of the liberal mind

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[Outlook]Eternal sadness of the liberal mind

Recently I paid a visit to Vincent Van Gogh’s grave, located in Auvers-sur Oise, not far from Paris. The winter vines that covered his last resting place were exceptionally green. On my way from the wheat field where he shot himself, I passed the church that is the subject of his painting “Church at Auvers-sur-Oise,” a rendition that is more vibrant than life itself. In that place, Van Gogh’s spirit seems alive. After his long period of confinement at Saint-Remy, Van Gogh came back to Auvers for the happiest 10 weeks of his life, painting as if his soul depended on it, ultimately surrendering a life that had always been sadder than his paintings. Van Gogh, however, has achieved eternal life through his work.
After my visit, I headed for Brussels where the headquarters of the EU Commission is located, contemplating Van Gogh’s transformation through death. The European Union is a grand dream consisting of 25 European countries and 450 million people. This also means that it is not an easy dream to achieve. When our bus broke down on the highway between Belgium and the Netherlands, we were left stranded for two to three hours with nothing to do. I took the opportunity to meditate on Europe’s future.
The Ottoman Empire used to be called “the old man of Europe,” but now it is Europe itself that has aged, and it is trying to be reborn through an epic experiment called the European Union. Unfortunately, reincarnation is not so easy to achieve. It must be preceded by a winter in the valley of death. The citizens of the EU must be born again and grow as both citizens of their individual countries and of the EU, if they are to take on new roles as citizens of the world.
I returned to Seoul with my mind still on the EU’s decline and rebirth. On my arrival, I was greeted by a political battle on the issue of “progressivism” in which the president himself had become a combatant. The sad thing about this battle is that it is irrelevant. The contestants claim the debate is about “flexible” versus “dogmatic” progressivism, but that does not seem to be the case. Liberal progressivism in today’s Korea will have no future unless it recovers from three grave illnesses.
First, Korea’s progressivism is completely out of touch with the zeitgeist of the 21st century, an era in which neither leftists nor rightists talk about “keeping up with international society.” By now, almost everyone has realized that what’s truly important is a balance between the forces of nationalism and globalization. It’s been a long time since we stopped debating the why and whether of globalization. The world has moved on to the how.
The only ones still listening to the old tunes seem to be those living on either side of the Korean Peninsula’s DMZ.
The second obstacle that Korea’s progressivism must overcome is the “sunshine” complex. The Sunshine Policy is not a panacea for all ills. The most that can be gained from this policy is the nuclear freeze that is already being pursued at the six-party talks, as the first step toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Even if a North-South summit meeting is held, based on the Sunshine Policy, we will not be able to take the inter-Korean relationship much further than where it was in the 20th century. A summit meeting that does not include any networking among the 70 million people of the Korean Peninsula will turn out to be a lot of money thrown away on a public relations exercise.
The third problem is its unrealistic position on the issue of social polarization. The two pillars of European progressivism, Sweden and the Netherlands, have both been humbled by the lesson that society’s welfare can only be promoted by a complex dialogue encompassing business and labor. Most advanced economies in the world are now pursuing social equilibrium based on economic progress. The government’s housing policy, which was intended to help low-income families, has so far produced benefits solely for the upper-class households of the Gangnam area. Proponents of progressivism should understand how such an ironic outcome occurred and how it can be reversed.
Korea’s progressivism is in dire straits. It shouldn’t try to give its all during this year’s presidential election because it will be nothing more than a “Viagra” effect -- i.e temporary and potentially risky. It shouldn’t expect a second “Nosamo” miracle. People are too busy earning a living today to pay attention to ideological debates. Unfortunately, the government’s welfare policies have been about as helpful to the people as campaign promises and academic papers. If Korea’s progressives and liberals want to go forward, they should start curing their illness.
Van Gogh’s last words were “the sadness will last forever.” Korea’s progressives are risking the same fate.

*The writer is a professor of international relations at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ha Young-sun

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