[Viewpoint]Teach the conflicts

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[Viewpoint]Teach the conflicts

At the beginning of the summer, as the streets around City Hall were starting to heat up, I wrote an article in which I described my impressions of, and general support for, the candlelight vigils. After spending a couple of days and nights on the streets talking to people and observing what was happening, I wanted to counter the description of the protests as “hysterical” and “anti-American.”

Now, the expats in Korea are not known for being an especially progressive or cosmopolitan bunch, so I was not too surprised that my piece ruffled the feathers of more than a few reactionary bloggers. I was accused of being anti-American (which is half-true, I’m anti-Republican, but pro-Pittsburgh Steelers), of opportunistically trying to increase sales of my book (which is available on Amazon by the way), of trying to pick up Korean women (I will admit to being attracted to political activists), and the list goes on. It seems that there are quite a few ardent, some might even say hysterical, defenders of the American beef industrial complex residing in Korea.

Out of the many interpretations of the mad cow drama, I have heard very little discussion of the primary cause for concern over the quality of U.S. beef - the abysmal working conditions in America’s slaughterhouses and meat packing plants. The conditions facing workers in the meat industry are as bad today, if not worse, than when Upton Sinclair shocked the country one hundred years ago with his muckraking novel “The Jungle.” Increased assembly line speed, which is how profit is made, combined with poor enforcement of health and safety standards, have created a product that is potentially hazardous to those who consume it, and extremely hazardous to those who produce it. There are a lot of things to be proud of as an American, but the system of mass producing inexpensive meat is definitely not one of them.

But I’m much more interested in the broader social and political dimensions of the candlelight vigils. What impressed me most about the protests was their resemblance to the alternative globalization movement that has swept the globe for the past decade, setting up protests/parties wherever the WTO was gathering. The diverse crowds coming together on a nightly basis at City Hall were using irony and parody, as well as good old-fashioned consciousness-raising, to generate discussion and critique of a wide variety of issues: food safety, health care, the environment, neo-liberal privatization, cronyism and elitism. And it’s been great to see the emergence of Korean-style girl power, as symbolized by Candle Girl, an image which reminds me of one of America’s greatest feminists, Lisa Simpson.

Lee Myung-bak’s decision to open the Korean market to U.S. beef, without any prior public debate, shocked the people. And the people shocked him back. Fear of mad cow disease very quickly filled the streets with a lot of warm bodies. Critics of the protests have rightly argued that the actual threat of mad cow is minuscule, and that there are many more immediate health threats out there like yellow dust, cars, soju and K-Pop. There is mounting evidence linking the excessive use of cell phones to brain cancer, but I doubt you will ever see an anti-handphone protest in Korea.

Yet political economists on opposite sides of the spectrum, from Antonio Gramsci to Milton Friedman, would agree that it doesn’t matter if a crisis is real or not, but that it is perceived to be real. The right wing in America has been very good at maintaining a sense of crisis, and thus political power, around three big issues - God, guns and gays. With the exception of Michael Moore, the American left has been very bad at using fear as a political strategy. Interestingly, I attended an open-air screening of “Sicko,” Moore’s indictment of the American health care system, at City Hall during one of the vigils.

So on the level of strategy, left-progressive groups in Korea won an impressive victory. The president backed away from his plans to privatize electricity, gas, tap water and health insurance. Lee also ditched plans for the grand canal project, a crucial victory for environmentalists. Coming from a country where an imperial presidency routinely ignores the will of the people, not to mention the Constitution and Geneva Conventions, I’ve found these raucous outbursts of democracy to be refreshing.

But by continuing to pound on the mad cow issue and shifting the protests toward violent confrontation with the police, I believe the Korean left is just as quickly losing whatever legitimacy it had gained. As the right wing in America is learning the hard way, fear isn’t going to keep you in power forever. In order to continue to hold the public imagination, more constructive imagining needs to take place. It is extremely important that working people in both Korea and the U.S. don’t come to see each other as the enemy. Labor and farm organizations on both sides of the Pacific therefore need to create more cross-border dialogues and alliances, especially as debates over the FTA in both countries heat up.

As a professor, I have been deeply troubled by stories about teachers telling their students what to think about the candlelight vigils. Teachers should come clean about their politics, but should never advocate political positions in the classroom. The best way to deal with contentious issues is, in the words of University of Illinois at Chicago professor Gerald Graff, “teach the conflicts.”

The drama surrounding the candlelight vigils gives teachers a great opportunity to talk with their students about the relationship between science, the media and politics, about globalization and about the past, present and future of democracy in Korea.

*The writer is a professor Kyung Hee University’s General Education Department.

by John Eperjesi
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