[Outlook]The idols of the square

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[Outlook]The idols of the square

An almost 400-year-old warning issued by the English philosopher Francis Bacon is coming true in Korea today. In his 1620 book, “Novum Organon,” Bacon asserted that four types of idols, idola, would distort judgment, causing a skewed understanding of the truth.

Idols of the tribe, idola tribus, are human-centered illusions akin to the belief that the sun revolves around the earth. Idols of the den, idola specus, refer to the mistaken perception in which an individual thinks his small sphere is the entire world. Idols of the theaters, idola teatri, convince people that their situation is the reality.

Idols of the marketplace, idola fori, is a concept that anticipates our present-day scandal over the Korean blogger “Minerva.”

The notion stems from the fact that important information is shared at a marketplace where many people gather. In such an environment, baseless rumors are commonplace.

As the mechanisms by which information is shared have developed tremendously, idols of the marketplace can now cause misjudgments that carry enormous power.

The English philosopher wrote Novum Organon in Latin. In Latin, the word “fori” means “a marketplace” or “a square.” Agora, the name of the Internet forum where Minerva did his blogging, is a Greek word that also means “square.”

Despite a gap of 400 years, Bacon’s idols and Korea’s Minerva scandal overlap.

Bacon said that words disrupt understanding and cause confusion.Deceived by words, people fall into conflict. This theory aptly describes what we are now experiencing.

Minerva is a talented agitator. He saw through the psychology of the people who panicked over unemployment, losses from free-falling stock prices and bankruptcies. He condemned the government with raw, emotional words, driving readers wild with enthusiasm. A renowned economics professor and an evening news anchor at a major broadcaster were enchanted by Minerva’s spell and lost their ability to judge things rationally, just as Bacon described, not to mention non-experts suffering amid the economic crisis who have lost their bearings.

Minerva’s postings were vulgar enough to offer them catharsis. But they confused people to the point where the government’s measures aimed at overcoming the economic turmoil didn’t work. In short, the entire country has become pathetic.

The candlelight vigils of last year were sparked when the MBC program “PD Diary” shouted “Fire!” in the middle of a busy square, even though there was no fire. As fuel was added to the inferno in the virtual square, a serious crisis developed.

Among some 280 predictions that Minerva poured out, one or two proved correct. He quickly came to be regarded as a guru of economics professors, an economics president and a versatile hero.

When the Hwang Woo-suk stem cell research scandal broke, it proved that people had showed unreasonable enthusiasm over manipulated research results. Minerva, too, is a son of the idols of the square, yet we voluntarily chose to believe him.

Are we so superficial? As we bypass critical analysis and only look at the surface of matters, we are all too often fooled by agitators in the square. It feels good to hear their inflammatory speeches, but we pay a heavy price for listening.

If government resolved immediate issues and gave us hope that good days are on the way if we have patience, there would be no room for Minerva to maneuver. But if the government continues to panic, or if legislators prefer fighting or playing golf in a warm country to deliberating urgent bills, there will be more and more Minervas to come.

Now judges must decide whether Minerva distributed false information with the intention of damaging the public interest.

In cyberspace, some people have attacked the judges who issued an arrest warrant for Minerva. The opposition party is trying to use the affair as a preliminary battle for the 2012 presidential election. Left-wing figures are looking for ways to make the case look like a confrontation between the 20 percent of the population that are the “haves” and the 80 percent who are the “have-nots.” The government and right-wingers can’t wait to get revenge on Minerva, instead of thinking seriously why this whole affair took place.

There is very little difference between these people. As long as humans exist, the idols of the agora will never go extinct.

The only thing that can be done is for the government to present trustworthy policies to minimize the ammunition it gives to Minerva and people like him.

When people are struggling with the fact that good and bad factors coexist in the square, they should remember Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good when two currencies are circulating in the market.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Young-hie
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