[Viewpoint] Don’t look back in anger

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[Viewpoint] Don’t look back in anger

Jimmy Porter, despite a college education, makes a living selling sweets in a market. He tries to compensate for his sense of futility by turning vicious and anarchical toward his upper-middle class wife and her pretentious social mediocrity. Porter personified the “angry young men,” a generation excluded from the hopeful march and riches of the postwar era in Britain, in John Osborne’s 1956 play “Look Back in Anger.”

The somber play became an instant hit among the British working class as they empathized with the main character’s wasted life, his tirades against society and his rejection of the establishment and its rules. The play was made into films several times and incubated an anarchical movement among the young, marshaling their passionate disaffection.

The French pushed the syndrome to more extreme levels. “Les Enfants Terribles” railed and rallied against the conservative “old” government of Charles de Gaulle and finally exacted his resignation - and guided the direction of Europe to the left.

Our modern history has also brimmed with angry young men. Student protests were the major force behind the country’s democratic advances, and they managed to dismantle the authoritarian government of founding President Syngman Rhee and to replace our military regimes with direct presidential elections.

The heroes in the historic democracy movement, however, remained angry and suspicious even after they secured the very heights of government power. They discredited Korea’s industrialization and modernization, which was a model for an envious developing world, and instead sneered at society as an establishment in which injustice always prevailed and opportunists never had their hands pried from the levers of power.

They remained suspiciously silent about North Korea’s plans to sustain a feudal dynasty through a second father-to-son power transfer and about the so-called socialist nation’s survival through aid from China. Yet they kept up a running critique against their own country as being pro-American and lacking pride, while stumbling into the pit of nationalism after chucking away any values based on freedom, democracy and human rights.

Instead they turned into what they most resisted when young - arrogant hypocrites in self-denial, critical of a capitalist and elite society while enjoying its comforts.

No country has an entirely good or bad history. History is created by human beings who are themselves paradoxical, encompassing virtue and evil as well as innocence and vulgarity. Our history runs on the vicissitudes of brightness, darkness, paradox and conflict. In order to be definitive about setting history on one path of good or evil, we need to be able to define where want to stand first.

Historian Edward Hallett Carr stated in his book “What Is History?” that facts of the past are like “fish swimming about in a vast and inaccessible ocean,” so they cannot be judged on a set of guidelines, especially by a domineering ideological yardstick.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader in the May 1968 liberal movement against the de Gaulle government, later called upon his contemporaries to let go of the 1968 events as days that are gone forever. He does not suggest betraying or denying the past, but advised people to join the present.

History should not be dominated by liberals or conservatives. The corruption and greed of the conservatives justify revolutionary banner cries and the narrow-mindedness and dogmatism of the left ignores moderation. The graft that corrupt bureaucrats pocketed from the savings of hard working people and the socialist brainwashing in classrooms all call for moderation.

Decades later, young Britons forgot the angry outbursts in Osborne’s play and were attracted by a hit song “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by British rock band Oasis. “Slip inside the eye of your mind; Don’t you know you might find; A better place to play. You said that you’d never been; But all the things that you’ve seen gonna fade away.” Depending on how we see it, our society, too, could be a better place to live. We should give it a try.

*The writer is a partner at Hwang Mok Park, P.C. and former head of the Seoul Central District Court.


By Lee Woo-keun

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