[Viewpoint] Wanted: ‘Antipolitical’ leadersVaclav Havel, a playwright and outspoken dissident who was one of the architects of Charter 77, a civic initiative that condemned the inhumanity of communism and demanded human and civil rights, orchestrated the 1989 nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” that overthrew the communist regime and made him the president of Czechoslovakia and, ultimately, the Czech Republic. The civilian revolt brought about a chain reaction that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist block in Eastern Europe. He received numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. His plays and nonfiction works have been translated internationally and he is honored as one of the world’s top intellectuals and voices of conscience. In 1984, Havel received an honorary doctorate from the University of Toulouse, but since he was banned by the government from traveling abroad, he only sent a speech. The speech was entitled “Politics and Conscience,” and its theme was “antipolitical” politics. Antipolitical politics, or politics “from below” has been Havel’s code and was the driving force behind the success of the bloodless Velvet Revolution.
He wrote: “I favor ‘antipolitical politics,’ that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favor politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans.”
The politics Havel pursued were from the heart and conscience. It was not an apparatus to control the people or a propagandist strategy to gather or buy votes. Politics devoid of humanity, with a primary self-serving purpose, is not in the genuine sense politics.
The rise of political stars from the nonpolitical field - software pioneer Ahn Cheol-soo and human rights lawyer and activist Park Won-soon - stems from a longing for antipolitical politics. It is a natural by-product of the grim Korean political realities. Today’s mainstream politicians merely talk of politics for the people when they are, in fact, entirely engrossed in their own interests and ambitions. Both the ruling Grand National Party and main opposition Democratic Party lack a national vision and are merely skilled in trotting out populist platforms and sorting out who is loyal and who is not.
With about a year left in his term, the president brought about his own disgrace with a suspicious and meticulous post-retirement plan that involved purchasing a large plot of land in the name of his son. He had his peak moments for sure: hosting the G-20 summit in Seoul, addressing the U.S. Congress and winning the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. He may have been spectacular on the diplomatic stage, but on home ground, he fared poorly in combating sky-high consumer prices, unemployment and rising rents. It turns out there is a limit to arm twisting large corporations to share their wealth, which surprises nobody.
It is no surprise that grass-root heroes like Ahn Cheol-soo and Park Won-soon captured the attention of the public eye. They are fresh, antipolitical alternatives to the rest.
The Oct. 26 Seoul mayoral by-election is pivotal not just as the first round before presidential elections next year, but as the first test of an antipolitical movement. But here we must stop and ask if Park is the right candidate to take such a historical role of opening up an antipolitical chapter in our history.
Havel, the architect of antipolitical politics, preached and practiced peaceful resistance and reform as a political leader without losing his highest level of integrity. He did not receive a dime from large companies for civilian or political campaigns. He didn’t claim there was no harm in using some of the super-rich’s money to help the poor. He did not dodge a national duty like military service.
He would not attack his government for provoking its enemy into sinking a naval ship and killing sailors. As a law practitioner, he would not say an evil law can be disregarded. In short, Park is not half the man as Havel in ethics, conscience and transparency.
The world is now flooded with antipolitical movements presenting themselves as alternatives to mainstream politics. The young, frustrated and unemployed flood the streets of Wall Street, Brussels and New Delhi to protest against corrupt and impotent politics. Those banner cries could soon arrive in Korea. The wave of revolt against the exploitation and inequalities of neoliberalism and the all-mighty market principle as well as conventional mainstream politics won’t easily die down.
Ahn Cheol-soo and Park Won-soon were a wake-up call to the lethargic self-indulgent political world. But today’s politics lack the ability to regenerate. What it needs is a bottom-up, antipolitical political movement. But scholarly Ahn remains closed in his lab and Park has neither the persona nor the competence to take up the role as the leader of such a movement. It is a pity that we lack a genuine leader at such critical times.
*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Kim Young-hie