[Viewpoint] Revisiting the Ahn phenomenon

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[Viewpoint] Revisiting the Ahn phenomenon

Software executive Ahn Cheol-soo has moved from being a political sensation to becoming a subject of study. We cannot know if the halo over Ahn, who became an overnight political superstar after merely hinting at running in the Seoul mayoral by-election, will materialize into something substantial.

He stunned Korean society and the political world by pledging to donate 150 billion won ($133 million) to charity. Whether he will debut, succeed or fail in politics is no longer an issue. He has now become a huge public figure who is subject to objective study considering the immense public and media frenzy over his every word and action.

The phenomenon of the soft-spoken dean of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology stemmed not only from his personal lifestyle and choices but also from expectations of and longing from today’s society. We, therefore, must be mature enough to differentiate between Ahn Cheol-soo the man and the social ripples his actions create.

Our society will long for alternative leaders and mentors like Ahn as long as it is stymied by an unstable job market, dehumanization, ideological struggle and disappointment with the lack of genuine pain sharing and deliberation on ways to solve today’s problems. It all depends on who will step forward as the one ready with the answers and capabilities.

Ahn has stirred a whirlwind with just two publicized political and social moves - the gentlemanly action of declaring that he won’t run for mayor despite the high odds of winning to instead endorse lesser known Park Won-soon and his decision to donate millions of dollars of company shares.

His actions stood out and shined in contrast to mainstream elites as well as most average citizens who toil to build riches, prestige, status and profit - sometimes through foul means. In a nation where the higher one gets up the social ladder the more he or she capitalizes on vested interests in academia, religion, media and politics, Ahn did something entirely different and new. He forsook, shared and yielded.

It should be the state and our politics that take up the role of setting an example. Our public arena and mainstream elites should seriously contemplate whether it is right that one powerful individual’s way of life and decisions carry more influence. The banner cries of “We are the 99 percent” underscore the painful inequalities that our society has generated. The Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon has come to create new societal values through his actions - bypassing the tired ideological debates and compensating for reduced public services.

We must ask ourselves if state governance, political activities, policy choices, budget appropriation, media commentaries, law enforcement and school education have stayed true to their roles. Individual efforts and accomplishments for personal interests, ideological beliefs, organizations, corporations, regionalism, media and religion are important because the pursuit of free will is the reason for human existence.

But personal interests can co-exist and be pursued jointly with common values for the community through systems of symbiosis, equality and welfare. Otherwise, we forget the basis for our existence. Before an enterprise generates and pursues profits, it was an organization made up of people and members of the public.

The meaning of public good comprises services for the good of all. The ultimate purpose of public service in a democracy is freedom and security of individual life. The values posed by Ahn Cheol-soo demands the public and political sector live up to their roles and address the common problems that cannot be solved through individual efforts. The state and the nation’s politics must restore public integrity.

People between their 20s and their 40s are most fervent about Ahn Cheol-soo because they are the main victims of the current social realities. The system is defined by individuals. Mainstream politics have been suddenly swept up and upset by welfare issues and the election of a liberal activist as Seoul mayor through greater political participation by citizens.

If everyday problems cannot be solved by the state and our political system, individuals resort to direct action like Occupy Wall Street. The public arena is materialized through participation. At the end of the day, it all comes down to democracy and public participation.

*The writer is a political science professor at Yonsei University.


By Park Myung-lim
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