[Viewpoint] The magic of democracy

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[Viewpoint] The magic of democracy

“America’s left adjusts to a new patriotism under Obama,” read an article in the International Herald Tribune on Jan. 7, 2009, ahead of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Traditional leftists who refused to pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and sing to the national anthem have not only became comfortable with patriotic symbols, but also reclaimed patriotism as a concept, the article said.

Take this study in contrasts. Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, was once the epicenter of the free speech movement protests. A monument standing there is engraved with the words “this soil and the air space above it should not be part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” But in that same space in 2008, giant television screens were installed to host a student gathering that celebrated the inauguration of the first African-American president.

Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said, “It will be a patriotic celebration,” and it certainly was. The scenes of flag-waving and singing “America the Beautiful” in the very place where students once staged aggressive protests against their government in the 1960s came across ironic and even mind-boggling to those with clear memory of their heritage. The spontaneous gush of patriotism also splashed out in the streets of Harvard Square near Boston and Union Square in New York City.

The chant of “USA!” came from previously anti-government and antiwar demonstrators who had not sung for their country or head of the state in decades. But faith in a new head of state revived patriotic passion in the left, raising awareness and pride in the Constitution, due process and other core aspects of American politics and identity.

If French nobleman and politician Alexis de Tocqueville were to travel the U.S. during these times as he had done in 1831 before publishing “Democracy in America,” he would have been freshly fascinated by the new nationalistic fervor Americans have today. It would certainly prove as interesting as the individualism and self-interest that he examined in his American contemporaries all those years ago.

Americans had often differed with Europeans, who believed loyalty to their state was a kind of religious or moral obligation. Tocqueville, who was seeking a workable marriage of liberalism and nationalism to incorporate in the burgeoning democracy in France, found solution in patriotism, or devotion and unity stemming from love for one’s country, and consolidated through democratic procedures and civil freedom.

In sync with the spread of democratic principles, the once popular songs honoring monarchs became patriotic songs to praise the nation that were shared by all people. The British national anthem “God Save the Queen” is the best example. And composer Joseph Haydn’s melody to celebrate Germany started with opening words “Deutschland Deutschland uber alles [Germany, Germany above all]” and is now sung as the German national anthem.

“Aegukga [The Song of Love for the Country]” has also become a lyrical symbol for South Korea with the evolution of democracy. Earlier this month at the inauguration ceremony of the 19th National Assembly, legislative novices Lee Seok-gi and Kim Jae-yeon of the fledging Unified Progressive Party sang along to the anthem they previously denounced. The symbolic gesture from once-dissident activists of former pro-North Korean groups that publicly discounted “Aegukga” - originally composed to celebrate the founding of the South Korean state - could spark a new wave of loyalty to the country among the left-wing faction.

But Lee’s singing of the anthem does not suggest that he has suddenly embraced patriotism upon joining modern politics. It could be more of a strategic move. But we cannot give up hope.

In his dying words, Rhee Young-hee, dubbed the spiritual voice of the liberals, called for a balance between the left and right “for the sake of stability and sustainability in Korean politics.” Such an equilibrium will only be possible when the views of the left and right are equally respected in our democratic framework.

As Lee and Kim began their legislative terms, they entered the central ring of the democratic system that operates on rules of review, debate, contest and compromise. Before they flex their muscles, they must leave their knee-jerk antagonist views behind in order to serve the nation as expected. They should hope to eventually realize the compatibility of democracy and their own interests.

Hardcore conservatives may laugh at such a thought. They may think me as deluded as Don Quixote imagining windmills as giants. But I hope they are wrong, because I cannot depart from the firm belief that democracy can serve liberals as well as it can serve conservatives.

*The author is a political science professor at Seoul National University.
By Chang Dal-joong
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