We all have to learn shame

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We all have to learn shame

Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany, had been a master in the dark art of propaganda and demagogy. Confident in his oratory talent, he believed he could play the will of the people like a piano, leading the masses wherever he wanted them to go. The key was simplicity - short sentences and short speeches, few details and no explanations. The purpose of propaganda is to seem intelligent, he said, but to achieve the desired result.

As the fanatic mind behind the ruthless Third Reich for Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, Goebbels manipulated public minds and exploited the media. He benchmarked a totalitarian ideology of Communism, especially the role of propaganda, to shape and invoke popular opinions. Lies became instrumental means to the political end. “If you tell a big enough lie and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” he said. “The state must use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the time and thus, by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”

There is a gullible side to Korean society, and its high Internet penetration has only sharpened its susceptibility to rumor and theory. Once worked up, the grinding of the rumor mill has no limit. Five years ago, it was the mad cow scare, and this time, it is the privatization scare. The cynical posters under the title “How Are You?” cover bulletin boards on university campuses, lambasting the government. In addition, cyberspace is rapping wildly about the inevitability of privatization of the public railway system that would spike subway fares to 5,000 won, or $4.71.

Goebbels believed that contempt and hate were the driving forces of the propaganda factory. “People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it,” he said. Brazen lies and bigger fear are behind the spread of conspiracy theories in our society, too. The ghost of Goebbels may be at work.

To get to the truth, we must bare everything. If we oppose the privatization of the high-speed railway system, we must approve of its status quo. In other words, we must tolerate 500 billion won to 700 billion won deficits piling up every year to the railway operator’s current 17.6 trillion won debt load.

Taxpayers must decide whether they will pump in public funds to sustain the money-losing railway system or reform it to a profit-making one. Liberals support their stand with contradicting arguments. They fundamentally oppose liberalization, but for their self-serving purpose, they often cite cases of European failures to make their point.

But there are plenty of privatization success stories. At home, there is Posco. After privatization, Pohang Iron and Steel has become one of world’s leaders in steelmaking. A failure example is KT. The telecom company has not broken its bureaucratic habits and public entity practices. While yielding similar revenue, it has six times the number of employees as SKT.

The presidential office and government are also partly to blame with their indecisiveness and vagueness. The renowned British journalist, historian and author, Paul Johnson, remarked, “The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance.” A lesson could be drawn from a state exam scene during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). An aspiring student answered a question on what was the most urgent national task, saying the country’s biggest problem was the incompetent king. The king was furious upon seeing the answer and ordered stern punishment. But his closest aides and cabinet advisers pleaded compassion. They said it was unwise to oppress the free and honest speech of the people.

Four months later, the student - Yim Sook-young - entered the royal court. This happened during the fearful and turbulent days of King Gwanghae. It is hard to say how much our society has improved from 400 years ago. Are the aides to the president and government advisers today that wise?

Whether right or left, our society has a common weakness - the tendency to quickly forget shame. The late novelist Park Wan-suh wrote a book of essays some 40 years ago titled “Teach Shame.”

“Students today must have learned so many things as they go to cram schools in addition to ordinary schools [to go to better colleges]. But few of them would have learned about shame,” she said.

I want to write on the whiteboard: “learn shame.” It is not just young people. We all have to learn shame.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Chul-ho

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