A president must free his own mind
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In his inaugural address, President Yoon Suk-yeol criticized anti-intellectualism. “When we choose to see only what we want to see and hear only what we want to hear; when the masses bludgeon and silence those who do not agree with them and do this through brute force — this is how anti-intellectualism gravely weakens our democracy and puts us in peril,” he said. It is a shame that Yoon had to even raise the concept, targeting the madness of McCarthyism that threatened democracy in the United States in the 1950s and 60s.
Yoon also proposed a solution. “When individuals disagree on certain issues and seek to reach a compromise, they can only do so when scientific facts and the truth works as the basis of their discussions. This is rationalism and intellectualism that is the foundation of democracy,” he said. It reminds me of René Descartes’ philosophy of pragmatism and clear natural science research. Descartes managed to escape the medieval way of thinking of deus mendax through rigorous meditation. He was the first modern man who opened up the era of rationalism. The new president is determined to escape the old era’s prison walls.
We agree with the perception that partisanship, which denies openness while favoring self-isolation and demonizes the opposition with a regressive confirmation bias, is causing democracy to wither.
The issue is whom Yoon is targeting with his criticism of anti-intellectualism. First, it is targeting the previous administration’s way of running the country, which monopolized justice, ignored reality and promoted the dangerous dogma of “I am right and you are wrong.” But if Yoon does not apply the same standards to himself, he will also be guilty of the same kind of dogmatic thinking and anti-intellectualism.
Fortunately, Yoon sent a message that he was different from his predecessor. As a leader unrelated to the political establishment, he ended the era of the Blue House. He left the lavish office and relocated the presidential office. On his way to work, he answered reporters’ questions. Over the weekend, he visited a market and a department store with his wife. He satisfied the people’s curiosity and approached the ordinary people’s lives.
George Washington rejected the status of an emperor and chose the title president, which meant the host of a conference. The current overbearing notion of a president was an outcome of the ignorance and misinterpretation of the Japanese people in the late 19th century. It was humiliating that we worshiped a president who enjoyed imperial privileges, in violation of the Clause 2 of Article 11 of the Constitution, which stated that “No privileged caste shall be recognized or ever established in any form.” As contrasted to his predecessor, who made an empty promise, Yoon kept his promise to relocate the presidential office. History will judge him.
It was a good sign that Yoon did not hesitate to let go of Kim Seong-hoe, presidential secretary for religious and multicultural affairs. Kim said homosexuality is a form of mental disease. He also said compensation to the comfort women victims was “overdue payment for sex.” His comments were untrue, unreasonable and anachronistic. Even after stepping down from his post, Kim said “journalists distort the people’s thinking and make the people retarded.” It was wrong to appoint a person who is full of discrimination and hatred to a key post to communicate with the people, but it was good for Yoon to quickly remove him. If Yoon had insisted on protecting Kim, like the Moon Jae-in administration’s attempt to protect Cho Kuk, Yoon’s criticism of anti-intellectualism would have lost its power.
If Yoon faces conflicting public opinions, he must step back more boldly. He must act quickly to withdraw his nomination of Chung Ho-young as the health and welfare minister, who failed to meet Yoon’s standards of fairness and common sense. Yoon also needs to accept criticism from Rep. Cho Eung-cheon of the Democratic Party for having appointed many former prosecutors to his presidential secretariat. “When information and power are concentrated in a closed place, they will go rotten,” Cho said.
Top-tier information from home and abroad is concentrated in the presidency. Because of asymmetric information, the president can come to believe that he or she is omnipotent and refuse to accept criticism. If Yoon catches that critical illness, he will succumb to anti-intellectualism. That is why he must risk his life to listen to opponents’ voices. If he practices the spirit of Wonhyo’s Hwajaeng theory to harmonize conflicts, he will be able to befriend his enemies.
Yoon must stand on the side of the weak and poor of society. As Leo Tolstoy taught us, god always shows in the humblest face. Yoon must listen to their voices and cry together to earn the qualification to be the public servant. Ham Seok-heon has also said when you have tears in your eyes, you can see heaven through the lens.
If the president opens up his heart, he can unite the community and save democracy from crisis. In his inaugural address, Yoon said “many countries, including Korea, are experiencing record-low growth and rising unemployment. Many countries are witnessing an ever-widening gap in wages and polarization within society. Internal strife and discord are deepening which has led many of our fellow citizens to lose their sense of community and belonging.” If he opens up his mind, he will be able to resolve the problem. The universal value of freedom, which he noted 35 times in the speech, will be expanded and he can make “a nation that truly belongs to the people.”
Poet Kim Soo-young wrote during the dark age of democracy, “Do you know the sadness of a transparent movement which is always heading toward a dawn?” Before exposing the irregularities of society, he confessed his hypocrisy and wrongful acts. Yoon must follow the path of the poet and listen to other people until he is connected to their hearts. That is the way to conquer the madness of anti-intellectualism and become an icon of the freeman.