Roger Cohen Needs Friends

Posted on February 23, 2010. Filed under: Issues, Media |

Roger Cohen has an interesting piece up right now. He goes onto argue that Americans have essentially lost genuine face-time with each other; that we’ve all gotten to the point where surrounding ourselves with the things that make us comfortable is how we exist in this screen-obsessed era.

Community — a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions — has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.

He then goes on to project France as a nation where “social solidarity is a paramount value.” I haven’t spent enough time in France nor do I know enough French people to contest this, but I have spent more than enough time in Korea to understand what “social solidarity” looks and feels like to know that I’m not so sure I agree that America should lament this perceived loss.

Even though I agree with his sentiment about health care,  in all honesty, I think this piece is more about Cohen than it is the rest of the country. It’s clear that his short time as a juror jolted the bubble he has created for himself.

I have been abroad for most Bush’s second-term and the entire Obama presidency. Like Cohen, I have spent too much time glued to this screen trying to make sense of the American political and social world. After reading about the insanity of the summer town hall meetings and the lunacy that the 9/12 Project has inspired, I also expected an America that would be tricky to navigate without stepping on someone’s political toes. However, that was not the case. The US and Americans were pretty much the same as always, which –as Cohen believes– was unthinkable.

“…we’d done something selfless for the commonweal, learned to listen to each other, accepted differences and argued our way to decisions.”

I like Cohen, but I think he needs more friends. Or better yet, I think he should stop “screen-gazing”.

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President Lee is a dictator because education is still expensive

Posted on February 22, 2010. Filed under: Issues, Media, Policy |

Sounds similar to the American GOP, huh? All you have to do is substitute “education” with “the deficit” and “expensive” with “there” -perfect.

The Hankyoreh is running a three-part series about the failure of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Today, they were discussing educational costs. As usual, the article didn’t delve into any real policy or offer a single solution. Instead it made bold statement and relied on the story of a family struggling to pay for private education.

Last month, the family of “Lee Mi-suk” (not her real name), a 46-year-old mother living in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo District, lived on just over 1.3 million Won ($1,128 USD). For a family of five, including Lee’s husband, two daughters and son, this is an absurdly low amount of money to live on. It falls short even of the 1,615,263 Won that the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Family Affairs newly set as the minimum cost of living for a family of five in 2010.

Before the tears start rolling down your little faces because of the educational mandate that the Burglar-in-Chief enacted, the article goes on to say that this family makes 6 million won a month. These people are willfully spending 4.4 million won a month on education. That’s a lot of money to spend period, but this family clearly makes more than the average Korean family and each of them are certainly pulling in more than the GDP per-capita.

I can see what The Hankyoreh was going for here:  show a middle-class family being crippled by the current cost of private education in Korea and if it’s bad for them, it must be even worse for others –you know– the common man that The Hankyoreh is “fighting” for. It’s a valid point for sure, but the following quote sums up my frustrations with the discussion surrounding educational reform in Korea.

“Everyone knows the mothers of those students are having their children do private education.”

Yes everyone does know that. Everyone also knows that private education is a large part of the Korean economy just like everyone knows that regardless of what policy the government tries to implement, the people will disobey it and force hagwons to circumvent it. If the government closes hagwons down, people will hire tutors and the The Hankyoreh will call Lee an anti-democratic dictator and throw loosely-fitting references to Park Chung-hee in there.

This is not an Lee Myung-bak problem though…

  • In 1997 under Kim Young-sam, families were spending upwards of two-million won a month on education. He vowed to fight it and failed.
  • The costs increased even more under Kim Dae-jung in 2002. He vowed to fight it and failed.
  • Under Roh, the cost of education jumped 53%. He vowed to fight it and failed.

…it’s a Korean problem. As much as some want, it’s hard to find someone to blame for it (I prefer nailing Roh Tae-woo every once and awhile since he began “complimenting public school with ‘special purpose’ schools“), but everyone still seems to try.

It’s not the presidents, it’s the people. It’s the culture that has created this almost sexual-excitement when Koreans get to claim “Korea is very competitive”.

Nice try, Hankyoreh.

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Joblessness and Political Influence: Who has the power?

Posted on February 20, 2010. Filed under: Issues, Media |

The Korean recently posted an article from David Brooks (not a favorite of mine) that says American men are taking it on the chin more than women in terms of unemployment. Brooks was quoting a Don Peck article that detailed the reasons for this. In short, the article painted a pretty bleak picture of future employment for white American males. The Korean titled the post “Pissed-off Young Men Coming to American Political Arena” and since this blog deals only with American and Korean politics and how they’re related, it thought I’d take a deeper look at and see if there was some truth to his post. Is there a connection between the joblessness and political activism via internet?

It goes without saying that people without jobs tend to blame the government, their former boss/company, immigrants, other nations and a laundry list of other things before they look in the mirror and start to evaluate themselves. It also has been documented that trust in government is correlated with economic success.

trusttrend 1

In addition to that, it appears that trust in government alone isn’t the only problem right now. David Brooks adds this to the mix:

As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

That’s not exactly true as this Gallup poll shows.

The Bush years tanked the standing of the executive and legislative branches of government. Obama managed to bring more honor back to the executive branch, but Congress still remains in a downward slope. We know that trust in government is already low in the US and we also know that eras with degrees of reasonable economic success typically enjoy higher levels of governmental trust, but do economic factors dictate online political activism? And will the US follow in Korea’s footsteps as The Korean suggested?

To start with, we should look at unemployment numbers for each nation and then break them down by gender,  political affiliation and participation.

As of February, the Korean unemployment rate was at a  ten-year high of 4.8% (up from 3.5% just last December).  That’s a very big jump in a short amount of time. Luckily for Americans, there hasn’t been a jump like that as the US jobless rate continues to decrease (although this week wasn’t great) every month. If we look at a closer gender breakdown of the jobless claims, it actually reveals that Korean women are losing their jobs or are having a harder time gaining employment than Korean men.

The number of male workers increased by 31,000 to 13.7 million last year, while the number of female employees plunged 103,000 to 9.77 million.

However, just because more males went back to work or didn’t get canned last year doesn’t mean that there aren’t a bunch of frustrated Korean men living at home. There are and I know plenty of them. In the US, however, the story is reversed. Men have lost their jobs at a higher rate than women. So much that some have called this recession a “mancession“. I prefer “brocession”.

The difficultly now is how to make the jump from unemployment to political affiliation? Clearly, political affiliation and jobs are closely related. Typically, it was the blue-collar and union guys –the true Joe Six-packs– who were thought to be solidly in the Dem party, but recently the GOP has been pushing hard for that demo with their use of people like “Joe the Plumber” and “Sarah from Alaska”. Regardless of strategy, one might assume that since the Tea Party is so active and the GOP is so bent on being populists that maybe Republicans have lost their jobs at a higher rate, but of course that isn’t true. Rasmussen reports that more Democratic and unaffiliated voters are unemployed than their conservative counterparts. Furthermore, blue-collar workers are unemployed at a higher rate than white-collar workers suggesting that the sincerity of many of these tea parties and GOP talking-points are largely a ploy to gain sympathy and votes. That’s nothing new.

In Korea,  finding reliable and current political affiliation information is a little more difficult, but since Korea’s facing the highest unemployment rate since the IMF Crisis of ’97, it’s safe to say that there’s a similar “throw the bums out” mentality as there was when Kim Dae-jung was elected. Plus, MB lost the young demographic with the beef protests of 2008.

So far we know that…

  • Democratic blue-collar men have lost their jobs more than any other demographic, yet they still support the Obama administration and haven’t taken it to the streets yet. However, their online presence has yet to be determined.
  • Young Korean women have lost their jobs more than men have, but with Korea’s safety net of living at home, it’s the men who have been the most outwardly affected and vocal.

Next we need to address online presence/activism in each nation.

The Korean wrote this on Korea:

“…less than 1 percent of the people who view a news article leave a comment on the article. Predictably, 76.7 percent of all comments are men, and 61.1 percent of them were under 30. But the astonishing part is this: 3.4 percent of all commenters generated more than 50 percent of the comments. In other words, less than 0.0034 percent of all news viewers generated more than half of all comments. But that is enough to make the government overreact.

It’s clear that men in Korea account for most of the angry netizen huff, but I’m curious about their delivery. Whereas 73% of young American adults use Facebook which –as we know– is also used for political reasons as is Twitter and other personal/meta-blogs, Koreans often prefer to comment on online cafes and forums. Sarah Palin can ghostwrite one idiotic small thing on Facebook and the entire politcal landscape can change in matter of days, but the average American doesn’t have that power. In Korea, however, a nobody named Park Dae-sung can write one small thing about the economy and freak the government out so much that prison time was considered. Therein lies the difference.

Online activism in the US has undoubtedly changed politics forever. McCain learned that the hard way. Major players like Daily Kos, Drudge Report and TPM can and have changed the conversation, but online demagogues are in no shortage in the US. They’re a dime a dozen. Self-expression has never been an issue for Americans, so a few angry comments by some anonymous jobless dude can’t rile the masses like they can in Korea. No, in America it takes shameless cowards ON TELEVISION to do that.

Korea has yet to develop the non-stop 24-hr news cycle that is full of pundits and opinion. The new media bill will create a similar environment, but at this point in time, Korean netizens still wield that power. Jobless Americans might be on the Internet and some might even be forming social groups that are designed only for harm, but they alone do not have any real power. In most cases, the wingnuts create the buzz on TV and then the rest of the hoodlums follow suit. For proof, we have to go no further than the Tea Party Protests. These “protesters” are staunchly conservative and mostly self-identified GOPers. They have not been affected as bad by the recession and since they are disproportionately well-educated, wealthy white men, I see no real connection between the new nations.

If the unemployment numbers continue to remain high in America (which they’re expected to), I imagine there will be a lot of angry people, but those angry people don’t have to start online groups. They just have to turn on the “news” and all of their fears and conspiracies are validated immediately. From there, they just have to wait for instructions from their leaders. Korea will get there soon, but for now, the Daum cafes are where the nutbags are forced to hide.

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Are Poor South Koreans like the Navi?

Posted on February 17, 2010. Filed under: Issues, Media |

The Hankyoreh has a particularly rousing cartoon gracing its Arts and Entertainment section right now.

The Navi, representing the South Korean people, attempt to protect the Tree of Souls representing “an economy for the common people and freedom of press.” President Lee Myung-bak, however, rides in a mechanical destroyer on which the slogan reads “The second anniversary of Lee’s inauguration,” and finally destroys the tree.

 Leaving the Navi with stricken expressions on their faces, President Lee says, “Now, we will ban your nighttime outdoor assemblies, too!

Beside the callousness it takes to conjure up images of the murder, rape and enslavement of indigenous peoples for shallow political gain, I’m not so sure the Korean people would appreciate the comparison either. I’m kind of not at all shocked that someone would think this to be a good idea though. With the success of Avatar in Korea and the fact that many Koreans view themselves as a Navi-of-sort when it comes to their colonial past, I guess it will appeal to its readers.

The problems with this are pretty clear though.

First of all, the cartoon suggests that “서민” or working-class Koreans are innocent, unsuspecting and helpless. That is not true and I’m sure that they would love to know that the editors and cartoonists believe them to be that way.

Secondly, it depicts Lee Myung-bak as an enemy of the Korean people and the nation.  A lot of people hated Bush just like some people currently hate Obama and that’s fine, but when people start to declare their president as enemy to their own country –well– that’s just plain lunacy.

I totally condemn the method of delivery here, but the substance behind the absurdity does work –a little.

While it’s not fair to blame to economic condition on Lee (just like blaming Obama isn’t logical either), there are certainly some major concerns about Lee’s free speech policies.

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The Silver Lining of Bayh’s Retirement

Posted on February 16, 2010. Filed under: 2010 Elections, Dems, Elections, GOP, Media |

And there’s always a silver lining.

The resignation du jour that’s rattling the presses is that centrist, obstructionist Democrat, Evan Bayh has decided to retire. The GOP-favored MSM is playing into Michael Steele’s claim that Dems are “running for the hills.” Of course, being a member of the GOP requires the inability to speak the truth since the GOP faces MORE retirements that the Dems do, but that doesn’t matter when your party has contol of the conversation (as the GOP does right now).

The main obstacle for Dems is not that Bayh is retiring. I believe that to be a godsend since all he did was obstruct progressive policies. I’m no fan of Blue Dogs and couple Bayh with Nelson, then you have a deadly combination for progressives. Some are worried about the timing of this departure which give the Dems until Tuesday (in America) to get another name on the ballot. That’s not great, but there are two great things that will come from this.

1) It forces the GOP to make a decision as to who they’re putting on the ballot. They’re now stuck with two average candidates (Coats and Hostetler).

2) If one thing is true it’s that –nationwide– this election cycle will be an anti-incumbent one. Another truth is that in swing-states we can expect to see a GOP-leaning preference and enthusiasm gap. A new face might be the only thing that saves the Dems.

Unlike the retirement of Dodd, I was thrilled with this one. Bayh did very little to help the progressive cause. Without him, Dems don’t have to comprimise.

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The coming storm of Korean polarization

Posted on February 12, 2010. Filed under: Media |

You might be thinking it was already polarized, but with the new media bill allowing co-ownership of multiple media mediums, the fun has yet to begin.

Korea has long been a divided nation. Its history alone attests to that claim, but the nation’s rise to modernity and urbanization reveals just how wide that rift might be. A simple glance at a pre-ROK map will illustrate its political borders which not only separated people physically and nationally, but which ultimately alienated the peninsula’s inhabitants from each other. As a result, a small nation like Korea still has rampant tendencies towards corrosive regionalism. And those old tendencies are about to blow-up.

First, let me paint a simple picture:

In a rather harmless conversation about Korean television dramas, I asked a man in his late fifties if he had watched the widely popular drama “Queen Seon Duk“. He gave me a surprisingly uncomfortable look and firmly responded,

“Why would I watch something from a foreign nation?”

It was slightly in jest as I discovered later, but my first assumption was that he had misheard me and assumed that I was asking if he ever tuned into American or European programming. Still, I wanted to make sure.

“No, no, no. The Queen Seon Duk of Shilla  show.”

“I know what it is. I won’t watch any of that stuff though.

As the conversation continued, he told me he was from Mokpo in south Jeolla province which of course would make him ancestrally linked to the Baekje kingdom and therefore a bitter rival of the neighboring Shilla in Gyeongsang province (although they did team up to fight off Goguryeo forces).

He maintained that this opinion was not unique to him, but in fact plays an overriding theme in modern Korean politics. That, of course, was no secret to me. Regional economic feuds and presidential favoritism have clearly demonstrated that, but it was surprising to hear a grown man of relative wealth and importance in Seoul express his regional devotions in something as trivial as a television show.

There certainly is some truth in his sentiment though. People are proud of their region just as people are in the US. But a simple look at the ratings for Queen Seon Duk clearly shows that it was a nation-wide favorite since its 3rd episode. The issue here is not that he didn’t watch that show for one reason or another, but that he truly felt as if he was watching programming from an entirely different nation -a history of which he feels no connection. Even as a long-time Seoullite and citizen of a nation that has been invaded, controlled and colonized for the majority of its history, he still chose to separate himself from a providence that is the same distance as Cincinnati is from Columbus.

Flash forward to modern politics in Korea. Hell, go to Youtube and type in “Korean National Assembly” and you’ll invariably come across some form of an MMA fight taking place in  National Assembly. The most recent all-out brawl took place last July over the very controversial media bill which would allow individual companies to own multiple broadcasting and print companies. This bill is the coming storm of utter polarization that is likely to cripple Korean discourse and citizenry the same way it appears to be doing in the United States. The only difference is that the average US citizen doesn’t have such a predilection towards regionalism and conflict as the Korean population does.

To understand this bills threat to Korea, I think it’s important to discuss what cross-ownership of American media outlets has done to discourse in the States. Journalism by definition leans to the left and is delivered in a more populist tone. It’s original function was to be a watchdog of the government and to keep it under control and in-check whenever possible.

“The central purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society.”

Journalism will never be completely objective just as humans cannot be completely unbiased, but the core principal of American journalism remained somewhat intact until 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The bill essentially was Reagan-era dream that consolidated the entire media industry -an industry full of independence, competition and individual owners- into an industry owned by only a few companies. And then in 2007, the FCC dealt the final blow as it ruled that a single company could own all radio stations, television stations and newspapers in a single city. The idea was to increase competition, push the government out and allow the industry to regulate itself.  The immediate result, however, was low quality local media and more power for a few companies. The end-result is what we’re witnessing now.

Just weeks after Clinton signed the bill, a new news channel was founded called Fox News. Detailing the gross errors and intentional misrepresentations of Fox News are not necessary as it is well documented.  The problem with Fox News, however, is not that it’s a GOP mouthpiece. It certainly does lose credibility on that, but the real problem is that owns or holds assets in much of the American media landscape.

With this cross-ownership within the same market, we have seen an unrivaled amount of cross-referencing from within the same company which -as we know- leads to the regurgitation of predetermined narratives meant to manipulate public opinion and drive the stocks of each relative parent company. A quick example has been how Murdoch took the once business-heavy Wall Street Journal and turned it into a quasi-political paper with excessively strong conservative overtones.

Don’t believe me? Top editor Gerand Baker banned the use of the phrase “health care reform” and instead forced writers to focus on “costs rather than benefits” and the promotion of global-warming skepticism. In a matter of two years, the WSJ went from a business paper dealing mostly in typical press-reporting to a full-blown conservative platform pusher. The problem is that the readers didn’t know. The lines are so blurred that distinguishing news from opinion are impossible.

The blending of punditry and objective news has been the ultimate result though and the relentless disregard for facts has recently manifested itself in Research 2000 Poll where self-identifying GOPers displayed what they have learned from the cross-owned media outlets.

  • 63% believe Obama to be a socialist
  • 53% believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President
  • 73% believe that gays should not be allowed to teach in schools

Is it their fault though? No, and it’s not just conservatives either. People believed all sorts of ridiculous things about Bush as well. The fading of the lines –no matter how much the media defends its clarity– has led to an American public that has never been so polarized and is ready to implode. Since opinion has seeped so deeply into the business, people refuse to believe or support a word that is not told to them by their chosen “news” provider.

There is no truth anymore and we all have media cross-ownership to blame for it.

Re-enter Korea.

Some claim that the Korean press is already partisan.

“In South Korea, journalism is still in a stage of partisanism and populism,” says Kim Min-hwan, professor of journalism at Korea University.

I disagree. When I look at the Korean media, I see an industry that has yet to fully develop. The “journalists” either report what the government says without rebuke or they indulge in tabloid-esque hit pieces. They don’t have the commentators; the pundits and radio presence to truly opine. Without that saturation, there is not true partisanship. Rather, what we see in Korea is simplistic peddling and pandering. The Hankyoreh might appear partisan and they try, but typically offer very little substance.  True and hard-hitting op-eds explore the many nuances of an issue and that has yet to make it into Korean journalism.

So what am I worried about? If Koreans are already so p0larized and their media isn’t delivering true partisanship, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that they believe they’re already too partisan. If they are concerned about that now, just wait.

A prelude to the coming storm was handed to us in 2007 when Koreans all across the nation were so easily bamboozled into believing an incredibly weak and error-ridden story that reeked of fabrication and clear partisanship. That story was so clearly manufactured by the opposition Minju party and the result turned into a national embarrassment. And therein lies my concern. If Koreans are so apt to believe what they hear from ONE clearly partisan source, what will happen if they hear it from two? Or three? If there is a concerted, multi-pronged effort by  media companies to deliver pre-packaged narratives and stories, the results could be devastating for the Korean population.

I fully understand that Koreans are very suspect of their government and their corrupt political history gives them every right to be, but the beef protests were a prime example of just how easily Korean public opinion is to manipulate.  That trait, which any outsider can witness, is so easily observable that I am genuinely concerned for the future of the Korea’s democratic stability.

Korean politicians should take a look at what has taken place in America if they want a preview of what’s to come. Don’t believe the lie.

“The measures will make more capital available to media companies, produce competition and jobs and lead to better journalism and entertainment content.”

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