The politics of apathy – This is not the entry I intended to write. I have wanted to write a follow-up to my entry of 19 April ever since I wrote it, actually, but I’ve either been busy or something else has popped up that I just had to write about. After writing fairly regularly for a while there, these past ten days (or so) of silence seem like a small eternity. It is time to write again, though, and—as usual—it is because I’ve got something stuck in my head and I won’t be able to think straight until I get it out.
This latest mental splinter comes from a recent civics lesson at Whistle & Fish. I like hanging around there, not only because of the good writing, but because I can pretend that I’m going out to the pub. “Ah, it’s a slow evening... I think I’ll head down to the Whistle & Fish for a pint with the boys.” Yes, I know—I need to get out more.
Anyway, to sum up: G.K. points out that soldiers in the U.S. military pledge first and foremost to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” He goes on to discuss what this means to us (regular citizens) in terms of our civic duty. He comes to an interesting conclusion: “A well-informed citizenry validates the actions of soldiers on the battlefield precisely through exercising the rights guaranteed by the Constitution that the army is sworn to protect and defend.” The idea is that political dissent at home during times of War is not only not “un-American,” it is quintessentially American.
This is, of course, nothing that hasn’t been said before. I knew that soldiers swore to support and defend the Constitution. I have also always personally been disturbed by those who claim that protest is “un-American.” However, the clear and concise way that G.K. presented his material made me stop and think again about what I thought I knew, and about what I believe.
In my mind, the issue of protest on American soil is pretty cut and dried—it is a right, privilege, and duty guaranteed by the Constitution. However, I do not live on American soil. I live halfway around the world, and the nearest American soil is a tiny patch of land that sits just down the street from Gwanghwamun Gate in downtown Seoul. Thus, the issue of protest has always presented me with what I consider to be special problems.
Right or wrong, I have always been extremely reluctant to criticize U.S. policy or actions while living in Korea. It doesn’t matter what I may personally feel, I just do not voice criticism of the United States in front of most Koreans. One could say that some Koreans don’t need any help in bashing the U.S., and one would be right. I’m sure that, to some extent, my reluctance to criticize my homeland is influenced by anti-U.S. sentiments here in Korea. It is a natural human reaction to grow defensive when attacked. Even though people do not attack me directly here, when they bash the U.S. I feel attacked indirectly.
I think it’s more than that, though. It may seem paradoxical, but I think I am more patriotic now that I ever was when I lived in the States. By “patriotic,” I do not mean blind submission to the powers that be, but a true and genuine love for my native land. And because I love my country, I am reluctant to say negative things about it in front of a foreign audience who might not understand.
In February of last year, people around the world participated in marches protesting U.S. plans for an invasion of Iraq. My wife is one of the few Koreans with whom I discuss my political views, so she knew that I was not in favor of invading Iraq, and she asked me if I wanted to attend the march. I explained to her how I felt, and she said she understood. We ended up not going to the march, but I heard of other foreigners, including Americans, who did attend.
Although my decision was made rather quickly, and I have not since discussed it with my wife, I struggled a lot at the time. Would I have marched if I had been in the States? In all honesty, no, I probably would not have marched. I would not have marched for the same reason that I have never been involved in any form of public protest in my life—I would rather maintain harmonious relations than risk upsetting the balance.
For the most part, I tend to avoid conflict. This is not because I am scared, but because I like being rational and reasonable, and I am fully aware of how easily I can lose my temper. So, rather than confront someone about something, I will ignore affronts or insults, both intended and unintended. Sometimes this is a good thing, but at other times passivity may not be the best choice.
There are times, of course, where confrontation is unavoidable, and in those cases I attempt to smooth things over as best as I can. But protest is a one hundred percent avoidable form of conflict. You don’t just suddenly find yourself in the middle of a protest with no choice but to participate (I have, in fact, found myself in the middle of protests here in Korea a couple of times, and each time I made hasty exits, primarily due to my healthy fear of tear gas).
When I was at university, the students would occasionally hold marches or protests of some sort. When I say “occasionally,” I really do mean occasionally—the “protests” at my school were nothing like what I’ve seen here. I was just never able to get myself worked up about any of the issues, though. I remember a “Take Back the Night” march that some of the women did. When they came through our college, a lot of the guys came out to laugh and jeer at them. Me, I just sat outside my dorm and watched. I thought that they were marching for a worthy cause, but I said nothing in support as they marched by me, and I made no effort to counteract their detractors.
I think that’s a perfect example of my attitude during university. I was never active in school politics, even on the level of voting for student government officers. The school seemed to get along fine no matter who was in office, so I never really saw the need to vote. When it came to the United States presidential elections, though, I went out to exercise my right to vote for the first time. The candidate I voted for lost, and I realized that my vote meant spit because I voted Republican in a state that has been Democratic for as long as I can remember (which isn’t really that long, to be honest), and will probably stay Democratic.
I am ashamed to admit this, but that was the last time I voted in a national election. As soon as I graduated I came to Korea, where voting wasn’t as easy as just walking down to the nearest voting center and pulling a lever. During the first presidential election after I arrived in Korea, I did attempt to cast an absentee ballot, but I failed, most likely because of my lack of organization and motivation. My state was going to vote Democratic anyway, so my vote didn’t really matter one way or another, and the country would most likely not implode no matter who was voted into office.
That’s a horrible attitude, I know, but I’m only being honest here. And to continue to be honest, the idea that voting gives me the right to complain about the way the country is run has always bothered me. Is that all a vote is? The right to complain? Not that I ever complained much anyway, but still—if the sole purpose of voting is to secure my right to complain about whomever gets voted into office, then the whole thing seems rather negative to me. Or maybe I’m the one who’s being negative.
The bottom line is that I am passive when it comes to politics. I tell myself that the reason I don’t write or talk about politics is because I am ignorant about the subject, but the truth is that I am ignorant because I don’t make the effort to relieve myself of that ignorance. I’m a Ph.D. student, for crying out loud—I know how to research. If I really wanted to, I could be a very knowledgeable person in terms of politics. But I don’t, so I’m not.
I suppose my attitude can be summed up by what I said above: the world hasn’t imploded yet, so what is one more corrupt politician going to matter? And underlying that, of course, is the conviction that all politicians are corrupt, so it doesn’t matter who you choose. Rather than choosing the lesser of two evils, I’d rather just sit on my duff and let other people choose.
Obviously, this bothers me. I wouldn’t be writing about it if it didn’t. I actually started writing this two days ago, but I got bogged down. I found myself wandering off in some strange direction, and before I knew it I was at a dead end. I wasn’t happy with what I had written, and debated just canning the whole entry, but I decided to let it sit for a while and come back to it later. When I read it again today, it was obvious why I got bogged down—I was attempting to make excuses for myself rather than being totally honest. I chopped off the last few paragraphs I had written and started writing again.
And here I am, now with everything out in the open. Although I don’t think I will ever be a political activist, it bothers me that I don’t care about politics. I still believe that most of the time things will work out no matter who is in office. But what about those times when it won’t? And if I don’t speak out now, what makes me think I will ever speak out? It’s like the old illustration of the frog in the boiling water. If you drop the frog into the water, it will jump out, but if you put the frog in cold water and slowly bring it to a boil, it will stay put and be boiled to death.
I can’t help but think of Hitler (and lest anyone attempt to make a connection, I’d like to point out up front that I am not comparing Hitler and Bush, as others have done). I am sure there were countless people who didn’t speak out because they felt as I do. But when they were finally motivated enough to act, it was too late.
I suppose this has less to do with current events than it has to do with my own fears. We have seen worse times than now, and most likely we will see worse times again. I fear what might happen—and yet, at the same time, I cannot get myself motivated to actually do anything about it. I suppose that is due in part at least to the fact that I don’t feel personally threatened. By the time I do feel threatened, though, will it be too late to jump out of the water?
Once again, I have raised many questions, and yet provided no answers. Certainly, this has gotten me thinking. But is it likely to have any measurable impact on the way I go about my life? Probably not. I wish I could say that it would, but I think that would be giving myself too much credit. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic.
I am hesitant to post this—this is not what I set out to write. What I intended to write was a nice, neat little entry on how things are different for me because I live outside the United States. What I ended up with was the cold, merciless truth: that this is nothing but an excuse, and my problem has nothing to do with geography. I hesitate to post this because it is a monument to overwhelming apathy and laziness, and I am ashamed of that. I may lose the respect of some, but if that is so, then I guess it was never really earned in the first place.
I suppose the best I can hope for is that this will inspire someone else, or that someday it will inspire me. Bit of a downer to end on, I know, but I’ve said what I had to say. For now, at least.