Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Annals — American versus Korean self-criticism

Every now and then, usually while looking for something else, I run across something I wrote on someone else's blog and think to myself that I should have made an entire post about that. Instead, I think I'll just reprint some of them right here, pretty much as. 

From June 2005, from a Mizar's Marmot's Hole post entitled "On Being an American Expat in Korea":
I don’t know where you went to college, usinkorea, but in classes where I went they were willing to talk as freely about the problems in other countries as about the US. But I know a lot of people have had something like the experience you mention (and some people in our school got a little goofy about Whites and racism, so some of that Ivory Tower loopiness invaded our campus, too).

American culture does have a self-critical streak (which counters and contradicts the “love it or leave it” streak). The result is that all America’s warts are out there in the open for anyone to see. Since US-based media (CNN, UPI, AP, NYT, WaPo, etc.) tend to be dominant world media, everyone outside the US sees America’s warts as well.

Not so with, say, Korea. In the Korean media, Koreans constantly talk about a whole bunch of Korean problems, including whether or not Roh is irresponsible for the things he utters, whether or not it is wise to try to make South Korea a “balancer,” and whether North Korean refugee problems should be downplayed in favor of better relations with North Korea and China. But since almost all of this is in Korean, it doesn’t get very far beyond the peninsula.

Self-criticism of one’s nation is not a uniquely American trait, but the unique position of America means that Americans’ own criticisms of their country (which are often right) are magnified for all the world to see. And then the great and the good of America are forgotten or obscured.

God forbid if the radical leftists really do succeed in pushing USFK off the peninsula, it will be as much to do with people like Bruce Cumings, a self-loathing American who tried so hard to paint the US presence in Korea as near-evil while depicting the North Koreans as misunderstood patriots, and whose books became a bible for the student movements as they formed their anti-American sentiment. It’s an American telling us the truth about America, so that’s all the credibility checking that’s needed.

And not just people like Bruce Cumings, but also the American who was helping the “Eradicate US Crimes” group with their English-language resources, who I once called up (2000?) about getting data about violent crimes committed against Korean nationals by USFK personnel. After asking about murder rates, I asked if he had similar data on USFK personnel killed by Korean nationals. His incredulous response: “Does that even happen?”

Of course it does, but he didn’t care. He was part of the matrix of Americans who respond to excessive American patriotism by trying to depict America to others in the worst possible light, even if that requires ignoring at least half of what America is and does.

Yeah, I do believe that if the US were to leave Korea, it would be a disaster for Korea, for the US, and for its other allies here. But if that ever happens, we’ll have Americans like Bruce and this other guy to thank for it.
Now if only I could summon Lost Nomad and Asia Pages from the great beyond. 


  1. Kushibo, I went and read the original post "On Being an American Expat in Korea" over at the Marmot's Hole.

    I'm curious about your take on anti-Americanism among expatriates in Korea.

    As for my own feelings, my experience in my own country (New Zealand) has led me to believe that it's all about big (and more powerful) versus small (and weaker) groups (or nations).

    What started me thinking about this phenomenon (many years ago), was seeing a magazine cover. The magazine, called North & South, had a picture of a child at a sports match holding a sign that said, "we hate Auckland!" Directly underneath, was the headline, "why?"

    Auckland is the biggest city in the country and, just like between America and Canada, a lot of digs and jokes are flung from both sides (Aucklanders and non-Aucklanders).

    Aucklanders think their city is a world-class, trendy, beautiful, bustling, prosperous, metropolis. Non-Aucklanders see it as a characterless, yuppie-infested, over-priced, inconvenient, gridlocked, crime-ridden place.

    Aucklanders emphasize the positive and non-Aucklanders focus on the negative.

    Also, the mindset is a problem. Aucklanders just can't comprehend that anyone could possibly think that the disadvantages of living there outweigh the advantages and they think that anyone who does think that way is simply blinded by envy. Non-Aucklanders think that this inability of Aucklanders to see (or at least admit) the flaws with their own city is a symptom of extreme arrogance and ignorance of everything else that exists in the country outside the limits of their beloved city. Non-Aucklanders also get fed up with the fact that all the news seems focussed on Auckland and that the government wants to use everyone's tax dollars on fixing Auckland's problems.

    Of course, the biggest city with the largest population and economy is bound to have more happening in it and those things are important for the whole country, but non-Aucklanders resent that.

    Basically, both sides have valid points, but only see one (their own) side of the issues.

    Now, I know I'm making a lot of gross oversimplifications and generalizations, but I think you can see how it's similar to many places in the world: USA-Canada/th world, Seoul-the rest of Korea, etc.

  2. I think that anti-American sentiment is largely big-versus-small. Growing up in California, I saw the same thing on a slightly less grand scale were everybody in my extended family felt they needed to pile on us who lived in California. Jealousy, I thought, since California was considered the hip, cool, fun place, and Minnesota was, well, Minnesota (actually, it's a very nice place full of nice people).

    But sometimes it goes beyond big-versus-small and ventures into powerful-versus-weak, particularly when the power and influence seems to be being abused. On my two extended trips to Italy, one before 9/11 and the other during the Iraq War, the different levels of anti-American sentiment — which was basically anti-Bush sentiment — was palpable and in your face. A few years earlier, I'd experienced none.

  3. I have to say I fall into a similar psychological trap. To put it simplistically, while living in America I notice I am almost fiercely pro-Korea. When living in Korea, a staunch advocate of America. (Though, in light of your 9/11 Italy experience, kushibo, I lived in Korea pre-9/11 and mostly pre-Bush antics. I actually moved back to the states 3 months after the attacks.)

  4. Perhaps not unlike you, JS, I can go into a pro-American tirade (or, rather, an anti-anti-American tirade) from time to time.

    On the K-blogs, I'm often tilting windmills at WAAAAAHgugin, Korea bashers, and the like, but when talking with Korean-Koreans, I feel equally compelled to set the record straight on nonsense coming from that direction.

  5. Sometimes I think I'm the only one free from a fanatic nationlistic—not to mention a non anti-non-nationalistic—point of view.

    Then again, I always think I'm terribly deluded. ;)

    Still, I follow your blog specifically because it doesn't feel as extreme as other Korean/expat blogs, which often make my blood boil. On the other hand, I follow those other blogs specifically because they do make my blood boil. Go figure.

  6. That's interesting, Kushibo and JS.

    I was discussing this exact thing yesterday with a Korean coworker.

    The main point of my argument was that people have different levels of loyalty (regionalism, nationalism, etc.) depending on who they are dealing with or fighting against.

    It's basically 'us' versus 'them' but the membership of both groups may include the same people - sometimes they're 'us' and at other times they're 'them.'

    The best examples can be seen in sports. I don't know why so many of my posts include sporting references. I'm not really a sports nut, it's just that sports (in this case) provide a good example of how the 'us' vs. 'them' thing works.

    It happens on many levels.

    In a city, you'll have several sports teams and the team from 'your' neighbourhood is 'us' and the team from some other area is 'them' - and we hate 'them!'

    Then, you have inter-city matches and suddenly the guys you hated ('them') are now great guys and valuable members of our team ('us').

    And it goes on and on... province to province (or state to state), north to south (or east coast to west coast), country to country.

    Anyway (moving away from sports), I think this aspect of human nature is natural and can be useful. We can use this sense of loyalty and connection to a group to help each other.

    It can, however, be very destructive. It can even lead to dehumanization of the 'other.' If 'they' are completely unlike and not as important as 'us' then it's easier for 'us' to treat 'them' badly, sentence them to death, or even go to war with them.

    One of the big problems I see with this dehumanization of the other, is with issues related to crime (and even war). Because 'they' committed such terrible 'inhuman' crimes, they must be less than human - they're 'monsters.'

    That's very dangerous. We need to realise that even when people do horrible things - like Hitler and the Nazis - they are still human.

    People use the term 'crazy' as another way to dehumanize 'others.' Anger and hate are not mental illnesses. To dehumanize a group because they did the same, is entirely missing the lesson to be learned.

    The lesson, in my opinion, is that humans can do terrible things. That's 'us.'

    I apologize for my meandering musings... I do tend to go on, and my thought processes are often not very coherent.


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