When German poet Anton Schnack wrote the celebrated essay “Things That Make Us Sad” last century, he referred to sentimental, melancholic objects such as a small dead bird found in the garden, drizzling autumn rain and indecipherable graffiti in a desolate castle. He also mentioned old letters from a deceased father that read, “My son, you gave me so many sleepless nights.”
In 2020, a plethora of things make us sad in Korea, too. Unfortunately, however, we do not have the luxury of Schnack’s romanticism because we lack the proper distance to deal with the sad, harsh reality we are witnessing in our society and political arena every day.
Today’s young people who have given up their hopes and dreams is one thing that makes us sad. Since many of them find it hard to get a job, they cannot marry, build a home or have a child. Thus, they lament their misfortune, uttering bitterly, “Isaengmang!” which means, “In this life, I am ruined!” Alas! In a country where young people lose hopes and dreams, there is no future.
The specter of sexual harassment that still haunts our society is deplorable, too. We are sad to hear the recent news that sexual harassment scandals disgraced both the Seoul mayor and the Busan mayor. If you are the head of an institution, you should protect your staff members, not take advantage of them. Moreover, you should act according to the decency, honor and noblesse oblige to suit your position.
Our shallow, tamed intellectuals, who blindly gloat and follow the government like a sunflower, are also lamentable. An intellectual’s primary mission is to criticize and warn those who wield political power, not flatter them. Our historians, too, sadden us when they keep silent on politicians’ distortions of history to suit their political ideologies. As John Stuart Mill said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
In the political arena, self-righteous left-wing politicians, who think they are morally superior, make us sad. They sugarcoat their grudges and vendettas as “justice.” We are also sad when politicians, who once fought for democracy against the military dictatorship, now impudently defy democracy. Perhaps they have turned into a monster themselves while fighting another monster, as Nietzsche warned.
The arrogant left-wing politicians’ lack of decency and decorum saddens us, too. At the same time, the incredible incompetence of conservative politicians disheartens us, as well. Likewise, the fanatic zealots for the ruling party, who terrorize anyone who holds differing opinions, make us sad. They remind us of the Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.
The anti-government protestors, who gathered at the Gwanghwamun Square wearing the Guy Fawkes masks, make us gloomy, too. It is sad because in the movie “V for Vendetta,” the mask resonates with the clash between tyrannical Protestants and radical Catholics in England in the early 17th century. Set in 2020, the movie also symbolizes the confrontation between a neo-fascist totalitarian government and resisting anarchists.
Our country, torn by ardent advocates for liberal democracy and fanatic supporters of a “people’s democracy” gives us plenty of grief. They deridingly call each other “native Japanese pirates” and “native Commie guerillas.” Our past-obsessed politicians, who are dragging us into the labyrinth of the 1940s when the polarization of left-wing and right-wing ideologies tore the nation apart right after liberation, make our hearts heavy. The National Assembly, too, pains us because it has regrettably turned into a conforming institution for Cheong Wa Dae. We elect lawmakers so they can watch and restrain the government, not passively comply with it.
Our politicians, who deliberately instigate anti-Japan sentiment, make us weary. They drive a nationwide boycott campaign against Japanese products for no better reason than to win votes and popularity. Yet, they have no right to ruin or sever our good friendship with our neighboring country simply because it serves their ideological designs. Such an impetuous and myopic policy will surely be harmful for our national security and interests.
The recent affront of extreme left-wing people to our war hero, Gen. Paik Sun-yop, saddens us as well. He saved our country in times of crisis and yet the radicals unjustly accuse him of being a pro-Japan collaborator. If a war hero such as the late Gen. Paik cannot find a resting place in the National Cemetery, who would want to sacrifice their lives for this country in the future?
Some of our left-wing politicians, who deny the legitimacy of South Korea, make us sad, as well. They try to denounce the remarkable accomplishments of our nation for the past 75 years, of which we should be very proud. Those brazen people relish all the benefits of a capitalist society and yet still preach socialism.
Of course, there are things that make us happy and pleased occasionally. Nevertheless, we cannot but help feeling sad when we watch what is going on in our society these days.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed