Perhaps both sides had a point. During the Clinton era, campaigners for “political correctness” had such moral influence in American society that Time Magazine dubbed them the “thought police.” People had to be very careful not to say or do anything that might be deemed politically incorrect. Professors who said things about minorities that could be interpreted as offensive were summarily expelled from universities, while ethnic studies programs proliferated in universities, as if to cover their tracks.
Radical scholars pushed political correctness to the extreme and as a result, the social and academic milieu became hostile and antagonistic to non-elites. They even condemned anti-racist writers like Mark Twain or William Faulkner, or scholars like Leslie Fiedler who were advocates for minorities. Yes, it could be said that these extremists on the left already divided the US.
In addition, right-wing people criticized the Clinton and Obama administrations for their policy toward China. They complained that both Clinton and Obama naively believed that China would change and become a democratic country if the US helped her prosper economically. As a result, many American manufacturers moved to China, costing the disappearance of so many jobs in the US. Thanks to the naivete of Clinton and Obama, conservatives argue, China turned into a major threat for the US.
Whether or not we agree with this conservative viewpoint, if we take it seriously, it is not hard to see the emergence of Trump as inevitable, and his enormous popularity among his followers as all too understandable. Then, we may presume that both the Democrats and the Republicans are responsible for polarizing America, and Trump used this polarity for political gain. Perhaps that was why University of California, Berkeley professor Robert Reich wrote in a column: “The legacy of Trump’s term of office is a bitterly divided America.” Then he added: “The nation was already divided when Trump became president, by race and ethnicity, region, education, national origin, religion, and class. But he exploited these divisions to advance himself. He didn’t just pour salt into our wounds. He planted grenades in them.”
In South Korea, people say that the Moon administration is largely responsible for dividing the nation into two. Indeed, it is undeniable that the previous Moon administration instigated enmity between the left and the right, conservatives and progressives, the rich and the poor, pro-Japan and anti-Japan factions, and so on. The current ruling party, too, is not completely free from the allegation that it has used conflicts between the young and the old or men and women for political gain.
The fatal mistake of the Moon administration was that it dragged the country into the dark past, not toward the bright future. The politicians who ran the country thought and acted as if they still lived in the 1980s, when they fought against the military dictatorship, or in the Donghak Revolution era in the late 19th century. Obviously, they did not know the maxim, “He is wise who looks ahead. He is foolish who looks back.”
In the 2021 movie “Total Recall,” the protagonist Doug Quade meets Matthias, the leader of the Resistance. When Matthias asks him why he wants to return to the past, Quade replies, “I want to remember, so I can be myself, be who I was.” Matthias advises him, saying, “It is each man’s quest to find out who he truly is. But the answer to that lies in the present, not in the past.”
Quade protests: “But the past tells us who we’ve become.” Then, Matthias replies wisely: “The past is a construction of the mind. It blinds us. It fools us into believing it. But the heart wants to live in the present. Look there and you’ll find your answer.” It is true that the answer we are seeking is not in the past, but in the present and the future.
In addition, instead of antagonizing those who have different views and opinions from us, we should “regard the views and interests of those we disagree with as equally worthy of consideration as our own,” Reich wrote. Then we may be able to heal South Korea’s psychic wounds.
Both South Korea and the US desperately need healing now, and the responsibility of healing our wounded country falls upon all of us. Despite the Catch-22 situation, we hope the two political leaders, Yoon and Biden, can overcome the obstacles and heal their nations by patching up gaping wounds. Meanwhile, we should all support them so they can prevail.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.
By Korea Herald (email@example.com)