No Intellectuals Speak to Korean Issues

Mr. Crackerman Sez,


Digging around on the intarwebs I came across a piece for your consideration. I like this piece for two reasons. First, it explains (or tries to) why there are few, if any, Korean intellectuals standing up and making noise (like, say, attacking Breen for his inherently anti-Korean prejudice). Second, it could be a useful point of view for you to look at your style of argument and discourse. That is to ask, how Korean you must be when you can’t/won’t wield the mighty sword of snark? πŸ˜‰

If this guy’s arguments are accurate they help explain the weird perception I have that there is no Korean or Korean American solidy and significantly debating any matters of weight about Korea – it wouldn’t be homogenous to do so. Anyway, here is a shortened version of the article:

The Dearth of Korean-American Public Intellectuals

Kichoon Yang
Dean, College of Natural Sciences
Professor of Mathematics
University of Northern Iowa

Korean-Americans are abundant in academe, yet the invisibility of Korean-American scholars as public intellectuals in media and politics is also a well-observed fact. This is a lamentable state of affairs – for both Korean-Americans and non-Korean-Americans – in that an unequal participation by any one ethnic group in public discourse skews the public policy making process, and can lead to social fragmentation. The question I would like to pose is,”Why the dearth of public intellectuals among Korean-Americans in this country?”

An utter lack of Korean-American intellectuals in the national media and politics is in contrast to the increasing and large (relative to their population size) number of Korean-American scientists and other professionals. Also, the dearth of Korean-American university administrators parallels that of Korean-American public intellectuals elsewhere.

One obvious explanation to the above question is that the qualities of a public intellectual are not consistent with the traditional oriental notions of a “virtuous” person: Taoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and Hindu nomenclature equate avoidance of conflict with virtue, and infuse the quality of aloofness in their descriptions of wisdom. This somewhat pedestrian explanation, in my view, is in part true, and it offers an easy-to-understand cultural explanation at the risk of stereo-typifying Korean and other Asian cultures. Homogeneity sometimes translates into a bifurcative public behavior, a sense of ambivalence, towards the role of confrontation in public discourse: many individuals tend to avoid open confrontations, and at the same time groups of individuals often would actively seek confrontations – student street demonstrations may be an example here. This dichotomy in the minds of many Koreans regarding the role of confrontation in public discourse is an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Skilled and experienced public intellectuals often use confrontation as a ploy to bring to public’s attention an issue that might otherwise go unnoticed – there is no need to mention the plethora of social issues and their champions, where such use of confrontation is evident in the national media. One can legitimately argue that the social agenda in this country is often driven by a relatively small number of outspoken public figures, among which a fair number are intellectuals.

There are several possible explanations for the general lack of Korean-American public intellectuals: There is the usual cultural explanation mentioned earlier. Or perhaps, simply more time is needed. Also, it is interesting to contrast, or draw an analogy with, the situation African-Americans have faced, and still face to a large extent, in professional sports. It would be interesting to see to what extent the analogy – predominance of African-American professional athletes coupled with a lack of African-Americans at the managerial ranks and a relatively high and growing presence of Korean-American scholars and professionals coupled with a lack of Korean-American public figures – is valid. It is conceivable that (I have no data to support this) the level of “public” ambition and aspirations among Korean-American scholars and professionals is relatively low; if so, it would provide a benign explanation for the phenomenon, which is not to say that such state of affairs is desirable.

Yang gets a bit off there at the end.. his analogy to African-Americans is murky to me and his “perhaps Koreans have low public ambition” is not an explanation, rather it is a description (I mean, why would Koreans have lower public ambition? If it is true doesn’t it come from somwhere?)

Anyway, grist for two mills.. one about the hole in the discourse, the other about Korean (and your) unwillingness to fill it.

Coming next? Those racist Koreans!

4 thoughts on “No Intellectuals Speak to Korean Issues

  1. Ok….
    I’ve been thinking hard about the issue of homogeneity for 2 weeks now, brewing much thought on it especially in morning showers between working up the phlegm and spitting it out….

    Seriously, the topic you touched on is a rather sensitive issue for being too close and personal for comfort. Feeling uncomfortable in a confrontational situation is for all, but perhaps more so for Koreans.

    I believe the issue of homogeneity is embedded in Korean culture in the shape of Confucianism. And I can go on about 4000 years of Korean history to expound on how Koreans started as belligerent group to being almost docile in the latter 500 years. And I did some research on it, too. (Have I been beating around the bush long enough?) However, let’s cut the crap and directly deal with the issue at hand.

    Homogeneity paradigm (if it can be called as such) does not explain crap about anything. It is only how Korean people appear to be, and/or how the authorities want the Korean people to become in order to have easier time ruling and bring about unity as the authorties see fit.

    I would go on more about this, but it is time to go home…. I’ll continue soon.

  2. OX,

    Korean history bears you out in specifics, but betrays you in broad strokes. A lot of brawling between Koreans and a lot of brawling with foreigners. But as you mention, Confucianism runs very deep and even when Korean dynasties were fighting, they were only fighting over the Confucian spoils. No one ever suggested there shouldn’t be a leader to whom the nation would be naturally subservient. It was really just a bunch of guys arguing who had the bigger bone(rank).

    And you leave your argument right at the point you might have something interesting. If the people “appear” to be homogenous and the government crafts them to become homogenous how can you argue anything is different?

    So while I believe your political argument is accurate that homogeneity is partly a tool of control (something is for all leaders in all nations, really) I don’t think you’ve said anything to dis-abuse anyone of the notion that Korea is not homogenous and non-confrontational (on the intellectual/expert level).

    β€’ “orthodoxy over heterodoxy”
    β€’ the strongly implied cultural molasses of the Confucian relationships
    β€’ Cultural defensiveness (properly) constructed out of being the shrimp among whales
    β€’ A politically non-democratic history
    β€’ I’d add a different way of thinking (I’m just about to pop one out about the silliness of the “thought should be action” school of Kung-Fu thinking) from the West.. a less theoretically logical (and boy does that approach also have its horrible failures, which I am sure we will get to) approach.

    I just don’t see you the homogeneity paradigm can be argued agaisnt?

  3. Hey guys!

    Have you heard about a controversial new book, “After 9/11: A Korean Girl’s Sexual Journey?” ) I strongly believe that you will have something to say about it, and especially about “Korean American” in chapter 28, “The 4/29 L.A. Riots Named Me “Stick”” and…”Dokdo” in chapter 32.

    By the way, most amazing thing is Ch. 43, “9/11s are forgiveness,” which makes “9/11” a general noun for the worst disaster that could happen in one’s life. I have never seen any writer put it this way.

    If I bothered you, please forgive me; I just wanted to share my feelings about this book.

    Best Wishes,

  4. Not a bother at all Eugene, I’ll put this book on my list of things to read.

    Now I’m off to check out your blog. πŸ˜‰

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