bookmark_borderPost-68: 2010s-Syria, Akin to 1930s-Spain, or 1630s-Germany?

[A follow-up to post-67: Syria’s Complicated Conflict]

I don’t claim to understand Syria or its war, but I trust experts who say it is complicated more than I trust third-rate pundits in the USA who repeat silly claims that it is a “popular rebellion against a dictator that is being repressed”. That kind of analysis is easy and lazy, and ultimately boring.

If Syria is a multifaceted ethnic-religious-political-cultural civil war with significant foreign intervention, what are some analogies to other wars in our history which Western people would know more about? Two strike me:

(1) The Spanish Civil War (1930s). Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia, described a frantic and angry civil war within the “Republican” (anti-Franco) side itself. He identified three main paragroupings (and his favored side was crushed by the Stalinists, as he recounts it). This is similar to the wide range of ideologies among Syria’s co-called “Rebels” (and the government). In Spain, there was not necessarily an ethnic-religious angle akin to Syria’s today (though the case can be made, it was once pointed out to me, for a real implicit ethnic-religious angle to the Spanish war).

(2) Europe’s Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war for Catholic or Protestant domination of Central Europe. This had a definite ethnic-religious angle, as Syria does, and many interventions. The 30 Years War ended in a kind of draw. The German-speaking population of Europe was reduced by one-third; neither Catholic nor Protestant dominated. However, Protestants won more rights, the empire was weakened, and Germany was splintered into 300 statelets.

PictureKing Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden,
“the Lion of the North”

I’ve often thought about this (boringly-named) “Thirty Years War”. Its Protestant hero, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, seemed to have a street or a platz named after him in every Protestant city I visited in Germany in 2007.

One result I see of this war was the end of a Catholic-dominated Europe. Before 1648, Protestants were always a kind of rebellious minority, in fact or in imagination. The war won them normality, a large majority of German-speakers in Europe, and a major “civilizational morale boost” (or so I imagine). The split with the medieval and feudal past was complete, allowing the Protestants of Europe to seize their own destiny. Up to three centuries of spectacular output followed. The early USA, e.g. is an obvious product of secular-Protestants.

Being of half-Scandinavian background and (nearly) half-German-Lutheran background, I almost can’t help but sympathize with the Protestant side in that war. And, in my biased view, an abject defeat of the Protestant side (e.g., by a total failure of the Swedish campaigns under King Gustavus) would have been a defeat for Europe itself, a partial step back into the medieval order.

The paragraph directly above, if its (i.e., my) prejudices and ‘national’ feeling were transposed onto Arabs, and altered in form to fit their Islamic heritage rather than my own, may explain why there will be no easy end to the Syrian war (with the possible exception of a deux ex machina in the form of thousands of NATO bombs, as in Libya).

bookmark_borderPost-67: Syria’s Complicated Conflict

After reading an essay entitled “Syria’s Sectarian Stalemate” by an American Middle-East expert, Bernard Haykel, I’m reminded again what the the Syrian war really is: Complicated. Most people, or so is my impression, wave-away the war as a “popular rebellion against a autocratic government”. If you read the linked-to essay, it is really not that at all.

There are a lot of sides in Syria, a lot of of “ideologies” involved, several (defacto) ethnicities involved. There are varied religious, cultural, ethnic, and political angles at play. There are volunteers from all over the world coming in to fight for their favored sides. Foreign states sponsor and cheerlead for their favored sides.

I have a foreign coworker who was “studying abroad” in Syria in 2011, before the worst of the fighting began. He is white, but studied (and speaks some) Arabic. I’d think he’d have insights into the conflict, but he is one of those (i.e., the great majority) who waves the Syrian War away as “rebellion against a dictator”, which is a narrative that I don’t find compelling, from all I’ve read.

Maybe it’s hard to understand a locale’s “politics” (broadly) just from within that locale.

bookmark_borderPost-66: “Two Parties’ Place Fighting is Terrible” (Or, Students React to the April 2012 Korean Elections)

Back in April of 2012, there was an election for all seats in the South Korean national legislature (국회).

The results of the past few elections, abbreviated and simplified, are as follows:

Seats in the South Korean National Assembly Won, By Election
……………[Left-Wing] .. [Right-Wing] .. [Socialist] .. [Other]
2000: ……….115…………………..152…………………..0……………….6
2004: ……….161…………………..125………………….10……………….3
2008: ………..84…………………..185…………………..5……………..25
2012: ………..127…………………..157………………….13……………….3

The “right-wing” coalition thus won the following shares of seats:
            2000: 56% of seats
             2004: 42% of seats
             2008: 62% of seats
              2012: 52% of seats

There was a back-and-forth “seesawing” in the 2000s. Then 2012 put the power-balance back where it was in 2000.

The days after the election, I reproduced the above table on the board in my classes at the hagwon in Bucheon at which I worked (including the Korean names of the political parties), without further comment. I asked students to write about these results, or prepare spoken responses about them, depending on what kind of class it was.

One rather high-ability 8th-grade girl (born in January 1999, so age 13 as of April 2012), wrote what I thought was a remarkably mature essay on April 12th. That was less than 24 hours after the result was in: Emotions were still raw.

Her essay, verbatim [Note that “New Frontier” is the current-name of the main “right-wing” party]:

[Essay on Korean Legislature Election Results, by 13-Year-Old Korean Girl]
The Republic of Korea had National Assembly Elections in April 2012. Many parties changed their name this year. That means to start with new promises. Also, the ability of current president became issue. According to these changing, April 2012’s election was very interesting battle.

The result of this election was victory of New Frontier Party but New Frontier lost 28 seats of National Assembly. Democratic Unity Party got 43 seats even though they received less total seats. Election is a citizens’ decision so we have to agree with many people’s thinking.

However, there are disappearing result in 2012’s election. 16 seats of National Assembly for other parties. Many people’s variety suggestions will develop the Republic of Korea. Two parties’ place fighting is terrible to country. These parties people only argue.

The girl was disappointed [“disappearing”] that the two big “party machines”, about which many people are cynical, gobbled-up 95% of the seats that were up for election. Independent candidates ran, but, as in the USA, nearly all lost. The minor “far-left” party-bloc did pretty well, taking 13 seats, but only three elected were “independents”.

Whether the left-wing coalition had “won” (by gaining a net of 43 seats over ’08) or “lost” (by failing to win a majority of seats) was the main object of discussion in most of these 7th-9th graders’ essays. Many discussed how much they disliked the “right-wing” party, and the then-president, Lee Myung-bak. For instance, on the night of the election, before the results were in, a student wrote: “I predict the Democratic Unity Party will win. Because people saw Lee Myung Park’s barbarities.”  That last word will have been thanks to a cell-phone-dictionary.

I think this girl’s essay is more mature than all that. She is not a partisan. Perhaps hers is more mature than what most adults would come up with, in fact. If I can rephrase her last three lines: “More independent political voices is exactly what Korea needs. The two mega-partiesbackstabbing power-politics really do nothing but weaken this society. They bicker with each other and waste time, accomplishing nothing except the demoralization of the public.”

This “spirit” (independent, anti-big-party) lost out big time in the later, Dec. 2012, presidential election, in which one product of a big party machine faced off against another. Park Geun-Hye, a big player in the “right-wing” machine, won. The other guy, who lost, was a product of the “left-wing” machine.

PictureAhn Cheol-Soo

An independent voice was in the race for a while: A popular IT self-made millionaire and professor named Ahn Cheol-Soo (안철수). He polled well but dropped out, sure enough, after intense pressure from the left-wing machine.

The latest news is that Ahn is back. He won a seat to the legislature in a special election in 2013. He may well be elected president in December 2017. If so, then the above girl essayist — whose name I have now forgotten, who will be about to turn 19 years old in Dec. 2017, and who will probably be in college at the time — may be happy. Maybe she will even remember writing that essay way back in April 2012.

bookmark_borderPost-65: Jeong Jeong Jeong

I mentioned “Jeong” (정), a “Korean emotion” in my digression-laden account of what happened on my first night in Korea. (It is a series of posts here which I’ve lamely titled “One Night in April of 2009”; “jeong” was mentioned in Part V. I hope to complete this “One Night” series in June.) I offered a definition of “jeong”, as I’ve come to understand it over my years in Korea. [Note: I prefer to write it in English as “juhng”, which I feel makes it easiest to pronounce as Koreans say it. How is a “layman” supposed to pronounce “j-e-o-n-g”?]

I refer anyone interested in the “What is Jeong” issue, to a continuation of that discussion.

bookmark_borderPost-64: Refusing a Nickel

PictureA nickel (from here)

I give out U.S. coins as prizes every now and then to the Korean students.

It’s mostly pennies, nickels, and dimes. Once or twice, I offered a gold-dollar coin as a big, end-of-semester prize to a winner of one contest or other.

Often, the kids are dazzled by these coins.

PictureFront of a 100-Won coin

I happened to pocket some nickels for that purpose one day this past week. I had the idea to give them out as prizes in the “T1” class which consists of 7th and 8th graders. Earlier that day, though, I’d bought something and gotten change, so I had some 100-Won pieces (equivalent to about 10 U.S. cents) in my pocket, too. I didn’t remember this. They all got mixed together.

A little “social experiment” came together in my mind when I realized I had coins from both countries. I offered well-performing students a choice between a nickel and a 100-won piece.

PictureBack of a 100-Won coin

This can only count as anecdote, because the sample size was tiny, but…. I noticed that the lethargic, unambitious, quieter students — who tended to be lower-ability — opted for the 100-won coin, while the students who seem more optimistic about English, are more talkative in class, and who seem to be of higher-ability, chose the nickel.

I don’t think this should be a surprise. The motivation is the same:
— Type #1’s thinking:“I can buy things with 100-Won coin, but that nickel is of no use to me.”
— Type #2’s thinking: “Although I could use the 100-Won coin, the nickel is something new and fascinating; I’ve never possessed one, or even held one in my hand before. The nickel is much more appealing!” 

It’s clear which kind of student-temperament would tend to do better in language learning.

It’s also tempting to extrapolate this simple coin-choice “experiment” into an entire Weltanschauung, as above. Although that leap may be both reckless and hasty, it really makes sense to me. It also, I think, could point to why Koreans are (collectively) so famously-bad at learning English, despite their huge commitment to it for so long: The Type #1 attitude (above) prevails in this society. Most Koreans, I think, see English as not relevant to their lives beyond some piece-of-paper that says they got such-and-such a score, qualifying them for this-or-that.

This “#1” attitude even dominates most hagwons (language-learning institutes, at which I work), it seems to me. I was just thinking about the fact that my present-place-of-employment has a whole lot of signs hanging on the walls. They are all in Korean only. If this hagwon were committed to English, it would put them in both languages.

bookmark_borderPost-63: Three Weeks of Spring

The temperature in Seoul broke the 30 Celsius threshold (86 F) on May 23rd. Way back in post-34 (“Two Weeks of Spring”) I repeated a joke about Korea: “Spring here is great. Those are really two of the nicest weeks you’ll ever see”.

It was early May when “spring weather” began (by which I mean temperatures reliably in the comfortable “10 to Low-20s” Celsius range [50s-70s Fahrenheit]). Consequently, that “two weeks of spring” joke may not be off by much, after all. The ten-day forecast calls for temperatures in the high-20s [80s F] most every day.

A screenshot of the temperatures in Celsius this month so far:


Screenshot from of Seoul observed temperatures for May 2013.

Incidentally, my father once explained to me an easy way to figure out Celsius:
0 is Cold
10 is Cool
20 is Warm
30 is Hot

bookmark_borderPost-62: North Korea and Israel are Equally Popular

I am fascinated to see that the BBC’s “Country Ratings Poll” 2013 shows that, internationally, Israel and North Korea are viewed as about equally-negative influences on the world.

PictureGraphic from the BBC’s Country Poll 2013. [Click to Expand]

21% said Israel had a “positive influence” on the world
52% said Israel had a “negative influence” on the world
[25-to-10 : Ratio of Negatives-to-Positives]

North Korea
19% said NK had a “positive influence” on the world
54% said NK had a “negative influence” on the world
[28-to-10 : Ratio of Negatives-to-Positives]

The USA was viewed narrowly more positively than negatively. The BBC headlined that Germany was “the most popular country in the world”. In terms of positive-to-negative ratio (as above), though, Canada seems to be the real #1. Germany’s ratio is 39-to-10 positive; Canada’s ratio: 42-to-10 positive. / The USA’s ratio in 2013 is 13-to-10 positive, similar to South Korea’s 12-to-10 positive. Japan’s popularity in 2013 took a hit, probably due to the island disputes, and maybe the more-recent depreciation of their currency. In 2012, it seems that Japan had an impressive 28-to-10 positive ratio, down in 2013 to 19-to-10.

Perhaps the biggest news of the poll, though, is that people are getting annoyed about the EU project:

There has been a sharp drop in positive ratings [of the EU] by Germans, down 14 points to 59%. Canadians and Americans both give significantly lower ratings to the EU. In the UK, positive views of the EU continue to fall steadily and, for the first time this year, more Britons rate it negatively (47%) than positively (42%).

Until 2008 or so, people were singing the praises of the EU, and it seemed things really worked well there. I “lived” there for most of 2007, and I can attest that the mood was optimistic in most ways. I even had to read a book called “The European Dream”, which predicted the EU was headed for a golden age which everyone would have to follow. It’s unclear, now, whether the EU will survive (in present form) even to 2020.

bookmark_borderPost-61: Everyone’s a Manager, Except You

[Venting about my job situation]

At my job (Sept. 2011 to Sept. 2013) [an English-language institute (“hagwon”) in Korea], there are three “first tier” managers, five “second-tier” managers specific to my campus, and several “third-tier” managers. There are only a few Korean teachers who are not managers. My former British coworker, E., pointed out the ridiculousness of there being far more Korean “managers” than regular workers (i.e., teachers). It seems like a situation right out of “Dilbert”.

Today, there are six foreign teachers, none of whom are “managers” in any way, shape, or form.

Formerly, we had M., who was sort of a foreign manager. He was “foreign head teacher”, though he was strictly limited to authority over the other foreign teachers. (It wouldn’t do for any foreigner to have any authority over any Korean, of course…) He left in late June 2012. For reasons I still don’t understand, one or several of the “second-tier” managers (three of whom are distant blood-relatives) saw to it that no foreigner took his place, so there has not been any foreigner with any official authority at all since then, leading to inefficiency, resentment, and a lot of bad feelings over questions of seniority. Now, typical people respect ‘commands’ from superiors, even if we may dislike them (“We’re doing it this way, guys…”, “Ok, boss…”), but if it’s just some equal, some coworker, strutting over and telling you what to do, there’s a feeling of “Who does she think she is?” This leads to fewer decisions being made, fewer collective efforts, less “strategic” thinking, less planning, and inefficiency over delegation of responsibilities. Few are willing to slide into the hated role of “guy who bosses around his equals”, so planning is just avoided.

Say one of us develops an idea for a change of course, an idea on how to tighten things up or freshen things up, or make things more more efficient, etc., etc. Any change of course will be more difficult than sliding along in the lazy status quo, so if authority is not attached to a “change of course” idea, people will likely resent it, and likely ignore the “advice”. A prolonged situation of a group working together in which no one is in authority may lead to rivalries and bitterness. Most likely, I suppose, it will lead to apathy, as mentioned above.

I describe here what has happened in my workplace since last July. I have seen examples of the resentment I allude to above from all the foreigners here. I mean, when an “equal” waltzes in and “tells someone what to do” (with an air of authority, despite officially having none). Another case is when someone is having private meetings with a Korean boss with the rest of us excluded. I, myself, have been on both ends of this. I guess we all have.

In theory, our direct superior since July 1st of 2012 has been a Korean manager, a tall stringbean of a woman with a soft voice and a bit of a squirrely manner whose English is great but who is nevertheless very hard to approach; who is seriously passive-aggressive; who is often absent and cannot be found; who carries grudges about perceived slights against her; who refuses to listen to constructive advice. I could rattle off several more characteristics in that vein. I suspect, based on what she’s told me, that it was this woman who saw to it no one replaced M.

In general, most of our weekly interaction with her is during the Friday “foreign teacher meetings”, which happen about 75% of the time. In those meetings, she drones on and on, and often pretends not to know certain pieces of information to save face, which is frustrating.

The thing that really bugs me most about this set-up is this: The people who end up rising to the top in such “power-vacuums”, it seems to me, tend towards the sociopathic (to lean on the hyperbolic side), frankly. E.g., Stalin. When power within a group is uncertain, those who are most ruthless in playing one against another, those who are best at manipulating others, tend to end up on top. Not  necessarily the most talented, dedicated, or experienced, but the best manipulators. This has also happened at my present workplace (and it is all magnified because the Koreans with real power often can’t pick up on Western personality archetypes that might be considered toxic in the West). I am thinking, with this, of one particularly manipulative female foreign teacher.

I am reminded, for some reason, of the idea that “there’s a sucker at every poker table, and if you don’t know who the sucker is at your table, it’s you”.

bookmark_borderPost-60: “That’s Not Even Mexico!” -Homer Simpson

I’ve been watching “The Simpsons” with Spanish audio a bit, lately. I don’t know why.

PictureHomer during his campaign speech.
(Episode: “Trash of the Titans“)

In one episode I watched in Spanish, Homer gets in a fight with the local garbage-men and then runs for sanitation commissioner. Homer develops the campaign slogan “Can’t Someone Else Do It?” and proposes that garbage-men pick up trash directly from waste baskets in people’s homes.

Now, “The Simpsons” is a smarter show than most people realize, and a lot of the lines are awkward to translate. The Spanish translators (who I presume to be Mexicans) quite often change lines for this reason.

Here is Homer’s campaign speech, in English (found here):

Homer: Fellow citizens! How would you rate the trash service in this town?
Man #1: I would deem it excellent.
Homer: Uh, okay. It’s excellent. But aren’t you tired of waking up early and dragging the garbage to the curb? [Crowd Murmuring]
Man #2: That’s so annoying in the morning.
Homer: Aren’t you tired of having to peel that last snotty Kleenex from the bottom of your wastebasket?
Man #3 [with a huge nose]:  I’ll say.
Homer: Well, then — Can’t someone ELSE do it?
Crowd: Yeah! — Yeah!
Homer: And can’t someone else scoop out that nasty kitty litter?
[Crowd All Shouting In Agreement] Yeah!
Homer: Well, Ray Patterson thinks YOU should do it. Animals are crapping in our houses, and we’re picking it up.
Did we lose a war? That’s not America. That’s not even Mexico!
[Crowd Shouting Excitedly]

The line “That’s not America. That’s not even Mexico!” would be a case calling for a….tactful translation, or perhaps a subtle line change for the Mexican/Latin-American audience. Instead, this is what the translators went for:

Homer: Hemos perdido la guerra?  Asi no es mi pais. Asi es el vecino del sur!

Translation:  “That’s not the way my country is. That’s the way the neighbor to the south is!

This a big change in meaning. The new line is much more (and directly) insulting to Mexico! What a strange choice.

bookmark_borderPost-59: Orwell’s “Actual Doubt”

I respect George Orwell because he was not an angry ideologue.
“To walk through the ruined cities of Germany is to
feel an actual doubt about the continuity of civilisation.”
Orwell wrote the above in April(?) 1945, just before the war’s end. He was touring Germany at the time, as best I can tell, as a correspondent. That ominous line was in an essay I came across called Future of a Ruined Germany .

Here was a committed Socialist (as Orwell described himself), a volunteer for a Marxist militia in the Spanish Civil War, remembered as a leading “anti-totalitarian” author, seemingly expressing deep regret at what had just happened to “Nazi Germany”. The war, in that essay, comes off almost like a catastrophe of nature, one that had just reduced city after city of this major world power to heap after heap of smoldering debris.

Elsewhere in the essay, Orwell wrote:

The people of Britain have never felt easy about the bombing of civilians and no doubt they will be ready enough to pity the Germans as soon as they have definitely defeated them; but what they still have not grasped—thanks to their own comparative immunity—is the frightful destructiveness of modern war

I happen to have spent time in Dresden, Germany. A friend has lived there for several years. He will move to Riga shortly. I visited him in December 2010.

In Dresden, the worst firebombing raid of the war in Europe occurred on my birthday (Feb. 13th). The city was overloaded with refugees, and many of them were killed in the firestorm. A young Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time. He used the shock of the experience, twenty years later, to write the classic “Slaughterhouse Five”. (In visiting Dresden in December 2010, I located the spot where the Vonnegut “slaughterhouse” POW-prison must have been, though it is all different now except for the street name. It was snowing the night I walked the street, just as it was when Vonnegut arrived in December 1944, according to his book.)

About the Dresden firebombing, a German poet wrote the following shortly after it occurred:

“Wer das Weinen verlernt hat, der lernt es wieder beim Untergang Dresdens.”
[He who has forgotten how to weep can learn to do so again from the destruction of Dresden]