Potty Mouths and Empty Vessels

Six years ago, just before the 2012 Korean presidential election, four left-leaning politicians/journalists/ amateur comedians were sitting around a rented sound studio laughing, blurting out occasional expletives, and generally making fun of President LEE Myung-bak.

Originally published in the May issue of Value Chain.

The weekly podcast that ensued, Naneun Ggomsuda (나는 꼼수다, literally, “I am a Weasel” or, popularly, “I am a petty-minded creep”), garnered quite a following, particularly among young people. Between April and November of that year, nearly six million netizens downloaded the Ggomsu podcast app. As reported by LEE Mi-sun, in her 2012 Kyungpook National University master’s thesis “The Frame and Discourse of the Report ‘I am KKomsu’[Ggomsu],” on December 1, 2011, MBN (an economic news network in South Korea) surveyed 1,000 adults between the ages of 19 and 59 to evaluate public sentiments on the reliability of news media. Naneun Ggomsuda received a reliability rating of 40%—more than double the 17.2% rating for major newspapers such as Chosun-Ilbo, Joongang-Ilbo, and Donga-Ilbo.

Not long after the podcast’s popularity was revealed, the government banned the app among young South Korean military conscripts, and, in late 2011, one of Naneun Ggomsuda’s founding members, CHUNG Bong-ju, was arrested and charged with “spreading rumors” about former President LEE’s connections to alleged stock fraud. At the time, Chung sat on the National Assembly as a member of the opposition Democratic United Party. On the podcast, he played a character so full of himself he was given the nickname “Funnel”— because every thought that passed through his narrow mind flowed out into an exhilarated rush of self-aggrandizement. In the first episode of the podcast, Funnel, channeling Lee, boasts, in language now somewhat familiar to most Americans,

      정봉주: 잘 모르고, 공부를 안 하고, 연구를 해도 다른 사람들보다 10배는 더 잘 아니까. (폭소)
      Despite my lack of expertise, study, and research, I know everything 10 times better than anyone else!
      정봉주: 이미 트웟에세는 정보주가 어마어마하게 유면한 인사가 돼더라고요.
      I have already become the most famous man on Twitter!

And, in the sixth episode,

      저는 가끔씩 발언하고, “주여! 과연 이 생각이 제 생각입니 까?” 어마어마하죠. 저는 깜짝 놀라는게 아니라, 깜짝깜짝 놀랍니다. (폭 소)

      Whenever I say something, often I ask, “Oh God, is this what I think?” It is fabulous! I even impress myself.

      (Translation from Kyoo Sang Jo’s 2015 master’s thesis, “Rhetorical Analysis of a Political Satire Podcast: Naneun Ggomsuda.”)

It’s hard to believe how recently it was that Chung Bong-ju was thrown in jail for a year for his disrespect, PARK Geunhye was the new President, the blacklisting of artists had begun, and Korean comedy shows stopped delivering political satire. With the noise of dissension finally quieted, for not quite five years, the people of South Korea lived simple, virtuous lives—until they took to the street en masse.

As I write, President MOON Jae-in’s honeymoon has begun—already, in his first week, he has authorized the collective singing of the previously banned “March for the Beloved“ (임을 위한 행진곡) at Gwangju for the May 18th commemoration of the 1980 “Gwangju Massacre.” He’s already cancelled the stateauthorized “official” revised high school history book, promised to give the temporary workers at Incheon airport proper full status, and adopted an abused dog and named her (quite unfortunately in terms of his brand, if one is actually thinking of global politics) Tory. With the disappearance of the Blue House’s blacklists and an anticipated more lenient interpretation of the 1948 National Security Law, satire has returned to Korea’s version of Saturday Night Live.

Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the original Saturday Night Live, with its weekly caricatures of the President and his bepodiumed spokesperson, is drawing larger audiences than it has in 22 years. It’s still a bit early in the new administration for blacklists—at least those that reach down as far as artists. (At the time of this writing, the American President is still working on his list of replacements for Director of the country’s domestic spying agency (the Federal Bureau of Investigation or FBI) to replace the Director he fired for investigating him). The multimillionman marches that took place in Seoul over much of the fall, winter, and early spring of 2016 and 2017 (organizers claim over 16 million anti-Park demonstrators marched between October 2016 and March 2017) are still some time off for Washington, D.C., but conservative attacks on satirists and comedians have already begun.

In a May 10th article in the American Conservative, Robert W. Merry attributes the triumph of “a vulgarian such as Trump” to “the degradation of American culture” by American comedians, starting with Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred Schneider, October 13, 1925 - August 3, 1966), “the raunchy comedian of the 1950s and 60s who pushed the envelope of propriety—and then kept pushing,” and ending with the mainstream CBS late-night television talk show host Stephen Colbert, who recently caught the attention of the watchdog Federal Communications System (FCC) for his profane allusions to the President. (In fact, the FCC doesn’t regulate profanity or indecency after 10 p.m.—a child-protective remnant of pre-Internet days.) Colbert, I know (as much as anyone could who lived abroad without a TV for all of the years of his satirical Colbert Report); Bruce, I had to look up. The first thing I noted was that he, too, has a delightful “All Alone” song reminiscent of Kim Jong-Il’s hit “I’m So Ronery.” He died young, years before I was born or social media was invented. With nothing but a stage and a microphone, Bruce, in Merry’s words, “panned everything people held dear, assaulting their most delicate sensibilities and ignoring every societal no-no.” As with Chung Bong-ju, Bruce wasn’t far into his career before the police came calling.

There have always been comedians cracking jokes in the FCC safeharbor wee hours. Contrary to Merry’s assertion, it was not those funny ones who brought us Trump, or Lee, or Park, or Moon, or Le Pen, or Macron. Comedians did not bring us all of what Merry describes in his article as society’s “bawdy and nasty pugilism against societal sensibilities . . . [its] raunchy language . . . [its] porn . . . [its] tumbling down of the barriers of civility.” It could be argued that Bruce, Colbert, and “The Funnel,” all have had as their objective the defense of civil society from tyrannical politicians. If you are going to blame comedians for the rise of Trump, you may as well blame the Hoover vacuum cleaner for the dissolution of the traditional American family. Confucius himself would no doubt have found the Rock ‘n Roll of the post-war generation decadent, corrupting, and anathema to the “proper form of music (雅音 야음), [which should be] refined, improving, . . . essential for selfcultivation,” and symbolic of good and stable governance.

Harvard Professor Michael Sandel blames the country’s moral decline on the shift from a market economy to a market society. Already, in 1996, he was warning, in Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, that, absent a stronger civic republican spirit, liberalism would collapse. Does this not sound like a more plausible cause of the country’s decline than the words of a few stand-up comedians?

Anyone born during the previous century who watched the May 2017 televised Korean election results, reported back via dabbin’ Moon, Rocky Hong, and Aragorn Ahn, likely got the feeling that the century of our birth has passed, never to return. Korean Millennials have embraced as their own the “cute“ Japanese aesthetic of kawaii (可 愛い) that entered Korea 20 years ago, and it now extends not only to teenage relationships but the serious business of government, such that even the Korean National Police Agency is now represented by “Podori,” a cartoon character designed by one of Korea’s most famous comic book artists, LEE Hyeon Se, for “the New Police for the New Millennium!” While a certain populist fun-loving aspect has been part of Korean culture for as long as I have been here—I noted a column or two back that almost all traditional short danga songs end with the entreaty “What is there to do but play?—Koreans also value good form. Amid all of the postmodern glitz, animated paratroopers, and irreverent podcasts, people are serious about appearances here.

The day after the election, my good friend and colleague Hyun Kyong Chang, a researcher at Ewha University, wrote on her Facebook page, under a photo she posted of a triumphant President Moon and cabinet walking down the stairs of a government building, “폼나네... 그래 폼도 중요하니깐. 오바마도 폼났었지”— roughly and on the literal side, “Now that’s form. Check out how [Moon] carries himself . . . Form is also important. Obama carried himself well too, didn’t he.” (More colloquially, “Dang. He’s got style!”).

And then there was the headline in the May 11th Joongang-Ilbo: “‘얼굴 패권주의’ 신조어 등장하게 한 문재인 대통령 경호원”—again, loosely, “Newly coined phrase ‘Facial Hegemony’ applied to one of Moon Jae-in’s bodyguards.” The man’s good looks and the rest of what’s now been dubbed the “handsome brigade” are being thought by more than a few to “lead the way”—that is, to represent the new direction of Korea under the new President.

While it may be tempting to make light of “hegemonism” during this week’s landslide euphoria by pointing to all of the young good looking stylish politicians (and bodyguards) situated around President Moon, if we look up the definition of “hegemony“ (패권 | 覇權) in Korean, as I did while translating the passages above, it is interesting to note that there is a second part to its etymology (from Naver) that we don’t find in the English. Koreans don’t think of “hegemony“ alone, but as part of a moral and philosophical binary: “中國에서는 傳統的으로 나라를 다스리는 데 두 가지 방법을 제시하였는데, 그중 하나는 仁義 道德을 중요시하는 王道 政治 思想으로, 孔子나 孟子의 儒家 思想이 있다. 다른 하나는 전 백성을 군사화하고 무력을 증강하여 패권을 차지하려는 覇 道政治로 법가 사상이 이에 속한다.” That is, in China, there were two traditional ways to rule the country. One was the wangdo, the “righteous way” (왕도 |王道), through ren and li (historically translated variously as humanity and ritual, or reciprocity and “the optimally appropriate,” or kindheartedness and righteousness . . . ) and dao and de (the “Way” and morality/virtue/charismatic power) emphasized by Confucius and Mencius. The other was through dominance or hegemony, the paedo (패도| 覇道), which aimed to rule via strong military—the way championed by the Legalists. In other words, in popular thought in Korea and China, and in the rest of the sinosphere, “the rule of right and the rule of might” represent a clear, dualistic choice.

Those who study Asian cultures, philosophies, and traditions tend to see themselves as followers of the wangdo, “the righteous path,” even if they are conservative. If you study Chinese history, you find rulers, such as the “first emperor” of Qin, QIN Shihuang, known for building the Great Wall, and his prime minister, LI Si, famous for instigating his boss to “burn the books and bury the scholars” beginning in 213 BC, often to have allied with the Legalists. Thus, one of the few Park Geunhye supporters in my orbit, seemingly not overly bothered by the blacklists, history books revisions, and censorship of comedians, told me she liked Park because of her dignity and carriage—characteristics she thought Park picked up in the Blue House, perhaps not so much as the daughter of former President PARK Chung-hee, but, later, after the assassination of her mother, as first lady. For my friend, Park’s underlying appeal had in large part to do with aesthetics—she was a righteous figure who could model proper form for the nation.

Curious if anyone agreed, I floated this premise among other friends. Sure, they said, she had outward dignity. She carried herself well, said one acquaintance, but it was all empty form, like a perfect vase with no flowers or water—“a kind of lie filled with air.” Anglophiles might remember the patina of the paternalistic conservative ruling class’s manners being stripped away following the Suez crisis of 1956 and the Profumo affair of 1963, after which such airs suddenly were no longer to be emulated but instead mocked on late night stages around England. The May election, perhaps, marked that moment in Korea.

That said, older Koreans still remain hyper aware of form and everything that has to do with class. Americans, with their stubborn creation myth of a classless society and even more stubborn continuing myth of individualism, are less interested in conforming to old systems of etiquette that still smell to them of British repression. But Americans and Koreans do intersect on the topic of sincerity—진심 | 眞心—or, in American slang, “keeping it real.” For Koreans, this is expressed through form; that is, through manners and through the expression of jeong 정 | 情—something like deep affection. The song “Sarangga” (love song) from the pansori Chunhyang-ga is a study in jeong— each line ending in jeong describing a different kind of love or affection. Trump won because people thought he was keeping it real—that he had jeong for them. Bernie Sanders, even with the word “socialism” written all over his platform, almost won the Democratic nomination for the same reason. He was “telling it like it is.” He had jeong for the people. Park lost because her perfect form was devoid of sincere content. Jeongless etiquette.

Recently, I revisited one of the required readings for any undergraduate East Asianist: Herbert Fingarette’s The Secular as Sacred. In it, he looks at Confucian ritual through a 1970s American secular lens, at one point contemplating the American ritual handshake:

      I see you on the street; I smile, walk toward you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold—without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without
      any effort on my part to make you do so—you spontaneously turn toward me,       return my smile, raise your hand toward mine. We shake hands—not by my pulling your
      hand up and down or your pulling mine but spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. . . . [W] e who shake hands . . . must have (but not think about) respect and trust.
      Otherwise we find ourselves fumbling awkwardly or performing in a lifeless fashion, which easily conveys its meaninglessness to the other.

The simple American handshake was where it started going wrong for Trump after the election. Cable news reminded us every day of President Trump’s consistent inability to follow the decorum Americans have come to associate with the oval office especially that having to do with this Western handshake ritual— from his full-bodied, endless jerky power shakes with Japanese Prime Minister Abe to his failure to take German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s outstretched hand. One comedy writer couldn’t resist referring to Trump’s clumsy handling of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “twoshake solution.”

According to Fingarette, there are two ways to fail at ceremony:

      the ceremony may be awkwardly performed for lack of learning and skill; or the ceremony may have a surface slickness but yet be dull, mechanical for lack of serious
      purpose and commitment. Beautiful and effective ceremony requires the personal ‘presence’ to be fused with learned ceremonial skill
      . . . .

      Confucius characteristically and sharply contrasts the ruler who uses li [ritual ceremony] against the ruler who seeks to attain his ends by means of commands,
      threats, relations, punishments and force.

Cracks are starting to appear in Trumps vase of public affection for the same reasons they did in Park’s. With every Wall Street cabinet appointment and tax break for the wealthy, his “keeping it real” campaign’s rhetorical form reveals itself to be but a flowerless, waterless vessel. His constituency of working class voters who, mistaking his Moroccan Magic Spray Tan #2 for red-dirt prairie dust, were counting on their outsider to ride in and rescue their town from the economic and cultural villains are beginning to see that, while Clinton may still be the enemy, Trump is far from a true friend. A May 13th article in the Washington Post quoted a Trump supporter with a cracked molar who showed up at a stadium of dentists from five states to be one of the first 1,000 people in line to get her tooth pulled for free: “I am hearing about a number of people who will lose their coverage under the new [health care] plan,” the supporter lamented. “Is Trump the wolf in grandma’s clothes? My husband and I are now saying to each other: ‘Did we really vote for him?’”

American working class pride, once so dearly held, has been eroded and mocked by Clintonian globalization and the rise of Goldman Sachs— and both major political parties’ dependence on these post Dodd- Frank, post Citizens United players. Trump promised to empower those who were not at the top of the class system—the masses of Americans comedian George Carlin was no doubt thinking of when he quipped, “That’s why they call it ‘the American Dream’: because you have to be asleep to believe it.” But Trump doesn’t actually know how to fix their problems. I don’t know how to fix anything either, but I can do a much more sincere handshake.

While comedians have the power to insult, Presidents have the power to injure in lasting ways. Writes Michael Sandel:

      The only way of reining in the uncritical embrace of markets is to revitalize public discourse by engaging in questions of values more directly. Social democracy has to
      become less managerial and technocratic and has to return to its roots in a kind of moral and civic critique of the excesses of capitalism. At the level of public philosophy
      or ideology it has to work out a conception of a just society, it has to work out a conception of the common good, it has to work out a conception of moral and civic
      education as it relates to democracy and empowerment. That’s a big project and it hasn’t yet been realized by any contemporary socialdemocratic party.

This may be as good a description as any of the task that lies before MOON Jae-in. One day, the Americans may get back around to it, too—if the comedians are allowed to keep up their good work.

Professor Jocelyn Clark

Jocelyn Clark is a Professor at Pai Chai University and KBLA Arts Ambassador.


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