Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Korea note, and looking at a larger issue

The Marmot's Hole quotes an informative column in the March 11 WSJ print edition, sent to him by a reader who took the time to type out the piece and send it by email. In the age of the internet this primitive method of passing information strikes me as odd, at least. We know that the WSJ charges for online access, which excludes from their readership those like me who already have so much to read for free that it seems silly to pay for anything more. It begs the question: how much is known by a relatively small number of people that routinely escapes notice by the great unwashed?

[Before I address that question, here is a clip from the column mentioned above. It underscores what I have said in the past about the connection between the Koreas, North and South. Contrary to the impressions of most Americans, there is a great deal of nationalistic pride (Can we say chauvinism?) in Korea. Attempts to orchestrate reunification on the part of outside players, like China, the US, and most particularly Japan - deeply despised by most Koreans - is not only unwelcome, but offensive. It's more complex than we imagine.

The US, focused on preventing nuclear proliferation and disarming North Korea, is looking for ways to ratchet up the economic pressure on Pyongyang. But the South Korean government is busy working to help keep its former enemy afloat with aid and economic cooperation projects.

After a fratricidal war in the early 1950’s, followed by decades of Cold War hostility, South Korea made a sharp turn in the late 1990’s, moving to subsidize its erstwhile rival. Now, landmines have been pulled from two parts of the demilitarized zone to allow the reconnection of roads to move goods and even tourists to the North.

Behind Seoul’s decision is a basic calculation: A collapse of North Korea, highly militarized and deeply impoverished after nearly 50 years of Stalinist rule, would be simply too expensive, in both economic and political terms. So officials here largely oppose steps that could destabilize Kim Jong Il’s regime, which many US policymakers would just as soon see disappear.


Seoul’s devotion to engagement — promoting joint projects and exchanges with the North — limits Washington’s maneuvering room. There are no practical military options. South Korea and China, North Korea’s two main economic benefactors, fear a collapse there and are very reluctant to consider economic sanctions.

Anyone interested in the detail should read the entire piece. The Marmots Hole is an established blog by an American in Korea which I have been following for a couple of years. His take on matters affecting Korea is worth noting.]

Back, now, to the larger question.
How much information is known by a relatively small number of people (I say "small" although in this case we may be talking in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions) that never comes to the attention of a majority?

At a time when there seems to be a worldwide movement toward representative governments, it is fair to raise the question of exactly what and who is being represented. Leaders have always known that power flows from information, and any method that can control information is another way to wield power. Note the following...

***Yesterday I was excited by pictures of a mammoth demonstration staged in Beirut. The pictures and video clips on the internet were compelling. As when the trunami hit the Bay of Bengal, I turned on the television, hoping to see more extensive, possible live coverage of the events. Obviously cameras were rolling and there must have been tons of photo-ops. Obviously the demonstrators were shooting for that kind of coverage. After all, big signs in English (One said "zoom in - we are all Lebanese") and a football-stadium-like assembly of people holding up colored cards creating a giant Lebanese human flag, which could turn to all black upon a signal from some director, could not have been anything like "spontaneous."
I looked in vain for TV coverage.
The satellite channel that showed all six news channels with a thumbnail picture at the top - nothing more than a passing line or two read by the anchor with about two seconds of video.
At 6:30 NBC made no mention in their four or five lead ticklers.
At 7:00 ABC made brief passing mention, but little more.
Every channel found air time for Michael Jackson, although they had to make space for the big story of the day, the dramatic account of the released hostage who persuaded a killer on the loose to surrender without bloodshed.

***I didn't get to watch more than a snip, but CNN had a very interesting piece addressing the blogging of news. Two or three young people who seemed pretty well-informed were surfing a bunch of websites and discussing how news is handled by bloggers. I wish I could have watched more, but the fact that there was such a story is all I need for this list. It illustrates how a fairly obscure number of informed people can start rocking the boat. And the corrollary to that: how a vast number of uninformed people can be led by the nose.
How many in the audience responded with "Hmm, that's interesting. I Wonder how Martha Stewart is doing?"

***The Social Security debate is off and running, and lost in the confusion is the simple fact that there is a cap on earned income which protects high-income people from contributing to Social Security the same proportional amount as low-income people do. This extremely important fact is neither known nor understood by most people. The few who do know and understand do not connect the importance of that fact to the debate.
Relative to the same debate, there seems to be no understanding that Social Security is not "Individual" Security. The program is not intended to be anything more than a social safety net against destitution. Payments to Social Security are more comparable to insurance premiums than bank deposits. We hope never to see insurance money again, but we get angry if we can't get our hands on money in the bank.

***This morning Daniel Drezner picked up on a fascinating report from China about a wave of people there renouncing their allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party. The story only appears in one source, and he is trying to find some other comment on what could be an important popular movement in China toward discrediting the Communist Party. This story, if there is anything to it, could be the tip of a very important iceberg. (I remember the words of Dao Xipang "It doesn't matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice.") The comments thread seems to be getting some response, but before many people really get into the loop there is a long, long way to go.

These are just a few cases I have noticed where there is gap between important information and the number of people who seem to be getting it. In this case "getting it" is a great figure of speech, because to some extent ignorance, always more comfortable than the hard work of becoming informed, is the path of least resistance.

Terry Gross (NPR, Fresh Air) interviewed a Brit who has written a book about Al Jezeera, the Arab news network. She asked him (over and over, using different words - tiresome after the first time or two) how it was that a network purporting to be good journalism had no editorial interest in limiting what we call "hate speech" and allowing guest to repeatedly express ideas and opinions inciting others to violence. His reply (over and over - equally tiresome, but he was very patient in his repetitions) was that Al Jezeera was nothing more than a mirror. They do not create the situation that vast number of their audience hate and despise America and are ready to wipe Israel off the map. They only report and reflect the realities of the region.

When I hold these two images up to the light it is hard to see much difference.
It is very easy to see the mote in someone else's eye. Less easy when it is in our own.
I'm not sure what the conclusion should be, but I am reminded of Pogo's line that "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

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