Thursday, June 12, 2008

Protest by South Koreans Reveals Lack of American Civic Duty

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

An article on the front page of the New York Times yesterday revealed that "tens of thousands" of South Koreans "spilled into central Seoul" to protest a government decision yesterday. What caused such an outpouring of rage? You might be surprised to know that it was the simple act of the government lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports.

Now, I am sure the social, financial and health arguments on both sides of the beef-import issue have merit. To be honest, I don't really care much if South Korea imports U.S. beef or not (I'm a vegetarian, after all). But I took something very different from this front-page story, namely that tens of thousands of Koreans had the civic pride and interest in national affairs to mobilize an angry protest over an issue that, compared to the hurdles the world is facing now, is quite minor.

I couldn't help but contrast the outrage of the Koreans to the absolute passivity of Americans, who this week were subjected to two far larger government decisions that should have provoked outrage. I mean, if the Koreans took to the streets over a food-import debate (yes, I know that it goes to nationalist sentiments, but, again, it comes down to whether or not to allow beef into the country), what would they have done if their government admitted that it lied to them to get them to support a bogus war?

That's right, just last week, a U.S. Senate committee found that President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other high-ranking administration members, in the run-up to the Iraq war, "distorted the facts, or said things that were not supported by the facts, [or] said things they knew or should have known were not true." What was the reaction of the American people? Silence.

Big surprise, considering that the New York Times reported on April 20 that the Pentagon had trained retired military officials to pose as unbiased experts on news shows in the run-up to the war. The reaction to this admission? Silence.

And then this week, the Senate again acted, as the body could not muster the 60 votes needed to kill a Republican filibuster of a bill that would tax windfall profits of the oil companies and direct the proceeds to consumer relief, as well as tax breaks for the development of alternative forms of energy. Keep in mind that the oil companies are enjoying record profits while ordinary Americans are struggling to stay afloat as gas prices hit four dollars per gallon, and the cost of nearly everything else has skyrocketed due to the increased energy costs. Also keep in mind that we are in a global warming crisis that threatens the very existence of humans on earth. Not to mention that the American addiction to oil is a national security problem, keeping us engaged in military activity in the Middle East to protect the country's oil interests.

With a glaring and obvious need for major action to address the short-term and long-term crises posed by the U.S. reliance on oil, the Republicans, as usual, chose to protect corporate profits at the expense of the interests of the American people and the national interest in developing alternative sources of energy. And the response of U.S. citizens to this decision? Silence.

As I discussed on Tuesday, because of the control of the media by a handful of corporations who are more interested in profit and power than serving the public interest, none of these stories got major play in the national mainstream media. So many people would argue that the American people did not have the information, the tools, if you will, to summon outrage over these issues like their Korean counterparts.

I wish it was that simple.

While the specific, nuts-and-bolts details of these recent stories may not have been distributed widely, it's not like the underlying themes (the government lied to make a case for war in Iraq and has no real plan to combat the challenges relating to oil, energy and global warming) aren't out there. Or, to borrow the language of the Senate report, the American people "knew or should have known" that these problems exist.

So it squarely falls onto the shoulders of U.S. citizens to stand up and call for change. Where is the outrage? The soldiers and their families paying a severe price in Iraq (more than 4,000 dead, tens of thousands wounded, and hundreds of thousands having their lives psychologically, financially and personally ripped apart) are not quasi-citizens that don't matter. They are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers; they are us. Contrary to what John McCain thinks, when they are coming home is important. But when a major party nominee for the presidency says it's "not too important," where is the outrage?

Many critics of President Bush, me included, have argued that his deceit and abuse and extension of the power of the executive branch has damaged our democracy more than any president in recent history, even more than Richard Nixon. But another way to look at it is that democracy is working perfectly in the United States. If the idea of a representative democracy is for government and its elected officials to carry out the will of the citizens, and the job of the electorate is to monitor the government and vote out of office those who don't do the job they were elected to do, then things are running smoothly and perfectly. Americans have failed in their job of keeping tabs on what is happening in this country, and as such, the current government in power, across all three branches, has run wild. If the people are unhappy with the actions of its government, they should act. But they haven't. So they get what they deserve.

Put another way, Americans shouldn't complain about skyrocketing gas prices, failed energy policies, a debacle in Iraq and global warming, since they, by not acting, have allowed these situations to spiral out of control. It's as much a fault of the electorate as it is the government carrying out the actual policies.

There is no doubt that the stranglehold a small group of corporations holds on the media is a major problem in this country that has to be addressed. But based on the evidence of the current conduct of the American people, it is hard to argue that a fully functioning free press that exposes the greed and corruption in government would make much of a difference right now.

An effective media is useless if the citizens are too lazy or self-interested to listen. If they lack the most basic sense of the civic obligation of being a citizen in a democracy.

You might think the South Koreans are overreacting, but nobody can say that they don't take their citizenship responsibilities seriously. It's shameful that the Koreans can muster tens of thousands of people in the streets over beef imports, but we can't muster ten protesters over the fact that the President of the United States lied his way into a disastrous war.

Where is the outrage?