Thursday, May 15, 2014

On Security

In South Korea, it’s Teachers’ Day. The wind comes out of the west, snaps the flags, the clouds boil. My students give me a package of cookies and a note: We will always be grateful to you for your support and kindness. The Sewol ferry sinking, the deaths of hundreds of teenagers, is the only thing on the news. The girls laugh in the halls. They wear yellow ribbons to remember the dead. My facebook feed is full of wedding photos. Also advertisements. The Antarctic ice sheet has heard its death knell. It will melt, unstoppable.


The ferry disaster, I imagine, was a stark piece of international news for most – a feeling of real sadness and empathy, but which soon receded into memory. A tragedy, but at a distance.

Here in South Korea it has not been out of mind for anyone, it seems, since it occurred. It has dominated much of the news, even as it became clear that there was nothing to be done but retrieve the bodies. Culturally prescribed mourning requires us to cancel any celebratory events. The moment touches a unique Korean trait, han, which ‘connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice’(wikipedia), and because of it’s ubiquity, creates an intense cultural solidarity.

Though a foreigner, I feel something similar, especially as I teach students of the same age. I can easily imagine my halls empty, flowers on the desks. All these young individuals who I’ve come to know, suddenly absent from the living world, leaving a vacuum.

For each family it is an immense personal tragedy. And for some indefinable reason, it is that much worse when so many people die at once, and so young. It is right we should feel empathy for them. It’s an example of our better natures.

At once the event begs some perspective. Very often we ignore our commonplace dangers, those that take one life here, two there. Or when the numbers grow too large (think of a tsunami that carried away 200,000 in the not so distant past) we can no longer hold them in mind, and our empathy is diluted beyond recognition. Whereas, when a few hundred are taken, we call for vengeance, watch rapt at the television screen.

A Korean friend of mine was using her smart phone to check the body count. This a week after the ferry had sunk. Everyone was sure at this point there were no survivors. What possible use could that information be, I wondered. It’s true, the families want the bodies of their loved ones returned to them. But the rest of us? When does this cross the line into a kind of obsession with macabre mechanics, sensationalizing what was honest and raw?

Likewise with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines 370. A friend pointed out that not knowing how our loved ones meet their end leaves us in a terrible limbo state. Hence the exhaustive search. My answer is that, at some point, we must accept what has happened: they have disappeared and are not coming back. There is no chance they have survived. If the plane were found, we would hardly know more than we already do. We would not know how our sister or mother or daughter felt in her last moments.

I am not diminishing the personal tragedy. It is exactly that. But at a remove, we ought to recognize that we live in an inherently insecure world. We believe our technology should have made us safe from harm - an incredible, bald fallacy when we look at it. Planes should not disappear, ferries should not capsize and sink, should they? So many false shoulds. We go hunting for someone to blame, when the world is fundamentally chaotic. The captain of the Sewol will meet justice for his misdeeds and miscalculations, which lead to so much death. But we would like to indict chaos and uncertainty themselves – the best we can do is a man with terrible morals.

Meanwhile we fear shark attacks, serial killers, lightning strikes; and we climb into our cars to drive blithely at ninety miles an hour, a speed no human has achieved before modernity without falling to her death.

The Sewol is thought to have capsized after an extreme starboard turn, and the sinking is partly attributed to the poorly balanced and secured cargo on its deck. The passengers were told to remain in their cabins, when in retrospect they clearly should have exited as quickly as possible. The evacuation order came too late, and may not have been heard at all.

Poor judgment, miscalculation, narcissistic self-preservation. Accidents and human nature and mishandled technology – this is an allegory for a greater problem.

Close on the heals of the disaster comes the news that the Western Antarctic glaciers are headed for collapse. How soon is another question, but that they will is now certain.

The irony of the ferry disaster is that while many around the world are saddened to tears; while there are demands for vengeance against and fundamental change in the government and corporations; while some make racist remarks that Korean culture is somehow responsible for the disaster; while there is essentially a great news cycle uproar, few among us are raising such a sustained hue-and-cry over what is rightly termed ecocide, even geocide.

I should not have to list the reasons we can name it thus. In every sector of life, in every corner of the globe, industrial civilization is making itself felt, a wave of destruction. It’s why I call the blaming of Korean communalistic culture for the ferry sinking racist. For what kind of culture grinds the world’s bones to make its bread, and calls it progress? Individualistically or communalistically, we are bringing life low.

What is perhaps most surprising is humanity’s nonchalant reaction to this news. If we put aside the fact that the world has an intrinsic value beyond the monetary, and we use only the rubric of human survival and quality of life, even then we can see we are making a bad bargain. The evidence for this is clear: for the sake of the trifles of technology, we are stealing our own lives from ourselves. The can of industrially-produced beans we buy today, we are taking from our own mouths in the tomorrow.

Yet where is the rage, the grief, the world-wide han? Why do we work so hard to buy all this toxic stuff, to grind the world to dust? Even the most aware among us shrug our shoulders at the quotidian executions we participate in.

It is clear to me that we need sustainable communities, ones that can support themselves into perpetuity on their own land-base. That’s the only way to slow this advancing destruction of life. This will of course necessitate that we learn a few things about farming and wild-crafting and living with our land. Personally, this doesn’t make me cringe; rather, it sounds like heaven. But many people I mention it to seem taken aback, seem downright afraid. Farming is a hard life, I am told over and over, I couldn’t see myself doing that.

It’s true, we might have to work our bodies hard, out-of-doors. But is that harder than sitting in a box looking at a computer, while the world falls apart outside? Is that harder than producing wealth for other people for sixty years, just to earn a little time at the end to watch some TV?

I think at base people are most afraid of hitching their fates to the vagaries of weather and season, the mystery of growing things. If that is the fear though, then we make the mistake of thinking we have escaped from those things as we are now. We are still subject to the chaos of the green, growing-and-dying world, that we are so busy trashing. For a moment, technology has allowed us to believe otherwise, but it is an illusion, one that images of sinking ferries and disappearing planes ought to pierce.  If we want security, we ought to engage with the world and learn to care for it.

Perhaps these disasters are not so much allegory as synecdoche – a smaller part standing in for the whole. The Sewol was an example of carbon-burning modern technology after all – it can stand in place of our whole industrial experiment. And perhaps we are not so much the parents standing on the shore, after the fact, riddled with han, but the students on the ferry itself as it begins to list, confused, fearful, hoping for the best, waiting for some authority to give us direction. The captain up till now has held a firm belief in his command of the vessel, in his ability to keep sailing as before. He must be questioning that now, some bad decisions have been made, the ship is taking on water, he is not sure if he can right it. From the start the cargo was badly balanced, the voyage fundamentally flawed.

If we could look into the future with clear eyes, we would see that if we continue as we are, few of us will survive. The captain and crew, the authorities who are steering this ship, are high above water and can escape when the situation seems dire. Their crackling voices may come over the intercom, telling us to get out, but by then it will be too late for us. As it stands now, we are being told to stay in our cabins.

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