--->Travelogue #41: "Just Doing It for the Experience..." / What Does That Really Mean?
Note: This article was featured in an abbreviated form in the July 2008 issue of The East (UK).
They want to be beaten up, they want to be arrested, and they want it to be seen on tv.
Minutes ago they attacked the barricade, flopping it until it flung off its hinges. Now they're jabbing ladders up at the policemen. The candlelit crowd roars for these shirtless rebels. It's after midnight on Jongo, and an estimated 40,000 protesters and navel-gazers have shut down one of the busiest thoroughfares in Seoul. They're mad about mad cow disease and U.S. beef imports, and they're not going anywhere. Through a bullhorn the police warns against illegal violence, only to be countered with a truck-riding protester and his intercom chant of "YOU ARE ILLEGAL! THE GOVERNMENT IS ILLEGAL!"
I've never before been to a protest, much less one of this magnitude. The mad cow controversy has effectively conquered Korea: you can't pass a television set without seeing the persistent stream of protests or President Lee Myung-bak's befuddled reactions to the ongoing frenzy. The issue is on the tip of my students' tongues, and I've torn my hair out trying to remain even-handed at a disease I see as dangerous...only because of its overblown, out-of-proportion reputation for danger.
On this very blog, a thoughtful reader commented on a previous post of mine, arguing on behalf of those who see legitimate risk in importing American beef. "My opinion is that only one percent of risk is high enough, because we are not talking about a tummyache, but a disease that kills your brain slowly," he said. I cringed at how mischievously he squeezed "kills your brain slowly" into a sentence where even he admits the extreme unlikelihood of contracting the disease. And forget one percent: according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, "A rough estimate of this risk for the UK in the recent past, for example, was about 1 case per 10 billion servings." And that's in the UK, a country with a legitimate outbreak of mad cow disease in the 1990s, as opposed to the USA, where all of three cows were ever found to carry the sickness.
But therein lies the rub. At the protest, I see firsthand how little the outcry has to do with beef safety. This is about individual agendas. While news outlets like the Korea Times later report that, "40,000 protesters marched in downtown Seoul Saturday," I find these "protesters" less than completely united, not to mention how some of them look disinterested in "marching." I see many huddled on blankets, eating tomatoes and drinking soju. I see others hoisting Che Guevara revolucion flags, and still others raising the rainbow gay pride flag. Families are picnicking and college students are laughing.
You can argue that such diversity in this crowd spells solidarity against the beef imports, but to me it spells a blur of disassociated iconography that builds to a whole lot of posturing and a fair bit of violence.
Not everybody is cheering on the shirtless rebels as they try to climb atop the buses and engage the police fist-to-fist,
but nobody is booing. The better-mannered candlelit majority is complicit. Some of them have been on this street for seventy-two hours, but still they chant for Lee Myung-bak to resign. They chant and chant and chant.
I feel sorry for Korea's president. But what can I do?