I've been meaning for sometime to write some of my thoughts on the resistance to militarization taking place in the small village of Gangjeong on the island of Jeju in South Korea. I put up a couple of posts llast week about the most recent round of protests. I traveled there for two days last summer in order to learn about the struggle going on there against plans to build a joint Naval facility for US and South Korean forces. The facility would be used for Aegis Destroyers and would displace many farmers an end up destroying some very beautiful and unique coral off the coast.
I was struck by the tenacity of the villagers when I was there. They knew that things were against them, that much of the rest of the island and the rest of South Korea didn't care what happened in their quaint village, and that better something like this be put in a tiny village then in the backyards of some larger community. Such is the logic that has meant that Okinawa which is 0.6% of the total land mass of Japan has to shoulder 3/4 of its US military presence, and that Guam, a tiny island of a little more than 220 square miles, has to be almost 30% US military facilities. They were to be one of those tucked away sacrifices which are made on behalf of everyone else. The rest of the island of Jeju would get to enjoy the "economic benefits" of the dock, all of South Korea was supposed to enjoy the "protection" the facility would offer regionally, and the only thing lost is a little land and coastline in someone's small village.
When I was in Gangjeong I gave a short speech before about 100 of the farmers there, and I told them that what I had witnessed there was something that I would call "the most beautiful thing in the world." When this was translated to the villagers most of whom spoke very little English, many of them sat up in their chairs, not sure what I meant by this. I had attempted to make a couple jokes already in my speech, some of which translated, others didn't, so who knew what I was talking about now.
I elaborated that, in so many places in the world truly precious and beautiful things have been sold off, given up, destroyed for some short-term, usually economic gain. As Arundhati Roy wrote in her book An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire, nowadays,
Everything's discounted -- oceans, rivers, oil, gene pools, fig wasps, flowers, childhoods, aluminum factories, phone companies, wisdom, wilderness, civil rights, ecosystems, air -- all 4,600 million years of evolution. It's packed, sealed, tagged, valued and available off the rack. (No returns). As for justice -- I'm told it's on offer too. You can get the best that money can buy.
I told the villagers about Guam and how Guam has become so modernized and Americanized so fast, but has lost so much of its beauty and history because of that. Sacred and historic cultural sites and artifacts destroyed or lost because there was money to be made, or the people who wanted to make money couldn't be inconvenienced with such trifles. The world that we live in is simply unsustainable. The cultures which privileged long-term sustainability over short term gain tended to lose in terms of history, tended to be conquered or dominated by others, and thus the ideology of ravenous capitalistic expansion and colonization became the ideas that run the world of today. As the world has gotten wrapped up in this typhoon of progress and development, so much has been lost, and even if people appreciate what they traded or what was traded for it on their behalf, the losses still haunt us. And that haunting is the nagging, the knowing that the price was most likely too high and that we should not have given that something up.There is a guilt, a longing, a feeling of buyer's remorse, a missing what we had destroyed, and sometimes quiet, sometimes angry recriminations that we have made a mistake.
So many people realize too late the importance of so many things. That is one of the "joyful" glitches of human life, is that the road not traveled, and the universe which might have awaited the other side of a particular choice, the love never realized, will always hold some power over us. Even if the choice we made led to us winning the lottery and becoming rich beyond our wildest dreams, or finding a partner that we spent a full and happy life with, there is always a nagging that something was lost along the way. That you could have done something different, and that "different" has a luster to it because it is woven from possibility and not actuality. And that is why the potential is always so tempting, because it seems to be without the stain of something being lost.
But before people reading this pause and think to themselves, that the previous paragraph was yet another philosophically pointless paragraph of everything being everything and nothing being nothing. Just because the something is always lost thesis is true does not dismiss the issue. Like all ontological cracks in the world, it is not something that you can just ignore, but something which the whole of life grows around and on top of like weeds. Even if we know this, it doesn't save us from it, but merely gives us another way of struggling with that fundamental trauma. Another way of thinking about it, talking about it, dealing with it. It means that we cannot give up our choices to some abstract deity or force, but that we get to choose the direction of our life and life with the guilt, the nostalgia and the inherent damage that we do to ourselves (or what we could have been) because of it.
That fact the something will always be given up doesn't heal you in any way, you are still accountable to the moment you live in and to the way the world exists. You still have to live with the choices and so that is why I saw such beauty in the fight of the people of Gangjeong. They have heard of or seen so many other communities faced with a similar choice, and chosen to give up something preciously natural for something less sustainable or even full of embedded human violence. They have seen others make those choices or be forced to make that choice and later lament their new lot in life, and so they chose to resist instead. To not be another community which looks at its concrete jungle and loathes what it has become. Who sees the environmental degradation which follows rapid industrialization or militarization and can do nothing more than point at something surprisingly ephemeral, which feels small and hollow given what was irreplaceably lost. It is a thing of beauty to see people who do not merely follow the perceived arc of history, who do not simply tread the path of others and make the same mistakes, but work to bend that arc in a totally different direction.
President Obama likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous statement that the arc of history, or the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Obama quotes this because of the way it is both comforting, inspiring and yet also conservative. Part of Obama's key narrative on his road to the White House, was captured in his "Yes We Can" speech, where he gave a brief history of how during different struggles people had refused to accept the status quo and had risen up, unified by the idea that "Yes They Can!" Obama's history lesson was inspiring most importantly in the sense that Renan wrote of nations, in that they have to forget much in order to exist. It was after all a very watered down history, which naturally focused on the positives and talked circles around the bad guys in every struggle.
As the leader of the US nation, its spiritual figurehead, the quote by King is ideal for trying to find a way to straddle that line between the good and bad in history, and how a nation should or should not be eternally stained for past mistakes and sins. When you listen to Obama's history of the US, and it is something that, since he represents a historic shift, he loves to recount as well, it feeds into the reason why he was elected, that he represented moving into a different phase of American life and history, you cannot help but feel that assumed bending of things towards justice. It is like some blind, abstract force which is just always out there. He even wrote a children's book about it this year titled Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters which chronicles that invisible hand of history, where the heroes of American progress are named and glorified, while their foes are turned into abstract forces such as "fear" and "hate" and the intensity of the violence of their lives and their communities are reduced to "sacrifices" for their sometimes forced incorporation into the US nation.
But this is the result of an unwillingness to name names, to talk about what happened, and try and take advantage of the progress that was made and not deal with the horrible things which produced the need for said progress. When you take the bad guys out of history, you end up with a weird narrative, a glaringly incomplete narrative, which most people are still satisfied with. When you celebrate the ways people defeated slavery, fought for equal rights and so on, if you do not recognize the people who did the fighting and the people who openly or privately fought against said change, then you end up with that blank bending of history. It could even be given some nationalist core, where things changed because that is what our nation does. The US is about freedom and so eventually everything just works out for the best.
The problem is that such isn't true. If the arc of history does bend towards justice, is requires bending by people to get it there. Such has always been the case, and the people who do the bending can sometimes seem small at first. Their ideas and their thinking can be considered to be crazy, as if they come from another planet or have swallowed one of Morpheous' infamous pills. But they are the one's who do not simply trace the line of history, they are not the one's who go with the flow and hope for the best, but the one's who push back against the embedded and naturalized violence or oppression of the time. They are people who see the world differently, because they see what it could be or should be, and are willing to work to get it there.
The villagers of Gangjeong are one such people at one such moment. They are not unique, nor alone. They are not the first people to stand up in such a way, but they are still important, their resistance is still beautiful because of the way it defies the arc of progress and human momentum which other's just accept as the way the world should be.