(Begun June 18th.)
Down in the streets below me, yet another huge parade went marching by, the attending trucks blaring out martial song, and megaphone voices haranging their charges. Traffic on my street was blocked 45 minutes as they filed by, provoking a rich concert of car horns, police whistles and sirens to accompany the political cacophony. Seoul these days is under siege, each day bringing new demonstrations, every 3 or 4 days culminating in an all-night gathering of tens of thousands, and some say 100 thousand, to the large boulevard leading to the Blue House, the President’s residence. Allegedly it all commenced owing to a bi-lateral trade deal between Korea and the United States, letting American beef in once again after it had been banned some years ago owing to spongiform encephalitis. My sympathies are with the locals, who have good reason to distrust American assurances that the beef is all OK, just trust the FDA that can’t sort out tomatos or is it jalepenas (or is it a tinge of racist blame-gaming?). Under Bush trusting the FDA is as wise as trusting the administration’s claims about WMD or “Level Orange” terrorism alerts.
The demonstrations started about a month ago, and as the new President, LEE Myung-bak, a former CEO at Hyundai and mayor of Seoul, who entered office under a cloud of accusations of bribery, but won election easily promising he’d wave his Magic Market Economy wand and get Korea’s stagnant economy kicking again, has seen his ratings plummet to Bush-like levels and worse, in a mere 100 days: he’s down to 20% approval after winning the election with 60% of the vote. A businessman (Korean style – backroom deals and kickbacks the norm) he may be but as a politician he’s proving inept. Spiraling from its origins against the US beef deal the demonstrations have quickly morphed into a generalized beef against the government, with calls for the President to resign. A popular sign reads Out with 2MB, the latter being a computer crazed Korean witticism, that he’s got two megabytes of brain, to say not much. He’s being pressed, like politicians globally, by matters largely out of his control, as globalization has set about brewing “a perfect storm.” Gas prices here, as everywhere, are up – truckers, cabbies, and ordinary folks with wheels are feeling the pinch. And with them, the price of shipping moves up, making everything a bit more pricey – things like food, which people need everyday. Globalization triumphant!
So in Karachi and Mexico, not to mention Nairobi and Cairo, there are food riots, and in the more comfortable ranges of America, many begin to find the cost of driving, paying the mortgage (or rent), heating or cooling, and food, to be running beyond their means.
And this is just in its early stages: peak oil is here, with wished-for consumption, be it in the US, or China, or India, outrunning production, and the graph lines running inevitably down, no matter what new areas are ravaged to sustain the habit which, never mind the naysayers, is clearly impacting the global climate. The New World Weather is here, as if to taunt the world with drought and flood, reminding us that the hunger for oil and its myriad supposed benefits has a price much higher than the dollars Uncle Sam has borrowed and printed up to pay for the “war” in Iraq. So this year, as world food reserves have shrivelled to leaving a very small margin for error, the breadbaskets of the world are looking thin, from too much or too little of that precious H2O. Australia’s wheat crop is withered but newest news says a rain has it on the rebound; America’s corn, already run up in price to make the illogical (but profitable for farmers) ethanol, is now going to be stunted from bad weather of another kind, rotting from too much wet.
WASHINGTON – Larry Matlack, President of the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), has raised concerns over the issue of U.S. grain reserves after it was announced that the sale of 18.37 million bushels of wheat from USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust.
“According to the May 1, 2008 CCC inventory report there are only 24.1 million bushels of wheat in inventory, so after this sale there will be only 2.7 million bushels of wheat left the entire CCC inventory,” warned Matlack. “Our concern is not that we are using the remainder of our strategic grain reserves for humanitarian relief. AAM fully supports the action and all humanitarian food relief. Our concern is that the U.S. has nothing else in our emergency food pantry. There is no cheese, no butter, no dry milk powder, no grains or anything else left in reserve. The only thing left in the entire CCC inventory will be 2.7 million bushels of wheat which is about enough wheat to make ½ of a loaf of bread for each of the 300 million people in America.”
Add to the recipe rises in commodity prices – basics such as steel, copper, aluminum and more exotic elements, and all just like oil in finite quantity, and hence subject to “peaking”, and in our mad rush of capitalist prompted consumerism, one can see that there’s something amiss in the logic of indefinite growth which governs our present paradigm. That one would suggest sustainable stasis is an invitation to a stoning. Somehow philosophically we can’t seem to get our minds around the idea that life is life, and not really just a vehicle for striving for another new toy, a dress, a techno-gismo, or – well, let’s lay it on the table – anything to distract us from pondering the elemental stuff that has always been the philosopher’s start and endepunkt: What’s it all about?
Cynically it seems as if it’s all about painting one’s self into a corner – any corner will do – to provide the impetus to plow on, to where ever, however, be it mayhem and war, or inventing a new 3D motion control thingamajig, anything to avoid a look in the mirror where Beckett looms.
Meantime down on the streets below the demonstrators dwindle in this rainy Seoul summer that almost isn’t. Korea’s economy shudders along with the world. Next door China cranks up for the big Olympics bash, and over the horizon Bush and his friends ponder how to attack Iran as a last gasp legacy enhancement.
In a few weeks we move across town, far from the center to an area called Hwagok-dong, south of the Han. A bit of going down-market as Yonsei’s new contract with me doesn’t include our swanky 15th floor perch, and we must pay the rent ourselves. New place is smaller in every respect, but most importantly in the rental fee. Mid-August Marcella and I fly to Hanoi, Vietnam, to conduct a digital workshop for the Vietnam Film Department for a week, then another week to see Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. I anticipate a little seismic jolt: 40 years ago at the same time I was in Chicago, deeply enmeshed in the Democratic Convention, surrounded by Mayor Daley’s finest plus the National Guard as “the whole world was watching.” A large part of why I was there, along with the many others, was what was happening in Vietnam. As if nothing was learned, or more exactly, all the wrong things were learned by Bush, who evaded his service thanks to family connections and privilege, and Cheney, who “had other priorities” and strung out 5 deferments, today another sound carries a similar astringency: Iraq. I hope to make an essay work of some kind while there, a ponder on 4 decades in which everything and nothing changed.