Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Modern Times in Korea

Once again we can see the results when our 'superior' western materialistic lifestyle is imported into another country - massive deterioration in the mental health of the population, even as we're told how much better off they are by politicians and economists because they are now "richer" than they were before. Our witches' brew of hypercompetitiveness, creature comforts, novelty, overstimulation, advertising, productivism, self-centeredness and instant gratification tends to destroy well-being wherver it is embraced, in this case, South Korea:

SEOUL — It can sometimes feel as if South Korea, overworked, overstressed and ever anxious, is on the verge of a national nervous breakdown, with a rising divorce rate, students who feel suffocated by academic pressures, a suicide rate among the highest in the world and a macho corporate culture that still encourages blackout drinking sessions after work.

More than 30 South Koreans kill themselves every day, and the suicides of entertainers, politicians, athletes and business leaders have become almost commonplace. The recent suicides of four students and a professor at Korea’s leading university shocked the nation, and in recent weeks a TV baseball announcer, two professional soccer players, a university president and the former lead singer in a popular boy band killed themselves.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate in South Korea is nothing short of alarming, nearly three times higher than in the United States. The rate here doubled in the decade between 1999 and 2009. Suicide pacts among strangers who meet online is a growing phenomenon. Suicides by drinking pesticides, hanging or jumping from tall buildings are the most common.

Some experts trace South Korea’s emotional malaise to the decline of these traditional values and the rise of the country as a modern industrial power, starting in the 1980s. South Korea, once even poorer than woeful North Korea, now boasts the world’s 13th-largest economy.

As the society became more oriented toward materialism, people started to compare themselves,” said Dr. Park. “There’s a lot of competition now, even starting in childhood, and the goals of life have moved. We have a saying, ‘If one cousin buys land, the other cousin gets a stomachache.”’

Young people in South Korea are certainly unhappy, even chronically so, in part because of ferocious academic pressures that begin early on. A recent survey here found that young Koreans — for the third straight year — were the unhappiest youngsters in a subset of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

“Koreans are trying to find their own ‘package,’ their own set of remedies — and they’re doing this very intensely, of course,” said Dr. Oh, the Yonsei professor. “They are desperately searching for things to do to divert themselves from stress. They just don’t have a good model.”

Of course, North Korea is an even worse place to live. Can we not find a middle ground - a society of prosperity where that prosperity is centered around human needs rather than the needs of capital? This is the core theme running throughout nearly all of Lewis Mumford's writings, and I think the question is becoming ever more urgent as capitalism is starting to fail worldwide.

On a tangential but related note, here are some intereting points about Luddism:

This odd relationship between human beings and technology was first recognized by English craftsmen in the early 1800s. They objected to the new factories going up in their villages because they feared losing their independence, their community life, and their livelihood. Scorned as backward and anti-progress, the Luddites, who got their name from their made-up folk hero, King Ned Ludd, eventually stopped trying to engage discussion and took out their rage on the weaving frames. A few of them were led away to the gallows for trespassing and vandalizing private property. And so ended the movement.

Curiously, however, Fox notes that the Luddites’ legacy lived on through writers, artists, philosophers, farmers, and iconoclasts who noticed that for all its promises of convenience and efficiency, technology still sidesteps “the complexity and subtlety that is humanness.” Throughout the book she illustrates how technology has shaped the way people live, think, work, and relate to each other today.

The Luddites, Fox emphasizes, didn't shun machines or technology out of hand. Instead, they “[favored] a thoughtful use of appropriate technologies that [did] not damage the relationships we hold dear,” especially those with the natural world. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, American technology and industrialism become tied to capitalism and consumerism in which “all life was being bought and sold,” according to historian E.P. Thompson.

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