The citizens of that country recently staged the largest anti-government demonstration in two decades, the most impressive yet in a series of rallies that has nearly brought the newly-elected South Korean government to its knees. The prime minister and the cabinet have submitted their resignations to the president, who assumed office only last December 2007. The president has pledged "a new beginning" in an effort to contain the popular outrage.
The 100,000 people who choked up the streets of Seoul on Tuesday night were protesting against... American beef imports. They're worried that the imports would bring with them the dreaded mad-cow disease, and they charge that the government's new agreement with the US, which lifts the import ban that has been in place since 2003, makes a mockery of their fears and sense of well-being.
Beef imports--and a government is about to fall. I'm not saying that the South Koreans' grievance is trivial. Far from it. Food is always a matter of life and death, and, irrespective of whether American beef is really unsafe, it's well within the rights of South Koreans to take their government to task if they feel it's taking their collective health and security for granted.
It's been five years since South Korea halted such imports--after a case of mad-cow disease occurred in the US in 2003--but its citizens remain fired-up and fully engaged about the issue. They are willing to march on the streets for it, do battle with police (some rallies have turned violent) and rap the government hard to force their political leaders to listen to their anxieties.
The issue isn't even about corruption, bribery, plunder or other high crimes in high places. It's about an everyday supermarket item that likely ends up as a well-done steak or a steaming stew in many a South Korean household. Yet that is enough to bring thousands of people out to the streets in a massive show of popular indignation.
I look at the pictures and I can't help but be envious of the South Koreans. Their sense of outrage is alive, ever ready to force reckoning and accountability from those who entertain the illusion that they can dare flout it. They are exacting and prickly about holding their government to its sworn duties, no matter how seemingly arcane or mundane the task is--like, for instance, negotiating a trade deal on cattle meat that puts a premium on public safety over improved ties with a valuable trading partner.
Meanwhile, barely three hours away from South Korea, here we are, in the pits, shambling numbly to an imagined deliverance by 2010 when a new set of so-called leaders will shove, shoot, buy, sing or advertise their way to the top of the country's food chain. Before that happens, we wait, holding our noses primly while otherwise shrugging off the stench that blasts from the dank palace by the river.
What's a couple more years, we console ourselves. After two failed upheavals, we've used up our street-movement cred. We're exhausted these days, and can't be bothered with small issues like stolen elections, blatant thievery or vulgar populist pandering.
The sight of other countries with bold and brazen citizenries like South Korea makes me wonder: If the people of that country could be roused to history-making fury over a slab of meat, why couldn't we over the infinitely longer and more destructive list of transgressions our government and our political elders have inflicted on us? What would it take to shock us back from our defeated, immobilized state? Clearly, neither high crimes (robbing the vote) nor low (abducting witnesses) would do. We let both pass without so much as a shudder.
The outrage is that we are not outraged. What has friggin' happened to us?