Friday, 22 June 2012

A Modest Proposal (in Korea)

This semester I taught a class called Anglo-American Essays in which we read and discussed some of the great essays in the English literary tradition. One such an essay is Jonathan Swift's satirical "A Modest Proposal", in which he suggest the consuming of babies' flesh as a way to improve the living standards of poor Irish people. After reading the essay I tasked my student to write their own modest proposal for Korea.

South Korea is an "aging" society, with the elderly quickly outnumbering the youth, putting much stress on the younger generations that need to look after their elders. So one student proposed that people over sixty that are sickly or disabled should be euthanised as it will reduce taxes because it will basically eliminate the elderly wellfare system and the need for state pension. Retirement homes, known as the "silver industry", will be replaced with a much more profitable euthanasia industry. "Neglected elderly" and "elder abuse" are phrases that will completely disappear. The student's last point was that a society based on energetic young people will develop much quicker and also reduce the generation gap, so that generations are more in step with each other, which will increase technological advances. For a well argued satirical essay, I gave her 10/10. Another student wrote a similar essay, saying that the money wasted on old people could be put to effect on infertility treatment. Putting old people "to sleep" will also reduce medical insurance premiums. She added that since her family can support her grandmother and are willing to undergo the financial burden, her family will not benefit from this proposal as will other people, so she is clearly not making this proposal for personal benefit. I liked that.

The theme of artifical beauty recurred a number of times. One student suggested that since Korea is already famous for plastic surgery all women should be forced to undergo plastic surgery in order to make Korea famous for its artificially beautiful people. Another student suggested that because "lookism" is so prevalent in Korea fetuses should undergo facial reconstruction while in the womb, so that all Koreans are born to look the same and thereby eliminating lookism, which will result in Koreans henceforth being judged, not on how they look, but on their "inner" beauty. Another student also promoted government sponsored beautification because it is a statistical fact that beautiful people are more successful. He continued to argue that the government should prevent the copulation of ugly people with beautiful people and so prevent "ugly" genes from propagating. His conclusion was that ugly people are useless to make Korea strong and that ugly Koreans ought to be rounded up and isolated from the rest of society.

One student adressed the problem of smoking and non-smoking areas in public spaces. The main issue is that smokers are complaining that they feel treated like criminals. The student's proposal is to split Korea into two provinces, one for smokers and one for non-smokers. Obviously smokers that want to move to the non-smoking province need to quit before they are allowed to enter and of course non-smokers that move into the smoking province have to take up smoking. She adds this peculiar twist to her plan: smokers that want to move into the non-smoking province have to undergo a health check. If they are ill from any smoke-related illness, they are denied entrance so as not to burden the non-smoking province with smoking caused sick people.

Another student concerned himself with the often heard slogan: "Children are our future." Children are precious and, argues this student, ought never be punished; they should especially not endure physical punishment. In fact, it is the adults that need to undergo physical abuse by children. It is a necessary evil, he says, because adults ought to undergo pain to ensure the success of children. "By beating grown ups, [children] may learn that they should protest against the authorities..." Also, by "being a bully . . . a child can learn the way of being a powerful role in society . . ." On the other hand, those that are bullied "learn to obey the higher" classes.

One student looked at the problem of Korea's over-education and people not wanting to be blue collar workers. His proposal is to genetically engineer slaves to do all the blue collar work.

I'm glad that they really got satire. Satire is not historically part of the Korean tradition, partially I think because of the Confucian stoicism and probably also because of the Korean language that is already an abstract language, so that further ambiguity tends to be avoided. Things are changing, however. More and more Koreans are taking up satire for social commentary. The most famous Korean podcast at the moment is a satirical mockery of the current president.

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