T.S. Eliot’s monumental poem “The Waste Land” begins with the famous line, “April is the cruelest month.” Eliot refers to April as the cruelest month because spring rain wakes us up from our warm, comfortable hibernation. The poem continues with a touch of sarcasm: “winter kept us warm, covering/ earth with forgetful snow.” Now, spring has come and we have to wake up and remember who we are and where we are.
Today is Election Day in Korea for National Assembly members. Opinion leaders argue that today’s election is especially crucial because the outcome will decide the future of Korea. Koreans may wonder, “Why is it so important? It’s not even the presidential election.” Yet it is indeed important because by securing the majority seats in the National Assembly, the winning Party can do whatever it wants to, including paving the way to victory in the upcoming presidential election.
Some people, disillusioned by both the conservatives and the progressives, may plan to boycott the election and go hiking instead. However, political analysts maintain that it is not a matter of conservatism and prograessivism. Rather, they contend that it is a matter of choosing the future of Korea, a choice between capitalism and socialism, between liberal democracy and people’s democracy, and a pro-America oceanic nation versus a pro-China continental nation.
Traditionally, disillusioned intellectuals have tended to be aloof from politics. For example, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Walden, boycotted all the elections throughout his life. In his eyes, all politicians are the same and not worthy of election. In his seminal book, “Civil Disobedience and Other Essays,” Thoreau writes, “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.” Surely, Thoreau was pessimistic about both sly politicians and ignorant, clout-chasing masses.
Thoreau was not alone in this. Following Thoreau’s footprints, Leslie Fiedler, the distinguished literary critic, also never voted in his entire lifetime because politicians always disillusioned him. Bernard Shaw was another intellectual who did not trust politicians and elections. Shaw wrote cynically, “An election is a moral horror, as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it.” Shaw penetrated into the souls and minds of politicians and saw only deception, corruption and avarice for power.
Indeed, we have every reason to be disappointed in politicians. We seriously lack trustworthy political leaders whose concern is not the next election, but the next generation and the future of their country. James Carville points out, “If a statesman is one who looks to the next generation and a politician one who looks to the next election, a political consultant must be one who looks to the next tracking poll.” Indeed, we see only cunning, deceptive politicians who crave political power these days.
However, we cannot afford the luxury of disillusionment or cynicism. We need to have hope and choose better, more reliable politicians for Korea’s future. Barack Obama once said, “In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?” He continued, “If everybody that voted in 2008 shows up in 2010, we will win this election.” As Obama urged us, we must restrain our cynicism and vote with hope.
Indeed, we have a compelling reason to go to the election site and vote for better politicians in order to save our country from the unprecedented socio-political turmoil and disruptions we now face. We have the responsibility to choose the right Party that can build a better society for our future generations. In that sense, this election is truly a priceless opportunity for all Koreans. If we miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we will end up losing many precious things.
In the Hollywood film Hellboy, the protagonist utters solemnly, “What makes a man a man? It is the choice he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them.” Instead of idling at home or going hiking, therefore, we must visit the election site and vote for our future because our destiny depends on our choice.
Spring has come and yet, it is not like spring yet due to the pandemic that has devastated the world. Nevertheless, we cannot stay at home forever, doing nothing. We should have hope for a pandemic-free future and make a resolute choice for it.
If we choose to keep hibernating, this April will be the cruelest month literally for all of us because our children will have to take the consequences. They say that the April 2020 Election will decide our destiny. In “Terminator Salvation,” John Connor says, “There is no fate but what we make.” For the sake of the next generation, therefore, let us awake and arise. We can make this April the greatest month ever.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.