Friday, June 30, 2017

"Going to Korea." "Which one?"

Kaeseong, North Korea, as seen from the South Korean border.
(From Wikimedia Commons.)
Over the past couple of months, as I've been getting ready to head to South Korea for the year, I've come across a number of people whose main concern for my well-being is about the other Korea: the North. I get it: it has been in the news a lot lately. Another round of missile launches, of nuclear tests, of both the North Koreans and Secretary Tillerson rattling their sabers—it tends to lodge in people's minds. There was the UVA student, Otto Warmbier, who was released from North Korean imprisonment in a coma and died shortly after returning to the U.S. And every once in a while, there's another headline saying that war on the peninsula is inevitable, et cetera.

But I've also been surprised by the number of times that I've said I'm going to Korea for the year, and people ask me, "Not North Korea, right?"—as if any American ever goes to teach English in North Korea for the year, as if any Korean-American in their right mind would go there on purpose, as if one can simply foxtrot across the border and be back in Seoul for afternoon tea. I'm shocked that people on one hand seem to think of the North as a living dystopian hellscape, and on the other seem to know so little about the situation that they think it's simply another fun exotic destination.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance"

Life and Works of Confucius by Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.
From Wikimedia.
[13:15] Duke Ding asked if there were a single phrase which could uplift a country. Confucius replied: “Words in themselves cannot have such an effect. Nonetheless, there is a proverb which says, ‘Being a ruler is difficult, and being a minister is not easy.’ If you really understand the difficulties of rulership, might this not be enough to uplift a country?” The Duke asked further: “Is this not close to the saying ‘there a single phrase which could ruin a country?’” Confucius answered, “Again, words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.”
The political philosopher who has come to my mind most often lately, and especially today, is Confucius. I'm not a scholar of ancient Chinese thought, to be certain. I only read Confucius' Analects for the first time in the fall after I graduated, about eighteen months ago. My thoughts are those of a neophyte.

Still, this essay by Ezra Klein reacting to James Comey's testimony put me in mind of the Analects, and in particular their implicit contention that malfeasance in a state stains the entire political order from the top down. When the head of state is virtuous, that virtue trickles down through the whole state, reflected in the head's choice of ministers, aides, and subordinates, and thence in their choices, all the way down to the least powerful people. However, when the head of state lacks virtue—through viciousness, laziness, greed, or other negative traits—those vices destabilize the work of even the best people working below.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Music Mondays: Martinů, Jason Moran

Bohumil Kubišta, "Promenade in the Rieger Gardens" (1908).
From Wikimedia Commons.

The first symphony of Bohuslav Martinů (the "other" Czech Romantic) was playing on the public radio station in Kalamazoo today. I had no idea what it was when I turned on the radio in the middle of the third movement—but I was enchanted. It's strange and wonderful and bold. Just when you think things are getting a little too sentimental, he takes a harmonic left turn, and you're in a different emotional universe again:


Someone recently told me I had to listen to the music of the jazz pianist Jason Moran, and I finally got around to doing that today. Already, I'm thrilled I did. In particular, Moran has done a re-interpretation/re-styling/transformation of an arresting late Brahms piece most kids in piano lessons play at some point, and he manages to make the piece totally heartbreaking all over again. Take a listen: