Thursday, June 1, 2006

The Gradual Development of My Political Consciousness

In my last post, I linked to Che Guevara's book, Guerilla Warfare, and it occured to me that I have never written about (or thought much of) the gradual development of my political consciousness. I wonder if it began when I was born in Seoul, South Korea, a country that was annexed by imperial Japan from 1910 to 1945. I'm not sure.

I think I was interested in the sociopolitical before I knew what sociology or politics were (as we often intuit before the naming). In early high school I was listening to rap (Public Enemy, etc.) and punk, genres obviously born from the sociopolitical. By the time I was in college I had developed a real interest in domestic and Presidential politics, and by the time I was done with my graduate coursework in composition and rhetoric, I had settled on my thesis topic: Presidential Crisis Rhetoric. There is a significant body of research in this area---essentially exploring how U.S. Presidents sell us what they sell us during a time of crisis (which in and of itself is framed by the language used to describe it), such as Iran-Contra or the Bay of Pigs.

My thesis ultimately became An Exploration of Rhetorical Constructs: Aristotle's The Rhetoric and the Crisis Speeches of John F. Kennedy As Models. The classic Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as "the ability to find all means of persuasion in any given situation" is different than today's intrepretation of rhetoric as b.s. or double-talk. In fact, the study of rhetoric became important during the time of the fall of the Syracuse dynasty in Ancient Greece, when citizens were allowed to speak publicly to persuade others of something, and it then became important for the citizenry to be able to decipher the persuasive elements of a speech (or lack of them) in order to make good decisions. Kennedy employs Aristotelian techniques in nearly all of his speeches---Inaugural, The Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis (the latter two being the crises I examined). As I argue in my paper, the study of rhetoric allows us to make better informed political and sociopolitical decisions. This is as important today (if not more so) than it was 2,400 years ago.

In recent years I have traveled to a number of countries, many of them Third World countries, where I have had the good fortune to visit towns where important political and heroic figures lived and/or died. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the physical remains of the genocide are evident. In Bolivia and Peru, Che Guevara's image is everywhere, a clear testament to his legacy and contemporary relevance. In El Salvador, I met a man in Tacuba who fought in their Civil War. In San Salvador and in the smaller towns like Suchitoto, you will find images of Romero frequently. In San Crisotbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, there are images and stories of Subcommandate Marcos and his wife Ramona at each turn. This was the town of the Zapatistas, and if you are interested in such things, I would highly recommend a visit to this southern Mexico town.

One of the most memorable things I have ever seen is the small blue car which was driven into a Saigon intersection on June 11, 1963 by Thích Quang Đuc. About five years ago, we backpacked through Southeast Asia. One day, as we floated down a river, stopping occasionally to visit various monuments, I came upon a small blue car, which seemed odd because most of the monuments were more architecturally pleasing (stones, temples, etc.). As I got closer to the car, there was a photograph. I recognized it instantly. It was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the Venerable Thích Quang Đuc, the Buddhist Monk who drove to the intersection, where two other monks poured gasoline on him and he lit himself on fire, a self-immolation right there in the middle of the street. David Halberstam, who witnessed the act, said that Quang Duc did not move nor make a sound while he burned. He had prepared for it for weeks. As you may know, his act was in response to President Diem's intolerance (for lack of a better term) of religious freedom, the Buddhists in particular. The photo gained popularity/visibility in the early 1990's when Rage Against the Machine used the photo for the cover of its first album. And there I was, off the bank of the river, three feet away from his car. Some images you never forget. Some you want to remember. Some are both. If you would like to read about him, feel free to visit here.

I'm not sure what to make of my interest in such figures. As I'm sure you know, one blog entry does not a person make. I have a whole ton of other interests (don't get me started on my love of Sports Illustrated), but I've begun to realize how much these experiences have shaped me. When I teach, I don't really go into any political discussions. I don't even tell my students if I'm a Democract, Republican, or Green. On the rare occasion it has come up, my students guess I could be any of the three. And I think it's good that they can learn to make decisions for themselves---hopefully informed ones---without me yapping on about oil companies or Michael Moore (although like you, I have my opinions).

But one area of my work where these interests can take root is on the Speakers' Forum Committee, which I have served on for nine years and co-chaired for two. We have brought a wide range of speakers, but some of them have made significant contributions to the world---Morgan Spurlock, the Director of Super Size Me (yes, it can get political if you want to talk about McDonald's and globalization), Jaime Escalante, Maya Angelou, and perhaps most amazing was Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel employee whose heroic actions during that country's genocide were chonicled in the powerful film, Hotel Rwanda.

After his stirring lecture, we had a reception for him. I shook his hand. To say the least, some handshakes are simply unforgettable. Know what I mean?


sarahkim said...

Very cool post--worth the wait! My own political consciousness was pretty much dormant until I reached my twenties. Your thesis sounds interesting.....I wonder if anyone will ever write a thesis on the rhetoric of our current Commander-in-Chief. ;)

Lee Herrick said...

Sarah, when do you leave for Korea? Are you excited? I was also pretty uniformed (or unprepared) for any interest in these issues until I was in my twenties. Sometime I would like to talk with you about your activism with KADs, if you don't mind. And as for our current "leader," I imagine there are people out there willing to try to make sense of him.


sarahkim said...

I leave for Korea on June 17th--very excited. And really excited to be finished with my first year of grad school. Have you checked out Adoptee Solidarity Korea? They're a group of KADs in Seoul who are doing a lot of interesting work right now. (Maybe you can add it to your links!) I always like talking about organizing within the KAD community, so I'll drop you an e-mail. Do you use MSN messenger?

Lee Herrick said...

It was good talking with you today, Sarah. I'll link ASK soon...

Sheryl said...

Thanks for this informative post.
I think I am still forming my political consciousness. It's refreshing to read something aware and real these days when consumerism seems to run the show.
I think being aware of 3rd world countries is a good thing. I mean experiencing them and seeing the poverty matters. We are in so many ways blind to it here in the states where so much seems to be about ownership and profit. I was raised across the border from Ciudad Juarez and this has somehow had a huge effect on my writing, my perception of everything, but unraveling exactly how or why things effect me and others
may be a life-time journey. At least I think it is so for me. The images viewed that you mention seem potent and I mean more potent than intellectual jargon. I too find myself staying away from politics in the classroom, now. Yet, look around. Such images matter, profoundly. Thanks for the post.

Jae Ran said...

After lurking around your post for a while, I just wanted to comment on how much I liked this post. I'm very interested in your thesis, it sounds fascinating. I have a friend who is taking Rhetoric courses for "fun" and I always enjoy his conversations about it as well.

Also, nice to meet another kad who is a writer, political activist and teacher. I've been hearing about you for a while, but have never bumped into you yet. Congratulations on your book forthcoming soon. My good friend Sun Yung Shin has a poetry manuscript coming in 2007 too, I am so happy to have some kad poets get their work published.

Lee Herrick said...

Sheryl, I agree that it's difficult to not have one's life experiences seep into the art. How could one separate from it, truly? In my own writing I don't think there is any overt didactic overtones, but there are definitely remnants of travel, discontent and occasional contentment, and ideas of movement and searching, and as you say, a continual forming of the (political) consciousness. Mine, too, continually evolves (I think).

Jae Ran, it's really nice to meet you, too! I've seen you around on some of the blogs, so it is nice to finally touch base with each other. It's been exciting for me to meet other KADS, writers, and activists. And yes, I am excited about Sun Yung's book. I think it's awesome that there are two of us with books coming out in the same year. Let's stay in touch.

sume said...

Just popping out of lurk-ville to thank you for this post and for the link. I'd heard about Thích Quang Đuc some time ago but had forgotten.

I'm a late bloomer as far as being socially/politically aware and being more active. I had to giggle at your mention of rap and punk. I think my original interest in social and political "issues" began in my goth/punk days. I wouldn't have called it socio/politial awareness at the time, more like plain rebellion but I think it did mark the beginning. I find it interesting that a lot of times awareness does begin and/or is manifested within counter-culture circles.

Lee Herrick said...

sume, sometimes i look at young punk rockers and think to myself, i wonder if this person is a future political/ social activist? until i was about 18, i was in the conservative camp, but then i came to.

as for what's ahead, it's hard to say. i really get interested around election time, and cases like wen ho lee's really get to me as well. maybe someday i'll care less (but i hope not).

Bryan Thao Worra said...

Great post, Lee.

I don't think you're ever too old to begin growing a political consciousness. As they say, it's only the very wisest and the very foolish whose minds never change. For the rest of us, our sense of things should always be growing and adapting.

Personally, I always hated the idea of if you can't change the world, change your mind. That's a cop-out. If you can't change human rights abuses, just say, human rights abuses are ok? Doesn't work for me.

Me, I think of myself as a social cynic in the classic sense of the term: a person who sees the reality of things but still has the idealism to recognize how far we've strayed from that ideal.

I dislike the current wave of "cynicism" that instead smacks of paranoia and defeatism.

That being said, I should say that I, like Lee, used to be a die-hard, staunch conservative. I suppose another term for my present condition is "reformed ass."

I would tie roots of my political consciousness to the realpolitik of the CIA's secret war in Laos where I was born, but also the counter-culture of Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 1980s.

It was in Ann Arbor where I spent most of my formative years and was fortunate to have teachers who dared to encourage both a near-punk DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to thinking and especially critical thinking and seeing the larger systems and motives in play.

A healthy battery of good reading, particularly escapist literature was a significant avenue for my alternative thinking, and one I find now ever increasingly justified.

Key texts in this regard might include "The Prisoner" TV series and graphic novel, and the commentary around that. The work of science fiction authors like Robert Heinlein ("Starship Troopers" and "Stranger In A Strange Land") as well as Frank Herbert ("Dune")were also instrumental in this regard.

V for Vendetta was a text that, while at the time (early high school) was something of a chore to wade through, I knew was important to consider.

Even certain issues of Larry Hama's G.I. Joe helped form my early sense of alternative politics, interestingly enough.

But I could go on forever.

As modern mainstream literature and media largely reinforce the system without challenge, it has become the dreaded bread and circuses held in thrall by commercial and pseudo-political interests.

Or as Fox Mulder once quipped in the X-Files, the Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex... ;)

My sense of myself as an Asian American became particularly clear after the death of Vincent Chin, but I would also cite the 90s as a point in time when my political consciousness refined itself.

College was a major tipping point- 1991-1992 in particular, but I'm trying not to make this post too unwieldly, so I'll refrain from elaborting too heavily on this for now.

My time among the Midwestern Asian American writers (who are barely distinguishable from the Midwestern Asian American community activists in most instances)from 1998 to the present allowed me to develop a more nuanced sense of certain issues, and concrete opportunities to apply what I'd learned over the last few years.

When you come up to MN, feel free to give me a ring- if you're really up for it, we can compare notes. :)

Lee Herrick said...

bryan, thanks for your cool post. we have a lot of "educational" experiences in common---although i bet you were aware of them before i was. sadly, i didn't learn about vincent chin until 7 or 8 years ago. and i've also become a student of the Secret War in Laos. if i'm ever in MN, i'll definitely give you a call. we'd have a lot to talk about.

Bryan Thao Worra said...

lol. All your readers are welcome to come by, Lee. We'll make it a big Herrickaraoke Party, and swap notes and whatnot.

Lots of people are only just now coming into the whole Vincent Chin story. But I'm glad people ARE remembering. There were years when I worried I'd be the only one. But I've been happily proven wrong.

What freaks me out sometimes, as I look at your blog is that feeling of: "Hey, am I lee's good twin or the evil twin?"

And if I'm the evil twin, then I'm way behind schedule on my dastardly deeds. (depending on whom you ask...)