“I am a selfish bastard” as media and cultural phenomenon in Korea (report)

Emanuel Pastreich

Report on Media in Korea

August 6, 2012

“I am a selfish bastard”

The rise of the podcast comic radio program “I am a selfish bastard” (“Na nun Ggomsu da”)was a profoundly important political event in Korea. The title “I am a selfish Bastard” phrase refers explicitly to President Lee Myung Bak in the most vulgar of wording. The show functions as something like the Korean equivalent of the Daily Show, making fun of the Lee Myung Bak administration without mercy, but there is more to the show than just comedy.

Members of “I am a Stupid Bastard” at their best.

“I am a selfish bastard” took an extremely original approach to media and news unlike anything Koreans had witnessed before. It was a raucous comedy that poked fun in the most extreme manner of the president and his administration.

The format for “I am a selfish bastard” is a humorous discussion between four men (for the most part) in a style similar to “Car Talk. The participants are radio personality Kim Yong-min, former national assembly man Chung Bong-ju (who is temporarily not participating), the editor of Ddanzi News Kim Ou-joon and Choo Chin-woo, reporter for Sisa IN magazine. Chung Bong-ju was sentenced to jail for one year on charges of slander and his half-way through the term, so he no longer appears on the show.

The program has taken on, and slaughtered, the sacred cows related to Korea’s Blue House that all other media sources were afraid of. By applying an extremely coarse low-level humor to the highest political figures, the show played a major role in undermining the political authority of the Lee Myung Bak administration. The administration employed an intimidating style of rhetoric and formal ritual that reminded older Koreans of the authoritarian governments of their childhoods. The result was that many became meek and intimidated by the rhetoric without even being aware of it.

The show frequently includes an imitation of the raspy voice of Lee Myung Bak employed to relay the most banal and ludicrous topics—thereby completely deflating the power of his rhetoric. By daring to mock the president in the most irreverent manner, it undermined the traditional sense of required respect for the president and found followers among ordinary Koreans.

Although the program was not particularly well researched or professional, it did something that most progressive media had failed to do: it gathered a large mainstream audience. Suddenly these humorous programs making fun of the president, and mixing in some details about various scandals and plots, had a mass audience far beyond the regular devotees of progressive media. The attacks do not take themselves seriously, and unlike other pompous liberal politicians who use attacking the administration as a show to promote themselves, this show just created a relaxed informal dialog around the cupidity and stupidity of the president.

Perhaps the important point of the show is its informality. In a sense informality is what Koreans crave more than anything, an intimacy that goes beyond the hierarchy dominating daily life. The immense popularity of An Chul-soo as a possible candidate is based on the manner in which he puts people at ease, makes them feel he is someone that they can confide in. His recent book “The Thinking of An Chul-soo” features a picture of him washing the dishes at his home. That informal image has tremendous power for Koreans today.

There is considerable narrowness in the programming of “I am a selfish bastard.” It was never really meant to be sustainable media, or to cover multiple topics. All the  members of “I am a selfish bastard”stated from the start that they intended to stop the program when Lee stops serving as president. The program never treats topics in a systematic manner, and although allegations may have been accurate, they are not backed up with substance.

The mixing together of facts with jokes put off many intellectuals. But the entire point is that the show was able to do what intellectuals had failed at: appeal to a mass audience. The broadcast was successful because the comical dialog between the four members creates such vivid characters, an image of the president as a peevish and selfish man who is no longer talking from a podium, but engaged in a ludicrous discussion with ordinary people. Here was a critique that was not aimed at intellectuals, but the man in the street, that could capture the free floating frustration so perfectly. Many listeners say that their thinking was changed by listening to the show. People went from a general dislike of politics to an interest in the issues themselves because of the entertaining discussions. At times “I am a selfish bastard” played a central role in Korea. During the campaign leading to the 2011 election of Park Wan-soon as mayor of Seoul, much of the political debate took place live on “I am a selfish bastard”

Comments of Asia Institute researcher Dr. Wang Seon-Taek on the “I am a Selfish Prick” phenomenon and its implications for Korea:

It was not so much that “I am a selfish bastard” became immensely popular and thereby reduced President Lee’s stature. Rather President Lee’s inappropriate behavior as president became broadly known to the general public and it was the ability of “I am a selfish bastard” ride that wave of disgust that made the show so popular. Similarly, “I am a selfish bastard” did not do any investigative journalism about President Lee. All of the material related by them had already been conveyed to the people in one way or another through existing media.

I think that “I am a selfish bastard” really has no value in terms of identifying social and political issues.  It is better seen a simple catharsis for those who were angry at the Lee Myung Bak administration. The content is more of a rant of discontent than any sort of meaningful analysis.

We cannot find even the most basic forms of responsible journalism in the work of “I am a selfish bastard”. It really deserves to be treated as a political tool or an emotional rant. The show became ground zero for the battle between the middle class supporters of Noh MooHyun and the establishment conservative supporters of Lee Myung Bak.

Lee Myung Bak had completely ignored the concerns and interests of the progressives, pursuing policies only of interest to his constituency, thus bringing this backlash upon himself. The program was launched as a clear political attack on the Lee administration. That attack was so broad and so deep that even ordinary citizens were completely swept up in it. It is not so much that the members of “I am a selfish bastard” were political or artistic geniuses. Rather the Lee Myung Bak Administration went further in its authoritarian behavior than Koreans could tolerate.

The language employed in “I am a selfish bastard” most explicitly that of the middle and lower class in Korea. There is an ethnic essentialism in the decision to use such informal language by the group. Moreover, the content of the discussions are very much focused on an instinctive resistance to authority and status.

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