Many young people feel trapped these days. They find themselves in a system that places them at a disadvantage and there does not seem to be any way to change it. There is a profound gap between what they expect can be achieved and what actually happens.
Why is our society this way? Why is there such a gap between what young people feel is important and what actually becomes policy? What is the origin of that gap?
There are several ways of answering that question.
At the most basic level, young people have always felt that they are left out of the system. They are young. They do not have the social status and the qualifications that would allow them to participate in the political process. They understand vividly current problems but they are not involved in the decision-making. That has been a constant throughout history, especially modern history.
But there are also changes within the labor market itself ― most obvious in the United States but also true for Asia. Finding a decent job is increasingly difficult and the prerequisites for a job are increasing steadily. Essentially, if you do not have the right set of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), you are disqualified from even applying for many jobs. Employers will not even look at you on the basis of your major.
That environment creates tremendous anxiety for young people. They feel a low-level tension that drives some to study all the time because they do not want to miss out on any opportunity ― especially true in Asia. On top of these long-term trends, we are seeing major political shifts and turmoil around the world now. That turmoil is less disruptive, so far, in Asia than in Europe or the U.S. Large-scale participation in political moments in Asia has been limited and most young people do not see political activism as a priority. But the recent protests in Korea suggest a shift. And the situation could change rapidly. One universal truth about politics is that people will appear unconcerned until they are inspired and suddenly committed to politics. You cannot trust your surface impression that no one is interested.
I’ve seen increasing awareness about politics and an interest in current developments among my students in Korea over the past couple months. They have a new willingness to talk about political issues of their own volition.
Well, I’m sure the impeachment of President Park has stimulated such thinking.
We think about change in terms of politics. But behind politics is the unrelenting development of technology. The technologies for recording, transferring and manipulating information continue to evolve exponentially. How does this universal trend of rapid technological change impact how we are governed, how our society works ― or for that matter how companies work or how families function?
But at the same time, there are those who are deeply critical of those editors, or gatekeepers in the media. Many feel that the powerful in the media are actively limiting the range of debate and dumbing down the American people. What are your thoughts?
Well, it’s true that great promise of the internet was that people would have direct access to peer-to-peer generated information without having to rely on these gatekeepers. So the overall impact of the internet is complex. It has had had some benefits of allowing the ordinary man to create news. But the downside of empowering the dark forces to fabricate entire news narratives is something that people did not conceive of when they launched the internet.
Do you have any particular advice for young people who are using the internet in an effort to understand how the world works?
Well, truly grasping contemporary trends and their impact on you requires a more serious educational effort than just surfing the web. You have to be able to recognize what’s credible information and what’s not if you want to go out there and explore. If you cannot assess the authoritativeness of the source, or if you cannot spot the rhetorical games played in a text to manipulate you, you will be easily lead astray.
You have to understand sources. You need to make that extra effort to verify the facts and uncover the rhetoric employed. You need the benefits of a university education to set out to verify the facts.
It may seem tedious sometimes, but what you learn about footnotes, and what is a credible citation, these skills make all the difference when you find yourself out there confronted by mountains of fake news.
Now technology also, as you suggest, has had an impact. Smartphones have profoundly changed the way in which people interact. I see couples on a date and neither of them is looking at the other. They are sitting at this romantic cafe and all they are doing is staring into their phones at God knows what. You have to wonder, what kind of impact on social relations, on human society, this technology will have. Clearly people are not interacting in the face-to-face manner that traditionally humans have. What might be the impact of this shift in behavior down the road? I think that the impact will be real, but it is hard to predict precisely.
It seems that the changes are quite profound. Do you have any recommendations for what youth can do? Obviously, the best approach is to attend a world-class liberal arts college and receive a rigorous education. Great if you can study philosophy, history, literature and art. But we all know that not everybody has that opportunity. Do you have any ideas about how someone can learn to respond to the political challenges of our age, to the challenges of a rapidly changing world? Is there an attitude one can adopt or a strategy or learning, or for self-study?
Well, self-study is more possible now than it’s ever been before. There are so many excellent online resources for anyone who is serious. Programs like Khan Academy, EdX or Coursera are first class and you can take virtually any course that you want. The catch is that you have to make an effort. No one is there to make you study.
But if you have a purpose and you have discipline, you can find much of value on YouTube as well. I find the “How To” videos are quite helpful. There are many treasures out there if you know what you are looking for.
So if are wondering “how the world works,” it is easier to teach yourself a lot of things. There is less emphasis on elaborate details, however.
Part of the challenge is that very term “democracy.” We hear politicians and pundits use that word frequently. But what exactly does that word signify and what will it mean in the future granted the current geopolitical and technological changes?
People use the word “democracy” without any definition. Certainly it does not mean merely having elections. After all, Stalin had elections but they did not guarantee a free society or transparency. So what exactly does that word refer to?
To be more precise, liberal democracy, is a combination of three distinct institutions which must work together to create a culture of democratic process.
First you need a state, and preferably a modern state, meaning a state, which is impersonal. It serves as the power-deploying institution that protects the community, enforces laws and delivers basic services. It should do that without reliance on a dominant political figure and it should do so on an equal basis to all its citizens.
The second component is the rule of law. You need transparent laws in the country that limit the power of whoever occupies the executive authority so that he or she is not free to do whatever he or she wants. There are clear checks and a process for addressing issues that is open to everyone.
Finally, you need the democratic process, whereby through transparent procedures such as elections you can make sure that the elites who govern the country are answerable to as much of the population as possible and that they are not allowed to simply pursue their own interests.
And I think each one of these three elements is essential to liberal democracy. In other words, if one element is missing, the structure will not be stable. A true liberal democracy demands that you have a powerful state coupled with institutions of constraint such as the rule of law and accountability to the people via a democratic process. And there must be a balance in place whereby the state is powerful enough, has the capacity, to pass laws and enforce them, but it is limited by laws and democratic elections so as to avoid abuse. Finding that balance is a tremendous challenge and even the most open societies must make constant efforts.
Why do you think there are so many challenges to liberal democracy today?
Well, there are a number of challenges. Getting to a modern state is very difficult, especially in Africa and South America. Corruption is a universal problem that undermines the legitimacy of many governments all over the world. Northeast Asia has done relatively well compared with other regions. Getting out of a systemically corrupt system is not a matter of passing a law or electing a president. It is a long-term political and cultural struggle that often goes on for generations.
On the other hand, the new challenges to liberal democracy we see today in Europe and the United States are very different in nature from the problem of corruption in developing economies.
Going back to the three elements of liberal democracy I identified, we see in the new populism in the West the democratic part attacking the rule of law part of the political system. You have populist-nationalists being elected because they challenge the state. They claim that the state does not represent the people. This new wave of populist rhetoric started out with Vladimir Putin in Russia, but now we have similar figures such as Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and now Donald Trump in the United States. In each case we have an elected leader who has to some degree legitimacy because he is popular with a broad swath of the electorate, but who then uses that authority to undermine the rule of law. They do not want to adhere to limits and they will use their popularity to undermine the authority of the state.
Such politicians attack the press, attack opposition parties and try to shut them down. They will undermine and corrupt the judiciary as part of their campaigns to increase their authority and their legitimacy. I fear we are going to see this trend in many parts of the world, including places that were good examples of liberal democracy.
So what should young people do? College students, or high school students, can support a specific politician, and try to keep up on political developments through the media. But is there something else that one can do? Do you have any suggestions as to what daily practices by youth contribute to creating a more open and accountable political culture?
For as long as there have been students there has been student activism. In many cases students have served as the leading cutting edge in many reform and democratization movements. Now, sometimes I do think that the political process can get out of hand because students don’t have the best judgment as to which political causes to support. That said, political awareness and effective political organization are critical if you want to have an impact. Young people should not bury their heads in the sand and blindly follow a narrow careerism. It is essential to keep yourself engaged and to see yourself as a vital part of a larger political process.
But there is such enormous pressure on students to take classes in business, or technical classes, in order to get a job. Even if they’re interested in politics and society, they feel that they cannot expand the range of their studies if they want to survive.
Ironically, back in the 1960s, the standard of living was much lower (in Japan, South Korea and China) yet many more students studied literature and philosophy. Why is it we have moved away from the humanities so far? What is the driving force behind this obsession with computer programming and accounting?
The changing nature of the labor market is a major factor. As technology advances, computers and automation are displacing low-skilled labor and reorganizing the labor market. But recently automation is displacing middle-class jobs that used to be quite stable. Even lawyers and doctors are not beyond the reach of automation. That pressure from automation means that a big premium is placed on having those STEM skills.
The lack of jobs in general, and the demand for specific skills in specific areas, has rocked the education system. Students are thinking, “Where am I going to get a job?” and do not feel they have the leisure to think about much more.
Forty years ago when I was in college, an English or philosophy major could get a good management job at a corporation. That’s really impossible now. Simply put, unless you have the quantitative skills that they demand, there is no way to get in the front door ― even if humanities might be the best training.
Overall, I think that this focus on STEM is a bit of a fad which has been a bit overdone. In any case, that pressure has pushed people away from the humanities. At the same times, the faculty in the humanities have not helped the situation.
The humanities have been captured by an ideology of political correctness that demands a focus on gender studies and ethnic studies. The political bias in how the humanities are taught means that interpretations of literature and philosophy are far away from the concerns of students. It is not surprising that students aren’t particularly interested in learning about queer culture in theater of 17th-century Spain.
I have a subscription to the Journal of Asian Studies as a professor, but I don’t find any articles in it that I want to read. The writing and the topics are so detached from anything in daily life or personal experience that it is hard even for me as an academic to enjoy reading the articles.
I think that trend has gotten worse. Academics want to maintain their disciplines and their authority. They tend to become extremely technical and methodological, filling their articles with opaque jargon. The result is that they lose the ability to communicate with ordinary people. That tendency in the profession has done a great disservice.
Western culture, including the points that you made about the rule of law and the concept of liberal democracy, have become the basis for common values and assumptions around the world. Whether it is theories about economics and politics or the decor used in hotels, or the food served on airplanes, Western culture is a global standard.
But East Asia did not start out as a backward region. In fact, historically East Asia, especially China, but also Korea and Japan, have been economically and culturally active for most of the last 2,000 years. East Asia has its own concepts of universal values and political-legal principles within the Confucian and Buddhist traditions, some of great sophistication.
As Asian influence increases, do you think that global norms may shift? To what degree may Buddhist or Confucian traditions become a part of universal norms and standards, or do you think there may be some absolute limits?
I don’t know the answer as to what the ultimate status of Asian culture will be. Up until now the impact of Asian cultural norms outside of Asia has been minimal. Of course there are some people who travel to an ashram in India, or learn to play go. But in terms of the global impact of big cultural ideas, Asia’s influence remains small in the mainstream I inhabit. Part of the reason may be that although China is the dominant Asian civilization, China cannot make up its mind as to what its own cultural identity is. Currently, the Chinese official ideology is Marxist-Leninism. Think about that. What that means is that Chinese leaders are drawing their guidance from two dead white guys from the 19th century.
Chinese have made a half-hearted effort to revive Confucian values, but Chinese intellectuals and politicians know in their hearts that Confucian values aren’t that compatible with Marxism-Leninism. We see Chinese going back and forth between these vastly different intellectual traditions. That zigzag makes it hard for them to present a coherent view of what their civilization is about.
In the case of Japan and Korea, there has been much more involvement with the United States and Western institutions over the last 60 years and they have absorbed more Western values and customs than China has. They also have mixed Western values with their own.
What do Westerners know about Japan these days? Well they know manga and anime. These genres have some indigenous qualities, but they are deeply influenced by Western sources from the start.
There are no pure cultures anywhere anymore. All traditions are evolving in complex ways. The critical question will be whether Asia can sort itself out in terms of which values are central. Whether those values can be projected onto the world in a broader sense will be a question in the future, but we are clearly not there yet.
China has reached a new level of economic development and it displays increasing sophistication in business and in cultural production. Yet China’s role remains limited. No doubt part of the problem is that there are those in the West who are deeply skeptical about China and its motives, its role. Do you have any thoughts about what China’s role in the world should be? After all, China is after all one-sixth of the world’s population.
I understand something of the apprehensive response in the United States or Europe. We are seeing a rapid power shift today. The truth is such transitions oftentimes do not end well in history because either the rising power develops an exaggerated sense of its importance, or the declining powers take steps to maintain their power in the face of the new challenger which spark a conflict.
The geopolitical game is subtle and it is very easy to get it wrong. How can you accommodate the peaceful rise of a new powerful player while asserting your own interests? What I find encouraging is that the Chinese are conscious of this problem and they’ve decided to be cautious in their approach. But there is less caution more recently.
Well they issued a human rights report on the United States recently and have set out to subject the United States to the same treatment it gives other nations.
Overall, the Chinese are very patient and they know that if they move too fast they will provoke a big reaction. We will just have to wait and see how things develop.
What should young people do granted this situation?
The use of the rhetoric of nationalism by youth in all three countries, China, Japan and Korea, is higher now than it was in their parents’ generation and I find such expressions very troubling. Part of this shift is the result of a deliberate policy of governments who see hostility to other countries, along with a new national self-awareness, as a powerful tool for cementing their own legitimacy.
If one country employs a nationalist rhetoric, other countries will react to it and the discussion can become very nasty and unproductive
So I think the governments have an obligation to keep nationalist rhetoric under control. There are concrete steps that can be taken to make sure the historical record is represented in a balanced manner. The best example is the efforts to address historical truth undertaken by Germany and Poland.
Remember that Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and destroyed Poland during the occupation. The recovery was long and painful and involved ideological struggles under communism. Finally, Poland reestablished itself as a fully independent country in the 1990s, becoming a member of the European Union. But the two countries have moved beyond the sad antagonism of yesteryear. The Poles and the Germans established a commission for a serious discussion about the content of history books in both nations. They wanted to come to an agreement on a common textbook that would describe the events of that age so that the general sequence of events was clear and transparent.
Now in Asia, a series of discussions between countries on the topic like history would be impossible. China, Japan and Korea cannot even manage to sit down together at the same table to talk about their common history.
Of course there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean scholars who have discussed a common history book.
Of course there are some scholars like that. But it is politically impossible for the leaders of China, Japan and Korea to actually commit themselves to promoting a common history textbook that will be edited and vetted by all three countries.
But, to be honest, that is exactly what needs to be done in the region. Each country is not presenting its own story in a manner which is biased. I do not think we can expect to achieve any sort of real understanding between these three countries until there is some effort to reconcile these narratives. If anything, the discourse on history has been moving rapidly in the wrong direction. The Abe government is busy rewriting Japanese textbooks in a manner that obscures much of what happened. Remember that Japanese textbooks already did not adequately deal with Japanese actions in World War II.
And that action is not a secret from the other countries. The Chinese have increased the anti-Japanese rhetoric in their historical narratives over the past 15 years.
The gaps are only increasing and the responsibility lies on all sides.
President Park Geun-hye was recently impeached in Korea. This development has created a mood of optimism, but at the same time there is deep concern that domestic instability, in combination with the larger geopolitical tensions between the United States and China, will cause greater instability. Do you have any advice to give the young people in Korea struggling to their direction?
I am very encouraged by what I have observed in Korea. I visited Korea in November of 2016 and witnessed one of the massive demonstrations that led to Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. And I think that what I witnessed there is exactly the way that democracy is supposed to work. People are supposed to be engaged. They are supposed to express their opinions and, the authorities, in accordance with the rule of law, are supposed to respond.
There are processes in place that will return Korea to stability. There will be new elections, a new president, and new reform proposals. I think that what Koreans have achieved is something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of. Their government faced a case of gross corruption and was able to respond to it in a meaningful manner.
The more worrisome problem is recent developments in North Korea. Clearly this young leader has got some pretty dangerous ideas. That threat is combined with the arrival of an American administration that is untested in crisis management, and not deeply knowledgeable about the region. So I’m just hoping that we’ll be able to keep things on an even keel over the next few months.