Recently on the internet, I came across a rather penetrating passage that says, “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism, but under the name of liberalism, they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program until one day America will be a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened.”
At first, I thought a conservative American wrote it to warn the American people of the pervasiveness of socialism. To my surprise, the author was a renowned 19th century American socialist who looked forward to the advent of socialism. Norman Thomas, the author, was a famed socialist who was a six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America.
In the 19th century, Utopian socialism was quite popular in America. In 1841, for example, transcendentalists built Brook Farm, an experimental community based on Utopian socialism. In 1888, Edward Bellamy wrote a well-known novel about Utopian socialism, “Looking Backward.” Around that time, Henry George too preached his famous socialist theory that “the economic value derived from the land should go to all members of society.”
Fortunately, America has chosen wisely and has become an affluent capitalist country. Of course, capitalism has inherent problems and side effects, such as the unequal distribution of wealth. Nevertheless, it has its own merits and turns out to be far better than socialism or communism, which has proven to be merely a Utopian daydream. If America had stumbled into socialism, she would certainly have become a miserable country suffering poverty today.
However, what Norman Thomas believed may become a reality for any country that is hibernating, lowering its guard or choosing the wrong path. Take South Korea, for example: If someone warned us that our country might turn into a socialist nation, we would snort, saying, “That’s sheer nonsense. How could it be possible? We wouldn’t allow it.” Of course, we “will never knowingly adopt socialism,” as Thomas pointed out. However, we may adopt socialist programs one by one under the name of progressivism. Then one day, we will find that our country has become “a socialist nation without ever knowing how it happened.” The possibility is unnerving and appalling. In order to avoid such a calamity, we should be super-cautious and stay on constant alert.
On the internet, I also encountered a quote on women and children written by Brigitte Gabriel: “Never in the history of the world have women and children ever been treated with as much dignity and respect as they are in the United States.” Gabriel is a Lebanese American writer who witnessed the depressing predicament of women and children in her native culture before coming to America. As an outsider, Gabriel accurately perceived American society and culture.
On the contrary, many Koreans do not have an accurate perception of American society and culture. For example, Koreans tend to assume that the Democratic Party in the US is the same as the Democratic Party in Korea. However, they are radically different: The former stems from liberalism, whereas the latter defies liberalism. Such a misunderstanding is misleading and may bring a disastrous outcome in diplomacy.
Films and television dramas, too, provide inspiring phrases. In the first episode of Season 2 of “Designated Survivor” President Kirkman delivers a rather succinct, but deeply moving speech to his staff: “You are all dedicated to public service and you serve approximately 326 million Americans, most of whom you’ll never meet or know. It is imperative that we do not become numb. The people that we serve, they have faces, families, hopes and dreams, and stories. And they are our fellow Americans and by virtue of that bond alone, they are worthy of our sacrifice, our commitment, and our service.”
President Kirkman’s speech exemplifies precisely what all political leaders should bear in mind. Unfortunately, however, many elected politicians in real life choose to rule and manipulate the people, instead of serving them. They should be public servants, not tyrannical rulers, and yet they do not hesitate to abuse their power.
When someone is running for the presidency in Korea, we say, “He has joined a competition for the great power.” We wrongfully assume that our president is entitled to great power. The truth is that a nation’s president has great responsibility to protect the people and make the nation prosper. A president has no right to dismantle or debunk the fundamentals of the nation to suit a political ideology.
In the thought-provoking movie “Terminator Salvation,” machines try to annihilate humans, and humans fight back. John Connor, leader of the resistance, says, “Command wants us to fight like machines. They want us to make cold, calculated decisions. But we are not machines, and if we behave like them, then what is the point in winning?” It is an inspiring dialogue that resonates with what Michelle Obama has said: “When they go low, we go high.”
Sometimes, we learn from inspiring phrases we come across on the internet or in films. They are a valuable source of perennial wisdom and enlightenment.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.