Saturday Commentary and Review #116
South Korea's War of the Sexes, China's Middle Eastern Diplomatic Earthquake, North Africa As Global Battleground, Crisis of Liberal Modernity, John Huston's "Big Dick"
“Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes. There’s too much fraternizing with the enemy.” - attributed to several people
The latest front that has opened up in this semi-permanent conflict is in South Korea. “Open warfare” is a good description of what has been happening there for the past decade or so. This is best exemplified by the collapse in the fertility rate in that country. In 2016, it was at 1.2, far below the 2.1 marker which is necessary for population replacement. Since then, it has nosedived to a suicidal 0.78!
The question is: why?
I don’t know much about South Korean culture beyond what I managed to learn by proximity to diaspora Koreans in Southern Ontario, and what I have been able to glean through media reports (which we should not trust, for obvious reasons). Via the former, I have learned over time that Koreans are a very proud people with an incredibly strong and competitive work ethic who harbour a historical grudge against their former Japanese occupiers. Through hard work and determination, they turned their once poor country into an economic powerhouse that has climbed up the added-value chain. Lastly, they love to eat pork, just like I do. This is only a surface-level analysis, but it will have do for now.
What media has led me to believe is that South Korean society has been rocked by the appearance of an ever-widening chasm between its young men and women, one aggravated by the proliferation of online cultures on both sides of the divide (sound familiar?). The mental portrait that most of us who have never visited South Korea have of that country is heavily-influenced by the explosion of its main cultural export: K-Pop. This is a musical scene comprised of harmless-looking “cute” boy bands who sing the most cringe-inducing pop tunes that appeal to a worldwide audience of young females.
It seems that this mental portrait does not give us the full picture, as this heavily feminist-slanted essay about the female South Korean ‘4B’ Movement informs us:
As she grew older, Youngmi found herself depressed, unsure of what her future held, and financially unstable. In Korea’s patriarchal society — in which women are generally expected to defer to their fathers and to adhere to rigid beauty standards — she felt like a perpetual victim, obsessed by the wrongs done to her by her father and pressured into maintaining her appearance in order to please men. Despite her meager budget as a nursing student, she purchased new clothes each season, spending a lot of money on cheap, poor-quality clothes from H&M. She wore makeup religiously. “I could not go outside without any makeup. I felt ashamed of my face,” she said. “I had this pressure of wanting to look beautiful and wanting to be desirable, physically or sexually.”
This will sound mean of me, but is her case one in which she finds herself failing to compete in the South Korean sexual marketplace?
Youngmi was moved by the solidarity she saw, but there was one thing she found perplexing: Many of the women at the protests shaved their heads on-camera. As she began to follow more feminist Twitter accounts, Youngmi understood this was a public act of rejection of those same aesthetic expectations imposed on Korean women that have made the country a leader in grooming products and plastic surgery. She began to realize that “you know, men do not do that — men do not feel the pressure to buy clothes every season or wear makeup.”
Soon, Youngmi shaved her head, too, and stopped wearing makeup, joining the so-called “escape the corset” movement happening among young women in South Korea. The movement, which first gained popularity in 2018, saw Korean women publicly turn away from societally imposed beauty standards by cutting their hair short and going barefaced. (Youngmi was not alone — in 2019, a survey found that 24 percent of women in their 20s reported cutting back their spending on beauty products in the previous year, with many saying they no longer felt they needed to put in the effort.) This eventually led Youngmi to “4B,” a smaller but growing movement among Korean women. 4B is shorthand for four Korean words that all start with bi-, or “no”: The first no, bihon, is the refusal of heterosexual marriage. Bichulsan is the refusal of childbirth, biyeonae is saying no to dating, and bisekseu is the rejection of heterosexual sexual relationships. It is both an ideological stance and a lifestyle, and many women I spoke to extend their boycott to nearly all the men in their lives, including distancing themselves from male friends.
“Women going their own way”. Lesbianism? Or a sex strike? Or something in between?
Through open chat groups on KakaoTalk, Youngmi connected with other feminists in Daegu, where she lived with her mother while attending nursing school, soon meeting each other offline. (“It’s so easy to recognize each other with short hair,” she said.) She stopped seeing her friends from high school and middle school whose conversations still revolved around makeup, clothes, and boys. When we met last November at a café in Seoul, where she’s been living for the last two years, she was barefaced and dressed comfortably in loose jeans and a white fleece jacket. Her hair was long enough to be pulled back in a ponytail, as she’d grown tired of people asking about her short hair at her nursing job, but it was tucked into a white baseball cap. Feminism, she said, had helped her recognize that it was patriarchy that was the problem, not her — that “the bad things that happened in your life are not your fault,” she said.
For Youngmi and many others who subscribe to its basic premises, 4B, or “practicing bihon,” is the only path by which a Korean woman today can live autonomously. In their view, Korean men are essentially beyond redemption, and Korean culture, on the whole, is hopelessly patriarchal — often downright misogynistic.
The internet has managed to connect people to one another via shared interests where once it was impossible. Think Tumblr, for example. Whether it’s good or bad all depends on your point of view.
This bit is interesting:
Even young women who are not members of the movement echo that they could not imagine dating or marrying a Korean man. Sooyeon, a teacher in her early 30s, told me that talking to her male friends “made me always feel like, ‘Oh, maybe I can never find a Korean man’ … Even in my generation, some guys expect a really traditional role from their spouse.” As if to prove her point, a recent survey by a matchmaking company found that women were reluctant to marry because of the division of housework, while men hesitated because of “feminism.”
This piece is anecdote-heavy, but I will not dismiss it out of hand for the simple fact that I have never been to South Korea. All of this could be true for all I know. The bolded portion reminds me an article I read about a year ago that detailed how South Korean women mock their men’s physical attributes, especially penis size, in comparison to non-Korean men. Might they try to open the doors to mass migration as they accrue political power in the coming decades to import men from other nations or races? This question should be asked.
On the open warfare:
It is unclear how widespread or popular the 4B movement is given its fluid online and offline nature and its evolution over the years, beginning sometime around 2015 or 2016 when a simple “no-marriage” lifestyle grew to include a boycott of men and reproductive labor more broadly. One article estimated 50,000 adherents; others have put the movement’s numbers at under 5,000. Its origin story is similarly complex, though its contours can be traced.
Following years of financial crises in which young people faced growing housing costs and intense competition for university spots and jobs, the way women and men related to each other openly soured. Beginning in 2013, the rate of college enrollment among Korean women surpassed those of men; today, nearly three-fourths of women are enrolled in higher education, compared with less than two-thirds of men. Previously, women were expected to drop out of the labor force after marriage or parenthood. Now, young men see their female peers as competitors for increasingly scarce jobs. (Several academics I spoke with noted to me that Korea is largely ethnically and racially homogenous, making gender the default and central societal fault line.) In online forums and on social media, disgruntled men began labeling college-educated women kimchinyeo, or “kimchee women,” giving a name to “the stereotype of Korean women as selfish, vain, and obsessed with themselves while exploiting their partners,” wrote feminist scholar Euisol Jeong in her doctoral thesis on “troll feminism.”
Female Korean internet users responded by latching onto misogynistic strategies like trolling, mockery, and abusive language. Members of Megalia, one of the more prominent feminist sites in this period, coined the term hannamchung, or “Korean male-bug,” which stereotyped Korean men as “ugly, sexist, and obsessed with buying sex,” wrote Jeong.
To trot out an old phrase, “history belongs to those who show up”. South Koreans have decided to not reproduce themselves any longer. The future does not belong to them. Does it belong to their poorer relations in the North?
The agreement to restore diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia courtesy of a deal brokered by China last week is the equivalent of a geopolitical earthquake.
Long considered one of America’s many playgrounds, the USA now has to make way for a energized China, one without the baggage of the bloody interventions of its global competitor. This shock deal rearranges the chessboard as the Americans had no role in this detente, one that could grow into a re-alignment to their detriment.
For over the past decade, the Saudis have inched closer to the US-backed Israelis in a common anti-Iran alliance. This de facto alliance was cemented through the shuttle diplomacy conducted by Jared Kushner and others under Trump. The USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia (and others, including Azerbaijan), were preparing to see to the end of the revolutionary regime in Tehran. The protests and regional rebellions that struck Iran over the past several months were in large part fueled by this alliance. This has now been entirely upended.
The key factor here are the Saudis. The pressure applied by the USA on Riyadh due to the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi combined with Washington’s fast and loose over-reliance on sanctions involving Russian oil, have led to the desert kingdom’s re-assessment of its relations with its historically key ally. On the practical side, China comes with many less strings attached, and a lot more economic incentives as well, as Spengler Goldman explains:
Saudi Arabia is the evident winner in the agreement. After decades of proxy war between Shiite Iran and the Sunni kingdom, a cessation of hostilities implies that Iran and its proxies will stand down. US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on March 10 that “any effort to de-escalate tensions there in the region…is in our interest,” adding that the US welcomes the agreement.
But China’s success in the Persian Gulf points to a breakdown of American attempts to contain China’s global leadership in telecommunications and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. China’s capacity to transform regional economies technologically is a key factor in its diplomatic efforts.
China’s immediate interest in regional stability stems from its dependence on Middle East oil. The last thing Beijing wants is a regional conflict that might interrupt energy supplies. But China’s plans for the region include its industrial potential in a Chinese-led expansion of Eurasian infrastructure.
Although Western analysts were taken by surprise, Chinese diplomacy prepared the Saudi-Iran joint statement, which praised “the noble initiative of His Excellency President Xi Jinping,” over the past several months and in the full light of day. Turkey, which has improved relations with both the Gulf States and Israel during the past year, figures centrally in China’s plan.
China’s growing influence is evident from trade data, which show its exports to key countries in the region roughly doubled over the past three years.
This is a more assertive China, one that is also trying to position itself as a peacemaker in Ukraine. This Middle Eastern deal is a diplomatic coup, so why not try and double the score?
Turkey has been brought in from the cold as well:
Turkey’s recent turnabout from sick man of the regional economy to star performer also factored into the Iranian regime’s calculations. Chinese exports to Turkey have tripled since 2019, and Chinese trade financing helped the Recap Tayyip Erdogan government limp through a currency crisis that left the country on the edge of hyperinflation just a year ago.
With the largest army in the region, Turkey presents a counterweight to Iran’s regional ambitions, and its newly restored relations with Israel and the Gulf States indicate that it may become a stabilizing force (“How Erdogan Got Back in the Money,” Asia Times, February 20, 2023).
China can deliver the goods:
What China has, and the US does not, is a plan to transform the economies of the region with digital infrastructure, ports, railroads, AI-guided solar power as well as the means to rescue economies in crisis.
When Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December 2022, Reuters reported, “A memorandum with China’s Huawei Technologies, on cloud computing and building high-tech complexes in Saudi cities, was agreed despite US unease with Gulf allies over a possible security risk in using the Chinese firm’s technology. Huawei has participated in building 5G networks in most Gulf states despite the US concerns.”
Earlier in 2022, the UAE broke off negotiations to buy America’s F-35 stealth fighter after Washington demanded that the UAE exclude 5G mobile broadband systems that it plans to buy from Huawei. US analysts claimed that Huawei’s civilian 5G network could gather intelligence on American aircraft. The UAE kept its deal with Huawei and bought 80 French Rafale fighters instead.
Huawei’s Red Sea Project, signed in 2019, is building an AI-enabled solar power network that will provide power for a city of one million people.
The USA has plenty of time (and capability) to scutter this deal. I have no doubt that they will try to do so, as they consider the Middle East their turf.
Israel is a big loser here, as the anti-Iran coalition that they have steadily built has collapsed like a house of cards in one fell swoop.
My question is: will the Saudis stick to this? Or are they using this as a way to pressure Washington to change its behaviour and return to status quo ante?
IR Realists view the world as in a constant state of anarchy, and previous item that we just covered is testament to this view. The Middle East is being re-shaped by China (but the USA still has something to say about that), while the war in Ukraine continues to grind along.
North Africa is in flux as well; Russia has scored a series of victories here thanks to its diplomacy and the presence of the Wagner Group in the region. This has come to the detriment of the West, and in particular to the French, who view this part of the world as their rightful backyard. This couldn’t come at a worse time for Europe because in choosing to to wean itself off of Russian oil and gas, it must turn to other neighbours to fill in the gap resulting from its energy strategy. This makes North Africa a new front in the NATO-Russia War:
This will be especially true in states that are resource rich – whether in oil, gas, or “green” commodities. These battles are already underway across Africa and are likely to intensify. North African countries have thus far been unwilling to help “isolate” Russia. The EU energy situation is still dire, which it is trying to remedy with a renewed push into Africa in search of oil and gas, as well as a race to control “green” resources. China does not want to give ground in Africa, and Russia, while seeking to prevent any isolation, can also sooner bring Europe to its knees if it throws a wrench in the EU-Africa energy plans.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how the West’s demand that states pick a side wouldn’t only isolate Europe further and exacerbate its energy woes, as I’ll discuss here regarding North Africa.
The Widening War in North Africa
The EU has set its sights on North Africa for a variety of reasons, summed up here by the European Council on Foreign Relations:
North Africa is also a promising place for the future production of green hydrogen, an energy source that is likely to be essential for the EU to fulfil its climate goals in hard-to-decarbonise sectors. And the region is also home to critical raw materials (CRMs) necessary for the energy transition, offering the EU the opportunity to further diversify its supply chains for clean energy technologies. North Africa’s young and well-educated workforce also offers the EU not only a potential workforce for technology manufacturing closer to home than Asian markets, but also the skills necessary for meaningful cooperation in areas such as research and development (R&D).
Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from Europe, is currently Africa’s largest oil and gas producer. It’s naturally a prime candidate to fill Europe’s gap in energy needs after the EU cut itself off from Russian supplies. Italy is trying to ramp up gas and energy imports and even locate electric vehicle industry in Algeria, but there are a myriad of problems.
First and foremost, the numbers just don’t add up. From GIS:
The entire African continent’s proven gas reserves are equivalent to 34 percent of Russian resources, and North Africa’s reserves equal only 10 percent of Russia’s. The African and North African gas production is 36 percent and 15 percent of Russia’s output, respectively. In 2020, total gas trade between Europe and Russia was nearly 185 bcm, about four and a half fold the trade with North Africa.
On the oil front, the same story that’s played out elsewhere is occurring in North Africa, which buys up Russian crude and increases supplies to Europe as a sanctions workaround.
Russia and China in North Africa:
Russia has long standing close ties with Algeria, and Beijing and Algiers have also grown closer. Foreign Policy:
China has been the main exporter to Algeria since 2013, displacing former colonial power France, and the pair signed a second five-year strategic cooperation pact earlier in November. Meanwhile, Russia supplies around 80 percent of Algeria’s weapons, making Algeria Russia’s third-largest arms importer, after India and China. Algiers and Moscow held joint military exercises near the Moroccan border in November.
Algeria also applied in November to join the BRICS shortly after signed up to extend Belt and Road Initiative projects with China on infrastructure, energy, and space exploration.
Moscow has kept quiet on the increase in Algeria’s gas production for Europe, but many European MPs and US congress members are calling for sanctions on Algeria as a result of its ties with Russia. To do so would likely cut off another of Europe’s energy sources, however.
The US, fearful of Russia’s influence in Algeria, is planning to build a military-industrial base in Morocco. Additionally, the US announced a $1 billion arms sale agreement with Morocco in 2020 that included drones and precision-guided munitions, signed a 10-year military cooperation deal, and last year, the US sent wireless tactical and ground control systems to Rabat.
Still, Morocco is trying to maintain a foot in both East and West camps. Rabat abstained during a recent UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russian aggression, and ignored US efforts to join the western camp.
Be on the lookout for staged provocations between Morocco and Algeria in the near future.
We are all familiar with how liberalism has grown quite intolerant in recent times, antithetical to its own philosophical underpinnings. The examples are endless and very familiar to us all, so instead of repeating myself one more time, I will instead share the link to this long essay by Arta Moeini from the new Substack publication AGON, in which he explains how the ‘fixation on equality’ has led to liberalism’s increasingly totalitarian methodologies:
The ballooning of the liberal managerial state into a totalistic and globe-spanning Leviathan is in part the result of the very successes of the liberal worldview—what we may call the “modern project”—as well as the natural culmination of three antinomies foundational to liberalism.
The gathering storm:
The current dystopian storm has been gathering strength for some time, at least since the start of the 21st century. Not only did the 9/11 terrorist attack actuate the U.S. war machine into a series of endless wars in a Global War on Terror, but the George W. Bush administration exploited that tragedy and the threat of Al-Qaeda to further consolidate and rationalize a surveillance regime that dramatically expanded and abused the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Three Democrat and Republican presidents later, U.S. intelligence—with the complicity of Big Tech—continues to engage in mass surveillance of Americans on U.S. soil with little transparency and oversight.
The specter of Covid-19 only accelerated this alarming trend and broadened the scope of securitization and politics of fear onto public health. Overnight, many Western governments metastasized into bio-security states, mandating vaccine passports, restricting travel, and locking down their citizens in the name of public safety. It was always doubtful whether such draconian measures were necessary or even conducive to “slowing the spread” of a highly transmissible virus (as shown by the Delta and Omicron variants). Nevertheless, the war-like handling of the virus by the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K., and many European countries created a martial climate in which it was essentially acceptable to treat “the unvaccinated” as second-class citizens, even as a dangerous threat—while showing minimal regard for either bodily sovereignty or scientific skepticism.
By 2022, Carl Schmitt’s famous notion of a “state of exception” had become an ordinary feature of life in many parts of the world. A situation in which the sovereign transcends its political and constitutional authority ostensibly to protect the public from an emergency of some form in an increasingly polarized society seems to have become the new normal in the Western world.
A year ago, in February 2022, two separate, seemingly unrelated, events captured the despotic, dystopian condition of our zeitgeist. First, generally peaceful protests organized by Canadian truckers against the excesses of the Covid rules, known as the Freedom Convoy, were crushed by the full mobilization of the Canadian state, with the U.S. government's and multinational corporations' explicit backing. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a state of emergency, allowing his government to ignore and trample the civil liberties of Canadians in the name of security.
At the time, renowned American journalist Matt Taibbi compared it to the actions of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. An official inquiry into the episode released this month, however, found that the emergency order had met the “very high threshold” of a national emergency. Despite his “reluctance” in siding with the Trudeau government, commissioner Justice Paul Rouleau wrote, “freedom cannot exist without order.” The implication is that it’s the government that can decide what constitutes “freedom” as well as the limits to it.
This is a brilliant essay that touches on many of the themes that we have discussed here over the past almost three years. It should be read in its entirety. To do so, click here:
We end this weekend’s Substack with an excerpt from Anjelica Huston’s biography “Watch Me”. This excerpt first appeared in Vanity Fair in 2013.
Her famous film father director was one of those “larger than life” figures, and naturally he plays an outsized role in her story:
I was born at 6:29 P.M. on July 8, 1951, at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, in Los Angeles. The news of my arrival was cabled promptly to the post office in the township of Butiaba, in western Uganda. Two days later, a barefoot runner bearing a telegram finally arrived at Murchison Falls, a waterfall on the Nile, deep in the heart of the Belgian Congo, where The African Queen was being filmed.
My father, John Marcellus Huston, was a director renowned for his adventurous style and audacious nature. Even though it was considered foolhardy, he had persuaded not only Katharine Hepburn, an actress in her prime, but also Humphrey Bogart, who brought along his famously beautiful wife, the movie star Lauren Bacall, to share the hazardous journey. My mother, heavily pregnant, had stayed behind in Los Angeles with my one-year-old brother.
When the messenger handed the telegram to my father, he glanced at it, then put it in his pocket. Hepburn exclaimed, “For God’s sakes, John, what does it say?” and Dad replied, “It’s a girl. Her name is Anjelica.”
Dad was six feet two and long-legged, taller and stronger and with a more beautiful voice than anybody. His hair was salt-and-pepper; he had the broken nose of a boxer and a dramatic air about him. I don’t remember ever seeing him run; rather, he ambled, or took long, fast strides. He walked loose-limbed and swaybacked, like an American, but dressed like an English gentleman: corduroy trousers, crisp shirts, knotted silk ties, jackets with suede elbows, tweed caps, fine custom-made leather shoes, and pajamas from Sulka with his initials on the pocket. He smelled of fresh tobacco and Guerlain’s lime cologne. An omnipresent cigarette dangled from his fingers; it was almost an extension of his body.
Over the years, I’ve heard my father described as a Lothario, a drinker, a gambler, a man’s man, more interested in killing big game than in making movies. It is true that he was extravagant and opinionated. But Dad was complicated, self-educated for the most part, inquisitive, and well read. Not only women but men of all ages fell in love with my father, with that strange loyalty and forbearance men reserve for one another. They were drawn to his wisdom, his humor, his magnanimous power; they considered him a lion, a leader, the pirate they wished they had the audacity to be. Although there were few who commanded his attention, Dad liked to admire other men, and he had a firm regard for artists, athletes, the titled, the very rich, and the very talented. Most of all, he loved characters, people who made him laugh and wonder about life.
When Dad was in residence, Tony and I would go up to his room for breakfast. The maids would carry the heavy wicker trays from the kitchen, with the spaces on either side for The Irish Times and the Herald Tribune. Dad liked to read the Trib column written by his friend Art Buchwald. Sitting on the floor, I would top off my customary boiled egg, and dip fingers of toasted bread into the deep-orange yolk. The tea was hot and brown in the cup, like sweet bog water.
Dad would be idly sketching on a drawing pad. “What news?” he would ask. It was generally a good idea to have an anecdote at hand, even though it was often hard to come up with one, given that we were all living in the same compound and had seen him at dinner the night before. If one didn’t have an item of interest to report, more likely than not, a lecture would begin.
At some point, he would toss the sketchpad aside and make his way slowly out of bed, casting off his pajamas and standing fully naked before us. We watched, mesmerized. I was fascinated by his body—his wide shoulders, high ribs, and long arms, his potbelly and legs as thin as toothpicks. He was extremely well-endowed, but I tried not to stare or betray any interest in what I was observing.
Eventually he would wander into the sanctuary of his bathroom, locking the door behind him, and sometime later would reappear, showered and shaved and smelling of fresh lime. Creagh, the butler, would come upstairs to help him dress, and the ritual would begin. He had a gleaming mahogany dressing room full of kimonos and cowboy boots and Navajo Indian belts, robes from India, Morocco, and Afghanistan. Dad would ask my advice on which necktie to wear, take it into consideration, and arrive at his own decision. Then, dressed and ready for the day, he would proceed down to the study.
I love stories about Old Hollywood.
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