The Myth of Free Trade

The Secret History of Protectionism

Between the 60s-70s, rich countries grew by 3.2% per year. During this period, they comfortably used protectionist policies like high tariffs, subsidies, and so on. When they implemented neoliberal policies (free trade), they grew by 2.1% per year. “Growth failure has been particularly noticeable in Latin American and Africa, where neo-liberal programs were implemented more thoroughly than in Asia.”[1] In the 1960s and 1970s, Latin America’s per capita income grew at 3.1% per year. In the 1990s, it grew at only 1.7% per year; between 2000 and 2005, it grew only 0.6%.[2]

In the 18th century, Robert Walpole, the first British prime minister enacted a group of protectionist policies that provided the foundation of economic growth:

“Britain’s average tariff on manufacturing imports was 45-55%, compared to 6-8% in the Low Countries, 8-12% in Germany and Switzerland, and around 20% in France.[3]


Britain also banned exports from its colonies that competed with its own products, home and abroad. It banned cotton textile imports from India, which were then superior to the British ones. In 1699 it banned the export of woolen cloth from its colonies to other countries (the Wool Act), destroying the Irish woolen industry and stifling the emergence of woolen manufacture in America.

Finally, policies were deployed to encourage primary commodity production in the colonies. Walpole provided export subsidies to (on the American side) and abolished import taxes on (on the British side) raw materials produced in the American colonies such as hemp, wood, and timber. He wanted to make absolutely sure that the colonists stuck to producing primary commodities and never emerged as competitors to British manufacturers. Thus they were compelled to leave the most profitable ‘high-tech’ industries in the hands of Britain — which ensured that Britain would enjoy the benefits of being on the cutting edge of world development.[4]” (Chang, 45)

Adam Smith criticized Walpole’s protectionism, because he believed that British industries had become internationally competitive. Indeed, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, British manufacturers were the most efficient in the world. Britain now believed that free trade was in their interest. Hence, they abolished the Corn Laws that limited the ability to import cheap grains. (Chang, 46) It was seen as an act of trade imperialism, since Britain’s open market now encouraged agriculture rather than industrialization. Richard Cobden, the English manufacturer and statesman, argued that without the Corn Laws “the factory system would, in all probability, not have taken place in American and Germany.” (Chang, 48) Unsurprisingly, John Bowring of the Board of Trade encouraged “the member states of German Custom Union to specialize in growing wheat and sell the wheat to buy British manufactures[5]… Britain adopted free trade only when it had a technological lead over others.” (Chang, 48) This is why 19th century German economist Friedrich List criticized Britain for “kicking away the ladder.”

Alexander Hamilton in 1791 submitted his Report on the Subject of Manufactures to the US Congress, which argued the need for protectionism and subsidies to build up infant industries. “The core of his idea was that a backward country like the US should protect its ‘industries in their infancy’ from foreign competition and nurture them to the point where they could stand on their own feet.” During the War of 1812, the US Congress raised tariffs from 12.5% to 25%. In 1816, they were raised to an average of 35%; by 1820, it amounted to 40%. The US’s protectionism did not cease. Abraham Lincoln raised industrial tariffs to their highest level in US history.[6] Such high tariffs never truly declined: the Underwood Tariff bill in 1913 reduced it from 44% to 25%, but they were raised again due to the First World War, the Republican return to power in 1921 raised it again, by 1925 the average manufacturing tariff had climbed back up to 37%, and the Smooth-Hawley tariff as a response to the Great Depression raised them even more. (Chang, 54)

The dogma of anti-protectionism is baseless:

“Despite being the most protectionist country in the world throughout the 19th century and right up to the 1920s, the US was the fastest growing economy. The eminent Swiss economic historian, Paul Bairoch, points out that there is no evidence that the only significant reduction of protectionism in the US economy (between 1846 and 1861) had any noticeable positive impact on the country’s rate of economic growth.[7]” (Chang, 55)

Even during its free-trade period, the US “promoted key industries through public funding of R&D. Between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, US federal government funding accounted for 50-70% of the country’s total R&D funding, which is far above the figure of around 20%, found in such ‘government-led’ countries as Japan and Korea.” (Chang, 55-6) Despite its penchant for preaching the religious virtues of free trade, the US practiced virtually every protectionist policy in the book to grow its economy.

The same is true for other countries. In the 18th century, Prussia highly subsidized linen, iron, and steel. Japan kick started steel, shipbuilding, and railway industries through state ownership and targeted subsidies. In the late 19th century, the Swiss government led the charge in developing railways — by 1913 it owned one-third of the railways in terms of mileage and 60% in terms of goods transported. “In Finland, Norway, and Austria, the government [directed] the flow of bank credit to strategic industries. Finland heavily controlled foreign investment. In many parts of Italy, local government provided support for marketing and R%D to small and medium-sized firms in the locality.” (Chang, 58-60)

In 1961, South Korea’s yearly income amounted to $82 per person. The average Korean earned less than half the average Ghanaian citizen ($179). A 1950s internal report from USAID — US government agency primarily responsible for foreign aid— called Korea a ‘bottomless pit.’[8] In 1973, South Korea launched the Heavy and Chemical Industrialization program (HCI). The first steel mill, modern shipyard, and locally designed cars went into production. South Korea’s per capita income grew by more than five times between 1972 and 1979. Exports grew nine times during this period.[9] They prohibited spending foreign exchange on anything not crucial to industrial development through import bans, high tariffs, and excise taxes. (Chang, 9) As a result of such protectionist policies, Korea is “one of the most ‘inventive’ nations in the world — it ranks among the top five nations in terms of the number of patents granted annually by the US patent Office.”(Chang, 11) Loose patent laws were crucial for this economic miracle, since it allowed ‘reverse engineering.’ Koreans would “take apart IBM machines, copy the parts, and put them together.” They “churned out fake Nike shoes and Louis Vuitton bags in huge quantities.” (Chang, 11) “Foreign books… were still beyond the means for most students… I could have never entered and survived Cambridge without those illegal books.” (Chang, 11)

Chile’s early neo-liberal financial crash in 1982 led to the nationalization of the Banking Sector. Chile’s income per capita grew by the late 80s, rivaling pre-Pinochet level. The government provided exporters with much help in overseas marketing and R&D. They also used capital controls in the 90s to successfully reduce the influx of short-term speculative funds, although recent free trade agreements with the US forced Chile to never use them again. [10]

India’s recent economic success is often attributed to free trade in the early 1990s. However, recent research demonstrates that India’s growth acceleration really began in the 1980s.[11] Furthermore, even after the early 1990s free trade period, India’s average manufacturing tariffs remained above 30%.

Another good case study of successful protectionist policies is China:

“Like the US in the mid-19th century, or Japan and Korea in the mid-20th century, China used high tariffs to build up its industrial base. Right up to the 1990s, China’s average tariff was over 30%… It imposed foreign ownership ceilings and local contents requirements (the requirements that the foreign firms buy at least a certain proportion of their inputs from local suppliers.) (Chang, 29-30)

Contrary to neo-liberal dogma, this did not prevent foreign countries from investing in a highly lucrative market called China.


The Failures of Free Trade

Free Trade disproportionately harms developing countries despite the orthodoxy’s moralizing tales about the miracles of free trade. For example, Mexico’s per capita income growth stood at an average of 3.1% per year during its protectionist period from 1955-82. Compared to its free trade period, during which the US’s subsidized corn destroyed Mexico’s agriculture sector, NAFTA did positively impact the economy. However, the growth of per capita income of 1.8% still pales in comparison to its protectionist period. Moreover, recently NAFTA’s positive impacts seem to have declined as growth of per capita income stands at 0.3%[12]. (Chang, 68) The benefits of free trade are short-lived, and these countries need a long-term goal that allows them to build their infant industries. The Ivory Coast cut tariff by 40% in 1986 due to pressure from free-trade zealots. Its chemical, textile, shoe, and automobile industries virtually collapsed. Unemployment soared. Zimbabwe’s trade liberalization in 1990 increased unemployment to 20%.

Free Trade Agreements also make poor nations poorer:

“Trade liberalization has created other problems, too. It has increased the pressures on government budgets, as it reduced tariff revenues. This has been a particularly serious problem for the poorer countries. Because they lack tax collection capabilities and because tariffs are the easiest tax to collect, they rely heavily on tariffs (which sometimes account for over 50% of total government revenue).[13]” (Chang, 69)

Pressures from the IMF for rapid trade liberalization reduces the budget of poor nations, and less revenue means cutting education, health, and infrastructure — damaging long-term growth.


State Owned Enterprise (SOE)

There is a myth that plagues many people across the world. It is the myth that private enterprises are necessarily more efficient than state owned enterprises. They treat this as a logical tautology. The truth, like always, is much more nuanced and complicated.

Singapore Airlines is famous for its excellence. It has never made a financial loss in its 35-year history. Did you know that it was an SOE? Temasek controls 57% of Singapore airlines; Temasek’s single shareholder is Singapore’s Ministry of Finance (Chang, 108). South Korea’s POSCO became one of the world’s most efficient steel producers on the planet (and now the world’s 3rd largest) within ten years of its production in 1973. This was also an SOE. (109-110) Taiwan has had a very large SOE sector. Throughout the 1960s and 1870s, it accounted for over 16% of national output. (Chang, 109-110)

Austria, Finland, France, Norway, and Italy benefited greatly from SOE’s after the Second World War as well. “In Finland, public enterprises led technological modernization in forestry, mining, steel, transport equipment, paper machinery and chemical industries.[14]” (Chang, 111) France’s famous enterprises like Renault (automobiles), Alcatel (telecommunications equipment), St Gobain (glass and other building materials), Usinor (steel; merged into Arcelor, which is now part of Arcelor-Mittal, the biggest steel-maker in the world), Thomson (electronics), Thales (defence electronics), Elf Aquitane (oil and gas), Rhone-Poulenc (pharmaceuticals; merged with the German company Hoechst to form Aventis, which is no part of Sanofi-Aventis), all used to be SOEs[15].

Successful SOE’s can be seen in Latin America as well. Brazil’s oil company Petrobras is a world-class firm with leading technologies. EMBRAER, the Brazilian manufacturer of ‘regional jets’, is another. EMBRAER is now the world’s biggest producer of regional jets and the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer of any kind, after Airbus and Boeing. (Chang, 111)

The common criticism of SOE’s is that there exists no incentive for citizens to monitor them — because they all share the profit. They are secure, with no threat of bankruptcy. This allows them to act as if their budgets are soft. (Chang, 105-6) However, many of the same problems apply to large private firms. Shareholders only own a small amount, so there is also no big incentive to monitor. Their budget is just as soft: the 2008 financial crisis. (107) Considering the success of SOE’s, the dogmatic privileging of private enterprises over SOE’s appears to be totally unwarranted.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)

Loose patent and copyright laws have been essential for virtually every rich nation. Like Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China that made counterfeits to grow their economies, European nations in the 19th century encouraged counterfeits too. For example, Germany fought against the British trademark law of 1862 by placing the stamp indicating the country of origin on the packaging instead of the individual articles. This meant that once the packaging was removed, one could not tell the product’s country of origin. Or, they would send pieces of products, like pianos and bicycles, and assemble them in Britain. (Chang, 133)

The US “refused to protect foreigners’ copyrights in its 1790 copyright law. The US was a net importer of copyright materials and saw the advantages of protecting only American authors.” (134, Chang) Switzerland refused to patent protect chemical substances, because “the ‘inventor’ had merely found a way to isolate [the substance].” (Chang, 132) The Netherlands abolished its 1817 patent law in 1869. Even the British free-market magazine, The Economist, opposed patents in the 19th century[16]. Furthermore, Britain banned the migration of skilled workers in 1719, banned the export of ‘tools and utensils’ in the wood and silk industries in 1750, and they banned the export of many other types of machinery in 1785. (Chang, 129-130)

So why did all of these nations object to IPR’s? The British free-market magazine, The Economist, believed that the cost of the patent system would be higher than its benefits. Naturally, this leads us to the question: what are the costs? The cost is that it can harm developing countries. This is why Germany, Britain, US, Netherlands, and Switzerland disregarded patent and copyright laws when they would hinder their growth — such pragmatism, however, is not allowed if you’re not a Western country. For example, 41 pharmaceutical companies took the South African government to court for copying life-saving drugs for HIV/AIDS. They argued that the government’s practices were contrary to the TRIPS agreement. Moreover, they argued that there would be no more new drugs without patents. Is it then true that without patents there would be no more new drugs? 13 fellows of the Royal Society, the highest scientific society of the UK, argued in an open letter to the Financial Times: ‘Patents are only one means for promoting discovery and invention. Scientific curiosity, coupled with the desire to benefit humanity, has been of far greater importance throughout history.[17]’ The facts support this claim: “in the year 2000, only 43% of US drugs research funding came from the pharmaceutical industry itself. 29% came from the US government and the remaining 28% from private charities and universities.[18]” (Chang, 125)

Another downside of IPR’s is that they cost a lot:

“To comply with the TRIPS agreement, each developing country needs to spend a lot of money building up and implementing a new IPR system. The system does not run itself. Enforcement of copyright and trademarks requires an army of inspectors. The patent office needs scientists and engineers to process the patent applications and the courts needs patent lawyers to help sort out disputes. Training and hiring all these people costs money.” (Chang, 141)

Most developing countries cannot reap the benefits of patent laws, because they do not have the resources or the infrastructure to conduct researches. Considering the fact that “The World Bank estimates that, following the TRIPS agreement, the increase in technology license payments alone will cost developing countries an extra $45 billion a year, which is nearly half of foreign aid given by rich countries ($93 billion a year in 2004-5),[19] this does not sound like a great deal for developing nations.


Who Benefits from Free Trade?

In 2002, India paid more tariffs to the US than Britain, despite the fact that the size of its economy is only one third of UK. Bangladesh paid as much to the US as France, despite it being 3% the size of France. (Chang, 75) Rich countries account for 80% of the world’s output, conduct 70% of international trade, and make 70-90% of all foreign direct investments.[20] Plus, rich countries own 97% of patents and the vast majority of copyrights and trademarks. Rich countries collectively control 60% of the IMF and World Bank’s voting shares, bestowing them absolute control— for example, the US has a de facto veto regarding decisions in the 18 most important areas.[21]

The World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) form what the Cambridge Economist Ha-Joon Chang calls “the Unholy Trinity” of Free Trade. After the Third World debt crisis of 1982, the IMF and the World Bank began to exert more influence on developing nations through structural adjustment programs (SAPs). They now impose conditions on lending money, which range from “fertility decisions, ethnic integration, and gender equality, to cultural values.” (Chang, 33) For example, during the IMF crisis in 1997, the IMF demanded a limit to the amount of debt that private sector companies could have. They demanded humiliating conditions like “reductions of trade barriers to specific Japanese products and opening capital markets so that foreign investors can have majority ownership of Korean firms, engage in hostile takeovers… and expand direct participation in banking and other financial services.[22]

The WTO was created from an attempt to apply the same trade rules for every nation participating in the trade agreement. This sounds good on the surface, but it is quite pernicious: rich countries disproportionately protect products that poor countries export. This means that poor countries face higher tariffs than rich countries. An Oxfam report demonstrates this:

“The overall import tax rate for the USA is 1.6 per cent. That rate rises steeply for a large number of developing countries: average import taxes range from around four per cent for India and Peru, to seven per cent for Nicaragua, and as much as 14-15 per cent for Bangladesh, Cambodia and Nepal.[23]

Applying the same rules to reducing tariffs by the same proportions is unfair, because developing countries have higher tariffs in absolute terms. For example, “before the WTO agreement, India had an average tariff rate of 71%. It was cut to 32%. The US average tariff rate fell from 7% to 3%. Both are similar in proportional terms, but the absolute impact is very different.” (Chang, 76)

Another favorite of the Unholy Trinity is to impose low inflation as conditions for trade agreements or lending money. Stanley Fischer, chief economist of the IMF between 1994 and 2001, once explicitly recommended 1-3% as the ideal inflation rate[24]. This is regarded as a truism in the neo-liberal orthodoxy, as one regularly encounters such arguments from Republicans like Paul Ryan. But is it really a truism? The evidence says otherwise:

“During the 1960s and 1970s, Brazil’s average inflation rate was 42% a year.[25] Despite this, Brazil was one of the fastest growing economies in the world for those two decades — its per capita income grew at 4.5% a year during this period. In contrast, between 1996 and 2005, during which time Brazil embraced the neo-liberal orthodoxy, especially in relation to macroeconomic policy, its inflation rate averaged a much lower 7.1% a year. But during this period, per capita income in Brazil grew at only 1.3% a year.” (Chang, 149)

Furthermore, South Korea’s tariff rate was up to 20% -17.4% during its economic miracle period in the 1960s and 19.8% in the 1970s. This doesn’t mean that hyperinflation that we see in Argentina in the 1980s and 1990s, in which actual inflation was 20,266%, is good[26]. It is rather that one does not need to have 1-3% to grow the economy. In fact, two World Bank economists, Michael Bruno, once the chief economist, and William Easterly, show that, below 40%, there is no systematic correlation between a country’s inflation rate and its growth rate.[27]

Why does inflation not hinder growth? Chang explains that:

“the tight monetary and fiscal policies that are needed to lower inflation, especially to a very low level, are likely also to reduce the level of economic activity, which, in turn, will lower the demand for labor and thus increase unemployment and reduce wages… It protects their existing incomes better, but it reduces their future incomes. It is only the pensioners and others (including, significantly, the financial industry) whose incomes derive from financial assets with fixed returns for whom lower inflation is a pure blessing.” (Chang, 151)

The damage from these policies, therefore, cannot be unique to Brazil. For example, South Africa’s economic growth slowed down thanks to pressure from the IMF — which made it lower inflation rate to 6.3% a year[28], as investment rates fell from the historic 20-25% down to about 15%.[29]

Perhaps, this is why during the latter half of the ‘Golden Age of Capitalism’ (1950-73), the average real interest rates were 2.6% in Germany, 1.8% in France, 1.5% in the USA, 1.4% in Sweden and -1.0% in Switzerland.[30] They knew that they needed lax monetary policies to generate income and jobs. On the contrary, South Africa struggled to keep its interest rates high to maintain low interest rates recommended by the IMF.



Despite the sanctimonious rhetoric surrounding free trade, the reality is that free trade disproportionately benefits rich countries. They like to hide behind liberal economists’ and their aura of expertise, deriding the Left as fear mongering and irrational. Yet, they seem to be the ones that are woefully ignorant of history. Economists like Ha-Joon Chang do not argue that free trade is never efficient: “Free trade may often — although not always – be the best policy in the short run, as it is likely to maximize a country’s current consumption.” (Chang, 74) He has also argued many times that when a country’s industry is ready to compete in the global market it shouldn’t be tied down by over-regulation. Instead, he is attacking the religious orthodoxy that the free market is always good, because “in the long run, free trade is a policy that is likely to condemn developing countries to specialize in sectors that offer low productivity growth and thus low growth in living standards. This is why so few countries have succeeded with free trade while most successful countries have used infant industry protection to one degree or another.” (Chang, 74)


[1] Chang (2008), p. 27-8

[2] M. Weisbrot, D. Baker, and D. Rosnick (2005), ‘The Scorecard on Development: 25 Years of Diminished Progress,’ September 2005, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Washington, DC, downloadable from

[3] The figures for Germany, Switzerland, and the Low Countries P. Bairoch (1993), Economics and World History — Myths and Paradoxes (Wheatheaf, Brighton), p. 40. Table 3.3. French Figures. See J. Nye (1991), ‘The Myth of Free-Trade Britain and Fortress France: Traiffs and Trade in the Nineteenth Century,’ Journal of Economic History, vol. 51. no. 1.

[4] Brisco (1907), p. 165

[5] See D. Landes (1998), The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (W.W. Norton & Company, New York), p. 521.

[6] O. Frayssé (1994), Lincoln, Land, and Labour, translated by S. Neely from the original French edition published in 1988 by Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago), p.226, note 46.

[7] Bairoch (1993), pp. 37-8

[8] The Korean income figure is from H. –C. Lee. (1999), Hankook Gyongje Tongsa [Economic History of Korea] (Bup-Moon Sa, Seoul) [in Korean], Appendix Table 1. The Ghanaian figure is from C. Kindleberger (1965), Economic Development (McGraw-Hill, New York), Table 1-1.

[9] Lee (1999), Appendix Table 1 (income) and Appendix Table 7 (exports).

[10] Maddison (2003), Table 4c

[11] D. Rodrik and A. Subramanian (2004), ‘From “Hindu Growth” To Productivity Surge: The Mystery Of The Indian Growth Transition,’ Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, March 2004. Downloadable from

[12] Mexican per capital income experienced a fall in 2001 (-1.8%), 2002 (-.08%), and 2003 (-0.1%) and grew only by 2.9% in 2994, which was barely enough to bring the income back to the 2001 level. In 2005, it grew at an estimated rate of 1.6%. This means that Mexico’s per capita income at the end of 2005 was 1.7% higher than it was in 2001, which translates into an annual growth rate of around 0.3% over the 2001-5 period. The 2001-2004 figures are from the relevant issues of the World Bank annual report, World Development Report (World Bank, Washington, DC). The 2005 income growth figure (3%) is from J.C. Moreno-Brid & I. Paunovic (2006), ‘Old Wine in New Bottles? – Economic Policymaking in Left-of-center Governments in Latin America,’ Revista – Harvard Review of Latin America, Spring/Summer, 2006, p.47, Table.

[13] Tariffs account for 54.7% of government revenue for Swaziland, 53.5% for Madagascar, 50.3% for Uganda and 49.8% for Sierra Leone. See Chang (2005), pp, 16-7

[14] J. Willner (2003), ‘Privatisation and State Ownership in Finland,’ CESifo Working Paper, no. 1012, August 2003, Ifo Institute for Economic Research, Munich.

[15] M. Berne & G Pogorel (2003), ‘Privatisation Experiences in France,’ paper presented at the CESifo Conference on Privatisation Experiences in the EU, Cadenabbia, Italy, November 2003.

[16] Machlup & Penrose (1950)

[17] ‘Strong global patent rules increase the cost of medicines,’ The Financial Times, February 14, 2001.


[19] The IPR expenditure is cited in M. Wolf (2004), Why Globalisation Works (Yale University Press, New Haven), p. 217. The foreign aid figure is from the OECD.

[20] The output figure is from World Bank (2006). The trade figure is from the WTO (2005), World Trade 2004, ‘Prospects for 2005: Developing countries’ goods trade share surges to 50-year peak’ (Press Release), released on 14 April 2005. The Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) figures are from various issues of UNCTAD World Investment Report.

[21] See. A. Buira (2004), ‘The Governance of the IMF in a Global Economy,’ G24 Research Paper, downloadable at

[22] M. Feldstein (1998), ‘Refocusing the IMF,’ Foreign Affairs, March/April 1998, vo. 77, no. 2

[23] Oxfam (2003), ‘Running into the Sand — Why Failure at Cancun Trade Talks Threatens the World’s Poorest People,’ Oxfam Briefing Paper, August 2003, p. 24

[24] S. Fischer (1996), ‘Maintaining Price Stability,’ Finance and Development, December 1996.

[25] A. Singh (1995), ‘How did East Asia grow so fast? — Slow Progress Towards an Analytical Consensus,’ UNCTAD Discussion Paper, no. 97, Table 8, The other statistics in the paragraph are from the IMF database.

[26] F. Alvarez & S. Zeldes (2001), ‘Reducing Inflation in Argentina: Mission Impossible?’

[27] M. Bruno (1995) ‘Does Inflation Really Lower Growth?’, Finance and Development pp. 35-38; M. Bruno & W. Easterly (1995), ‘Inflation Crises and Long-run Economic Growth,’ National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Working Paper, no. 5209, NBER, Cambridge, Massachusetts; M. Bruno and W. Easterly (1996), ‘Inflation and Growth: In Search of a Stable Relationship’ Review of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, vol. 78, no. 3

[28] Calculated from the IMF dataset.

[29]T. Harjes & L. Ricci (2005), ‘What Drives Saving in South Africa?’ In M. Nowak & L. Ricci, Post-Apartheid South Africa: The First Ten Years (IMF, Washington, DC), p. 49, figure 4.1.

[30] OECD Historical Statistics (OECD, Paris), Table 10.10. 348s

Homosexuality as Sin

There is a group of South Koreans I’ve been arguing against for the past month. They have claimed ridiculous things such as “global warming is a hoax, Obama is a muslim, and homosexuality is not natural.”

Recently, one of them asked me “if I were homosexual, and if I were top or bottom?” followed by a link to a horrendous video that accuses homosexuality of malice and evil. They believe this because, apparently, homosexuals wish to make everyone homosexual, and because homosexual intercourse may hurt.

He also insinuated that it isn’t normal for a straight man to defend homosexuality so much, and tried to shame me for doing so. I responded in kind:

“It is disgusting how you try to shame me by insinuating that most men do not support the LGBTQ movement. There are, in fact, many straight men who support the LGBTQ movement: Noam Chomsky, Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the list goes on. As you can see, the support comes from both conservatives and liberals. I think you should be ashamed of not standing beside these individuals. You should be ashamed of spreading lies, conspiracies, and phobia.”

I usually don’t speak too much on these issues. I don’t feel like I have anything important to say on the matter. Plus, I am heterosexual, so these issues do not affect me in any personal way. Nonetheless, today I can’t shake off this feeling of disgust and anger. I think it bothers me because they are making fun of someone for the wrong reasons. It is like making fun of someone for being disabled, Black, or Asian. It is ugly and horrible.

This is the video that started everything. Here, he defends Trump and all of the bigotry I mentioned already. The video is in Korean, so you might not understand it. But if you believe, as I do, that this kind of bigotry should not prosper, then I urge you to downvote this ugly video. I am already sickened by the recent shooting, and I believe it is imperative for us to actively fight such bigotry.

Dear British Lady

Dear British Lady –whose name I refuse to acknowledge

Please do some research before you go on another country’s comedy show. Please don’t blabber your mouth and judge another country’s comedy without having the relevant background to do so properly. A) How do you expect to criticize a highly contextual comedy skit without the context? B) If you don’t have the context, don’t create a documentary that makes value judgments on Korean media. There is surely much to criticize in Korean comedy like any culture, and foreigners can criticize another culture’s comedy. But, comedy and humor, as anyone who has learned or speaks multiple languages knows, is often one of the most difficult parts of the language to convey to foreigners. You have to be constantly surrounded by the references, the cultural idiosyncrasies, and so on to seamlessly spot the thing the comedian is poking fun at. Comedians also play with language the way a jazz pianist improvises, so if you are not perfectly attuned to 1) the culture of country X and 2) the language of country X, then how do you expect your documentary to make any substantial criticisms of country X?

Now, here are some things you should’ve researched before going to Korea: 1) Koreans find mispronunciations funny. Why? Well, because Koreans receive intensive English education, and the vast difference between the two languages makes American or British pronunciation difficult –which means everyone struggles with this. Therefore, speaking English with a perfect American or British or Australian accent is usually seen as a sign of status –the opposite is obviously seen as familiar and relatable. 2) Korean comedy is much about satire and self-deprecation. However, Koreans do not self-deprecate themselves the way the British do. The British use their words to self-deprecate; Koreans expect to see one’s ego, pride, dignity, and sanity destroyed. Korean comedians, musicians, and artists have historically been the lowest of the castes –clowns who were lower than slaves. Therefore, the lengths to which they go to embarrass themselves are remnants of such a history. This is also the reason why they make fun of the Korean school system’s obsession with learning English while embarrassing the hell out of themselves in your documentary. 3) Koreans find humor from juxtaposition and chaos. Therefore, Korean improvisational comedy relies heavily on random situations that have nothing to do with what is currently going on. For instance, suppose my phone fell out of my pocket and let’s say that my phone resembles a dog. A Korean comedian would immediately spot that my phone looks like a dog and create a situation where he would pet the phone or call out a common name Koreans give to their dogs to give the situation more reality –and absurdity. This is why one of the comedians, when he saw a kettle, suddenly created a situation where you two are having a tea party. It has nothing to do with the current situation and Koreans love that. 4) Koreans obviously love slapstick comedy.

Below is a link to the awful interaction between the Korean comedians and the British lady. Please check it out after reading this post, because I think it would help you understand the cause behind the gulf between the two – and perhaps even some of the causes behind the rift between the East and the West


America: a home that forsakes its brethren, sisters, mothers, and fathers.

Growing up in America was tough. I was teased for smelling like seaweed, resembling Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. None of my heroes resembled me, we ate different food, and my grandmother couldn’t speak a word of English. I felt left out.  All of this changed, when I moved to Korea in 1999. There, I wasn’t teased for my appearance anymore. Instead, I was praised for speaking perfect English! All seemed gay and rosy until I realized something: I was different. My passport and birth certificate had a bald eagle, my Korean was shoddy, and I didn’t hate Black people. In the late 90’s, Koreans enjoyed making fun of African tribes, donning black face.

Before I came to Korea, my one and only friend was a kid named Aven. He came from a Black family in Philadelphia. His name was probably spelled Evan, but we were young and we were very sure about Aven. When I was made fun of due to my Asian origin, Aven came to my rescue. He was my hero. Once, he, his little brother, and I pretended we were pirates. Of course, we had to resort to violence and brandish brittle sticks with verve. During the climax of our battle, Aven’s little brother fervently ran towards a tall Atlas cedar. When Aven saw the impending catastrophe, he leapt forward and pushed his brother away. As a result, a beetling branch poked his right eye. By the end of the week, he was donning an eye patch; I exclaimed, “You became a true pirate!” Aven and I were brothers, the first sibling I met in America. When I told him I was going to Korea, he cried for three days, praying to God to undo my departure. Paying homage to our great friendship, the username of most of my accounts is ave1125 – November 25th is my birthday. With such a history, I couldn’t fully empathize with my peers who made fun of kids who had dark skin –they were teased for resembling a “깜둥이 (nigger).”

Despite the initial unease, I grew accustomed to Korea. Youth absorbs language and culture exponentially unlike its senile counterpart. I spoke Korean perfectly – though my reading comprehension was still a bit shabby. I had many friends, and I especially shone in my English class. Amidst my pubescent rustling, my parents presented me a plane ticket: I was to live with my uncle in California. I always knew I was American, I was referred to as the American kid by my friends, but it was no longer the intimate home where I played with Aven – it was a distant memory.

My uncle and I struggled to grow on each other. He was strict and organized; I wasn’t. I scuffled with the disparity between my world and the other Californians’ – this included my cousins. My uncle scrambled through his parenting toolkit, for he had another unruly child to foster. I also couldn’t decide on whom to model myself after: I wanted to be a gangster, a skater, a bohemian, and an Asian dandy. I wasn’t sure where I belonged to: I wanted to distance myself from the Fobs (Fresh off the boat), yet I didn’t really fit in with the White kids. So, I hung out with the Mexican and Black kids. I especially admired a cool, snazzy pair of twins called Jacob and Josh. Along with Paddy from Kenya and Paul from Korea, I carved my own path – accompanied by hours of Tupac. This obviously didn’t sit with my uncle very well. It didn’t help that Paul’s older brother Phil was an infamous delinquent.

Despite our discords and conflicts, my uncle and I grew very fond of each other; especially, by the end of his life. His death hit me very hard: he was my anchor. His death made me regret how I never lived up to his standards of intellectualism. Thus, I made a vow to make my uncle proud. Out of all of my interests, my fondness for philosophy always seemed to strike a chord with him. Hence, my interest in philosophy drastically increased – how I lost my philosophy major was also an incentive. It is in the nature of philosophy to incite an analytic mind. It is also common to seek for answers to life’s big questions from philosophy. With the help of philosophy and my friends from Randolph and Berklee, I found stability – I didn’t feel left out anymore. I loved my friends, I knew my country very well, I had a concrete quest for knowledge before me, and I was more certain of myself. I even felt a sense of belonging, until I read the news that is…

Donald Trump and the rest of GOP wish to harass our Mexican brethren with stricter immigration laws. Trump intends to build a wall on the border. Ted Cruz blames police brutality on Obama rather than systemic racism – a denigration of the Black Lives Matter movement. Mike Hukabee and the GOP wish to go back to the good days, when women had no rights. They believe it is sinful for a woman to have access to planned parenthood. Jeb Bush condemns Asian immigrants for having children in his country; he believes that children of immigrants like myself shouldn’t have citizenships. My country, my dear home, has turned into a monster that forsakes its brethren, sisters, mothers, and fathers. It has forsaken the telos of a home, which is to house and welcome its family. It renounces anyone who isn’t “mega-rich”: Jacob and Josh, my dear Lisa, Paddy, Paul, myself, and Aven. It repudiates its Christian virtues by worshiping an embodiment of Greed, Lust, Pride, and Wrath: Donald Trump.

Although I’ve christened America as my home and history, I’m rejected by it. The place I spent most of my years and efforts now repels me. I’m bullied for my Asian origin again. This time I don’t have Aven to come to my rescue. This time it is up to me, my brothers, and sisters to uphold the legacy of our mothers and fathers – of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, of John Rawls and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is now our turn to make change happen. Lincoln and Jeong Jo of Joseon (정조) once proclaimed, “we, the people, are the rightful masters” of this country. They are right. It is our duty to fashion a home that corresponds to its telos: a home that welcomes its brethren, sisters, mothers, and fathers.

Shitty Coffee by Jang Ki Ha and the Faces

This song exemplifies the quality that garnered popularity and attention for Jang Ki Ha and the Faces–humor. In fact, this song brought them out of obscurity. For Koreans who are excessively obsessed with beauty–to the point that it’s acceptable to openly criticize another’s looks–recounting a gritty, crusty tale is very unusual.


Shitty Coffee

싸구려 커피를 마신다
I’m drinking shitty coffee.

미지근해 적잖이 속이 쓰려온다
So mild that it makes my stomach sick

눅눅한 비닐장판에
My damp, vinyl floor

발바닥이 쩍 달라 붙었다 떨어진다
often sticks to my foot

이제는 아무렇지 않어
But it doesn’t matter anymore

바퀴벌레 한마리쯤 슥- 지나가도
Even if a cockroach walks by

무거운 내일 아침엔
Tomorrow morning

다만 그저 약간에 기침이 멈출 생각을 않는다
i have a cough that doesn’t seem to stop

축축한 이불을 갠다
I fold my soggy blankets

삐걱대는 문을 열고 밖에 나가본다
Open my squeaky door, and go out

아직 덜갠 하늘이 너무 가까워 숨쉬기가 쉽지를 않다
The morning sun is so close that it makes it hard for me to breathe*

수만번 본 것만 같다
I feel like I’ve seen it a thousand times

어지러워 쓰러질 정도로~ 익숙하기만 하다
So dizzy I feel like fainting–I’m used to it

남은 것도 없이 텅빈 나를 잠근다
I lock my empty self back up
싸구려 커피를 마신다아~
I’m drinking shitty coffee~
뭐 한 몇년간 세숫대야에 고여있는 물마냥 그냥 완전히 썩어가지고
Well, it seems like the water in my washbowl has been there for a few years, totally gone bad

이거는 뭐 감각이 없어
I don’t feel anything

비가 내리면 처마 밑에서 쭈그리고 앉아서 멍하니 그냥 가만히 보다보면은
When it rains, I just sit there and stare at it blankly

이거는 뭔가 아니다 싶어
And I tell myself something’s wrong.

비가 그쳐도 희끄므레죽죽한 저게 하늘이라고 머리 위를 뒤덮고 있는건지
Even when the rain stops, I’m confused by whether the moist sky above me is a sky**

그건 뭔가 하기에는 뭔가 너무 낮게 머리카락에 거의 닿게
It’s too close to be a sky**

조그만 뛰어도 정수리를 쿵! 하고 찢을거 같은데
If I jump up, it feels like I could hit it

벽장속 제습제는 벌써 꽉차 있으나마나
The dehumidifier in my closet is so full that it’s basically useless

모기 때려잡다 번진 피가 묻은 거울을 볼때마다 어우! 약간 놀라
When I see the blood from swatting a mosquito on my hand, I panic

제 멋대로 구부러진 칫솔 갖다 이빨을 닦다 보면은 잇몸에 피가 나게 닦아도
vigorously brushing my teeth until my gums bleed–with a crooked toothbrush

당췌 치석은 빠져 나올줄을 몰라
But the plague on my teeth never seem to go away

언제 땄는지도 모르는 미지근한 콜라가 담긴 캔을 가져다 한모금
Drinking a can of coke–I’m not sure when I opened it

아뿔사 담배 꽁초가
Ugh, a cigarette butt***
이제는 장판이 난지 내가 장판인지도 몰라
I can’t tell whether the floor is me or I’m the floor.****
해가 뜨기도 전에 지는 이런 상황은 뭔가
What is this situation where the sun sets before it rises?

싸구려 커피를 마신다아~
I’m drinking shitty coffee
이제는 아무렇지 않어어~
Doesn’t matter anymore
싸구려 커피를 마신다아~
I’m drinking shitty coffee

*He hasn’t seen the sun in awhile

**mal-nutrition leads to confusion. Also, adds to the theme of absurdity.

*** cigarette butt in the mysterious can of coke

****All he does is lie down all day…like the floor.