Surveilal Stresses and Scapegoats

The Itaewon cluster infection continues to grow — it’s now sitting at 94 cases. It might be better to say that the cluster of infections continues to be detected. Because this was always the thing about testing, it does raise your case numbers. But early detection combined with treatment reduces the death count while tracing these cases allows for targeted closures and self-quarantines that reduce the spread and also saves lives.

I’ve said it before — not testing doesn’t mean you have fewer cases, it means you have a lot more cases than you think. It also means you can only assume the worst, which is a bad position to be in. Aside from resulting in heavy-handed lock-downs, which work to a degree but are not a permanent solution and need to be combined with building these other measures and healthcare capacity– this whole state of not-knowing, especially when combined with a lock-down, can pretty clearly generate anxiety, paranoia, and a whole host of other problems that are likely to manifest in some pretty ugly ways.

Knowing is better.

But knowing has its own costs.

Itaewon is Seoul’s multicultural district. That term puts a bit of gloss on it. Gives it an aspect of the museum or a zoo. It’s not that. Itaewon reminds me much more of a Chinatown if you were were to replace the idea of “Chinese” with that of “foreigner.” (Indeed, sights like “Foreign Restaurant” makes one wonder how many various identities and ethnicities we in the Anglosphere reduce to “Chinese” or even if, really, there is such a thing as “Chinese” as popularly understood.) The district is electric. Full of people from all over the world, civilians, soldiers, and it has places like “Hooker Hill” and “Homo Hill.” There’s also a lot of tailors. I’ve had suits made there. And that combination of transculturalism, vice, and tailoring makes it one of my favorite places. Chinatown is usually my home-turf in any city.

Like any Chinatown, there’s a bit of an aspect of what happens in Itaewon stays in Itaewon. It’s a little bit outside the norms and rules. There’s limits, of course, but, on the whole, most Koreans don’t expect foreigners to act just like Koreans. There’s often a sort of concept of ‘outside the norms’ that gets applied, rather than one of ‘breaking the rules.’ This is, of course, a broad generalization, and like just about anything, this also has a darker aspect. Being outside the rules can also mean being outside of society. And, as anyone who has ever been outside can tell you, that position usually means you’re more outside of society’s protections than its enforcements. It means exposure and the fear of exposure. Less might be expected but less is given. I pay taxes, sure, but I’ve never been drafted. I could live the rest of my life here and I would never be a Korean, nor ever really expected to be one. It’s a bit of a complex web of obligations. That’s just how it works.

Many people, who come from countries where citizenship is ostensibly more a matter of choice (or, at least, where that’s the national lie and/or aspiration) view the Korean concept of citizenship through a lens that immediately equates it with the racist ethno-nationalism of their homelands. And, to be sure, there is some of that. There’s always some of that. *long sigh.* Why is there always some of that? But it’s also not quite that. There exists a sort of distortion between different understandings of citizenship. This distortion, combined with what might be a white man’s first ever experience of some mild discrimination, often produces a heavily exaggerated and inaccurate view of Korean xenophobia. I mean, you should hear some of these white people scream. Someone expects some basic decency, like wearing a facemask, and you would think they were migrant workers in Donald Trump’s America. It’s really something watching white people confuse expectation with persecution.

But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems nor does it mean that there aren’t inequalities. (Just that white people are, as usual, not the targets, whatever they might say.) This Itaewon outbreak is exposing some of these societal stress points.

The big one is homophobia. This clubber was, allegedly (a term I use not because I think there’s any guilt involved but only because fucked if I know where he was) was allegedly at a gay bar in Itaewon. Homosexuality is socially stigmatized in South Korea. It’s not –to my understanding at least, illegal. (I think it’s illegal if you’re in the army and there is a draft so I’m not sure where that leaves everyone.) There is a de facto illegality to it. Being outted can, and probably will, mean that you endure a public humiliation and lose your job, family, all sorts of things. It’s pretty fucked up, to be honest.

Like, I don’t want to come around like some big swinging dick telling people how to do things or whatever, especially when the record of my home countries leave so very much to be desired, and the situation is kind of different here in some ways, but still, it’s pretty fucked up. Live and let live, I say. Let people love who they love and fuck who they can. No skin off my ass. Never understood why I’m supposed to care about what gets other consenting adults off, let alone get angry about it. That’s their problem. I’m not nosey.

But you can see why oppressed people don’t want to be traced.

This homophobia has meant that fewer people than otherwise would have come forward in connection to this outbreak. It also means a lot of fake names on the club’s entry logs. People are having to weigh whether they would rather chance a test or ostracism.

We’re seeing a round of homophobic scapegoating. This is largely coming from the Protestant Christian community, who are likely looking to take the blame off themselves for the Daegu outbreak by pointing a finger at someone else. This basically how scapegoating works. Scapegoating creates a circular firing squad that eventually settles on the most powerless people in the bunch. It does disproportionate damage to these people.

I believe in accountability but I really fucking detest scapegoating. This disease can happen to anyone. There’s no justice in a virus. Just replication. Even with the Daegu outbreak, the scapegoating of Christians in general, and even that weird cult in particular, was unfair. That outbreak also exposed some fault lines. Korea, for example, experienced a higher rate of female infection and fatality because this Christian group targeted young women, who were often drawn to it out of the desperation and loneliness generated by patriarchy.

And all the scapegoating ever accomplished, far as I can see, is create an unwillingness to come forward, which makes the whole thing harder to manage that it might otherwise be.

When something like contact tracing meets a situation like homophobia, the ideas around surveillance have to be examined. While I don’t want to get too deep into this subject, my feeling is that the interest in surveillance is an intellectual fad. It is an important subject and, yes, surveillance can be oppressive and it is often intrinsically oppressive. (Like, I worked at and helped organize at a fucking Ralphs, where every movement is measured, ranked, and marked by computers in a panoptic system of cameras, surveys, and mystery shoppers aka professional snitches, that even Fred Taylor would have found to be a bit much, so I don’t really need Foucault or surveillance capitalism explained to me.) But the current intellectual obsession with this not-so-new but very sexy topic, in some ways resembles scapegoating.

The concern with surveillance is usually pretty damn shallow. The fixation upon it often occludes much more basic problems. The problem in this situation isn’t really the tracing, it’s the homophobia. Can tracing be a part of that problem? Fuck yes. But it is not the problem. The homophobia is the problem. That’s what needs to be fixed. If you can’t trust a government with a camera, you can’t trust them with a government. And a government you can’t even trust with a camera? Nightmare. Camera might be the least of your worries.

A situation like COVID-19 both simplifies and complicates. It makes the costs of homophobia starkly obvious but it also makes the conversation around these problems more difficult to have. You cannot, for example, have these conversations about the cost of homophobia without conceding the gay community, like everyone else, can spread this disease. Even well-intentioned people will often stop their thinking right there. People often stop thinking at the exact point they find someone to blame. You cannot talk about secrecy without giving some hint of dereliction of duty. People with bad intentions will latch right onto these things, act like this is the only community at risk or that they create a special risk, and they will hammer and hammer and hammer that bullshit using their old bag of stereotypes, cliches, and assorted fuckery. The conversation is hard. It’s both simple and complicated.

That any of this conversation, let alone most of it, is going to held over SNS, a format not exactly known for its nuance, is also a concern. It’s not the problem but it is a problem.

The situation shows some of the dangers of surveillance. These dangers can disguise the actual and underlying problems that surveillance largely magnifies. And, in this situation, a lack of surveillance, a lack of tracing and testing is also a serious goddamn tool of murderous oppression. Like, my old co-workers, now “essential”, can’t get tests but the president gets one a day? You think they aren’t tracing The White House outbreak better than they are the Hollywood Ralphs outbreak? Like Ralphs can pay people to snitch on its workers, look at scan per minute in real-time while a blinking red light says ‘faster, faster, go faster’, they can afford locks on every door and lock up the necessary items stationed near the high-mark-up items, affording the time it takes to open those cases, but they can’t pay for a test, track an epidemic, give sick-time, or pay its workers? Surveil or not, the whole fucking thing is fraught. And, for my money, the problem usually isn’t surveillance itself but who is being surveiled and why — and the question is what can be done about that.

But I do have some wild hope here.

And I hope my hope is not naive.

I understand that none of us and none of this is where we’d hoped to be by Mid-May. At this point, the Anglosphere should have had its shit together. We should be looking at incredible acts of international co-operation that would make us all proud to be human. It would still be a hard and uncertain situation but we could at least say that we’re handling it the best way we know how and trying our level best.

Instead we’re seeing acts of mass human sacrifice to make the stock-market rise again. There’s also a rise in bellicose nationalism of nuclear powers beyond already unacceptable levels. There’s the balkanization and collapse of the US, which will have to followed by its isolation on the world stage and its inevitably violent backlash to that. There’s the general disruption to the economy. Instead of a vision of the future we can build, too many are engaged in the fundamentally fascist enterprise of radicalized nostalgia –trying to violently return to some bullshit normal of yesterday’s perceived greatness. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that we’re going to get through this thing without some sort of war.

So that’s where I am realistically.

But I still have hope.

My hope is basically this: There is no way through this without adapting. There’s no choice. Homophobia and attitudes like it are just untenable. They can’t hold. You can either manage this disease or you can have that stupid bullshit. If your economy and society collapses, you think your hate will keep you warm? It won’t. Hate freezes a person. Hate starves. Every single society on this planet is going to come face to face with this sort of thing. The stresses within a society are more stressed than ever. Every single society is going to see this same thing and be challenged by it. Every single society is going to discover the same thing again and again, and they will keep discovering it until they fucking learn it. Inequality is a perverse luxury. Intolerance is decadence. Accountability is important. We move at the speed of the slowest and no one can be left behind. How a society chooses to deal with that information will be what determines its success going forward. Deal with it badly? Refuse to adapt? You are going to collapse. And it might be too late to stop this collapse once you start it.

Adapting won’t be easy and it won’t be perfect. Even the best case scenario will still a bit of a total mess. But adapting is the only way forward. We’re all going to have to be a lot more egalitarian — all of us, all of the time. As the man says, “love is the only engine of survival.”

And I do want to give the Korean government some credit on this issue. They are being very clear that this disease can happen to anyone, and that no one should be talking any shit or using ‘bitter and hateful words’ about anyone who catches it. They’re emphasizing that message hard right now. It also seems that they’re taking special care to protect confidentiality with this batch of Itaewon information. It’s not a perfect response and we’ll have to see if it’s even adequate but this is still a lot better than what we’re seeing in some places. (You know who you are.) Acceptance and legal protection against stigmatization and discrimination also have to exist and, when they don’t exist, they need to be built.

No one can afford intolerance. Never could. We especially can’t afford the empty comfort of scapegoats right now, when the temptation to create them is the greatest. This government’s policies to date, particularly that of allowing undocumented people to have tests and treatment without report to immigration, gives me some hope that this government, at least, understands the principle. It shows that they can apply it — even if only temporarily. Everyone needs protection if anyone is going to be protected. This protection has to be tailored to different needs. This shit really is everyone or no one. There is no choice.

“We’re all in this together” isn’t just some empty slogan. It’s the terrible fact of the matter.

And we have to adapt to it.

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