Opening Plenary Address
As a woman born in
I was seven years old when I heard
the trembling voice of Emperor Hirohito on the radio
One morning in the winter of 1945, I was awakened by my grandmother, who told me to eat steaming chicken soup and rice. Before I knew it, I was out of the house on the street, holding her hand. Even now, I stare at a distant past and see the house that I left with a small bundle on my back at the first glimpse of dawn. I can still feel the warmth of my grandmother’s hand, which I held tightly, as if my life depended on that grip. I did not understand what was happening to my life, but I shivered with the danger surrounding me. The family walked quietly to cross over the 38th parallel only when night fell and all was engulfed in darkness. One night, while still in the north, we were stopped by Russian soldiers, their rifles pointing directly at us.
I remember how the sound of cannons
It was at that point that I was
vaguely formulating an idea that if America, the good and powerful country
wins, good will prevail and perhaps the world will become like one big family
and America could be like my father, a stern but kind head of the household,
making sure that everyone in the family is treated fairly and with respect.
Looking back, it was an early formulation of globalization and democracy in the
head of a twelve-year-old, whose eyes became misty with dreams by the mere
thought of this great country,
Since then, half a century passed
and I have lived forty years in
When I was invited to this campus, I was in the middle of making another film, first conceived as a sequel to Sa-I-Gu but expanded to explore more broadly the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Immediately in my mind, I started linking the deaths of four students at Kent State in May 1970 and the deaths of fifty-four persons during the Los Angeles uprising. Those deaths were not what would be typically characterized as “heroic deaths,” honored by medals and recognitions at the White House. Moreover, by no means were those deaths the same in nature. Simultaneously, the deaths at Kent and Los Angeles are definitely linked in that they represent expression of protests, rebellion. More than that, they represent how the establishment tried to silence the voices of protests.
Leaving all the complex issues to the experts who will deliver speeches later, I submit that no democracy is possible without voices of protests by citizens. Voices of protest are essential aspects, if not the core, of democracy. Hence, when citizens rise up in protest and when their voices are silenced forever in deaths, that calls for mourning not only for the loss of human lives but also for the damage done to democracy. Today in the name of war, the voices of protest are stifled or condemned as “unpatriotic.” If this persists, America might succeed in bringing democracy to Iraq but this land will have been darkened with the loss of the right to criticize, an essential light of democracy. So today I stand at Kent State University to invoke their spirits of protests. I bow my head in deep mourning and respect for those four students whose lives were so tragically and prematurely cut short but who have left us the enduring legacy of protest and inspiration.
In honor of those who died, I bring the voices from Los Angeles to this campus. In making my film Wet Sand: Voices from LA, I witnessed some of the direct impact of globalization on America’s own people. As President Kennedy said, America is a nation of immigrants. To me, the only rightful host of this land is the American Indian. There was a time when the unskilled and unpropertied immigrants could find employment in manufacturing, but today in South Central Los Angeles, the new immigrants live in despair, running from one job to another with less than minimum wages and the cold comfort of the welfare rolls, which are in constant threat of being extinguished. Many of those manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, chasing lower wages and fewer regulations, to some of the very countries that the contemporary immigrants had left in search of a better life. This is a prime example of the globalization that pits the poor against the poor worldwide.
In principle, I am not against globalization. We all know that globalization is already happening, and no one can escape it. However, I protest globalization that allows capitalism to run rampant, blind with greed for more money at the expense of the fair distribution of wealth, leaving so many human beings in poverty, oppression, sickness, and misery. I detest with passion globalization that puts more money in the pockets of a few so that they can lead obscene lives of luxury, while millions of children die of starvation, with their bones wrapped in mere skin and with their eyes bulging with sadness they do not deserve.
In an ideal world, there should be no races, only the human race as one family. There is nothing wrong in recognizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of the human race. Correctly carried out, open markets can be an opportunity for countries to grow and develop and for some of the poorest people in the world to have access to work and food.
America, as the world’s superpower, can truly help spur global growth that feeds and shelters not just its own poor, but people everywhere. To achieve this objective, America must help control the greed of the global market with the proper tools of democracy. After September 11, 2001, it became even more apparent that if globalization is inevitable, it is essential to build globalization on an enlightened political will, mindful of fair democratic rules and human rights values. If the globalization was full of greed before September 11, after that tragic day, globalization is further complicated by the conflicts in Western alliances as well as in the United Nations.
With the arrival of the new immigrants since the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, clearly black and white are no longer America’s only colors, but they still seem to touch all other colors, mostly white staying on one side, insulated and secure, and black on the other side with all other colors, in perpetual conflicts. Sure, about 40 percent of all black families nationwide are now regarded as middle class and better, and since 1964, white America has pleaded guilty to its crime of slavery. So, things have changed but not in a fundamental way and not as much as people would like to believe. Actually, it is imperative that we remind people about racism and poverty, which went underground, overpowered by the delusion by many who want to believe that all is better, if not well.
The civil unrest of 1992 was neither an isolated event nor an event caused by the African Americans, Latinos, and Koreans; rather, it was a succession of events caused by the deeply rooted flaws of American society. However, the dominant society is withdrawing more and more into its own haven and gated communities for security, safety, and power, continuing to charge the minorities and poor guilty for the ills of society. Moreover, the minorities and the poor are falling into the traps of the masterful “divide and rule” by the powerful. Thus, volatile interactions among new immigrants and African Americans continue and many new immigrants with little knowledge of American history strive to be “white” for power and success, often adopting white racism against African Americans. In addition, the hosts of this land, the American Indians, remain set aside in the reservations, forgotten and abandoned, both by the powerful and powerless new arrivals.
We live in a democratic society with a voting system through which citizens, rich and poor, are supposed to participate in the programs that determine their fate. Politicians are supposedly representing people who voted them. However, promises are made before election but post-election choices are bought with money. So if the people in South Central vote in the hope of making a difference, they soon find out that promises are broken and they have no money to buy political influence. After all, they have a problem putting three meals a day on the table after running around to three jobs.
We live in a democratic society in which citizen participation is supposed to be fundamental. And what would make enlightened citizen participation is, more than anything else, education. However, education in South Central is in a shambles. One of my interviewees told me that the schools are so bad in South Central that it is as if the schools were designed to train future slaves. It is insane for America, the unrivaled superpower, to practice unilateral militarism with billions of dollars, killing innocent lives of women and children abroad in the name of democracy when it can’t bring itself to provide schooling for all of its young people and when democracy is not functioning properly here at home.
What is tragic about the current globalization is what flourishes with it: the de facto capitalist imperialism that suppresses the cries of common people and forgets to respect the different nation states with its power of money. Current globalization replaces citizens with consumers. Hence what we have is globalization without the voices of common people, not to mention the oppressed and the downtrodden, without the tools of democracy that guard equality, rights, and justice for all people.
So there it is, globalization and democracy for you. Then, I have not said anything new to you and I will not say anything new if I do not shut up and let the people in South Central talk to you. I brought you the voices of people themselves who will take you beyond concepts and theories to the reality most Americans would prefer not to think about. Voices of those people who are struggling to prevent the “fire next time” right here at home and fighting for the “unrealized hope, America.”
Our hope is holding on to “the unrealized hope of
America,” the hope, not yet realized but worth fighting for, the hope that
can be instrumental in steering the human race to the right direction of peace,
and justice. In playing the role of the superpower in the world of
globalization, America needs more than ever enlightened self-interest, not
blind religious self-righteousness.