I am a Rip van Winkle – a man out of time. As I watch America eat itself, I muse upon this fact more deeply. My status as a black American who has lived in South Korea since 2002, with no real plans to go back, has seemed strange to some.
But in recent years, my friends regard this ongoing decision to not return as less strange. And in recent months, it has come to be a point of no small amount of envy to many of my friends who dream of escaping the twin epidemics of Covid-19 and white supremacy-fueled rampant racism in the United States.
In 1670, the Puritan preacher Samuel Danforth warned his fellow colonizers that America had an ongoing moral challenge as it continued its “Errand into the Wilderness.” But the Puritan “wilderness” was not a blank swathe of land, those beckoning fields of Little House on the Prairie.
To the contrary, it was a land filled with fearful, fantastic beasts and rapacious monsters. It was a moral maw, a gaping abyss that beckoned the gawker to jump. It was a land of moral risk, of spiritual danger.
The spatial and moral wilderness defined the constant fear that Puritan elders had of going “astray” and falling into the beckoning darkness of civic immorality and spiritual iniquity.
In 1987, pioneer rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy made the declamation that America was an “anti-nigger machine,” and that, “If I come out alive … then they won’t come clean.”
Indeed, neither Amaud Arbery nor George Floyd made it out alive, but unlike most blacks murdered in the USA, their stories made it out – on video. Which is what made the Rodney King incident so shocking back in 1992: the whole thing was on tape.
But absolutely nothing came clean.
No fear of being shot
I never really made a conscious decision to leave the United States. Rather, it was a constant stream of small and incremental decisions to stay.
$4 doctor visits? Stay here. $12-a-month high blood pressure pills? Yeah, stay. Ability to leave my laptop on my table at Starbucks and to go to the john and find it there 20 minutes later? Stay. $600 root canal with zirconium crown? Stay. Being able to take public transport across Seoul for $1.50? Stay. 5G? Stay.
No fear of being shot – whether by mass shooter, or for “existing-while-black”? Again, stay.
By the time the scoring even gets to Korea’s fast, smart and effective handling of Covid-19 with big data-enabled contact tracing, strict and adhered to containment measures, and free coronavirus treatment to all citizens and non-citizens as well as immigrants regardless of document status, the scoring is hopelessly skewed.
Who in their right mind, in command of their senses, or with even half the proverbial brain, would go back to live in the Failed States of America? Because that’s what America is – a failed state.
It is not about prosperity or well-being. If a government cannot even guarantee the basic human rights or physical security of its people – while demonstrating allegiance to money and profit over the interests of protecting human bodies or the body politic – then what other conclusion can there be?
The ultimate test of my choice came with the novel coronavirus. Korea’s handling of the pandemic was swift, transparent and effective. It engendered public cooperation and public trust.
I watched the United States botch the response from the top down and from the same Day One, thanks to a leader who exemplified American selfishness and narcissism, the concerns of profits over people, of appearance over truth, of fascist concerns with unity over actual individual liberties.
The USA that I liked to believe existed and which I had idealized in my memory was quite different from the FSA I see now. The USA gave way to the FSA during Hurricane Katrina, then Harvey, then with the choice of the Trumpets to choose sickness and death over better health care because it had a black man’s name on the label.
All you need is hate
The crucible really shattered as we entered the era of “Hate in the Time of Corona.”
Amid a wrecked economy with 40 million unemployed, one Amy Cooper delivered an Oscar-worthy performance of hysterical white female privilege when she called the police on a black birdwatcher who had politely asked her to keep her dog in check. That set the scene and provided the tinder for the spark that was George Floyd’s senseless murder
Then America started to burn. As it should have in response to the Blue Wall that always treats black bodies as fodder, as things that do not matter.
Nowadays, we Americans rattle off our roster of fantasy rights like Puritans who used to sling chapter and verse at social problems. And like the Bible, the Constitution is often seen as a magical amulet that justifies the values that it signifies. Unfortunately, we now venerate both Bible and Constitution mostly to bolster personal and public politics, and to pick fights.
This is not to say Korea is perfect. On November 21, 2007, I got arrested in Seoul for calling the Korean police on somebody attacking me.
A drifter in his 50s who was hammered on soju and stank like a sewer accosted me while I was shooting a Korean model on the street, berating me for being “a nigger taking pictures of a good Korean girl” and berating her as a “whore who should know better.” He started trying to kick me; I proceeded to call the police.
At that point, the guy said I had attacked him, producing some yellowed (and days-old) bruises on his shin. I was arrested and entered into the system. I was later found not guilty for lack of evidence – it was a baseless charge and the Korean model’s statement bolstered mine.
But I always remembered the friendly words of the cop: “Hey buddy, here’s a tip. You’re a foreigner. Never call the police on a Korean, because you’ll always lose.” That experience was maddeningly disappointing and disconcerting. But I never feared for my life.
In 2017, I took three months in Ohio to attend my brother’s wedding and spend time with my elderly mom. Between my county being the capital of the opioid crisis in the USA, white men starting to get their mass shooting groove on and cops killing black men like it was going out of style, I decided to get my concealed carry license and keep a Springfield Armory XDS 9mm handy and on my person at all times.
It should go without saying that I shouldn’t have to do this. Game, set, match – South Korea.
Since Samuel Danforth’s warnings have come to pass as America betrays both the letter and spirit of its most sacred texts, and whose base love of iniquity continues to power the expansion of injustice, I have slowly reached the sober conclusion that America is no place for a black man to live.
George Floyd told me to keep my black ass in Seoul for as long as it takes for the FSA to make itself great. Not again, but rather for once.
Dr. Michael Hurt (Instagram @kuraeji) is a visual sociologist and fashion photographer living in Seoul who pays the bills by lecturing in Cultural Theory at the Korea National University of the Arts and other universities.