1. Areas of Interest/Research/Academic Life
I am interested in issues related to sustainability of our society, our civilization. For sustainable development, human, social, and environmental forms of capital have to be replenished as well as physical capital. Replenishment should empower vulnerable individuals and groups within a society. How have we dealt with these challenges in South Korea? What lessons can we find to enlighten us as we face new challenges, and to share with the rest of the world? These are questions important for me as a student of economics and social science, more broadly.
2. How do you choose the books you read?
I have been following the bookshelf interviews by faculty colleagues with interest since the launch, as the series nicely overlaps with my own favorite method of marking books to read: listening to people who are significant to me and finding out what books they are reading, and what books have had most significant influences on them.
3. Book that made a deep impression or changed your way of thinking?
Apart from the Bible, the two books that come to my mind are Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development by Robert H. Bates, and The Muqaddimma by ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Muslim historian. The two books are important to me, because they helped me realize that prudent economics may perhaps be a necessary, but never a sufficient condition for long-term sustainability of human society. I learned from them the critical significance of the effective state for control of violence, and of the values of solidarity for social cohesion and continuation. From the Muqaddimma, the prologue to ibn Khaldun’s vast survey of history, I picked up an interesting-sounding Arabic word, asabiyyah, which sounds a lot like an old-time youthful exclamation in Korean that one gets to hear when juices are flowing among members of a group and things are working out fine- “asarabiyah or 아싸라비아”. In the English translation of the classic that I read, the word asabiyyah was rendered as “group feeling”, meaning a sense of belonging that entails willingness to sacrifice small personal gains for a larger good of the community. For ibn Khaldun, that group feeling was the critical factor by which a society may rise, or fall asunder.
4. What are you reading now?
I have started reading The Scapegoat by Rene Girard. According to Girard, our desires are mimetic, that is, we fashion our desires in imitation of others around us. Mutual imitation intensifies our desires, and the resulting conflict may have to be resolved through violence. Victimizing the weak and the alien is an ancient, inhuman mechanism that so-called civilizations utilize to control unbridled outbursts of violence. I have been fascinated by Girard’s insights for quite a while. If he is right, the single most important threat to sustainability may be insidiously hidden inside our own nature.
5. What do books mean to you?
Books are a wise, experienced travel guide, and often help me appreciate the deep dignity of human beings, regardless of where we live and what culture we live by. Classic fictions and non-fictions from around the world teach me the human bond and the human capacity for making the world a better, more beautiful place.