Michael Sandel fever
Harvard University professor Michael J. Sandel was in Seoul over the weekend. He received a very, very important person (VVIP) treatment during his stay here although his visit was to promote his latest book.
He appeared on an SBS TV special lecture program and gave an open-door lecture at Yonsei University in Seoul. His free lecture tickets at the Yonsei were traded at 35,000 won, reflecting his popularity. The author of “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do” and “What Money Can’t Buy,” threw the first ball in the opening game of a pro-baseball match in Seoul, a rare event for a professor. He met Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and also participated in an autograph session for his book at the Kyobo Book Center in Seoul. His two books have become bestsellers in Korea.
Sandel has enough reason to get such special treatment. More than 15,000 Harvard students attended his lecture on justice for two decades. This made it one of the most highly attended lectures in the history of the university. Sandel also achieved fame for posting his lecture on iPod and YouTube. The BBC covered him in a miniseries.
In the Amazon’s online book store (www.kindle.com and www.audible.com), readers worldwide can buy his e-books and listen to the full text of his books. He commands appeal for his discussion-oriented format, rather than recitation and memorization of facts.
Sandel might have been surprised over his unusual popularity in Korea. In a Seoul coffee shop, this writer overheard a conversation next to the table, saying Sandel is more popular in Korea than in the United States. He has become a frequent visitor to Seoul.
He is the author of many publications on such themes as morality, justice, market and new citizenship. Although he does not want to be categorized as a communitarian, the professor has a talent for empathizing with the young.
His popularity in Korea reflects the public thirst for a morality-based society and also a warning to brainless leaders seeking to impose dogmatic and unpopular views on the people. He empathizes with many Koreans clamoring for fairness and a corruption-free society.
Sandel’s popularity also indicates the public view that Korea’s next leader should be an honest, moralistic and justice-oriented person.
His latest book What Money Can’t Buy is interesting enough. Although there are some things money can’t buy, he says almost everything is up for sale these days.
In the U.S., nonviolent offenders can pay for better accommodation. During rush hour, Minneapolis and other cities try to let solo drivers pay for driving in car pool lanes. An Indian surrogate mother can get money for delivery of her customer’s baby. Foreigners can buy the right to immigrate to the U.S. by investing $500,000.
South Africa lets ranchers sell hunters the right to shoot an endangered black rhino. Many ``concierge doctors’’ offer cell phone access and same-day appointments for patients willing to pay an annual fee. Companies can pay for emitting carbon into the atmosphere. He opposes the admission of a child to a prestigious university after a donation.
Air New Zealand hired 30 people to shave their heads and wear temporary tattoos with an advertisement promoting visits to New Zealand. A pharmaceutical firm hires a human guinea pig in a drug safety trial. Mercenaries can fight in Somalia and Afghanistan for a private military company.
Capitol Hill lobbyists pay line-standing firms who hire homeless people and others to queue up so that they can attend a Congressional hearing. A Dallas school pays an underachieving second-grader to encourage their reading. Companies and health insurers pay for people shedding weight over a given period.
Under a contract with a local research institute, Sandel will research issues which Korean society faces.
It may be appealing for him to list what money cannot buy in Korea, and hopefully to provide solutions.
In his latest book, he mentioned little about Korea. If he had known enough about the country, his book might have been funnier and more interesting.
There are also many things money cannot buy in Korea. But many rich Koreans, including tycoons, believe everything is up for sale.
First of all, money cannot buy a prison term although the convicted can pay to upgrade their life in jail. Cynics say there are two laws in Korea. One is for the rich and the other for the poor. Convicted tycoons and their family members get special pardons and amnesties, almost without exception, for the cause of “bettering the national economy.”
More than a dozen people were caught buying social worker licenses to become government employees. It has been an open secret that many auditors and CEOs of state-run agencies must pay one-year’s salary to their “boss” to buy the coveted posts. Private schools sometimes sell teaching positions to bidders.
Occasional reports show that junior employees must buy promotions at local autonomous bodies. Bribery is given to heads of public and private agencies to buy lucrative construction licenses.
The leftist Unified Progressive Party is in turmoil over buying and rigging online votes.
Travelers won a lawsuit against a Buddhist temple for charging a toll for passing a road near the temple they do not visit.
Sandel is cynical about market triumphalism. He laments the market crowding out morals, namely hiring friends, buying apologies, selling blood, commercials in classrooms and advertisements in jail.
The professor is insightful in identifying examples in a morally-decaying society in his thought-provoking books that ask ethical questions. He seldom provides a solution to a host of examples, however. In the Customer Reviews comments on www.amazon.com, Zim Hutton criticized Sandel for plagiarizing many of his examples. Plagiarism is a thing money cannot buy. This is the question the Harvard professor must clarify.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.