Labeling Politics, and Loving America as a Leftist: A Discussion with Isaiah Paik, Part Two
Isaiah Paik weighs in on the limits (and possibilities) that come with social media and labeling oneself a leftist.
Continuing from our previous discussion, Isaiah Paik (@paik4president) begins with reflections on how TikTok has complicated his relationship with ideologies, and particular instances of political discourse.
On March 19, 2020 I posted my first TikTok. I did like three TikToks a day for about three months. Then in June, I stopped—I was so burnt out, I didn't post anything for the entirety of last summer… I feel like that was really good for me. TikTok is not the be-all, end-all; you should never sacrifice your life or your mental well being, or even other things that you want to do with your life to have a TikTok career. There's no obligation to post on TikTok (especially because they don't pay anything).
I've spent so much time thinking about TikTok. I've actually made an hour long YouTube video about it, and I'm actually gonna write my thesis about it next year. The big systemic issue is that, just like with any sort of media, as soon as you put yourself out there with an opinion, you can never change the opinion (in that media product). All of the conservatives who have made a page and have 100,000 followers of them being conservative or being libertarian, you're never going to be able to convince them because they are already entrenched in their own ideology. Because of the way that TikTok works, if you go on their page, you'll see all of their ideas. I would do these debates with libertarians, and I would get so frustrated that every time I did a debate, it seemed like I was talking to a brick wall. They would just go and tell their followers that they had “destroyed” me in a debate every time, and I realized—well of course they're gonna say that! There's no way for them not to say that—there's no way for them to change their mind or say, “You know what, I agree with you” in a debate, because they're only there to represent their side of the debate. They have to represent that side because that's what they've staked their Tiktok—as in, their social capital—on. I would say this mind changing stuff should instead be focused on younger people, or newer people to political discourse. That was always my focus for my audience.
I guess people just have to remind themselves that they’re people too—that you can, you know, have changing or different ideas. Just because you used to think one way doesn't mean it has to be that way for the rest of your life.
Honestly, I wonder if TikTok got deleted for a day, and then the app came back so everyone could start their pages over—I wonder how many, for example, right-wingers would still be on the right. Who would still commit to their past ideas, now that they aren't as restricted by the pressure of past content or followers.
You kind of set up a brand for yourself, and once that brand is set in stone, then you're expected to always refer back to that. You don't really have room to grow, with all these eyes (from your followers, and from your past self in your content) staring back at you.
I’ve thought a lot about this; as a writer, everything I put online is permanent—it's going to be like that forever, and so I kind of get this anxiety of “what if my ideas change?!” That content is still there, forever unchanging!
Yeah, I think about that a lot, too. I've come to two conclusions about that. One of which is, well I've uploaded a lot of very left-wing stuff on my TikTok, and I've done that intentionally—one because I want to share that message, but two is exactly because of what we're talking about. If in 20 years I wanted to go work for some Fortune 500 company and be a tax lawyer that helps them dodge taxes, they could probably just look me up and they'd be like “Oh no, we can't have this guy,” and I wouldn't be able to get that job! I've sort of locked myself in at this point, because I am unable to be accepted by the capitals, or at least I would hope so. It’s becauseI really do believe in the things that I say, and it's to the point where I'm so confident now that I'm willing to stake my future in certain areas. I have this attitude of like, “if they wouldn't want somebody who believes these things, then I wouldn't want to work there.” It’s interesting to say the least, and we'll see where that takes me in my life.
The second conclusion is that I think we're just going to reach a certain point, with our generation, as in Gen Z in about 10 - 20 years, where nobody's going to care anymore. Everybody's going to have posted something cringe when they were like 17 or 20, and everybody's going to have these gigabytes of Life online—all of these trails and backgrounds. Even though right now we're in this moment where politicians get canceled over like a single tweet, I feel like we're gonna have to realize that people will have had very long internet histories, and humans aren't meant to live in a world where everything is preserved flawlessly for the rest of time. We're gonna have to start being more forgiving and accepting, so I feel like if I ever do run for office in 30 years, then yes—I'll have a bunch of weird TikTok stuff. But probably so will my opponent at that point (in the age of the internet). That will be funny, and I don't think that it will be the same thing as it is now.
People who are fully-fledged adults right now, their whole lives weren't documented to the extent ours and future generations’ lives are. The internet and social media are pretty new, and so it's only been since these people were already adults (and expected to know what they’re doing, as opposed to the mistake-ridden times of youth) where things started getting documented. For people our age and younger, our entire lives are on social media or online in some capacity, and so what are you going to do—blame a person for being immature or uninformed when they were 12? Of course not! People change.
American politics has this stereotype about being generally right-leaning. Even in regards to politicians like Bernie Sanders, AOC, etc., Americans will call them leftist, but compared to other countries’ politics, they are instead labeled as more centrist as opposed to being “true leftists.” Do you consider yourself a “true leftist,” or rather an “American leftist” instead?
In some senses, that's definitely the case that the center point in American politics is on the right. I think the best example that people always talk about is like, if you brought up basically any Democrat American policy to the UK, then something (like, say Obamacare) would be seen as very conservative. It would be seen as a Conservative Party belief—a Tory belief, as opposed to a Labour Party belief. However, I think that analogy inevitably breaks down. Political terms like “right” and “left” are useful terms if you're trying to figure out who is willing to identify as a right-winger or a Trump supporter or something. But political ideologies are really complex, and it's very difficult to map them—especially on the one-dimensional framing of “here's the right, here's the left, now compare that between nations.” I would say I'm an American leftist, not in the sense that I’d be a centrist in other countries, but it's more because of the fact that in other countries, I wouldn't know what to do. I am an American. I was born here, and I've lived here my entire life. I've like studied American history, and I've studied American politics, so that gives me the perspective to be a leftist in this country. That doesn't give me a global leftist perspective in the sense that I wouldn't feel comfortable going to South Korea where my parents were born. I tell my parents how to be American leftists, right, because they have a whole different system and an entirely different set of cultural beliefs and ideas—just like any other country. I wouldn't have the clearest idea of that other version of leftism, not because it's “more left” than American leftism, but just because they have a different history with these political ideas, and they have different connotations, thoughts, and cultural norms about them.
I don't think it maps cleanly onto America, where all of these different countries have the same political spectrum whereas America is just shifted to the right 10 points or whatever. But I do think that I am an American leftist, and I want to affect change—I really do care about the country of America, the people of America, because there's nothing to the nation except for its people. I really want to ensure the best possible future for American people, and that is why I want to go into American politics. I guess that, exactly, is what makes me an American leftist.
I do want to take note of how you said that you do love this country. That's not something all leftists can admit or claim to. Now I can tell that you really care about America, as you have even echoed that in past TikTok videos. But you did say in one of those videos that that love comes from a place of privilege. Why do you think that’s so?
I think that it comes from a very specific place—I definitely grew up drinking the “American Dream”-Kool-Aid. As I mentioned earlier, my parents were born in Korea. Our families fled from South Korea under the military dictatorships and massive inequality that took place after the Korean War. They came to the United States, and I was able to go to a really really nice school because my dad taught there, and I learned American history—the sort of sanitized, whitewashed version, and I was very happy and excited to be here. Then I got admitted to a very good college, and all of that has been—for me—this idea of the American Dream.
Then, I went to college and I started thinking about this stuff more and realized… this whole idea of the American Dream is based on a success that is predicated on other people not succeeding. I have come to understand that very strongly now. But I've also come to understand that America isn't really a material, constant thing. If you really want to break it down, it's just a collection of people who live in the same place, and all of the ideas that come with that can be changed and shifted. I say I love America, not because I endorse any of the things that the American government has done—especially abroad. I, as a South Korean, am very aware that America's intervention through politics, nuclear policy, and colonialism have all been pretty terrible; My love for America here—even now where I'm highly critical of our country—is still a product of my privilege of growing up in the Imperial Core. I can't say the same for my friends who are Korean nationals and are my age, but were born in Korea and right now are in the Korean Army because South Korea drafts every man to serve for two years because of the situation that the US set up for them 50 years ago.
Me saying I love America is not saying that I uncritically endorse America as it is—it's me saying that America has lots of problems, but there's also lots of people here who weren't directly responsible for those problems. I'd love for us to try to build a better world for them. By loving this country, we should seek to improve it, not let it stagnate where it is.
So I'm not sure if you noticed this on your social media spheres, but on my end it seems like being a radical or a leftist has made its way into a pop-culture phenomenon—where people like to champion the label of “leftist” on social media (maybe put it in their bio to look like a good person), and yet don't actually do anything truly progressive. Would you mind expanding your thoughts on this sort of “Pop-Leftism” occurrence?
Most of the leftists I follow who say they're leftist do the work, have leftist takes, and they make leftist videos and content, so I don't think it's an ideal misrepresentation in all cases. Though I will say, I'd much rather have a world where people think it's cool and trendy to be a leftist, and to pretend to espouse these ideas without actually doing anything, than a world where people think it's cool and trendy to be a fascist or conservative. Even though not all problems are based on the specifics of a specified identity, taking on that Leftist identity for yourself—especially as a younger person trying to figure out how the world works and how you want to find your place in it—can have a positive influence. At worst, people might realize “oh, this is kind of radical for me and I don't know how comfortable I feel with some of these ideas.” But at that point, they’ve gotten out there, and they've given it an effort. If they put in work, they will hear better articulation of those ideas so that they can become more familiar with them. I think that that's a good position for people to be in.
I think that a world in which a young person just getting on a TikTok can see that a lot of people are saying that they're leftist, and I don't know any better so I just say that I'm a leftist as well, that will eventually push more users towards getting more leftist content and thinking about these ideas. That's valuable. As long as there are still enough people doing leftist practices, I think that the other people who identify as leftists without doing so will either find themselves on an algorithmic gateway to further leftism, or just be a sort of non-issue.
That's true. I was actually thinking that maybe these types of occurrences might be harmful, because in the case of radicalism, they might think that if they say they’re a leftist, they won't have to do anything further—as in a that’s all there is to it mentality… I worry that it potentially puts a cap on progress. Though, I also think that can be solved with what you said if they just saw identification with such labels as their starting point. In that case, it takes work. You really have to consciously and critically think about this concept, term or identity that you’re interacting with. All of us, really, would have to ask ourselves how these categories interact with our individual values.
I think that everybody's identities and beliefs are always fluid, always changing—even though I just talked about how I've kind of locked myself into this leftism gig and live by staking my whole brand around it by using my real name as well. Thinking of this all in terms of being “a starting point,” is a good way to think about it. Somebody who says they're a leftist without really understanding it is in a really good starting point if the end goal is to become somebody who understands leftism more. It's a much better starting point than somebody who says they're a liberal or somebody who just unthinkingly accepts everything that the Democratic Party does (or, for that matter, somebody who says they're conservative).
Something that the left does really well (that the right, doesn't do very well) is the large amount of discourse about what it means to be a leftist. I think that, at its worst, this can be very gatekeep-y. This can quickly become “if you don't read theory, you're not a leftist,” or “if you don't do the right practices, you're not a leftist.” But the fact that we're willing to have those discussions, and have them very aggressively (especially on spaces like TikTok), people will get exposed to that discourse. That discourse is what will help move people in the right direction—or at least get them thinking about why they're adopting political labels, and what they want to try to do with them.