Two Provocations by Lalo Alcaraz

This is the 16th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Steve Brodner, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

Lalo Alcaraz is the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip, “La Cucaracha.” He has produced editorial cartoons for the L.A. Weekly since 1992 and also creates editorial cartoons in English and Spanish for Universal. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the L.A. Times, and many other publications. Mi Ciudad Magazine named him Best Latino Cartoonist in Los Angeles. Alcaraz is a new faculty member at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, and his books include Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons On Immigration (2004).

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The Politics of Becoming

This is the 15th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Jody D. Armour

THE N-WORD, one of the most transgressive utterances in the English language, figures centrally in gansta rap, the art form at the heart of the “Rap and Repression” discussion that caps off the What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World conference.  For many, the N-word is the linguistic equivalent of the Confederate battle flag; many see both as blood-soaked forms of symbolic communication with deep roots in black oppression.

Yet the relationship of blacks to the N-word is not the same as our relationship to the battle flag–the N-word has been adopted, inverted, and transvalued by significant numbers of black artists (like those featured in “Rap and Repression”), writers, entertainers, and ordinary folk in a way that the Confederate flag has not.

Further, the American flag has been adopted by many blacks despite its own deep roots in slavery, Jim Crow, and racial injustice.

All of which leads to the subject of this provocation: The ability of some words and symbols with ugly historical roots to evolve new meanings while others remain mired in their past uses and applications.

The Confederate battle flag controversy that was ignited by the Emanuel Nine murders reminded me of my debates with my dad about the meaning of flags (and other forms of symbolic communication) and their political role in creating and transforming communities.

My dad was a big black patriot—a six foot eight-inch barrel-chested black veteran of the Second World War and proud Marine who, in the words of America the Beautiful, “more than self his country loved.”

This fact baffled me for years. I couldn’t fathom a black man like my dad pledging allegiance to a flag, and the nation for which it stands, after that very same nation showed its gratitude for his military service by falsely incarcerating him for 22 to 55 years in a state penitentiary for alleged possession and sale of marijuana.

He taught himself the law in prison and found the key to his cell in the warden’s own law books, vindicating himself in a case I now teach in my criminal law class called Armour v. Salisbury; yet his wrongful conviction robbed our family of its sole breadwinner, abruptly reducing a middle class family of eight to crumbs and roaches and rats.  I could only attribute his unflagging love for “his” flag, his undying zeal for his own captors and their emblems, to some kind of psychological disability — say, Stockholm syndrome — in which victims sympathetically identify with and even defend and celebrate their abusers.

In time I came to see his patriotic devotion to the American flag not as a mental illness but as a profoundly political act.

Politics in a democracy is about more than merely getting — more than a contest over the distribution of goods and services, over who gets what, when, and how.  Democratic politics equally focuses on becoming, and consists critically in the formation of the “us” and the “them” that make unified social action possible.

American and Confederate flags figure centrally in a politics of becoming, for both symbols bond individuals together into a unified “us.”  To be more precise, an American or Confederate flag is what language philosophers call a “performative” — a form of symbolic communication that performs (hence its name) a social action, such as bonding individuals together. Words like “I promise,” “I pledge allegiance,” and “With this ring I thee wed” epitomize linguistic bonding performatives; non-linguistic performatives that perform the same social bonding action as promises, pledges of allegiance, and wedding vows include flags, personifications (Uncle Sam), monuments (Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, Confederate memorials) street names (Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee), and melodies (purely instrumental versions of the Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, Dixie).

As the Confederate battle flag controversy illustrates, struggles over the meaning of words and symbols play a major role in the process of creating the “us” and “them” of politics. As J. L. Austin pointed out in How to Do Things with Words, performatives don’t simply say something, they do something, and in political communication the thing that bonding performatives such as flags, monuments, melodies, and street names do is unify and rally individuals; they create collective social actors and forge social identities.

The “us” that the American flag originally stood for did not include blacks, who, according to the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Put differently, in terms of race, the “us” and “them” of the American flag before the Civil War was the same “us” and “them” of the original Confederate flag — no Confederate flag was necessary before the war because the Stars and Stripes already stood for an “us” of white American citizens and a “them” of black chattel slaves.  It took 600,000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war to transform the American flag into an emblem that includes black folk in its “us” of American citizens.

It took another struggle — the Civil Rights Movement — to make the “us” of the American flag still more racially inclusive.  After Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 SCOTUS decision that made separate-but-equal — i.e., Jim Crow segregation — the law of the land, the American flag stood for a racially segregated “us” that in effect (as SCOTUS itself later admitted) made blacks second-class citizens.

In other words, after Plessy, for many Americans the Red, White, and Blue stood for an “us” of first-class citizens who are white and a “them” of second-class black citizens. In the 1950s and 60s, many who adopted, displayed, and embraced the Confederate battle flag resisted including blacks in the “us” of first-class citizens.

Legislation that mandated redesigned state flags across the South incorporating the Confederate battle banner were at least partly responses to SCOTUS desegregation decisions like Brown v. Board of Education and other federal pressures to desegregate.  Just as before the Civil War there was no need for a separate Confederate flag to stand for slavery because the American flag itself already stood for that, before the Civil Rights Movement there was no need for a separate Confederate flag to stand for segregation because Old Glory itself stood for that already.  At the two crucial turning points in the history of racial justice in America, as the “us” represented by the American flag started to become more inclusive, many lawmakers and ordinary citizens rallied around some version or incorporation of the Confederate flag in support of a more narrow, pinched, exclusive “us.”

Many groups and individuals fly the American and Confederate battle flag together, as if they don’t stand for competing conceptions of “us.”  One can contend that the two flags do not stand for contradictory conceptions of “us” if one believes that the battle flag can mean something other than support for segregation or white supremacy—something such as, say, Southern pride.  Recent YouGov and CNN polls have found that while more Americans see the battle flag as a symbol of Southern pride than of racism, many more Democrats than Republicans and many more blacks than whites view it as a symbol of racism.

The partisan divide over the meaning of the battle flag illustrates how struggles over the meanings of words and symbols can politically unify and rally individuals. Confederate battle flag critics use the symbol to isolate a “them” of segregationists and white supremacists and to mobilize a racially liberal and inclusive “us.”  Many battle flag supporters use the same symbol to distinguish an “us” of folk with Southern pride from a “them” of folk without.  Still other battle flag supporters (like the KKK) use the emblem to isolate a “them” of inferior blacks and to mobilize a racially illiberal and exclusionary “us.”

Because no words or symbols have indelible meanings (again, think of the historically vile N-word and the positive uses many blacks have put it to), many different claims can be made about the battle flag’s meaning, none of which are “illogical.”  These conflicting claims set the stage for today’s impassioned political struggle over the Confederate flag, whose meaning is a prize in a pitched conflict among groups attempting to describe their social reality, constitute their social identity, and vindicate their social existence.

The flag of my father, the increasingly inclusive American one for which he fought, flatly contradicts the segregationist and white supremacist senses of its Confederate counterpart, which may explain the widely-circulated picture of Dylann Roof, the man who murdered the Emanuel Nine in hopes of jumpstarting a race war, burning an American flag.

My dad knew that the flag he bled for once stood for slavery and Jim Crow, but he also knew that meanings are not fixed and frozen but hotly contested in the process of creating the “us” and “them” of politics and nationhood. The hope and promise of an ever more inclusive “us” is what my dad saluted in the American flag and celebrated on the Fourth of July.  The same hope and promise moves me to do the same.

Jody David Armour is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Law at the University of Southern California. Armour studies the intersection of race and legal decision making as well as torts and tort reform movements. A widely published scholar and popular lecturer, Professor Armour is a Soros Justice Senior Fellow of The Open Society Institute’s Center on Crime, Communities and Culture. His book Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America (New York University Press) address three core concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement — namely, racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration. He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.

A Provocation by Lalo Alcaraz

This is the 14th in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Steve Brodner, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

Lalo Alcaraz is the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip, “La Cucaracha.” He has produced editorial cartoons for the L.A. Weekly since 1992 and also creates editorial cartoons in English and Spanish for Universal. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the L.A. Times, and many other publications. Mi Ciudad Magazine named him Best Latino Cartoonist in Los Angeles. Alcaraz is a new faculty member at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, and his books include Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons On Immigration (2004).

 

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Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

By Colin Marshall 

I watch television here in Seoul, but I watched even more Korean television back when I lived in Los Angeles. My girlfriend and I got satellite TV installed especially for the small bundle of Korean channels available in the States, which required the technician to bolt another satellite dish onto our balcony next to the standard one, which we never used since we never watched any channels but the Korean ones. If I did, I’d lose out on a valuable opportunity for listening practice (listening being the formidable wall so many students of the Korean language never completely scale). But soon, the entertainment value of Korean television for me matched its educational value, and I assembled a roster of favorite programs to which to tune in.

All those programs air on EBS, which stands for Educational Broadcasting System — so whatever the entertainment value I personally derived, educational value at least remained the mandate. I usually describe EBS as the Korean equivalent of PBS, an analogy that works in some respects but not others. Whereas my childhood memories of PBS after my Sesame Street years consist mostly of licensed British programming and frequent pleas for donations, EBS features a huge amount of original content (with, in my viewing experience, nary a pledge drive to interrupt it). I first got hooked on its travel shows, like the domestic Travelogue Korea (한국 기행) and the international Thematic World Tour (세계 테마 여행), which, like many EBS productions, you can watch free on their Youtube channel.

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But then I found another category of favorite show, one even more compelling because it reflected my imminent future: reality shows about foreigners living in Korea. Korean audiences seem positively unable to get enough of watching non-Koreans try to make a go of it in their society, and EBS serves that demand with at least two different programs: 한국에 산다, which means something as straightforward as They Live in Korea, and 다문화 사랑, or Multicultural Love. While they differ a little in sensibility, they share the same central question: Vietnamese wives, Canadian husbands, Indonesian civil servants, French buskers, Japanese hostel workers — how can these people possibly handle Korean life?

The shows strike a delicate balance between spreading a message of cultural understanding and acceptance and making use of what I call the “freak show” aspect still inherent to the condition of the visible foreigner in Korea. The spectacle intensifies when the subjects have married and even reproduced with Koreans, creating what gets labeled the “new Korean family,” and providing material for such episodes as “I Married a Muslim Woman” (나는 무슬림 여자와 결혼했다), “My American Son-in-Law Lives on the Upper Floor of the House” (우리 집 위층에 미국 사위가 산다), “My Wife is an Indian Princess” (내 아내는 인도 공주님), and “Canadian Dad!” (캐나다 아빠!), some of which spend a good deal of time probing the scowling disapproval (and, for the lucky ones, eventual half-pleased resignation) of the aged and conservative parents- and grandparents-in-law.

I still like watching these shows on the lives of foreigners in Korea, now that I lead the life of a foreigner in Korea myself. But that enjoyment, I admit, has taken on a spirit of competitiveness; now I listen more closely than ever to the Korean spoken on each episode, especially by its non-Korean star, in order to gauge the level of their language against my own. Do they speak worse than me? Do they speak better than me? If better, why? And if worse, what can I learn from their mistakes, which get corrected in Korean reality television’s ever-present Korean-language subtitles? (Now that I think about it, the fact that Korean subtitles regularly appear to help Korean audiences understand even other native Korean speakers tells you all you need to know about the difficulty of the language.)

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This obsessive judgment has let me to formulate a theory: in general, those who come to Korea from the developing world speak better Korean than those who come from the developed world, and women speak better Korean than men. A lady from Ghana married to a Korean man (whom the show goes out of its way to depict as an unappreciative lout) particularly impressed me, as did a Pakistani merchant at a traditional market (who has to deal with customers who haggle by intimating that they’ll report his “illegal” stall to the police). But watch enough episodes and sooner or later the very worst Korean speakers always come lumbering into the frame: white dudes. By “worst,” I don’t mean to put down these white dudes for speaking broken Korean, which I do myself; I mean to put them down for barely trying to speak Korean at all.

Some rattle off their excuses for the camera, and some end their episodes finally, at the behest of a nagging wife or a bewildered extended family, submitting to language instruction, but they all stand to me as cautionary examples. They also stand as examples of a certain kind of low-level resentment, the resentment of the comfortably marooned, that you can sense among certain long-term Westerners here: they’ve long since settled down with a Korean wife and Korean kids, but damn it, they barely meant to come here, let alone stay here. Their willful incompetence sometimes comes with strange and pitiful desires, exemplified by the words of an incidental white dude in “I Married a Beer-Crazed Man” (나는 맥주에 미친 남자와 결혼했다), a customer in bar the titular Canadian runs in Busan: “It’s so fun to find something in Korea that is very similar to San Diego” — perhaps the saddest sentence I’ve ever heard.

So if white dudes have colonized the low end of the Korean language ability spectrum, who do you find at the high end? Why, white dudes. An episode of Multicultural Love focused on one such impressive fellow, the American business consultant, columnist, and tailor shop owner Todd Sample, but other astonishingly fluent white dudes, such as Tyler Rasch, the American star of the hugely popular foreigner chat program Non-Summit (비정상 회담) invariably described by my Korean friends as speaking “better Korean than Koreans do,” have gone on to become one-man miniature media industries.

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These shows provoke all kinds of strong emotions, apart from my own psychodramatically oscillating disdain and worship of my fellow man. They also try to capture them, often in the form of explosive arguments, or at least long-simmering conflicts, between the foreigners and their Korean spouses. Violently rocky roads very much suit the Korean concept of “love,” but what about the concept of “multiculture”? The fact that whole programs exist to showcase the existence of non-Koreans in Korea both demonstrates that the country’s multicultural day will come, but also how long it still has to go before arrival.

To those who remember when Korea’s population was 99 percent rather than 98 percent ethnically Korean, the streets of Seoul now look wildly diverse. But any experienced traveler can tell you that it remains essentially homogenous, no more a multicultural land than it is an English-speaking one: that is, not trivially so, but only a little more than trivially so, and still resistant to widespread changes in the outward direction. I can’t claim to know whether to consider multicultural Korea an unambiguously positive prospect, but it does seem to me that many of the complaints non-Koreans have about life here stem not from the prejudices and dysfunctions of an insular society — though those exist — but from their own inability to communicate. Even so, they still get their fifteen minutes of fame. Korea, what a country!

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

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Coffee Life in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

When last I lived in Los Angeles, I met a Korean friend for coffee every week. After a few months of doing so, I noticed that she always, without exception, ordered an Americano, so I asked why. She explained that, if she simply ordered a coffee — or keopi (커피) back in Korea, she might well wind up with something made from a powder. And so, now that I live in Korea myself, I follow the very same rule. As it happens, I already had plenty of  experience adhering to it in Mexico, another piece of that globe-spanning territory I like to call “Nescafé country.”

Older generations of the Korean population remain quite influential within their country, most notably in their unflagging support of something called dabang keopi (다방 커피), a foul mixture of instant coffee, copious amounts of sugar, and often artificial creamer named for the old-style coffee houses that first served them. But apart from the few establishments that, over the decades, have become attractions again through sheer persistence combined with an unwillingness to change their décor, most dabang have given way to what we would now call second- and third-wave coffee shops, seemingly none of which permit a spoonful of Nescafé — or such home-grown brands as Maxim or French Café — on the premises.

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Famed Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold helpfully breaks down the “waves” as follows: “The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.” And as with most things that make it across the Pacific, Korean coffee culture has followed the same path, only much faster.

Korea’s very first Starbucks coffee shop appeared in front of Seoul’s Ewha Womans University in 1999. Since then, Seoul has risen to the rank of the most Starbucks-filled city in the world. The jokes we told each other in the States back in the 90s about crossing the street from one Starbucks into another have here become the plain reality, and then some. When I found a Korean teacher to meet for weekly lessons, he made it clear that I should find him not at the first Starbucks outside the subway station, but the next Starbucks, half a block down.

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Many writers would use this space to lament such thorough penetration of an American chain like Starbucks into a foreign country like Korea, wringing their hands over this harbinger of a fast-arriving global commercial monoculture. But in my experience, if you really want to spot the differences between one country and another — the solid differences, those not vulnerable to fad and fashion — you have only to spend an hour or two in a local Starbucks. By holding every possible element of the customer experience steady from location to location, no matter the country, Starbucks casts those things which nobody can hold steady into stark relief. But to my mind, the most important cultural difference manifests in what you see not inside the Starbucks coffee shops of Korea, but around them: more coffee shops.

How many coffee shops? “It’s beyond imagination,” said my Americano-ordering friend in Los Angeles. And indeed, the first-time visitor to Seoul looking for a cup will find themselves surrounded, not just in any neighborhood but on most every block, with a bewildering variety of options, from international chains like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to Korean chains like Tom N Toms, Hollys, A Twosome Place, Angel-in-us, Coffine Gurunaru, Café Nescafé (which may actually give you instant if you ask for it), Beansbins, Pascucci, Ediya, and Caffè Bene, that last known, due to its massive, Starbucks-outnumbering omnipresence, as “Bakwi Bene,” a nickname that puns on bakwi beolle (바퀴벌레) the Korean word for cockroach.

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And what of the “cool” places, the independent coffee shops not replicated — indeed, not replicable — across the land, the sine qua non of urban bohemia? In America, we tend to believe, about all categories of business, that you can have one or the other, that you’ve got to choose Mom and Pop or multinational corporation, the coffee house with the old couches and the open-mic nights or the green mermaid, but in Korea they all coexist cheek-by-jowl. Alongside the chains stand a seemingly infinite number of indies, each with their own slight variations in aesthetic and specialty — some with cats, some with specialized music libraries, one with a VW van parked inside — most of the ones I’ve tried genuinely appealing spots in their own right. They’ve inspired a mini-industry of not just photo-intensive blogs but glossy guidebooks, available on the travel shelves of most Korean bookstores.

While the quantity of coffee in Korea has greatly increased over the past fifteen years, so, as any Westerner who’s lived here since the 90s will eagerly tell you, has the quality. Coffee culture, and even more so coffee-shop culture, has risen to prominence in Korean life, as evidenced by the number of magazines published here wholly dedicated to drinking and brewing the stuff as well as to the environments in which one does those activities. Many Korean coffee shops also sell beer (and some, like the beverage-portmanteau-named Coffine Gurunaru, sell wine), and a fair few, even outside Paju Book City, sell reading material, or at least sell themselves as a comfortable reading environment — or as an environment for a whole range of other activities as well.

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“The coffeehouse helps manage lives,” writes Merry White in Coffee Life in Japan, a volume indispensable to someone of my particular interests. “It supports the various schedules of city dwellers, provides respite and social safety in its space, and offers refreshment and the demonstration of taste, in several senses. In its history and in its persistence, the space has shown such uses as the Japanese city welcomes or demands, and has introduced some of its own. The coffeehouse, by its very name, is about coffee, but that is the only universally defining quality — cafés are as diverse as neighborhoods, clienteles, and social changes have made them.”

As coffee has integrated itself into the fabric of Japanese cities, so it has integrated itself into the fabric of Korean ones (albeit with slightly less obsessive focus on craft and much more trendy explosiveness). Getting to know Seoul better in these first few months of living here, I’ve found myself naturally mapping it in the same way I almost automatically assemble a mental model of any city I stay in for more than a couple of weeks: by locating everything in it in relation to my favorite coffee shops.

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In Los Angeles, this meant that I thought of everything in its geographic relation to such points of reference as Paradocs in Little Ethiopia, Cafecito Organico in Silver Lake, Bricks and Scones in Larchmont, Coffee Connection in Mar Vista, Kaldi in Atwater Village, Awesome Coffee in Koreatown, or the two branches of Demitasse in Little Tokyo and Santa Monica (I moved before the third opened on mid-Wilshire). I’ve sought out equivalent centers of coffee life in Seoul not just as anchors in urban space, nor just as meeting points, nor just as sources of Americanos, but above all as places to get work done — as nodes, to get William Gibsonian about it, of my globally distributed virtual office.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft, author of “Writing in Cafés: A Personal History” here in the LARB (and, incidentally, Merry White’s son), knows what I mean: “Cafés took me through high school, college, the itinerant odd-jobs-and-graduate-school wanderings of my 20s, through the opening moves of my career as a historian,” up through today, “to write, to read, to see friends or to get away from friends, to have strong feelings and to escape strong feelings, to pursue a crush or because of loneliness, because of inertia, because of dependency. I’ve gone because I liked people, or because I was trying very hard to like people. And of course, I’ve gone for coffee itself, but it is interesting how quickly that can drop out of the reckoning.”

Though we both do writers’ work in cafés, we also approach them as “third places,” defined by urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg as locations that “host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work,” the sort of “places on the corner” that offer “real-life alternatives to television, easy escapes from the cabin fever of marriage and family life that do not necessitate getting into an automobile.”

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Nothing in a well-connected metropolis like Seoul would ever necessitate getting into an automobile in the first place — I often say that even if you took away everything but the subway and the coffee shops, I’d still want to live here — but something about the way Seoulites live creates an environment especially conducive to an abundance of third places. Some of it must have to do with the “beehives” in which we choose to live: not only does Seoul, like most of the major cities of Asia, lack an American-style house culture, it lacks an American-style home culture. As a result, people tend to use their apartments as little more than places to hang their hats; the city itself, in every meaningful sense, is where they live, and a healthy fraction of that living happens over cups of coffee.

Still, by no means has Korea perfected its coffee life quite yet: some chain cafés stay open 24 hours, but most of the independents don’t open until strangely late in the morning, and when you can go in, you often sit down to a soundtrack of pure K-pop, almost always played about twice as loud as you’d want to hear it even if you liked it. But I can tune that out if I concentrate hard enough on the work at hand, and I’ve more or less accommodated my schedule to theirs. I’ve even — heaven help me — started to enjoy the instant coffee that comes out of the machines installed on subway platforms. Connoisseurship varies with context, I suppose, and Seoul provides all the contexts for the enjoyment of coffee you could possibly need.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

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Unsafe at Denny’s — and in the Classroom

This is the thirteenth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Caitlin Flanagan

THE DENNY’S IN CAMARILLO, California is not a Safe Space, as I discovered a couple of years ago, when I was waiting to pay my check. On line in front of me were a mother and her two teenage sons; they were older teens, maybe seventeen and eighteen. One of them was telling a story about a kid both boys obviously disliked. In the middle of the story he referred — loudly — to that third boy by an ugly slur for a gay person.

I glanced up from my receipt, scowled at the kid, and waited for Mom to correct him. Instead she brayed with laughter.

It’s refreshing to encounter people whom you can loathe so completely and so quickly. There’s a serotonin release of some sort.

The kid continued with the story, and I considered whether to let his use of the word just wash backward into the past, but he used it again, to the continued delight of his mother and brother. At this point I was implicated.

I’m from Los Angeles, where if someone used that word, I could simply wait for someone braver than me to get in his face and then I could (cravenly) line up in full support. But this was Camarillo.

The boy used the word a third time, and I leaned in and said, “That’s not a great word.”

They all stared at me.

“Mind your own business,” Mom snapped.

The kids glowered at me. They sensed that Mom more than son had somehow been insulted, but they weren’t quite sure how. They were all sort of singed and offended and angry, but not sure what to do with themselves, so they paid and left. I paid and left, and when I rounded the corner of the building to get to the parking lot, the older kid was waiting for me. Mom and brother were in the car, watching.

“You know,” he said aggressively, “there’s free speech.”

It was an excellent opportunity to have an argument about something important with a moron. But it was also an excellent opportunity to get smacked in the mouth.

In the way of his people, he had added a little booster rocket to a free speech debate, by waiting for me on the side of the parking lot, which made the moment ever so slightly menacing. I could have — maybe, maybe, if I went for her hair extensions — taken the mom, but these knuckle-dragging teens of hers would eat me alive.

“Yes, there is,” I said, and tried to move around him toward my car, but he wouldn’t let me pass, and I had to step down off the sidewalk to get around him, which was humiliating, but whatever.

Safely back in my car, the former teacher in me thought about what had happened. Somewhere in the recesses of Mom’s past, or in the recent experience of her young princes’ educations, some high-school teacher — his lunch in the faculty room fridge, his TIA-CREF account subject to the whims of rich men, his alternator a week away from going on the fritz — had talked about the Constitution. How thankless the job must have seemed to him at the time … but here it was, bearing fruits that that teacher would never eat.

Before I went outside, the brain trust must have gotten together, and realized they’d been sorely insulted, but in a way that had involved such a mild arrangement of words that it seemed to require some sort of intellectual response. And they’d sat in the car, they’d had a Big Think, and they’d come up with … Freedom of Speech. Eureka in a bathtub!

You go out there and tell that bitch about Freedom of Speech!

His interpretation of Freedom of Speech was that he had the right to say whatever he wanted, period. My interpretation of Freedom of Speech was that I also had the right to say what ever I wanted, including telling him that his word offended me.

And so there we were, a couple of Americans in the early stages of digesting some Denny’s nastiness, thrashing our way through the Bill of Rights, me with my (relatively) Parnassian understanding of it, him with his youthful might and car full of back up.

You know what? We made it.

I got what I wanted from the exchange (principally, letting my Denny’s server — a young person who seemed to be in a complicated stage of gender transition, and who might have overheard the young man —` know that all sorts of people, including middle-aged ladies who eat at Denny’s, are down with the struggle). And Mom and the sons got what they wanted — the chance to rattle my cage a bit by adding the slightest frisson of physical danger to their eventual retort.

And that’s all you get out of free speech: The right to say what you want, and not to get thrown in jail or fired from your job for saying it. You don’t get protected from other people telling you that you’re a moron. You don’t get protected from having a fight, or getting very subtly menaced in a parking lot. And you certainly don’t get protected from other people’s freedom of speech.

The current trend in college for “safety” — for safe spaces, safe learning environments, safe syllabi, all of which ultimately involve the policing of speech — is antithetical to the essential function of college, which is to make students feel intellectually unsafe. College is supposed to unsettle you, to take the parochial set of beliefs that you brought from your hometown and your family and your high school, and turn them upside down. And it’s supposed to give students the intellectual tools to confront any kind of bigotry with logic and reason, before which that bigotry will always crumble.

If my Denny’s adversary and I had confronted one another in a college classroom instead of a parking lot, he would have been thrown out of the room, and possibly out of the college. He would have been deemed the creator of an unsafe space, and (unless he was on the football or basketball team, and therefore answerable to other gods) he would have had to go.

But if he’d been forced to stay in that classroom, and have the depth of his ignorance revealed to everyone — if he’d been forced to stand on his hind legs and explain his understanding of the First Amendment until he realized how deeply ignorant and how sorely in need of an education he was, he would have learned something.

More to the point, his classmates would have learned something. They would have seen that there are more powerful means of dealing with his kind than barring them from places. Carefully protecting yourself from bad ideas — and asking the administration to help protect you from them — is a form of weakness, and bullies and knuckle-draggers love weakness. They depend on it. But confronting those ideas, straight ahead and with the force of a real education behind you — that’s what college is supposed to do for you.

Caitlin Flanagan is a contributing editor for the Atlantic and a former staff writer for The New Yorker; her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street JournalThe Washington Post and a wide variety of magazines. She is the winner of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism, and her essays have been widely anthologized, including in the Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Magazine Writing series. She is the author of two books, To Hell With All That and Girl Land. Her subjects have included domestic life, fame, adolescence and education. She is currently at work on a series of essays about the private lives of American college students. Flanagan grew up in Berkeley, attended the University of Virginia, and now lives in Los Angeles. Before becoming a writer, she was an English teacher and college counselor at Harvard-Westlake School. She will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.

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My Favorite Kind of Korean Podcast: The Book-Reading Show

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, my girlfriend and I bid farewell to the United States with two road trips, one north from Los Angeles up past the border to Vancouver and back, and another east all the way to North Carolina. As every aficionado of the Great American Road Trip Knows, not only does the journey matter more than the destination, the soundtrack matters almost as much as the journey. Historically, this has meant which radio stations you tune into as you go from one broadcast territory to another; more recently it has meant which cassettes, then CDs, and then MP3s you stack up into a personalized playlist.

Now, though, we have a convergence of the ways of listening to all these media: the podcast, which essentially lets us assemble whole personalized radio stations of our own. Podcasting has had something of a slow burn in America, taking at least a decade to make an impact on common listening habits, but in Korea it has blown up. And so our final road trips of this stint of our U.S. life found us binge-listening, as we drove past the grievance-punctuated agricultural lands of California, the Krazy Kat backdrops of Arizona and New Mexico, the vast windmill fields of the Texas panhandle, and the thick treescapes of Arkansas, to entirely Korean-language programming, the fruits of that podcasting explosion, motivated partially by a desire to prepare for our next cultural shift, and partially by my desperation to increase my vocabulary before I would really need it.

Not only did we listen to only Korean podcasts, we listened to only one kind of Korean podcasts: the book-reading show. I’ve made up that name myself, not knowing quite what to call them, but they’ve definitely made an impact on the world of Korean podcasting. The best-known example, which we marathoned all the way up and down the West Coast, is Kim Young-ha’s Time to Read a Book (김영하의 책 읽는 시간). Almost every episode in its sizable archive takes the same form: Kim, himself one of Korea’s internationally best-known writers (whom I profiled here in the LARB back in 2013), picks out a short story or part of a novel, reads it aloud, then talks anywhere from just a little to quite a bit about the chosen work and its place in his reading life.

Over the years, Kim has podcast the writings of a wide variety of his colleagues Eastern and Western, living and dead, including Franz Kafka, Italo Calvino, Albert Camus, José Saramago, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paul Auster, J.M. Coetzee, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bill Bryson, Roald Dahl, Bertrand Russell, Patricia Highsmith, Yukio Mishima, Ryu Murakami, and such fellow Korean writers as Kim So-yeon, Kim Ki-taek, and Lee Ki-ho (previously seen here in my post on the Seoul Book and Culture Club). He also, on theory that the best reader of an author’s work is the author himself, occasionally reads bits and pieces of his own writing.

You can hear more of Kim Young-ha’s prose read aloud on another podcast, whose dual-language pun of a title I can only translate with difficulty, more literally as Reading Aloud or with more license as something like Read, Dream (읽어 드림). Its host Kim In-young launched it in 2013, partially in homage to Time to Read a Book, beginning with back-to-back episodes showcasing stories by Kim Young-ha. The rest of its author roster includes George Orwell, Herman Melville, Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, Alain de Botton (an even more popular figure in Korea, it turns out, than in England or America), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Haruki Murakami, whose body of work provides reading matter for many an episode.

Kim In-young’s tendency toward multi-part series concentrating on a certain writer or even a certain piece of writing counts as one of his show’s characteristics that sets it apart from its inspiration, all of which we got to know well as we listened own the length of Interstate 40. (We got to know the shampoo commercial that precedes the content of each and every episode especially well.) But last year he decided to cap off the episode count at 50, opening some space for a new book-reader to enter the Korean podcasting field.

Projects like these hybridize the podcast with another highly road trip-compatible form of modern listening: the audiobook. A Korean friend here who studies both English and Japanese makes use of regular audiobooks for language-learning purposes, listening to a novel (usually something, in either language, by that supremely translatable Haruki Murakami) in his earbuds as he goes about his day, over and over “until I almost memorize the whole thing.” That learning potential, in part, motivated me to listen to nothing but these two podcasts, which take the audio book concept and break it down into bite-size chunks with light commentary, in the run-up to my move here.

The English-language podcasting world also has shows whose authors read fiction aloud, though usually with a focus on original material or on one particular genre. The emergence of the general-interest Korean book-reading podcast reflects the rising popularity of book culture itself in Korea, a place where literature has of course always existed, but where it has only in recent decades enjoyed an increasing abundance of avenues into everyday life. Plenty of other book-oriented Korean podcasts exist (I personally like the conversation-driven Red Book Cafe (빨간 책방)), but only shows like Kim Young-ha and Kim In-young’s take me back to the pleasures of school read-aloud time — probably because they remind me of how many words I still have to learn.

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook. Catch up on the Korea Blog’s archives here.

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A Provocation by Steve Brodner

This is the twelfth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Steve Brodner, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

After getting his BFA at  Cooper Union in 1976, Steve Brodner became editorial cartoonist at The Hudson Dispatch, in Union City, New Jersey. In 1977 Steven Heller, protean art director of The New York Times Book Review, began tapping him for illustration assignments. Eventually Brodner realized he could survive nicely just doing this without ever having a real job. This is called Freelance Illustration. To this day he is still confused about how this works.

In 1979-82 he published his own journal, The New York Illustrated News. In 1981 he became a regular contributor to Harper’s magazine with the monthly feature, “Ars Politica”, a name thought up by Lewis Lapham, Harper’s editor. In the late 1980’s, as editors realized that Ronald Reagan was less like an Olympian God and more like a rotting puppet, more magazines asked Brodner to contribute regularly. These included the National Lampoon, Sports Illustrated, Playboy and Spy. In 1988 Esquire brought him in as an unofficial house artist. It was there that he did portrait caricature, art journalism and a back-page political cartoon, “Adversaria”. This all served to convince him that illustration was an important part of the mix of any journalistic enterprise. Well . . . isn’t it?  Since then he has worked for most major publications in the US and Canada.

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Darth Vader and the Triceratops—A Q & A with Maggie Greene on “Stars Wars” in China

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

There’s been a lot of commentary lately about the challenge that Disney faces marketing the new Star Wars film in China, due to comparative lack of familiarity there with the story and characters.  When the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films premiered on the mainland, things were very different, since they began appearing at a time when Chinese and Western popular culture were increasingly entwined.  They also included characters from books that many Chinese had read in translation.  By contrast, the Star Wars films do not ride the coattails of books that are well known in China, and the previous movies in the series have only rarely made it into Chinese mainland theaters.  When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, it was not shown on the mainland for years.  This was hardly surprising, given how cut off from the flow of Western popular culture China was throughout the Mao years, and for a decade or so after that period ended.  Mao may have already been dead when American viewers first met Leia, Luke and Han Solo, but China was still, “for all intents and purposes,” as Julie Makinen put in a recent Los Angeles Times article on the topic, “in a different universe.”  

And yet…there was one curious intersection of the early Lucas and early post-Mao universes back in 1980 that historian Maggie Greene discovered via, of all things, collecting lianhuanhua, a genre of illustrated story books.  She first wrote about her find in 2014, in a piece for her own website titled, naturally, “A Long Time Ago in a China Far, Far Away…” This led to all sorts of websites, such as iO9, and news services including the BBC describing her find, running excerpts from her post, and/or interviewing her.   Reminded of this while reading news coverage of the latest Star Wars film opening in China, I persuaded Greene to respond to a few questions.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: Can you describe in a few sentences what you found and how you found it?

MAGGIE GREENE: In the spring of 2011, I was living in Shanghai while researching my dissertation. I always enjoyed hitting the Sunday book fair at the Confucian Temple (Wen Miao 文庙) to see if I could find anything of use to my work on traditional opera in the 1950s and 1960s. Many sellers had heaps of vintage lianhuanhua — “linked picture books,” little comic books, basically — which are generally very cheap ($1 USD or less), so inexpensive and easy to collect. I asked one seller if he had anything related to my research subjects, and he pulled a few out — including this one. It took me a beat to realize what it was: a 1980 lianhuanhua adaptation of Star Wars. It was so incongruous, and the price was right (about 8 RMB), I simply couldn’t leave it behind.

What is your favorite page from the comic?  Why?

There are almost too many to mention! Many discussions of the comic have gone to some lengths to show the source material — such as a cameo appearance of the Yamato from the mid-1970s Japanese anime Space Battleship Yamato — for some of the stranger parts. Learning about those has been one of the neatest things of following up on where the post has been linked. But if forced to pick one, I would probably say Darth Vader and the triceratops. Darth Vader’s pose apparently goes back to an illustration by the fantasy and sci-fi artist Frank Frazetta — where the triceratops came from is anyone’s guess.

What is strangest about the way people and objects from the Star Wars universe are presented in this text?

I think what fascinates me most is how many sources the artists drew from. The lianhuanhua may not have been licensed, but this is really creative “bootlegging.” I like to think of it as a visual remix of a wide variety of sources. I’ve seen some references to comic panels being taken from 1940s comic books, which is pretty amazing if you think about it, especially when combined with the diversity of other materials found in the comic.

How would you define the lianhuanhua genre, for those unfamiliar with it?

Lianhuanhua are little books — most are about the size of your hand — that consist of pictures with captions, originally designed for children or less literate adult readers; they originated in the early 20th century. Generally, traditional stories from mythology, operas, novels, and the like were the sources, although after 1949, the Chinese Communist Party also used them to promulgate socialist virtues and political lessons. Many of the ones I own are exquisitely drawn, so while the text is not necessarily very sophisticated, they are beautiful little pieces of popular art in their own right.

Is there anything important you think has been missing from the reporting on The Force Awakens opening in China — other than allusions to this text, if it indeed hasn’t been mentioned (it may have somewhere I haven’t seen)?*

I think many reports have missed the historical background of Hollywood in China. A number of articles I’ve seen refer to this global film market as if it is some new phenomenon. It’s not! During the Republican era (1911-1949), major cities like Shanghai and Tianjin had a robust market for Hollywood films, and not just for Western residents. Major newspapers carried advertisements for scores of American films being screened — many quite current. Flip through popular magazines like Linglong, and you will see photos of Western film stars like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Shirley Temple, stills from contemporaneous Hollywood films, even sheet music for Marx Brothers musicals! Western films were even put in service to domestic issues — I once saw a very late 1936 ad for a Hollywood Western that made clear allusions to the threat of a Japanese invasion. My students are often surprised by how “globalized” the world was “way back then,” since we often treat this as [if] it’s something that only came about in the 1990s or after.

You noted in your post that this kind of thing isn’t your main focus. Is there any link, though, between your Star Wars post and, say, what you do in the classroom?

Well, as a cultural historian, I use a lot of visual sources in my teaching and like meditating more generally on the refashioning and reshaping of culture over time (and this adaptation certainly counts as “refashioning”!).

How about your research and writing?

I do think these seemingly trifling bits of culture can often reveal a lot about society at specific moments; in that vein, I have an article coming out in Cross-Currents this month on mahjong’s changing position from the late 19th century to 1949. My main task at the moment, however, is pretty far removed from the realm of the Force. I’m preparing a manuscript based on my dissertation entitled “The Sound of Ghosts: Cultural Reform and Censorship in the People’s Republic of China.” In it, [I] examine the relationship between intellectuals, artists, and the state in the 1950s and 1960s, largely by tracing debates and policy regarding classical literature on supernatural themes — particularly ghosts. A commenter on the original blog post expressed surprise that a story about “fighting tyranny” would’ve been so casually published in early 1980s PRC — something that didn’t surprise me at all when I thought about it. In a follow-up post, I connected this kind of story and historical moment to the literary products I study — most of which are stories about fighting tyrannical social systems or corrupt and callous government officials. Will Star Wars have the staying power of something like Tang Xianzu’s famous opera The Peony Pavilion (1598)? I guess our descendants will find out!

*Interviewer’s Note: Since conducting this Q&A, I have seen that at least one publication, TimeOut Beijing, has brought Greene’s find into their discussion of the Chinese opening of The Force Awakens— in a piece with some nice illustrations from the original text.

Two Provocations by Matt Bors

This is the eleventh in a series of “Provocations,” produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016), scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Matt Bors, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

Matt Bors is a nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist and editor based in Portland, OR. He is the founder of the comics site The Nib and previously worked at Medium. Bors was a 2012 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for his political cartoons, which appear regularly in The Nation, Portland Mercury, and on Daily Kos and Foreign Policy. He will participate in the Freedom of Expression in a Changing World conference.

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