What We Talk About When We Talk About What’s Gone: My Lost San Pedro

By John Shannon

Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.

 — Before Sunset (2004)

An uncomfortable part of our soul gets pitchforked up whenever, in mid-life, we make a trip home, believing home is still at least roughly the same as it was, even as it’s beginning to break up into small, sharp, dangerous pieces.

I grew up in San Pedro, L.A.’s harbor, a place of marvels and mystery. (By the way, if it interests you, the non-Latino locals called it San PEE-droh. Sorry, Spanish speakers.)

When I was about 12, I would ride the town’s glory, the big auto ferry, back and forth between San Pedro and Terminal Island, across a quarter mile channel of gray, oil-slicked, toxic water, keeping watch for the occasional up-periscope of a harbor seal. As the ferry neared the far mooring, I would hide briefly under a slatted bench. The engines reversed in a shudder of backwater and the ferry’s blunt bow nudged awesomely into the creaking pilings, implying unimaginable mass. I’d hide so I could ride back to San Pedro and then to the island again without repaying the nickel fare. I’ve told this story so many times I’ve come to think I actually did hide, but I’m not so sure. Would the crew have cared a whit about a stowaway?

This was basically a car ferry, and back then the only rush of foot traffic came at shift changes at the canneries on Terminal Island. The mothers and older sisters of my school friends going to StarKist and Chicken-of-the-Sea and Van Camp’s and then coming home to drop their reeking white uniforms into pails of ammonia on the back porch. When the tuna boats were in and the canneries were canning, the whole town stank of it, as unmistakable as a skunk gone to panic under the house. The stench carried all the way uphill through the old town to my family’s middle-class Midcentury Modern house at the outer edge of civilization — the foot of the nearly empty (then, 1949) Palos Verdes hills.

The big Art Deco ferry building is still there, but it’s a maritime museum now, full of tedious models of ships, as well as an excellent exhibit on the history of local tuna fishing. The canning of tuna was invented in San Pedro in 1903; it introduced seafood to Middle America.

There’s no ferry any more. The Vincent Thomas bridge takes all the traffic now. The very suspension bridge that Robert De Niro hilariously called the “St.” Vincent Thomas in the 1995 movie Heat. Vince Thomas — born Vinko Tomasevic — was our long-serving and very powerful city councilman. He’d have loved the posthumous sainthood.

The tuna canneries are all gone now, runaways to American Samoa and other low-wage pockets around the Pacific Rim. And the tawdry and infamous Sailor’s Row — which had faced the ferry building from across Beacon Street — is also gone. Gone utterly, like the Carthage that the Romans burned and spread with salt, a city inhabited by losers, as Donald Trump would say.

Tommy’s and the Port Hole and the Anchor Hotel, which every kid in Dana Junior High whispered was a whorehouse, and, above all else, Shanghai Red’s on the corner of Fifth and Beacon, with its beefy tattooed barmaid, Cairo Mary, tossing drunks out the swingdoor all by herself. All gone now.

About 1970 the evil civic ferrets brought us Urban Renewal and decided a 10-block-square hole in the ground was preferable to that untidy past. Alas, the big hole lasted almost thirty years and never really healed. Of course I miss it all and it causes a strange flaw in the lens that keeps me from focusing.

Every building down to the seediest sailor joint served its time as part of a vast nexus of cultural bric-a-brac too extensive for any easy catalogue, and there is a kind of exhaustion that takes you over when you try to mourn this chronicle of your youth.

As a kid on a bike, I actually got up my nerve to peek into Shanghai Red’s once, saw a few old drunks slumped over the bar. But it was just a place then, not yet a famous Missing Place. And as a kid you never have the world’s full attention. The world is always looking past your shoulder at whatever or whoever really belongs there. Beat it, kid!


Probably what I wanted to see when I bravely explored the harbor at the age of twelve was something “picturesque” in a much more Lutheran sense. The quaint, the earnest and sincere, even the iconic (but let’s try to retire that overused word). Something with a stable connection to the worldview that animated Life magazine and soothed our larger anxieties in the 1950s.

 To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly.

— Nietzsche

At 12, I carried my crappy little 35mm Ricoh camera down to the freighter docks just up-channel of the San Pedro ferry building. I’d been wearing the camera around my neck for some time in order to capture the world around me. And only now do I wonder what this daffy photography of my explorations was about. Did I feel I was a special node of the universe whose every encounter had to be documented? Or was I just oedipally emulating my father, who was a combat-cameraman in WWII?

One day I made my way out to the commercial piers a few hundred yards north of the ferry building. Suddenly, a Japanese sailor hurried down the gangway of a freighter and pointed at my camera, grinning and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Then he turned my little 35mm junker bottom up and cried, “Nippon, Nippon!” It actually said Nippon. A crude but certain link between us. Presumably lonely in this faraway land, he invited me up the ladder and showed me all through the freighter.

Oh, I know. I shudder today to think of what might have been on tap for a pre-teen boy in the deep recesses of a freighter that was technically extraterritorial land, but none of that happened. It was just benign UN stuff, friendship between the nations. And so in the end I captured him in black and white, plus-X, 80 ASA, smiling at me.

Was this a substitute for really coming to know him, a defense against the anxiety of meeting someone I couldn’t communicate with?

Some part of photography is probably always an attempt to tame and make sense of our world . Or maybe to substitute photos for real experience. Nobody even looks at paintings in museums any more, have you noticed? They just run around taking fuzzy cell-phone snaps one after another, or selfies in front of things. Hey, Bobby, I was actually here. I think.

Here’s a thought experiment about our precarious relationship to the past: let’s suppose they had preserved the Terminal Island Ferry, suppose that the conservationists had won a battle, for a change. Maybe it’s been kept as a ferry-themed restaurant (ugh), or, even worse, as a tourist sight tied permanently to barnacled pilings. Harbor Heritage Plaque No. 57. “This sturdy ferry once plied the waters….”

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?

— John Cage

The ferry would be a splinter plucked from a whole texture of the past. That lovely tub would have drifted miles from the moorings of its context. As the context itself has drifted into the oblivion of nostalgia. The ferry would be a zebra in a zoo 10,000 miles from its home.

There’s so much disruption and loss in our world’s forward progress, its industrial development. We sense all this constant upheaval. I believe it’s the human longing for myths of redemption that imbues historic loss and “historic preservation” — is there any real difference? — with such profound pathos. Somehow, we convince ourselves that holding hands on vacation to look at a dead ferryboat or a mock saloon or a former battleground or a place where something was once authentic will save our urban-renewed souls and emancipate us from historical grief.

But the preserved or recreated site has inevitably been rendered surreal by its new context and new purpose — just as surreal as the hideous Ports o’ Call Village (a dying mall) only a half mile down-channel from the ferry building. Imagine, a simulacrum of a New England whaling village dropped from 30,000 feet onto a California waterfront. The psyche cries out, “Enough!”

The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases.

— Susan Sontag

Here’s the crux of the thought experiment: suppose that there’s still the old ferryboat moored down there in the San Pedro channel, with its blunt ends, its low white hull, a hollow superstructure to accept a dozen drive-on cars. What are we seeing?

Just like that zebra in the zoo, it’s a forced exile. But, more significantly, it’s an emblem that we cling to in order to convince ourselves that “we” — our industrial civilization, our advance in great strides across our world, our peculiar form of progress — have done no harm, at least no harm that could have been avoided.

See, we’ve saved this beautiful relic! This consoling symbol of our past shows our good intentions. Thus we mask the total rupture of all the bonds that tied that vanished world together and could have gone on tying it to us in some genuine way. This is why I say there’s little difference between ferry and no ferry, as long as we don’t recognize the hole we’ve ripped out of the world.

Today we all live in and accept a kind of society that cannot move forward without tearing apart and emptying all the traditions and cultures and individual lives in its path — both here and overseas, now that we’ve achieved “globalization.”

I once believed this was all a consequence of Western capitalism, the constant churning of growth that needs to eat or upturn everything in its path. But now I see the destruction wrought in Eastern Europe, China, even Africa, by other peoples trying other models of rapid and forced industrialization. “State capitalism,” some call it.

But this loss will persist as long as we can only respond to the ferry, or to the hole for the ferry, with a sloppy gee-whiz sentimentality, instead of….what? Well, it’s not an individual answer, in any case; it has to be a social answer.

Okay, I’ll say it, though it may offend some: we need to construct the kind of world that does not have to disrupt everything in its path in order to move forward — a more empathetic and human society, to put it simply. Why is that so much to ask? Basically, it’s all Bernie Sanders was asking — give the poor and weak and disadvantaged a break, give them a leg up. Of course, a form of socialism claiming to do that and more had been tried before, under terribly adverse circumstances, and had failed rather spectacularly. I know all that. I have no idea whether it will be tried again, but I know our current ruthless form of industrial progress hasn’t much of a future. Look around at the cruelty, the tent encampments and hunger, the permanent warfare and the social breakdown.


John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is: jackliffey.com

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Revising Violence

By Jacqueline Feldman

Ahmad Kaddour was born in Tartus, Syria in 1964 and grew up there, later moving to the Mediterranean city of Jableh with his grandparents. At the age of 17, he moved to Damascus, where he lived with his brother and went to art school. Later, while reading Walter Benjamin at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he arrived at the guiding principle that masterpieces are fascist.

Ahmad set about creating large paintings he would never finish and silkscreens that, though painstaking to make, would resemble photocopies if it weren’t for their scale and the deep, liquid aspect of the blacks. The silkscreens are often headless bodies. They look abstract, almost topographical and have been hung outdoors in foreign cities like Chicago and Berlin. The pictures insist on the horror of violence by showing it obliquely, as if out of care. They are on display now at the BOA Art Gallery in Beverly Hills through July 30th.

Ahmad Kaddour prints images on war journalism, in hopes that they will improve on it. He first works directly on film, using black paint or India ink. The paint behaves strangely on plastic, pooling and forming the grain that he appreciates. As he scrapes and repaints, the film becomes fragile, so he often transfers the image onto another film to see it fresh. Sometimes, he likes the film so much that he keeps it and calls it art. What he likes about silkscreen is the opportunity to revise continuously, while retaining traces.

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While I was living in Paris, I often stayed with my friend Ahmad, and his paintings and silkscreens were architecture to me. I became accustomed to his motifs: simple machines, such as bathtubs, beds, wheels and an axis, columns, canoes, a funeral shroud, and figures with round heads, like babies. In the paintings, his figures perform absurd tasks with dignity, like withstand fire or push a wheelbarrow that contains a skull. Ahmad models many of his figures after himself or after images he clips from newspapers and collects. He prefers Le Monde’s broad pages; he finds Libération’s photos of war pruriently gory.

Ahmad lives in a section of Paris’s Fourteenth Arrondissement where history has been disregarded. In the ’60s, its neighborhoods were razed to make way for Montparnasse Tower. I used to make elaborate trips from the distant part of Paris where I lived, the Nineteenth Arrondissement, changing subway lines twice. The length of travel let me feel as though I’d really arrived. It was an act of devotion, or of blackmail. Ahmad, who calls his art works-in-progress, fixates on the distance that separates beginning from end. He talks about process as if it were unseemly to call one’s own job done. Likewise, I have heard him speak elliptically, invoking the emigrant’s right to abstraction. He left Syria in 1987 “because the return was very complicated, was impossible,” he told me recently.

In 2008, he went back. In practical terms, he had become what is called a draft-dodger or dissident, depending on the regime. Friends who had been imprisoned for their politics were now free. His grandmother had died. In 2009, he returned again and spent a few hours with his grandfather, who has since died as well. His parents still live in Tartus. Ahmad speaks carefully about his absence in case it may be taken as abandonment.

Syria has seen much destruction of images that, contrary to the principle in Islam, depict people. “They have destroyed statues of poets,” Ahmad says sadly. He renders bodies as gossamer shrouds as if out of propriety. We look at art about war and ask if prettiness is complicit. The distance he takes from the painful is a kind of politesse.

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During the exhibit at BOA, Ahmad is staying with his brother Monzer, who is a doctor in Tarzana and triathlete. Ahmad lives in French, and his English is patchy, and Monzer lives in English, and his French is elementary; together, they speak Arabic. The catalogue includes a letter by Ahmad to Monzer, written bitterly in French, which he terms “the language of exile.” It is addressed to “Manny,” an American nickname that Ahmad never voices out loud, again as if bitterly, as if to chart the distance that has separated them. For a letter, the text is willfully dense, making wide-ranging references, indicating, I think, that it is perilously deeply felt.

I’ve been away from Paris for one year. In French, I might say I’ve “there absented myself.” A silkscreen of Ahmad’s hangs in my New York apartment. Like the others, it dissolves or resolves in the time it takes my eye to fall.

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Introducing the Hong Kong Review of Books: A Q&A With Aflie Bown

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

Earlier this year, two literary scholars, Alfie Bown and Kimberley Clarke, founded the Hong Kong Review of Books, a lively and varied addition to the online publishing scene.  I recently emailed some questions to Bown, whose name should ring a bell with readers of the China Blog due to his recent contribution to it, to learn more about their joint endeavor.  Here are my questions and his replies.

From the Hong Kong Review of Books’ website, I see that you moved to Hong Kong a year ago. What inspired you to start the HKRB

Well that’s quite an easy question to answer. Kimberley and I both work in literature studies and are regular readers of other review of books sites like the Los Angeles Review of Books and the London Review of Books. When we arrived here last year we decided to check out the Hong Kong Review of Books, but when we tried to do this we realized that it didn’t exist! We assumed that a city with such a rich literary heritage as Hong Kong would have already had a site like this and so we just saw an opportunity to create it. There is the Asian Review of Books, which is great, but that is a very different project which focusses on books that are actually about Asia. Everyone seemed very supportive of the idea so we went ahead and launched the site with the simple ambition of proliferating some interesting discussion about radical literature!

What do you hope the Hong Kong Review of Books can accomplish in its first year?  

Well, we are six months old and we are very pleased with our growth so far. We’ve had dozens of contributors including poets, academics, novelists, journalists, and illustrators and we just want to keep growing the site as a platform.

We’ve basically got three main projects. The first and biggest is of course book reviews. We review several books per week, focusing on poetry, literary fiction, and (most of all) non-fiction. We aim for at least 1 in 5 books to be about Hong Kong or China, or to be written by Hong Kong or Chinese authors, but the rest of the things we cover are international. Our reviewers are from all over the world and we leave it up to them to judge what is worth reviewing. Unlike many other review sites, we don’t decide what to cover and nor do the publishers. Instead we invite reviewers to pitch books that they are interested in writing on.

Secondly, we have our HKRB Interviews Series which is our most successful feature because we have interviewed some of the very top philosophers and writers in the world. This is exclusively about ‘critical theory.’ Once per month we interview an author of a new book in theory and philosophy about their work, discussing politics, philosophy, and culture.

Finally we have a new feature, our HKRB Essays Series, which has just launched with essays on the refugee crisis and the singer Prince. We’re hoping to build this a lot more and solicit essays on Hong Kong politics and culture from our many contributors in Hong Kong.

We’re always looking to grow, and if any China Blog or LARB readers want to write for us they should get in touch! Details here.

Part of the mission of the Hong Kong Review of Books is “promoting radical discussion in challenging political climates.” Hong Kong is certainly in its most challenging political climate since the Handover, yet many in Chinese publishing there are shying away from any type of radical discussion. Do you think the English press is held to a different set of standards? Is there any fear that you’ll receive pressure from the Hong Kong government to abstain from controversial subjects? 

Yes, that’s a big part of our mission! This is a great question and, we think, the most important. First we should say the obvious: that the site is all about books. For some people this would be a way of saying that its relatively harmless – i.e. the idea that ‘it’s only books’ – but this is the opposite of what we think. We firmly believe that literature and writing itself is always political. So, in order to be a genuine site about literature and about writing, you would have to be engaged with politics.

By ‘radical discussion’ we mean new and innovative ideas which deal with the difficult times we live in. Like with our reviews, the political content is determined by what our contributors want to write on. We certainly don’t abstain from controversial subjects and we urge our writers to tackle them. As you say, we see Hong Kong as being in a very important political moment in which it is very important to be political and think about the future, so yes, we want to help provide a platform for such discussion.

What are your impressions of the English-speaking Hong Kong literary scene? How does the Hong Kong Review of Books fit into that scene?

We think there is a great literary scene here and we are looking forward to being part of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival later this year which shows just how much is already here. We just want to bring all this together and also join it up with other international discussions of literature really. Like LARB, we are a properly international review of books site, but we are also very interested in Hong Kong literature and culture and we want to really bring the two together.

Finally, what has surprised you the most about Hong Kong?

The fact that there was no Hong Kong Review of Books already. We were lucky!

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The Gwangju Uprising as Remembered by The Vegetarian Author Han Kang and Other Korean Novelists

By Charles Montgomery

Previously I discussed William Amos’ The Seed of Joy, which I described as a rare work of fiction on the Gwangju Uprising by a non-Korean author. For an event so critical to South Korea, the Gwangju Uprising has generated surprisingly little fiction in translation, but there are a handful of excellent books by Korean authors that deal with it. The first thing a reader will notice is that while Amos’ work focused on the actual nuts and bolts of the Uprising, the Korean works tend to focus on the aftermath of the events.

These Korean authors rarely focus on the government created in response to the Democratic Movement, nor the culpability of that government in the events of the Uprising. Along those lines, it is also interesting that little mention is ever made of the role, or lack thereof, of the United States in the Uprising, yet several studies indicate that the Gwangju Uprising was the beginning of a powerful switch in public sentiment against the United States, which many believed was either implicitly or complicity involved in the Uprising’s quashing.

Considering how critical the Gwangju Uprising was to South Korea’s Democracy Movement, the translations of these works have been rare. Comparisons are not exact, but think about how much French literature has been written about the barricades of Paris, or U.S. literature about student revolt in the 1960s and 70s. Why has Korean literature been so restrained? The literary critic Chʻoe Chŏng-un, using the kind of logic that his colleagues worldwide might use, posits, “the uprising was like fiction, with a clear beginning and end, teeming with unimaginable incidents. In other words, it would be difficult to write fiction on a bizarre story.” But this hardly seems sensible, as many equally bizarre historical stories have been written, and more obvious reasons exist.

The first apparent reason not much fiction was written about the Gwangju Uprising was purely political and practical: to write about the Uprising was to invite extremely uncomfortable government attention. From the time of the event until 1987, the Korean government zealously guarded the meaning of the Gwangju Uprising to the point of attempting to control the vocabulary used when discussing it. “Murder” by policemen was quickly morphed into a “riot” by citizens, according to Chʻoe, and when the Uprising was mentioned, it was portrayed as the result of “impure” elements in Korean society who were prone to “incite,” “riot,” form a “mob,” and tend toward “anarchy.”

In fact, the government even attempted to rename the Uprising and denature it to an “incident.” Simply put, writing about the Gwangju Uprising invited imprisonment, torture, and perhaps even death. In Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards, the author’s biography notes, “the society of the 1980s was a regulated one, where social criticism, not to mention that of Gwangju of May, was absolutely forbidden to be expressed.” Even after the dictatorship was scraped, it was often dangerous for writers to produce anything that could be seen as pro-North or anti-government. As we shall see, however, clever writers could sometimes skirt this prohibition.

More recently, there has been a changing of the guard in Korean society to a younger generation that simply cannot connect with the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Korea exists in such a constant state of future shock that looking backwards seems quaint at best and unproductive at worst. Ch’oe Yun, who we shall shortly discuss, notes that “since the latter half of the 1980s, Korean society has changed. I admit that to some degree the actual events of the past have become an abstract concept in our history.”

Ch’oe adds that this is most likely a survival tactic for Koreans. “This does not mean that I simply want to criticize younger Korean readers for being oblivious to the past. I even wonder if it was forgetfulness of the extremity of the past events that actually helped Koreans to move without fear into the future and build their modern nation. Also, I can only speculate about whether being oblivious in this way was in itself a positive source of energy in a uniquely Korean way.” Not surprisingly, a majority of those who did write on the Gwangju Uprising were involved in it, were members of the Democracy Movement, were from Jeolla Province, or sometimes all three. Among this number are Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, and Lim Chulwoo.

One of the groundbreaking works on Gwangju, however, was written by a resident of Seoul. Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls is a multi-narrator examination of a teenage girl’s descent into and occupation of madness after witnessing, and perhaps being partially responsible for, her mother’s murder. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, her abuser, and a group of college students (friends of the girl’s brother) who are attempting to find her. The girl is utterly traumatized, prone to seizures, and follows her abuser around under the mistaken notion that he is her dead brother. All the characters are damaged. Even the abuser is afraid that “the girl would end up just like those coins, slipping through his fingers, trampled by countless feet, covered with earth, and forgotten for all time.” This idea of death and forgetfulness will be revisited in Human Acts by The Vegetarian author Han Kang.

Ch’oe’s girl is an obvious symbol of Gwangju, and her state a reflection of what Gwangju itself underwent after the Uprising was crushed. As Han does in Human Acts, Ch’oe contemplates the role of memory: the desire to both remember and forget. Ch’oe’s girl desperately tries to construct a “curtain” with which to hide herself from her past. Yet even as she does this, she remains conscious of the fact that memory is all that is needed to tear the curtain down, and even that defensive curtain is unreal. Memory is an obsession, curse, and perhaps a kind of gift. As is the case with characters in Human Acts, the girl communicates with the dead in order to keep memory alive, saying, “Don’t put your hand over your ears while I’m talking. If you do, I’ll turn to dust. Now that I think about it, I’ve died and come back to life again and again.”

Ch’oe’s multiple narrators parallel the often fractured language, imagery, and telling (particularly by the girl) of the story. The literary beauty of this work partly owes to the fact that, while it is clearly about the Gwangju Massacre, its non-specificity about where its own atrocity occurred allows any reader to imagine it as any massacre. This was likely also a politically astute strategy for Ch’oe at the time. “When dealing with a brutal and desperate reality, reality can actually become an anti-literary environment for the writing of reality,” he notes in an interview with Japan Focus. “This is because the momentary utility of literature is always situated in conflict with a more universalizing, literary sense of time which seeks to leap beyond the limited, representational time which literature possesses. I believe that it is from the dilemma of the two temporalities, the two objectives – the writing of reality and the creation of reality through writing – that in fact all genuine literature which writes reality has been born.” It is amazing to note that the stunning There a Petal Silently Falls was Ch’oe’s debut work. The book was also made into a Korean movie titled Petal, for those who prefer their literature in a visual form.

Han’s Human Acts begins with the completely average scene of a schoolboy worrying about the rain for the completely unusual reason that he is afraid that it will speed up the decay of some corpses he is attending. The bodies belong to the victims of the Gwangju massacre. The story quickly turns, as did that of There a Petal Silently Falls, to issues of death and remembrance. “There is no way back to the world before the torture,” one character notes. “No way back to the world before the massacre.” Han lived in Gwangju but moved to a suburb of Seoul at age nine, just before the Uprising. As a result, she is very interested in the idea of a “way back to the world” that has been left behind, an issue that she addresses directly in her final chapter.

Human Acts comes hot on the heels of the award winning The Vegetarian, and packs every bit as much punch as it’s predecessor. Originally titled The Boy Comes (소년이 온다), Human Acts is told in a collection of linked chapters, almost a yŏnjak sosŏl, meaning a “linked novel” or collection of separately published short stories. Only the first two chapters are set at the time of the Uprising — the former in the immediate aftermath told by the living, the latter narrated from the perspective of the dead soul of a young boy on a charnel heap. In chapter three, the book leaps forward to 1985 where it explores the ongoing governmental efforts to dominate the national discourse.

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This control is, of course, exactly what forced authors of the time into indirectness or inspecificity when writing about the Uprising. Chapter Four flashes back to the torture visited upon survivors of the Uprising, managing to present it as horrible and quotidian at the same time. Chapter Six is the “traditional” end of the book with the mother of the dead boy giving a monologue to him on the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Surprisingly, Han concludes the book in with a first-person memoir of the real story that underlies the book and her own experience coming to write it. This section gives a very real historical heft to the work, strange as it might seem to find in a novel.

Han’s writing is much more visceral than in many of the other books, as she presents a modern version of Coleridge’s nightmare life in death. “Just before you step outside, you turn and look back over your shoulder,” she writes. “There are no souls here. There are only silenced corpses, and that horrific putrid stink.” Han is unsparing, and while her virtuoso second chapter featuring the dead boy could have become ghoulish or camp, she carefully plays it straight. She frequently uses the kind of second-person narrative voice heard in Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom, but in this much more serious book, the effect is also much more serious, and the “you” seems to alternate between a standard second-person narrative and a direct appeal to the reader, forming part of the most comprehensive treatment of the Gwangju Uprising with its scenes from the actual massacre right up to the writing of the book.

Lim Chul-woo’s Straight Lines and Poison Gas – At the Hospital Wards is nothing if not anguished. Lim was a student at the time of the Gwangju Uprising, attending Chonnam University, the original center of the demonstrations, and he lived through all the events of the Uprising. Not surprisingly, this informs much of his writing. The novella indirectly focuses on the massacre the national attempt to overcome it — or pretend it never happened. That indirection comes from Lim’s having written the story in the 1980s, that time at which publicly attacking the government, or even discussing dissent and oppression, was extremely risky.

Lim drops the reader directly into the life of an ex-cartoonist directly addressing a doctor. As the story develops, it becomes clear that the narrator has been dropped off at the hospital by detectives who have been torturing him, and that their return, though without a particular timetable, is likely inevitable. In flashbacks, the narrator reveals that he once led a quite ordinary life as a cartoonist, but fatefully drew a cartoon that aroused the attention of the authorities. While never revealed to the reader, it causes the cartoonist to be taken in for questioning, complete with a semi-concealed threat by the police that they remember” his uncle, clearly a political dissident who went into some kind of exile or died in hiding. This threat, and the recognition it brings to the narrator that he is powerless and entirely observable, opens the floodgates in his mind.

The narrator is then overtaken by hallucinations, all barely concealed flashbacks to the Gwangju massacre. Lim uses symbols brilliantly, including the two in the title and at least two more brilliant ones during the course of the story. The lack of control that the title symbols express in the book is almost palpable: breath is squeezed and political lines brutally delineated. Lim fleshes the story out with enough family and social background information to both expand on the history (at least one other character lives in the grasp of Gwangju massacre-induced mental illness), and he does a good job of counterposing these characters against the others, including the cartoonist’s pregnant wife, who are apparently willing to forget the past and simply try to live through the present.

With these three sets of characters — the banal day-to-day survivors, the threatening agents of repression, and those who cannot forget and therefore suffer — Lim builds a pressure cooker. As the hallucinations grow and tighten around the cartoonist, he begins to cartoon again, unofficially, and this leads him back out into the public eye and the novella to its “conclusion.” The book is well written and clear enough that specific knowledge of Korea is not necessary to enjoy it. The interrogation scenes have the scent of Kafka, and the descent of the narrator is reminiscent of familiar stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper or George Orwell’s 1984, while also exposing a thick slice of Korea and its culture.

Lim has previously been translated in the three-novella collection Red Room, which takes its title from his contribution, and it, too, seems to make clear reference to the Gwangju Uprising and its results. Lim’s short story “The Red Room” features dual and dueling narrator-protagonists. The first is a mild-mannered everyman/salaryman O Ki-sop whose casual act of kindness many years before and slightly suspect family background combine to draw the attention of the Korean state security apparatus. The second is Detective Ch’oe Tal-shik, who can say, like Macbeth, “I am in blood, / Stepp’d so far, that should I wade no more, / returning were a tedious as go o’er.” The story tells of Ch’oe’s attempts to break O down.

Not only does “The Red Room” feature dual narrators, but Detective Ch’oe also has his own internal narrators that represent the voice of his traumas (one from his domestic life, the other from his distant past). This internal narration gives him a sometimes-problematic inner dialogue: he is a man of contradictions, perhaps more contradictions than one character can conveniently contain. It is not that it is unlikely that a man of high standing in his church could also be a torturer (cf. the Inquisition), rather that such a character should also have such clear inner awareness of the sources of his own trauma, be so able to connect those traumas to his existence in his daily life and aware of their outcomes, but then to draw no conclusions from them.

Despite this slightly puzzling aspect, the inner voice is terrifying, telling visceral tales of terror (the internal narration is italicized): “Look, Tal-Shik! He shouted at the top of his lungs, pointing at the bloody corpses. You have to see this. Those sons of bitches are Reds.” The Detective’s position is clear: he relentlessly relives his trauma, it cycles around in his head, and consequently he cannot relieve himself of it. Ch’oe’s internal retelling of his trauma is intense and relentless; he cannot make it cease and in fact draws a perverse kind of justification from it. O’s writing is clear and direct, as befits a tale this blunt. A clever reader will spot a graceful nod to George Orwell in its conclusion that mankind is haunted by fear itself.

In “The Red Room” there is no hope of escape from trauma: the cycle is burned in too deeply and recurs to frequently to break. At its conclusion, Detective Ch’oe enjoys/endures an epiphany of revenge featuring the disturbing and vivid sanguinary image: “A blood-colored sea filled the room … As I prayed, I felt with vivid clarity a sacred joy and benevolence envelop me with warmth, before beginning finally to fill the Red Room.” Even O Ki-sop, the mild everyman, becomes a vessel of hatred. As he finally wanders home in a daze, he accosts a stranger: “Something is rising inside me, something hot and burning. It’s spreading hot throughout me, building an enormous heat – It’s my rage.” So the trauma continues.

Finally, Hwang Sok-yong ‘s The Old Garden (2000) casts a bleak eye on the Gwangju Uprising’s aftermath. The two main characters are in the student movement, but the book spends almost no time on the movement itself. In a clever narrative trick, the bulk of movement descriptions are attained through political pamphlets distributed by one of the characters. When the activists meet at a new cemetery, they are unimpressed and discover that the city itself has altered beyond recognition.

In fact, the political shift of 1987 has paradoxically resulted in a city that no longer seems to care about the issues that drove the Gwangju Uprising, instead treating its history as a “tourist attraction.” Hwang builds a bridge between the disillusion following the eventual ephemeral “success” of democracy in Korea and the “Hell Joseon” that was to come in which social relations are defined purely by wealth, hypocrisy, and opportunism, and all the noble ideals of the Democratic Movement have been buried under an avalanche of consumerism. Hwang sees the Gwangju Uprising as a movement betrayed.

None of these works are particularly cheery, and most of them are downright gruesome. In addition, they are all well-served by a bit of understanding of their historical background, as the authors prior to Han and Hwang had to make an effort to veil the historical event about which they were writing. Still, for a reader interested in Korean modern history, and particularly its sometimes harsh struggles towards democracy, these books are key literary texts outlining the impact of struggle, death, and memory on the creation of the modern Korean state.

Related Korea Blog posts:

The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. You can read more from Charles Montgomery on translated Korean literature here, on Twitter @ktlit, or on Facebook.


American Doll

By Laila Azmy

I watch my best friend’s little sister strip her Barbie from her hot pink mini-skirt and heels, revealing a tiny waist and large breasts below a mane of glistening blond hair. My nose wrinkles. Is this what true American beauty looks like? And how many people actually look like that? A thin, tall, blue-eyed girl standing on tiptoes just so she can wear heels? Barbie stares back at me, a smile remaining on her pink plastic lips.

In 1963, a teen Barbie was sold with a diet book that simply stated, “Don’t eat!” Even the International Journal of Eating Disorders got involved. They said that the odds of being born with a body like Barbie was 100,000 to one. In a recent tweet, @ShannaHiThere said, “If only @Barbie was also giving girls realistic body expectations.” @ShannaHiThere is right. Barbie is an example of a toy that is giving kids unrealistic ideas of what a beautiful body looks like. Real bodies are the ones we see everyday in the streets, not fake reality bound in doll form with lipstick that is pink-plastic perfection.

“Barbie was never designed to replicate the female body,” argues Michelle Chidoni, the Barbie communications head. “She was just a vehicle for play.” Still, the fact remains that Barbie’s waist is only big enough to store half a liver and a few inches of intestine, according to Glamour magazine.

Once, I was surfing the web for other thoughts on Barbie. An article popped up. Sounds good, I thought. I clicked on it. It showed a snippet of an old commercial from the 1950’s. Curious, I googled it, and got to see the whole thing. “Barbie, you’re beautiful[…] your clothes and figure look so neat[…] with all the hats and gloves galore, all the gadgets gals adore[…] I want to be just like youuuuuuu!” a muffled female voice sang. A boiling brew of unfair, unjust, stereotypical, and just plain mad fizzed inside of me, and I was shocked. Is this what people think girls should look up to? A doll with a “neat figure,” and “hats and gloves galore?” I shut the computer, and stormed out of the room. That stewing mixture in my stomach filtered through my mind and blossomed into this commentary.

I believe that girls of all diversities and body types are beautiful, and that our differences should be celebrated. Our uniqueness should be celebrated, and we should not have toys like Barbie who celebrate only one race, and one type of body.

The band Aqua clearly agrees. Their song “Barbie Girl” is like a slap in the face to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. It made them realize that Barbie haters weren’t just a couple of irritated moms, and some offensive social media posts. “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” is one of the verses from the popular song.

Some disagree. Some, like Jeremy Scott, love Barbie for her symbolic pop culture fashions. “I love Barbie. It’s hard not to. She’s had every job in the world, worn every outfit…” Mr. Scott gushes in the Barbie magazine. Richard Dickson, Mattel’s COO, even says that harsh  critics should embrace Barbie.

“Our brand represents female empowerment. […] Barbie had careers at a time when women were restricted to being just housewives,” he told Time magazine.

In 1993, Mattel released a Barbie that came with a talk button connected to a voice box. One of her comments was “Math class is tough.” The Barbie Liberation Organization, a group of artists and activists, blew a fuse, and said that the doll taught girls that it was more important to be pretty than smart. They secretly switched the voice boxes of GI Joe and Barbie. Children were surprised to hear Barbie yell the macho phrases of the GI Joe, including “Eat lead, Cobra!” while others unwrapped a warrior who enthusiastically said, “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

As the years go by, people’s idea of beauty is evolving. Times are changing. Women are becoming resentful about buying Barbies for their daughters.

“I wish she was curvier,” says a mom who was surveyed by Mattel about Barbie. “There are shapes that are curvier and still beautiful.” Mattel responded this year by creating a new, better set of Barbies. Tall, petite, and curvy. Yes, you heard that right. Curvy. The 23 new dolls will have eight skin tones, 18 eye colors, 22 hairstyles, 14 facial structures,  and new outfits that better represent how girls see the women in their life. To me, this is a step in the right direction. It will help girls to really see how their world is reflected in this worldwide icon. Barbies that come in different colors, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities will forever change how people think of Barbie.

“Our decision to go on this journey to really evolve the brand was inspired by many things,” says Evelyn Mazzocco, the head of the Barbie brand. “Of course, it was inspired by softness in sales.” Time magazine’s calculations report that the doll who once made $1 billion in sales in over 150 countries, is not doing well. Barbie sales dropped 3 percent in 2012, another 6 percent in 2013, and 16 percent in 2014. “It was also driven by what we’re seeing on social media about Barbie,” she continues. “And, of course, moms who say, ‘I don’t think Barbie really speaks to me.’”

The doll has long been under sales pressure, with other companies creating newer, more modern dolls. In 2014, a doll of Elsa from the movie “Frozen” was voted the most popular girls toy. Lego is producing more girls’ toys than ever, and Bratz, a line of dolls with highlights in their hair, big eyes overshadowed with eye-shadow, and their own lip gloss are “eating Barbie’s lunch in the older girl demographic,” as Mr. Dickson  puts it.

According to Mattel, nine out of every 10 people recognize Barbie when the blond icon is put before them. Apparently, they remember how thin Barbie’s waist is, and how shiny her blond hair is. C’mon girls! Barbie is a bad role model for us; and I don’t mean the strutting kind. The new Barbie is a beacon of hope to all of us who have ever sat, miserable, at the edge of the playground, crying because we don’t have a body like Barbie. We can finally not be afraid to be proud of our body.

“We need to let girls know that no matter what shape you come in, anything is possible,” Tania Missad, the director of consumer insights at Mattel, says in a message to girls on Barbie.com.

We are all beautiful in our own unique way. That deserves to be celebrated. All of us need to be celebrated, because we are all who we are. And who we are is amazing. We all are amazing.

Laila Azmy is a sixth grader living in New York City.  In her free time, she enjoys reading and playing piano.

Naoko Haruta LIFE 15 acrylic on canvas 43 x 67[1]

Yannis Ritsos: Fidelity of the Poetic Word

By Steve Light

 In memory of my father

  “…let the blood be seen as it mounts, swells, throbs,
and traces out the white scar of an ancient wound.”[1]

Bergson and Lukacs each in their own way said that every great philosopher possesses but one idea. And each great poet? But isn’t the poetic signature unique among all signatures?

“At what depth of rock/ is the fig tree upheld by its root?”[2]

But what depth upholds the poetic word? And what exactly is it that the poetic signature signs?

It’s a lucid face, silent, entirely alone
like total solitude, like total victory
over solitude. This face
looks at you between two columns of still water.

And you don’t know which of the two persuades you

That the poetic word persuades? “But I know that I shall persuade no-one,” said the Italian philosopher and poet, Carlo Michelstaedter, in his one and only philosophical work, La rettorica et la persuasioni [4], completed on the very morning of his suicide in 1910 at the age of 23.

But for all his precocious brilliance and effervescence Michelstaedter, alas, was wrong, both in conclusion and in suicide.

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the

Yet–and the weight of the world, of existence, of life, is beautifully, miraculously, carried in this one word–yet, the word can and does persuade. It is the paradoxical and ontological law of all iteration, of all nomination. Because somewhere between the word and the poetic word–for, surely, the word is and is not one–, somewhere, once again dans l’inacheve, somewhere, as if in-between, somewhere, “along this road, this beautiful, incomparable road…through the mountains”[6], something has happened.

you’ll touch what my hand has touched.
our hand-prints will merge.[7]

And in happy accord with this, the
poet, Paul Celan writes:

“I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.”[8]

What depth upholds the poetic word? Dig, dig with your hands, for “how can our shoulders carry so much sky,/ how can we bear so much silence about the secrets of the trees?”[9] Dig, dig with your hands, “here where the time of aphasia and the black mirror found/ us”[10], here where “our poem bends over the sadness of mankind”.[11]

His substance is thought. It is why he spreads it everywhere. It is Valery speaking of the philosopher, Alain [Emile Chartier].. Ritsos too is abundance, if not the poetic abundance of our modernity. Bend over the depth, the abundance, abundantly, abundant witness, and with a gaze as “ecstatic and as/ sad as roots”[12] find “a word that will match the stature of freedom…/…even though you know that you have to weep much more/ before you teach the world to laugh.”[13] Like “The Lady of the Vineyards”, resistance heroine, who filled her grapes “with blood and dynamite/ to blow up into the wind the foundations of death”[14] and who with wax fashioned a candle dedicated to peace so that all could hear “the shells upon the shelf hum the howl of the storm/ that passed”[15], Ritsos from start to finish has sought that “wisp of light” which, weighed in, here in our contemporary, desperate, and terrible imbalance, would balance “the scales of the world” and would hold us “free in the light and in the wind.”[17]

Abundance? “The universe is an infinite squander.”[18] What was Ritsos’ riposte, his imperative? Do not withhold the poetic word! Parsimony is not value, but too often a virtue made from necessity. The poet is not a “shepherd of being,” and any reader of Shelley’s or Mandelstam’s or Wanda Coleman’s defenses of poetry would surely know this and would know the vain pretensions of obedient philosophers in love with heteronomy.

Being needs no defense. And poetic fidelity, the poetic imperative–like life(!)–is elsewhere. Sing the imperative, this one, the only one we are given, the one of the “having-been, having-lived, having-loved.”[20] Ritsos’ great gift? Fidelity to the poetic word, this voice which, in finding the vibrato of the “fig tree’s depth”, has known how to become both vibrato itself–gift sustaining itself and, thereby, sustaining all its gifts–and, thereby, the vibrato of our hope, our imperative, our protest, of our No! which, being truly a No!, is at the very same time a Yes!, which is to say, the vibrato of life lived and defended, and, therefore, and as the poet and resistance hero, Jean Cassou, tells us, life loved and lived.

…mothers, mothers, daughters and granddaughters, rose-
glowing brides-to-be
you with your smiles and you with your axes
you with the wet ship’s rope and you with small moons in
the hearts of daisies
I shall bring the golden keys to unlock the gardens of
Monovasia enclosed with ivy-stars…[21]

At what depth of rock is the fig tree upheld by its root? Malevolence is stronger than
Love? Love is stronger than Malevolence? Alas! both.
And it is why a sage without pretension could tell us that Malevolence will be as weak as
we are strong.[22]

The sword cuts the song. The song
blunts the sword. What can you choose? he said.
How can you choose between the already chosen?
The world is a deep closed song.[23]

The poetic abundance of our modernity. But also the poetic strength. Ritsos’ poetry has extended us a hand, warm and strong, to hold through the storms “so that we could/ remain standing upright,/ you and me”[24] and to hold through our joy at the storms’ abatements and through the joy of our recommencements, to hold us fast, to the fastness of life, to the magnificent No! and to the subsequent and even more magnificent Yes!



  1. Yannis Ritsos, “The Dissonant Chord, “in Scripture of the Blind (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1979) trans. Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades.
  1. Yannis Ritsos, “Monovasia, III: Durable Layers,” in Monovasia and The Women of Monemvasia (Minneapolis: Nostos Books, l987) trans. Kimon Friar and Kostas Myrsiades. [Hereafter cited as MWM].
  1. Yannis Ritsos, “A Face,” (from Repetitions, 1968-69) in Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) trans. Edmund Keeley. [Hereafter cited as RTP].
  1. Carlo Michelstaedter, La persuasione e la rettorica (Milano: Adelphi, 1999) p. 22.
    [English translation: Persuasion and Rhetoric (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) trans. Russell Scott Valentino, Cinzia Sartini Blum, and David Depew.]. 
  1. Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” (from Parentheses, 1946-47) in RTP, p. 125.
  1. Paul Celan, “Conversation in the Mountains,” Collected Prose (Manchester: Carcanet, 1986) trans. Rosemarie Waldrop, p. 17.
  1. Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity,” RTP, p. 125.
  1. Celan, “[Letter to Hans Bender],” Collected Prose, p. 26.
  1. Yannis Ritsos, “[Section III],” The Lady of the Vineyards (New York: Pella, l978) trans. Apostolos N. Athanassakis, p. 19. [Hereafter cited as LV].
  1. Ritsos, “Monovasia, XI: The Wax Hand,” MWM, p. 13.
  1. Yannis Ritsos, “Protection” (from Exercises) in The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos (Boston: David Godine, 1977) trans. Rae Dalven, p. 38. [Hereafter cited as FD.]
  1. Ritsos, “Monovasia: XXIII, The Roots,” MWM, p. 25.
  1. Ritsos, “The Blackened Pot,” FD, p. 19.
  1. Ritsos, “[Section XX],” LV, p. 61.
  1. Ritsos, “[Section XXIII],” LV, p. 67.
  1. Ritsos, “[Section XXIV],” LV, p. 69.
  1. Ritsos, “Summer,” (from Parentheses, 1946-47), RTP, p. 128.
  1. Jean Cassou, Trois Poetes (Paris: Plon, 1954), p. 19.
  1. Ritsos, “Monovasia: I, Monovasia,” MWM, p. 3.
  1. Vladimir Jankelevitch, L’Irreversible et la nostalgie (Paris: Flammarion, 1974), p.48.
  1. Ritsos, “The Women of Monemvasia,” MWM, p. 52.
  1. Vladimir Jankelevitch, Traite des vertus I: Le serieux de l’intention (Paris: Flammarion, 1985), p. 268.
  1. Ritsos, “Accented-Unaccented” (from Parentheses, 1950-61), RTP, p. 162.
  1. Ritsos, “Can You?” (from Parentheses, 1946-47), RTP, p. 144


Lead image: Naoko Haruta, Life #15, acrylic on canvas, 43″ x 67″ [110cm x 170cm]


Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset–and akin as well to Steve Nash, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet..

Bustillos RNC

Behold a Pale Little Pony: Watching the RNC

By Maria Bustillos

The Republican National Convention started off with a bang on Monday, when all kinds of chaos and yelling broke out over an attempt by the #NeverTrump faction to change the party’s nominating rules. Later, in an appearance with Chris Hayes and April Ryan, journalist Charlie Pierce suggested to ultra-right-wing Rep. Steve King of Iowa that this might be the last convention in which “old white people will command […] the Republican Party’s public face.” King replied with a pseudo-question, suggesting that white people (and not “any other sub-group”) are responsible for Western civilization.

In the evening Melania Trump’s speech created a sensation, mostly because a hunk of it was cribbed directly from a speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Donald Trump told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that, as president, he might instruct his Attorney General to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement, because he thinks that Black Lives Matter has been “essentially calling death to the police.”

On Tuesday, the RNC attempted to justify Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Mrs. Obama by likening it to substantially dissimilar remarks made by Twilight Sparkle, the animated heroine of My Little Pony. The pundits weren’t about to take that lying down. “Melania is totally Rarity,” journalist Sarah Kendzior sniffed on Twitter. “No Twilight Sparkle to be found in Trump Equestria.” (Equestria is where the My Little Ponies live.) Shortly afterward it was reported that Melania Trump does not, in fact, hold a college degree in architecture, as her personal website claims, nor any other college degree, from “University in Slovenia” or anywhere else.

That same day Fox News chief Roger Ailes was (perhaps) fired for the alleged sexual harassment of a burgeoning number of his employees. The condition, color, and texture of his genitals were described in detail. Matt Drudge reported that Ailes’s severance is, or could be, worth $40 million. The news of his firing was confirmed and unconfirmed a few times over the course of the day. “What the Fox!” blared the cover of the New York Post, alongside a photograph of Ailes.

A dozen guys wandered around downtown Cleveland decked out in military gear and American flags and armed to the teeth with AR-15, AK-47 and G3 rifles. One of them told Salon: “We’re just trying to help the community.”

In the evening, Republicans formally nominated Donald Trump as their candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. Photographs of Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., recirculated on Twitter, depicting Jr. holding the bloody, severed tail of an elephant he, or someone, had killed on a hunting trip. The elephant’s corpse lay beside him.

“Donald Day Trump,” said Paul Ryan.

“Lock her up!” screamed those in attendance at the RNC on Tuesday night, with reference to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. “We’ll get there,” promised New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

On Wednesday many of Ailes’s employees, including Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren, said they would walk out if Ailes were to be fired.

“A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama,” Melania Trump’s speechwriter said of Melania Trump.

On Thursday, a press release from 21st Century Fox announced, “Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, and Chairman of Fox Television Stations, has resigned from his role effective immediately.”

In the evening, at the convention, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, “We must respect the police.”

“The desire for greatness is not new,” said Representative Marsha Blackburn.

“Where I work in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to see where America has gone wrong,” said Peter Thiel. Either cocaine or the attention of so many thousands of people at once lit him up like a toddler on Halloween candy.

“Ivanka, if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big,” said Ivanka Trump.

“I am your voice!” shouted Donald Trump. Now and then he yelled along with the crowd. “U! S! A!” He clapped his little hands together.

Jared Kushner and Mike Pence kicked off their shoes and engaged in a genial cha-cha. Local herpetologists explained how to cope with the sudden rain of frogs pouring from the sky (“try to stay indoors”). With a banshee wail, Ted Nugent shot a flaming arrow in the general direction of the moon in a widely-circulated YouTube clip. Clint Eastwood spoke, all alone, to a refrigerator in his kitchen. The ghost of Dwight Eisenhower laughed and laughed, sadly, with his ghost-head held in transparent grey hands. Then the ghost lay down and closed his eyes.

A hail of pink strawberries popped out of the walls of the arena and exploded into clouds of ladybugs, which attached themselves to the skin of certain attendees of the Republican National Convention, who ran shrieking outside, shrieking, screaming, where the frogs were still falling hard.

KFC world tour

Chinese Nationalism and the Colonel’s Chicken

Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Whenever a new bout of state-sanctioned nationalist fervor in China makes headlines, I think back to the time in May 1999 when NATO bombs hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC and triggering protests. I happened to be in China then and spent an eventful week observing responses to the deaths in first Beijing and then Shanghai. I visited campuses to read and take photos of wall posters denouncing the United States and Britain, the two countries that had taken the lead in the moves against Serbia. I went near the American Embassy to watch a rowdy demonstration, and a few days later walked by the Shanghai Consulate where I saw its outer walls still festooned with the tatters of placards denouncing Washington that protesters had pasted on them, but also saw police lined up to make sure there would be no more further demonstrations there. At a Shanghai campus assembly devoted to the event, the main speaker, a faculty member, lauded students for having expressed their patriotism. He also said, in step with the party line of the moment, that the time for street action was over. He noted in closing (lest he seem insufficiently patriotic) that at times like that, when China was being bullied, he was glad that Beijing was among the countries to possess nuclear weapons.

These experiences, which I have written about before in essays and a 2007 book chapter, have been on my mind again in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in favor of the Philippines and against China in the maritime dispute involving the two countries. Some completely predictable things have happened. Chinese officials and the country’s state-run press have alternated between dismissing the verdict as irrelevant, on the one hand, and criticizing it as unfair and the result of bias, on the other. There has been the expected flurry of online jingoism, as a mix of ordinary people and “50 centers” (the term for those paid a token fee by the government to make comments supporting the party line) have denounced the decision, and made derisive comments not only about the Philippines but also Washington, which is seen as playing a crucial and nefarious part in trying to block Chinese claims to islands, specks of land, or reefs that other Asian countries say are theirs. All this has fit into a familiar pattern. So, too, in a way, have the very recent state media calls for some kinds of protests to stop, as there generally comes a time in these outbursts, as there did in 1999, when the authorities worry about popular agitations, once unleashed, being too hard to keep running in acceptable channels.

There have also been some things happening that have been novel, albeit not really surprising, given how they resonate with past reactions to real and imagined slights to Chinese national pride. For example, a slew of celebrities, the globally famous pianist Lang Lang among them, have put up identical patriotic postings showing a map portraying the PRC as big as it is ever imagined to be, including the stretches of water inside the “nine-dash line” that is used to describe maritime areas Beijing claims. Along with this image have been characters declaring that patriots should not let China shrink by even “one dot’s worth,” in the sense of letting go of even a single island or moving any of those nine dashes. (These expressions of patriotic pride have not gone uncontested, as little does in our thoroughly wired and complexly interconnected world; some Vietnamese Internet users, for example, have posted comments saying that due to their own love of country they cannot remain fans of the Chinese celebrities in question, while Taiwanese have objected vociferously to Taiwan being included as part of the PRC in the online maps.)

Another example of a mix of the expected and the novel involve reports that some Chinese have taken to smashing their iPhones to show anger at America while others have been calling for a boycott of Philippine mangoes to punish Manila. The destruction of iPhones is reminiscent of the destruction of Japanese cars when anger at Japan ran high a decade ago. The move against mangoes is new, in the sense that this particular fruit has not been boycotted before, but it fits into a very long term pattern, linked to both state-sponsored and partly genuine nationalist upsurges and the purely bottom-up variety, in that there have been calls for boycotts of foreign products before in China during many different sorts of movements. An important early case in point was the anti-American boycott of 1905, which was launched to show displeasure with discriminatory U.S. immigration laws. A very recent example, tied to purely online as opposed to digital and street actions, was a call for mainland consumers to eschew buying the products of the French L’Oreal cosmetic group until it distanced itself from Hong Kong singer Denise Ho, simply because she had expressed her support for her city’s Umbrella Movement in 2014 and later met with the Dalai Lama. (Historical point: U.S. immigration laws didn’t change for decades, but within days, L’Oreal cancelled a concert it had planned to hold in Hong Kong that would feature Ho, though the plucky singer has, as Elaine Yu and I detail in a recent commentary, found creative ways to protest the French company’s capitulation.)

One thing that has interested some scholars weighing in on recent events and also some journalists, including Adam Minter, is what could have happened, but didn’t, when the verdict came down. Most notably, there were no rowdy demonstrations in city centers, of the sort that took place during anti-Japanese upsurges earlier in this century and in 1999. There were also no angry gatherings outside of embassies comparable to the ones I saw seventeen years ago; this time, police worked to ensure there would be any protests at these kinds of sites right away, rather than waiting for a few days to do this.

At first, as I tracked the response to the verdict from this side of the Pacific, I was struck most by the differences between what I witnessed on the other side of the ocean in 1999 and the current chain of events, despite seeing some parallels and things that conformed to a familiar pattern. In 1999, Chinese lives had been lost, which gave the sense of outrage a more human aspect than in this fight over bits of territory. The 1999 protests also had deeper connections to longstanding traditions of campus unrest than have recent expressions of nationalist outrage in China, including those of this year, which have not generally been so rooted at universities. The rise of digital and social media has changed many things as well. In addition, the current government seems even more obsessed with control than its immediate predecessors, and quicker to try to curtail even loyalist demonstrations due to worry that, once started, they could move in what it considers the wrong direction.

One thing that began happening this week, though, has definitely triggered powerful 1999 flashbacks—protesters in various cities lashing out at Kentucky Fried Chicken as a symbol of America. KFC was also a target of protesters in 1999, though often it was paired with two other icons of the American food and drink world, McDonalds and Coca Cola. Don’t eat the Kentucky Fried Chicken, don’t eat Big Macs, don’t drink Coke was a tripartite theme in more than a few posters I saw.

Beijing 1999 Protest

Someday, this latest KFC boycott may become part of a master’s thesis on the political as well as business-related story of the Colonel’s brand’s Chinese adventure. I’ll end here, though, with just a few final thoughts relating to it, and some photos I took at the time that I’ve found interesting to look at again while the latest nationalist outburst in China is in the news.

Shanghai post 1999

I was not an eyewitness to China’s 1989, but learned from accounts by others that the KFC near Tiananmen Square sometimes served as a meeting point for participants in that important struggle. This led to a curious case of cultural miscommunication when Chai Ling, a leader of the 1989 protests, came to speak at the University of Kentucky in 1991, as part of an event commemorating the movement. Seeking to connect with the students and faculty of the school, where I was teaching, she brought up a key meeting held at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, assuming that the crowd would take pride in the state’s name being connected to efforts to make China freer. It was a natural assumption, but it was one part of her speech that fell flag, since many professors were from places other than Kentucky and some looked down on fast food franchises of all kinds, while more than a few people with ties to the state didn’t view KFC as a positive representative of it.

Beida Posters 99

US Consulate

My last comment concerns my experiences taking photographs in 1999. Fascinated by the call to boycott McDonalds and KFC, as well as being interested in how popular those places had become in China during the final years of the last century, I spent some time checking out the branches of both to see how they were faring in the wake of the Belgrade bombing. Within days of the first boycott calls, lots of people were back to getting their fried chicken and Big Macs in the usual way. What sticks in my mind most about visiting the franchises, though, was that when I took out my camera to take photos of crowds and also of the décor inside them, as I’ve always been interested in the strategies global brands make to adapt to local tastes and traditions, I got hassled more by security personnel than I had been the previous days on campuses. It turned out to be easier for me to take photos of protesters rallying to the cry of “Down with American-led NATO Hegemonism” (one of the movement’s main slogans, which doesn’t roll off the tongue in any language) than of the interiors of establishments seen as important symbols of U.S. capitalism.


The Art of the Plain Deal: A Report from the RNC in Cleveland

By Tom Zoellner

CLEVELAND — An invisible line split the concrete plaza. On the north side, protestors with a megaphone clamored in practiced order, poking signs into the air. One read “Trump: An American Embarrassment.” Barely a hundred yards away, a tubby man in a cowboy hat spoke into his own microphone to tell the story of his son who had died of an overdose. “Donald Trump is going to protect our southern border to keep the heroin from getting in here,” he growled, before launching into the campaign ballad “We’re Going to Make This Country Great Again.”

The opposing crowds at these popup events eyed each other curiously from the plaza, as nearly a hundred police officers kept watch over both at the margins. As an exchange of ideas, it was a joke. But nobody was arrested; there weren’t even any arguments. The event had the air of a set piece performed by actors who knew their lines and spoke them with gently nasal Midwestern accents.

“I haven’t seen the Cleveland hellscape apocalypse the media kept telling us about,” said Dr. Bryan Hambley, the chief organizer of the Stand Together Against Trump rally, who said he gave credit to the “pro-Trump people” for the leeway. Television journalists from around the world eager to get the “mayhem” story their editors had anticipated swarmed small demonstrations in such multitudes that it was hard for them to avoid filming each other.

Politics is often described as a clash of competing interests, of which protests are a blunt-force version. But it was scenes of grudging cordiality that had unfolded all week in Cleveland, the beat-up and deindustrialized – but relentlessly gracious – city experiencing a brief spillover of national attention from the Republican National Convention.

For most observers in Cleveland, the Convention had the surreal flavor of reality television beamed in from elsewhere. As Scott Baio and other trivia-question celebrities delivered tributes to the nominee inside the Quicken Loans Arena, the rest of the city watched with a mix of bemusement and silent dread. They feared a riot or another police killing might put another dent in the reputation of a city that has already endured years of hard kicks.

Bad enough for Cleveland that its premier civic arena bore the logo of a company whose very name evoked the fast-buck mentality that created the mortgage collapse of the previous decade (perhaps this is why locals were so quick to dub it “The Q”). It was also that the rhetoric about a broken America trying to find its way back to former greatness is consistent with a local narrative about a once world-class city coping with a modern inferiority complex. “Cleveland has always been defensive about itself,” said local attorney Patrick DePace. “I’ve lived through so many bad incidents, but I will tell you that we’ve always had hope.”

Modesty was written into Cleveland’s character from the start. The first streets and a grand plaza called the Public Square were laid out in 1786 on a bluff above the marshlands by a surveyor named Moses Cleaveland, whose wildest dream was that the town might one day have as many people as his native Connecticut village (pop. 2,000). The founder stayed three months and never returned, and only one member of his expedition was confident enough to remain and build a cabin. The first newspaper, the Cleveland Advertiser, didn’t have room for the town’s full name in its banner and pragmatically dropped the “a” to make it fit. Another early newspaper, The Plain Dealer, screamed insults at abolitionists during the Civil War but went on in a more sober frame of mind to become the dominant daily. (Winston Churchill once commented it had “the best newspaper name of any in the world.”)

Cleveland thrived because heavy goods like steel and gasoline could be made on the Cuyahoga and shipped away on Lake Erie or the Ohio Canal. The mills took in iron ore from Minnesota, coal from Pennsylvania and fired it up into skyscraper girders and bridge supports. A thin-lipped Baptist striver named John D. Rockefeller built an oil refinery down at the mouth of a creekbed called Kingsbury Run; his Standard Oil would intimidate, rate-fix, and plunder its way toward a national petroleum monopoly. The oily gouge later became a dumping ground for the corpses of the drifters and down-and-outers mutilated by the 1930s serial killer The Plain Dealer called “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” or, more squeamishly, “The Cleveland Torso Murderer.” He was never caught.

By that time, Cleveland had arranged itself into hard geographic patterns of race and class: the Poles clustered around the steel mills of Fleet Avenue; the Czechs and Italians near the garment factories of Central Woodland; the Eastern European Jews on East 55th Street below the refineries. They worked hard hours, drank at the union halls, named their children after forgotten grandfathers, and decorated their two-story houses with curtains and side gardens. The managerial WASPs, meanwhile, got themselves away from the coke sludge of the mills as fast as the cornfields west of the river could be leveled to make space for detached houses. The Cuyahoga became the true cleavage of Cleveland: west of the river was understood to mean generally white; inner-east was generally African-American. Radiating at the center of it all was the fourth-tallest building in the world, the 52-story beaux-arts Terminal Tower at the southwestern edge of the Public Square and above the tracks of the Nickel Plate Railroad, crowned with a colored strobe beacon that could be seen from far across Lake Erie and helped guide planes into the airport.

The American industrial twilight of the 1970s also spelled slow ruin for the economic motors that powered Cleveland. Republic Steel closed down most of its local plants. The missile-building giant TRW, which started life as the Cleveland Cap Screw Co. in 1900, was sold to Northrop Grumman and moved away to California. Standard Oil of Ohio got bought by British Petroleum, which redrew the logo, merged with Amoco, and kept its home on the Public Square for the briefest of decent intervals until fleeing for Chicago. Between 1950 and today, Cleveland’s population dropped by nearly two-thirds. Comfortable houses of brick and Tudor half-timber got chopped into cheap apartments. Some of them burned for insurance money, and the inner-ring neighborhoods took on a gangrene look — the sign of long-term, systematic economic rot. The belle époque estates of Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue, once called the “Showpiece of America,” almost completely disappeared. Derelict lots, gyro restaurants, and a few lonely CVS drugstores now line the corridor; its grand mainline churches either went to sacred ivy-covered ruin or were awkwardly mounted with new signs announcing a struggling Pentecost assembly or Holiness temple. As if to seal the gloom, Cleveland lost its football team to Baltimore in a midnight move, and the totality of its awfulness in other sports left it without a national championship for 52 years, the longest drought in history.

Promised renaissances came and went. Developers opened a set of fratboy bars and nightclubs down in a set of warehouses called The Flats, but the air has gone out of their efforts in recent years. The grand Public Square — the centerpiece of Moses Cleaveland’s original urban plan — recently got a $55-million facelift and a Jack Casino now runs blackjack tables and slot machines in a lobby astride the Terminal Tower, which also features three levels of mall stores. Today’s big economic drivers are a combination of universities like Case Western and Cleveland State and hospital systems like the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital — what economists call “eds and meds,” which themselves rely on a significant amount of federal cash. Those who can get at least a little baccalaureate education can still cobble a living together, but the city’s overall poverty rate stands at 40 percent.

“No longer the mistake on the lake, we are a city on the rise — unless you venture into our forgotten, neglected neighborhoods,” said the Rev. Tracey Lind of Trinity Cathedral from her pulpit on Sunday. She said later: “We are a city out of alignment. We have some of the best hospitals but some of the worst mortality rates. Some of the best universities, but one of the worst literacy rates.”

Cleveland gets up for work and slogs on, like the nation that surrounds it, no matter what the feverish end-days prophets say. It can rightfully brag about the haute accouterments of a great city that it still possesses: the arts museum, the ballet, the spotless cars on the Rapid Transit Authority trolley system, its well-regarded orchestra — and its relative lack of racial tension. The boundaries between black and white neighborhoods appear to be fuzzier than those in most American cities of such scale.

This détente was put to a severe test on November 23, 2014, when a police officer named Timothy Loehmann, later described as “emotionally disturbed,” answered a call about a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice reportedly pointing a gun at people in a public park. The officer jumped out of his car and shot Rice to death within two seconds; the boy’s gun was an Airsoft toy. The District Attorney declined to prosecute Loehmann with a carefully written report widely considered a cover-up, and yet Clevelanders did not riot. That isn’t their way. When the long-suffering Cavaliers won the NBA championship earlier this year, 1.3 million people choked downtown for a celebratory pan-racial parade with a bare minimum of trouble; the politeness was almost as much a source of local pride as the basketball triumph. The common wisdom about the GOP convention — held smack-dab in the middle of a month dominated by news of overseas terror attacks and domestic police violence — held that, if trouble were to start, the fuse will have been lit by those coming from the outside, and certainly nobody from here.

On the Sunday before the start of the convention, and just two hours after news broke of the murder of three police officer in Baton Rogue, several thousand people spread across the Hope Memorial Bridge — named for the father of comedian Bob Hope — for a half-hour of silent meditation overlooking the convention center where all the spangled tumult was about to start. “All reminds me of the fall of Rome — people are becoming shallow and angry,” said a woman named Judy Slivka, wearing a T-shirt from St. Malachi Catholic Church. “Our character as a nation is just flowing away, along with respect and courtesy for others. The new economy has hurt people. If there’s no jobs, people go to the lowest denominator.”

A few minutes later, a nun named Sister Rita Petruziello instructed the crowd through a megaphone: “We need silence if we’re going to touch souls… So you’ve showed up. Now you’re going to shut up.” And then after the giggles and murmurs had passed, a double-chain of Clevelanders held hands and kept quiet on the bridge overlooking the Quicken Loans Arena. The only consistent sound was the buzz of a light airplane which had been hired to circle downtown trailing a banner reading “Hillary for Prison 2016” — followed by the web address for the voluble Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who later almost got himself arrested after a scuffle on the Public Square. After an air-horn sounded ending the silence, dozens of Clevelanders shook hands one-by-one with the police on bicycles assigned to guard the event, an impromptu line-up reminiscent of two Little League teams slapping hands in sportsmanship after a game.

Republicans picked this likeable, careworn city as their coronation site back in 2014 not because of the Democratic machine that has essentially controlled municipal politics here for generations. The big Republican power and money lies in the white-flight suburbs, where Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald lobbied the GOP on the premise that it lie at the top of Ohio — one of the six states that usually decide the presidency. That was the same year FitzGerald lost a race for governor to John Kasich after an electrician spotted him in a parked Ford Focus at 4:30 a.m. and called the police. The woman he was with was not his wife, but what made the incident public was that FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, had been driving without a valid license.

Understandably wary of truck bombs, rioting, assassination or a thousand other unpleasant outcomes, the city police and the U.S. Secret Service took extraordinary measures to create a labyrinth of metal-mesh fences, hydraulic vehicle blockades, swinging gates and pat-down checkpoints called the “hard zone” around the Quicken Loans Arena, with borrowed officers from Kansas, California, Indiana, Wisconsin and many other jurisdictions positioned outside, along with an unknown number of undercover officers wandering around like awkward demonstrators or lost tourists.

Inside this fortress of concentric circles was the husk of the Republican Party, missing 18 of its senators and many of its elder statesmen who — for reasons both electoral and personal — wanted nothing to do with the Trump D-list celebrity freakshow. Today’s rump parliament was a shadow of the Republican Party of just twenty years ago, which used to fancy itself the guardian of the sober Volksgemeinschaft: the afternoon lemonade and the evening newspaper; the bank vice president and the Presbyterian church picnic; the genteel polity of thrift and prudence that thrived in Cleveland’s leafy ring of freeway suburbs like Kirtland, Seven Hills, and Lakewood (where FitzGerald had been the mayor).

Founded as a protest movement in 1854 against the weak-kneed Whigs, the Republicans stood opposed to the expansion of slavery into Nebraska. The election of their nominee Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 triggered the flight of southern states. For generations in the northern tier of industrialized states, the Republican Party became a convenient device to wire up the county courthouses and ensure local patrimony in the multitudes of Clevelands and little farming towns that dotted the country.

The Republicans became the party of big corporations after the 1896 election of the Ohio coal-mining lawyer William McKinley, and then the party of soft segregation after the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of “states’ rights,” which was always code for nullifying race-mixing schemes, and “law and order,” which meant silencing dissent. (N.B.: on the first day of the convention, Trump advisor Paul Manafort told reporters the campaign was looking explicitly to Nixon’s message as an inspiration).

By the 21st century, Republicans had come to embody traditionally Southern political values: visible patriotism, distrust of cities and their ethnic coalitions, celebration of the individual striver, broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, opposition to anything that smelled of income redistribution, hostility to federal programs of justice or equalization, and wariness of spending by any government agency except the military.

Then three key technological advances exacerbated the agonist narrative. Sophisticated mapmaking software made it easy for state legislatures to draw spiky Congressional districts nearly house-by-house, ensuring at least 227 complete or nearly complete safe seats for the GOP in the House of Representatives, allowing these lawmakers to “govern” without thought of compromise or moderation. Meanwhile, the Internet had broken the backs of the television networks and the big-city newspapers, ushering in the proliferation of rancorous pamphleteering of a sort that hadn’t been seen since the administration of Andrew Jackson. Sites like Newsmax, the Drudge Report and The Daily Caller pumped out streams of stories that cast doubt on President Obama’s background and greeted his every action with moral outrage (Brietbart: “Obama’s Disrespectful ‘Latte Saulte’ Shocks and Offends”). Compromise and horsetrading — the standard route to getting anything done in a legislature — became impossible. And most visceral of all: cell phones with video cameras became as standard as belts and wallets, allowing bystanders to capture the kind of routine police violence against black people that had been going on all along. Despite years of steady economic and legal progress, during the two-term administration of its first black president, the country has been rocked by the sense that race relations have never been worse.

These factors — gerrymandering, pamphleteering, and racial bias in policing — have plagued the nation since its founding, but they have been supercharged by technology. The culture of moderation and shared destiny that had bound our disparate communities is weaker than ever. Into the breach stepped Donald Trump, the publicity-crazed real-estate promoter from Queens who had first inserted his name into national politics by sending a team of detectives to Hawaii to ferret out the truth about Barack Obama’s birthplace. On June 16, 2015, he announced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and then won an astonishing number of primaries by eschewing the traditional methods of flattering county chairmen, attending church suppers, and paying teams of consultants to sand down a canned message. Instead, Trump flew himself into rallies in downtown convention centers with something like the political version of the traveling medicine show, the paranoid culmination of which played out at the Quicken Loans Arena this week. How else to describe an event at which one of the invited speakers is soap opera star and underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr., who tells reporters that Obama is “absolutely” a Muslim and is “with the bad guys”?

There was a moment in the pre-birther career of Donald Trump that seemed to capture the mysteriously appealing blend of bad taste, simple-mindedness, and greed that has characterized his presidential campaign. In the first season of his reality show The Apprentice he had sixteen young adults perform symbolic business tasks in competition for a “job” with the Trump Organization. After surviving fifteen episodes, a young man named Bill Rancic emerged at the top of the pyramid and was handed the keys to a Chrysler Crossfire convertible (“A brand-new car!” in the parlance of game shows). With arms outstretched, Rancic bounded down to the sidewalk toward the driver’s side door of the shiny blue car. “Unbelievable!” he screamed.

The final credit sequence showed Rancic’s beaming face on a dash-cam as he piloted his gift through the electric ziggurat of Times Square, on his way toward Trump Tower. The sum of our basest yearnings crystalized in that moment: there he was, our benefactor, with his winner’s thirst for the kill and a magic-button solution to Make America Great Again by rescuing us from the alliance of treacherous elites at the top and parasitic minorities down below. He’d put us all into American-made luxury convertibles for a ride down the avenue of dreams. We know in our hearts it cannot be true. But something in us loves a scoundrel and hungers for simple answers.

Though Trump’s career of hotel-branding has been checkered with exaggerations and lies, it does not seem to bother his admirers, who see in him a refreshing willingness to say what many are already thinking. Years of low-wage labor has brought them nothing but debt and uncertainty, and they resent the government entitlements (even the word rankles) given to those who don’t seem to be even looking for a job. A typical politician — the lowest of insults — would not dare stand up to this scam.

“Trump has a backbone,” said Michael DeFrancisco, a dispatcher for a Cleveland-area courier company. “He doesn’t care about being politically correct. He’s not a politician. You’ve got people working their asses off for five and six dollars an hour, and the immigrants are even taking those jobs. Politicians have run this country into the ground. This $22-trillion deficit, I don’t know about anybody talking about this besides Trump.” DeFrancisco has worked in the same job for fourteen years and received a raise of just 43 cents in that time. “I work my ass off and I can barely stay above water to here,” he said, pointing to his chin. He used to be a huge sports fan. Now he listens to political talk radio; for him, its emotional intensity has replaced those of baseball and football.

Though a typical Trump speech is a farrago of insults, self-praise and ADHD-like topic-switching, some old-line conservatives see enough policy content to persuade themselves he must have some bona fides in there somewhere. “A vote for him is a vote for a conservative who can win,” said Dr. Laurence Schiff, a Trump delegate who works as a jail psychologist in Kingman, Arizona. “You have your establishment guys like Jeb Bush and they don’t understand how you talk to those millions of people who stayed home when Mitt Romney was on the ballot. There’s a disconnect between the Washington elite and the voters.”

I spoke to Schiff at the Doubletree off Interstate 77, one of the dozens of local hotels swarmed by well-dressed delegates, many of whom had paid approximately $5,000 for the privilege of sitting for hours inside the Quicken Loans Arena watching Rudy Giuliani, once a Republican moderate, wave his arms and screech an ominous warning: “There’s no next election! This is it!”

Outside the hard zone, a protestor from the feminist group Code Pink yelled into a megaphone about gay marriage and abortion rights at a group of evangelicals until she seemed to run out of things to say. She took a deep final breath and ended with a simple half-hearted: “Fuck you!” Nobody paid attention. Nearby, a sunburned man preached about the evils of pornography and anal sex, while a counter-protestor held a sign over his head reading, “This hate is just visiting. Cleveland Loves.” The man holding the sign said later that he and the screamer had a cordial exchange during the standoff. Each understood the other’s game. At the Public Square, pair of young men paraded around carrying a sign reading, “Socialism Sucks!” — an act partisan performativity designed not to convince but to provoke. “I just had a 20-minute debate with a neo-Nazi and we agreed on nothing,” exulted 19-year-old Timon Prax. “But I loved it. This is what this city is all about!”

This was not the worst epigram for a GOP convention heavy on pessimism and light on cheerfulness, and it was certainly better than any unhinged proclamation or embarrassing act of bloodshed that would have clashed so radically with what this resilient and decorous city has stood for. Cleveland has spent more than four decades, for example, trying to live down a minor but photogenic incident. On June 22, 1969, a passing railroad train threw down some sparks onto an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River outside the Republic Steel mill. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but the photographs that ran in Time magazine served to fix Cleveland in people’s minds as a broken city with a hellish physical environment. Visibility in the river was barely six inches on a good day, and the industrial sludge on the surface had sprouted flames many times before.

Today, though, the river is far cleaner, downtown is spruced up, the Cavaliers finally won their championship, and crime rates are historically low, even among a thinner population, which will still be punching a clock and patching together a living even after the red-white-and-blue banners are taken down and the political jamboree leaves town. “I’ve never felt better about Cleveland,” said Patrick DePace. “The defeatism of the previous generations seems to have lifted.”

For an America that seems to be careening in the opposite direction, with one of its major parties pushed to the edge of despair and wailing hysterically about our collective decline, Cleveland’s strong bones stand as an example: it is one of our realist cities, and it endures.



By Steve Light

In memory of Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016)

Poetry never stops
Nor the proximities
And affections
Beneath the African distances
Assumed and awakened
By my anxious exuberance…


Lead image: Naoko Haruta, Life #107: ‘Africa #2’, acrylic on canvas, 43″ x 67″ [110cm x 170cm]


Steve Light, a basketball point guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset–and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins–is also a philosopher and poet.