A Provocation by Lalo Alcaraz

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

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

 

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Multicultural Love and Its Discontents

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coffee Life in Korea

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unsafe at Denny’s — and in the Classroom

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

By Caitlin Flanagan

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all stared at me.

“Mind your own business,” Mom snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know what? We made it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Colin Marshall 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Provocation by Steve Brodner

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

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

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

The Tree of Hatred

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

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite page from the comic?  Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How about your research and writing?

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

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

Two Provocations by Matt Bors

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

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

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Living the Vertical Life in Seoul

By Colin Marshall 

My friend Darcy Paquet, who preceded me to Korea by almost twenty years and in that time became a famous film critic here, once wrote a piece in the Hankook Ilbo (한국일보) about having to readjust his sense of space from that of the rural Massachusetts in which he grew up to that of Seoul. “It’s not just the crowded streets and buses that I had to get used to, but also the sense of always having people around me,” he wrote. “Living in a large apartment complex, with so many other families going about their lives behind my walls and under the floor, took some getting used to.”

He quotes friends back in America: “I can’t understand why anyone would want to live in one of those apartment complexes, like bees in a hive.” In my experience as well, more than a few Americans express their feelings about the density of a city like Seoul with beehive imagery, assuming they don’t jump straight to the word “dystopia.” I’ve given a lot of thought to how movies create urban dystopias, and Western ones tend to signal hellishness with height, Blade Runner‘s treatment of the Los Angeles of the future being the most influential example, but however expressed, the notion that bad things happen in tall buildings, or that tall buildings cause bad things to happen, enjoys a special prevalence in the Anglo-American mind.

Blade Runner, recall, had an American setting but, in Ridley Scott, an English director. We’ll have another vivid entry in this canon later this year with the release of the new film adaptation of High-Rise, J.G. Ballard’s novel of a luxury London tower block’s near-immediate devolution into an ultraviolent bacchanal. Sometimes I ask friends who insist on calling dense high-rises dystopian whether piloting a metal box down a strip of asphalt in a metal box at seventy miles an hour strikes them as any less so, but Ballard, who made the ravages of the automobile the object of grim fascination in the David Cronenberg-adapted Crash, beat me to the point.

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Why do so many of us Westerners fear and loathe the vertical life? I don’t, so I can hardly find my way to the answer through introspection, but if I did, I suppose I wouldn’t have moved to Seoul in the first place. Seemingly every few weeks I meet someone who has the exact same memory about when they first arrived in the city: “My first apartment building had more people in it than my entire hometown.” You can still find a place to live in a structure under ten stories, but sometimes I wonder how long that will last, given the number of cranes every day visible hard at work on the skyline.

They’re building what I think of as, for better or for worse, Seoul’s architectural signature: forests of ten, twenty, thirty identical (or almost identical) 600-foot-ish towers, differentiated mainly by the three-digit numbers stamped on their outer walls. Often these complexes lack aesthetic distinction, to put it mildly, and come with names that look strange to English-speakers — Brownvill, We’ve, Xii (“eXtra intelligent”), The # — selected, according to the joke that exposes middle-aged Koreans as not quite so piously Confucian as the stereotypes would lead us to believe, to prevent aged, demanding, and confused grandparents from finding their way there.

One sometimes hears this type of housing condemned (rhetorically, not legally, though the first few generations that rose after the Korean war certainly weren’t built to last) as a force that cuts down older, lower-rise neighborhoods — neighborhoods with the ambiguous quality of “character”  — like a scythe through wheat, replacing them with nothing better than architecturally cookie-cutter monotony, and a monotony often unaffordable to the demolished areas’ former residents at that. But the greatest architectural loss, in some eyes has come at the expense of the hanok (한옥), a form of traditional single-story Korean house whose numbers decreased dramatically in the 20th century.

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As for what, exactly, caused so many hanok to disappear, different people blame different other people: ruthless corporate builders, Koreans blinkered by their desire for modernity, the Japanese. A preservation movement has cohered around the hanok, but even that has its divisions: some hanok-lovers see what old specimens still stand as, for cultural, historical, and other reasons, worth protecting as they are; others want to keep the form in use, but to do so by producing new-built hanok with such comforts as modern plumbing and heating. (The architect Hwang Doojin mentions, in a TED Talk, always having to address the same question about his new-built hanok from clients: “But isn’t it cold?”)

At first glance, this debate’s battle lines look drawn between Koreans and Westerners, the former willing to sacrifice tradition and “authenticity” (another uselessly vague term) in the name of amenity, and the latter, longing for the bygone days when the “Land of the Morning Calm” merited that nickname, who fight for a cultural legacy of whose importance the country itself may have lost sight. It brings to mind the controversy over last year’s demolition of the Olympics-era Hotel Okura in Tokyo, at which many Western admirers raised a fuss, but at which the Japanese themselves seemed only to shrug, a vivid illustration, to my mind, of the Western conflation of, and the Eastern separation between, a culture and the artifacts of that culture.

But on closer inspection, the picture in Korea starts to look more complicated. Some of the better-known hanok advocates do indeed come from the West, but that reflects the Western preference for low-rise historical buildings as much as it reflects the need, real or imagined, for things Korean to gain the imprimatur of foreign approval before they can be successfully sold back to the Koreans themselves. Witness the much-promoted “Korean Wave” of popular culture, which values Korean music, movies, and television shows to the exact extent that they raise enthusiasm elsewhere.

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Yet I do still see my fellow Westerners, especially Anglo-Americans — even more especially Americans — as, in the main, a psychologically rural people. Unlike many Koreans, the countryside represents to them not a place from which to escape to the city, but an escape from the city. Most Americans, of course, don’t live in the rural countryside, nor do most Americans live in the few pockets of their nation where robust urban life has arisen; most Americans live in one kind of suburban or exurban compromise or another, and no matter how intellectually sophisticated, usually bring their rural desires — for space, isolation, autonomy, land ownership, and a freedom from societal encumbrance — with them.

This mismatch between these deep-seated attitudes of Americans (a people who tend to make sarcastic mooing noises when more than a few dozen of them get told to move in one direction at once) and the settings in which they actually live results, I would submit, in many of the ills of American life today, from the much-dramatized malaise of the suburbs all the way up to the whole gun thing. Seoul has suburbs, too, and suburbs often moved out to for similarly marriage- and family-oriented reasons. Some of the newer ones look like slightly askew imitations of the American cul-de-sac-and-picket-fence model, but the majority of them take the form of even thicker clusters of even taller towers than the ones in the city proper, usually accessible without great difficulty by train from the city proper. (The notion that transit is for poor people, like the notion that tower blocks are for poor people, hasn’t taken hold here.)

The heads of the Westerners who regard that as anathema must fill with visions of Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago, Aylesbury Estate and Robin Hood Gardens in London — just a few of the infamously failed high-rise housing projects of the West. All built ostensibly with the best of intentions (though some consider them built-to-fail warehouses for poor minorities), they all quickly became victims of neglect, crime, demolition, and, ultimately, status as playing cards in service of the argument that associates the vertical life with poverty, ugliness, squalor, and moral decay, the oppressiveness of whose very architecture propels even their most good-hearted residents to rebellion.  “The week it opened,” recalled architect Peter Smithson, co-designer of Robin Hood Gardens with his wife Allison, “people would shit in the lifts.”

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I don’t hear of many Seoulites doing that sort of thing, but one might object to the comparison, arguing that the capitals of Asia never suffered the postwar exodus to the suburbs that bled American and English cities dry of their residential population, turning them for decades into bywords for filthy, decrepit centers of desperate lawlessness. But I mean to highlight that very difference: a city like Seoul, a city taken seriously, has only grown more desirable with time, resulting in its metropolitan area now hosting half the population of the entire country (the equivalent, in America, of rolling New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, DC into one and giving it a population of 150 million).

To meet this desire, Seoul has grown and continues to grow outward, but much more so upward. The Smithsons and other midcentury architects, now thought utopian dreamers, spoke of creating “streets in the sky,” and I use the very same language to describe the appeal of the vertical life in Asia: just as you pass all manner of shops, cafés, bars, and services as you walk down the street, you do the same as you ascend from one floor to the next in a building. Japanese cities, which allow near-complete freedom in the zoning of floors — a restaurant on the ground, an office above that, a club above that, a bookstore above that, with residences scattered here and there — have realized that concept to perfection.

But the towers of Seoul still do a more exciting job of it than American ones, subject to rigid zoning laws dictating what can go where, hindering the essential aspect of urbanism I call “dimensionality”: a three-dimensional city provides variety on one dimension as you move horizontally through it, on another dimension as you move vertically through it, and — perhaps the specialty of a city that changes as fast as Seoul does — on another dimension as you move through time. The more fully three-dimensional the city, the more conducive to, and the more it requires, life lived vertically.

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At least in aesthetic sense, though, I do like hanok, much as I appreciate the midcentury modernist houses of Los Angeles. But to purchase and occupy your very own building strikes me not just as an act of increasingly Croesan ostentation, but as a terrible inconvenience besides. I’ve so far found, just within my own modest fifteen-story building, a market, a bakery, a hair salon, a cleaners, dentists, and a language-study café. The population density created by the even taller towers around it ensures that I can find everything I might need in life within ten minutes’ walk, a condition hard to imagine in America even amid the country’s celebrated urban renaissance now underway.

I dream that, when next I live in Los Angeles, the city’s vertical life will have come into its own. But much work remains to be done, not just in terms of putting up buildings and infrastructure but of shedding inhibitions over going about life above, below, and beside other people in closer proximity. Despite its vast potential, Los Angeles, a city where every project over a certain size gets denounced in some quarter as a “monstrosity,” continues to labor under the common notion that, while those beehives might be all well and good for the youngsters and the hipsters, we live our real lives in detached houses, away from business and industry, and not even among many other residences — in other words, in one dimension.

How to chip away at this prejudice? Maybe we can start with the brief but memorable viewing experience of City, a short film by Korean animators Kim Ye-young and Kim Young-geun that Darcy included in his column. Its elegantly striking concept envisions the routines of city life — elevator rides, morning commutes, the tasks of work — with the manmade environment, from concrete to clothes, wholly stripped away. “It’s the last image in the film that I remember in particular,” Darcy writes. “At the end of the day, hundreds of people are sleeping in an apartment complex. Because we can’t see the floors or objects in the apartment, it looks like they are floating. There’s something unexpectedly intimate about the image. They resemble not bees in a hive, but birds flying through the air.”

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

Palestine Grafities

Le mur est le support idéal d’un graffiti. Celui que construit Israël depuis 2002, dans le but d’isoler les Territoires palestiniens occupés de Cisjordanie, n’échappe pas à la régle. Des graffeurs étrangers et des jeunes artistes palestiniens, viennent défier pacifiquement l’armée israélienne en y peignant leurs revendications.

It’s Not About Speech, It’s About Power

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

By David Palumbo-Liu

When asked to contribute a “provocation,” I was at a loss.

For over a year, I have been involved in the case of Steven Salaita, and the way one particular kind of speech — raw, uncensored, morally-outraged tweets expressing disgust and horror at Israel’s attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014 — became a pretext for an even rawer exercise in power. After his tweets became known to an Illinois campus community that had been prepared to welcome him as a tenured professor, several wealthy contributors, aided and abetted by university administrators and trustees, fired Salaita. A year later, many of the administrators had resigned, one under an ethics investigation; a federal court had thrown out the university’s attempt to halt Salaita’s law suit against it; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, settled the case by awarding Salaita $875,000. These results were greeted as a victory of sorts by Salaita’s supporters, though many of us noted that he still was not reinstated, and that, if anything, attacks on critics of Israel have only increased. As important as this case was, and as its ramifications still are, it did not seem reasonable for me to write about it here, as my views were already more than amply available.

I then thought of focusing on the intertwined topics of “trigger warnings,” “feelings of safety,” and “micro-aggressions” on campus. But I have written a lot already about those, too, in The Huffington Post, on Buzzfeed, and in Salon.

A better approach for Provocations, I decided, was to step back and try to answer a broader question: What links these and other topics dealing with censorship and the stifling of speech? Taking this tack involves the risk of speaking too generally, but it seems useful to take it, in order to get at how, beneath the surface variations, we see recurring issues of historical change and power.

One thing that has changed is that there are now legal, institutional, and other instruments that empower people who without them would be unable to have a hearing. The Freedom of Information Act, for example, allowed Salaita access to key evidence that proved the legitimacy of his case. The use of Title IX to address issues of sexual assault is another historical development that has made it possible for those to be heard who have a grievance of the kind that had previously been largely hidden. Other new tools include the committees on some campuses that consider the ethics of a university’s investments. Recent campaigns for divestment relating to fossil fuels and Palestine have had, thanks to the anti-apartheid campaigns before them, formal, institutional processes to go through.

Access to these new instruments can prove inconvenient for some. At a high-level administrative meeting I attended, for instance, we were talking about trigger warnings, micro-aggression, student speech, campus climate, and divestment — all issues that will be on the floor later at the “What Cannot Be Said” workshop — and one very senior and powerful colleague said, with regard to divestment, “We have to delegitimize those petitions.” I was happy to see that I was not the only person who gasped. After a moment of stunned silence, I said simply: “That would be hard to do, since they are legitimate.”

This brought to mind a speech by Rigoberta Menchu dealing with the early days of her struggle. Even to appear in a state court in Guatemala to give witness, she said, was empowering, regardless of the outcome of the case. This resonates with a claim by Hannah Arendt: “The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective.”

Some in power now fear more than just the way that specific instruments of Title IX or committees for ethical investment provide a new space for speech. The university itself, since at least the Free Speech Movement of the sixties, has perennially been a place where not only can free speech be debated, but the very nature of the discourse around free speech can evolve, morph, and grow. This is not just due to the fact that different generations of students are bringing different world experiences into that space, as always — it is also because demographically we are finally seeing more students of color, as well as first-generation students, in formerly pretty white, upper and middle-class colleges and universities.

When students take seriously the university’s self-portrayal as a place for debate and difference, and when the value of “diversity” is held up as a positive and essential value in higher education by the US Supreme Court, it is not a little strange when “diverse” perspectives coming from people of color and others are shut down, not necessarily due to the content of their expression, but often largely because of the mode of their expression. The very language that is being used by some just rubs certain people the wrong way, and not just that — it is unseemly language that is not only addressed at them, but also language that demands a response.

Many would not have a problem with students voicing their feelings of discomfort, about being threatened by racism or other things. What they are bothered by are the ways they are themselves being asked to consider their complicity, or responsibility.   I hasten to add that not all of the accusations being made on campuses have merit. But often those who complain about “coddled” students simply assume that because of the mode of expression, the accusation is false. Furthermore, the mainstream media has been utterly shameless about sensationalizing this topic, latching onto the most egregious cases and arguing that it is, for God’s sake, a movement.

As I wrote in my piece in The Huffington Post:

The much-publicized article in the recent Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” opens by setting off the alarm:

Something strange is happening in America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

It is rather a stylistic feat to riff off the title of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students and at the same time begin one’s article by mimicking the famous beginning of the Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism”). But that is the intent of the two authors, both conservative voices in American academic circles — instead of the Red Scare as seen from the eyes of the marshaled forces of reaction in Europe, we have the Coddled Kids Scare as seen from the eyes of two conservative white males.

This is pretty much the kind of exposition you get throughout the article. Watch out, there is a strange, unorganized, undirected, dangerously contagious “movement” sweeping American’s colleges and universities, striking fear and loathing into every crevice and causing our American minds to shut close. I, too, have a problem with both trigger warnings and micro-aggression-talk. There is no doubt that both present complex and important challenges to us in terms of how we teach and learn on campus. But this article is of very limited use, and in fact its sensationalism and clear bias do the topic a disservice.

The more I hear people of my generation, and some a bit younger, bemoan the strange new world of discourse, the more I recall Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” He was as right then as he is now — there is something happening and we don’t know what it is. We know we don’t like it because it doesn’t play by our rules. But are isolated and grossly exaggerated incidents worth this huge backlash?

The handwringing brings to mind the sort of things we once heard from the generation of our parents — and thought worthy of mockery due to what seemed to us evidence of a strange sense of priorities and a tendency to grossly oversimplify complex issues. Consider this statement from a 1975 publication of the Trilateral Commission, The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission:

The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, the challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private institutions, politics, the government bureaucracy, and the military service. People no longer felt the same obligation to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents…. Each group claimed its right to participate equally — in the decision which affected itself.

There is no question that the new solidarity between black activists and those protesting the Israeli occupation, between those protesting racism on campus and in Israeli-Palestine, emanates in large part from the fact that both groups understand how power works against them, and how to make use of whatever instruments now afford them some modicum of leverage. One can add those protesting sexual assault and harassment as well.

Finally, there is also of course social media, which allow groups to produce, disseminate, and circulate knowledge and opinion outside the mainstream. The form and the content of this speech are often abrasive, raw, unsettling. That by no means makes this type of expression necessarily good, but neither does it make it necessarily bad.

What we need to do is step away from issues of free speech and expression, and look more carefully, instead, at those who profit from systematized structures of power and privilege, and who refuse to be judged or called to account by those who are now speaking out.

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor, and Professor of Comparative Literature, and, by courtesy, English, at Stanford University. He has written three scholarly books and edited three academic volumes on issues relating to cultural studies, ethnic studies, and literary theory. His recent books are: The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Duke UP, 2012), and a co-edited volume, Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World: System, Scale, Culture (Duke UP, 2011). He is part of the Public Intellectual Project at Truthout, and blogs at The Nation, Salon, The Huffington Post, The Boston Review, and other venues.