Ich bin ein Berliner?

By Joshua Weiner

“Berlin Notebook: Where Are the Refugees?” is a straightforward journal transcription of my experiences in Berlin during October 2015, a time when the influx of refugees in Germany and the rest of Europe was peaking. I have tried to be as faithful as possible in my reporting of interviews. I have not tried to verify the facts that people presented (when they told them to me); I have tried, rather, to convey the experience of talking with them, what it was like to be there, and to listen, to ask. The form of the interviews may seem to move like the “streaming” metaphor one finds everywhere in use to describe the movement of people across national borders.

This journal transcript will appear here in daily installments. It begins each day with the new installment; to read from the beginning, go to the “Berlin Notebook” archive and scroll down to find the first entry.  An ebook version of the complete transcript will be made available soon.


Thursday, 1 October 2015

Getting into Germany couldn’t have been easier. I said good morning to the blank faced woman at Passport Control; she found a blank page in my passport, stamped it; I pulled my bag from the conveyor belt and walked into the heavily policed shopping mall of Flughafen Tegel International. My eyes were dry and itchy from staying up all night on the plane reading Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of the Islamic State and trying to learn a few words of Arabic with my Nemo phone app. Marhaban. Hello. Na’am. Yes. Herzliches Willkommen. No, wrong language. I’d hear the phrase soon from the folks at the Institute sponsoring my trip; how many others entering the country today would hear likewise?

Stepping outside, the airport shade felt chilly; the temperature would be dipping lower with every few days, and people living on the street would wait longer for the morning sun to warm them. October would bring rain. Sickness would follow. I stepped back through the sliding glass to don my German kitschy Jack Wolfskin fleece, with a giant paw print stitched between the shoulders. Ich bin ein Berliner? Hardly, but I was happy to be back for the month.

In the cab to Mitte, the city center, I asked the Turkish driver how long he had lived in Berlin. 30 years. Did he like Berlin? Oh, ja, sure. Where are the refugees? He gave his head a quarter turn, What? I repeated my question. What? He didn’t understand the word—die Flüchtlinge (literally, the fleers)—and it wasn’t my German, as bad as it is. He had never heard the word (maybe I should have said Asylbewerber—asylum seeker—but I hadn’t learned it yet myself).

Germany has known its Flüchtlinge of course, fugitives fleeing Nazism in the 1930’s, so many that in 1933 the League of Nations created its High Commission for Refugees, now the UNHCR, located in Berlin near old Checkpoint Charlie. But before that, try 1685, when the Edict of Fontainbleau outlawed Protestantism in France and hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled, that time to Germany. I thought of Franz Tunda, the Austrian lieutenant in Joseph Roth’s novel, Die Flucht ohne Ende (Flight without End), who escaped from the Russian P.O.W. camp at the end of WWI and fled back to Europe. Could the ironical itinerant Roth, himself always on the move between hotels, ever have guessed that the title of his 1927 novel might refract the experience of so many 21st century non-Europeans, today’s Flüchtlinge? Flight without end. A political plight becoming a state of mind.

I pressed my cabbie, the Syrians, I said, though I could have added, and the Afghanis, and the Eritreans . . . Ah, ja, die Syrer; he shook his head and said, I don’t know. But they’re here, in Berlin, right? Ja, they’re here, but I don’t know where. We crossed a small bridge over the Spree into Moabit, the immigrant thick kiez originally settled by fleeing Huguenots, and the location of the State Office of Health and Welfare (Landesamt für Gesundheit und Soziales, or Lageso), the office where the refugees in Berlin wait to register with the state. (Gesundheit, indeed; I thought of the coming cold.) I think they’re near, I said. Ja, they are near, he said, his head moving left to right scanning an intersection as we slid through, it’s a big problem.


The taxi driver dropped me on a quiet street off Chauseestrasse in the Scheunenviertel kiez (literally ‘barn quarter’), Berlin’s old Jewish Quarter that maintains the winding lanes of a village even as it’s exploded as a hip area for shopping, dining, and looking at contemporary art in the converted barn courtyards of its yesteryear (the hay barns were kept to the old city outskirts due to fires). The building in which the Institute had situated me is small and mod, like a cheap imitation Mondrian you could live in. When I knocked on the Hausmeister’s door at 8:30 a.m., I was greeted by a dour unsmiling woman who dragged on her cigarette and returned to the landline. Missing the warmth of the Frau at Passport Control, I took a seat and waited, silently rehearsing some fumbling German in my head.

Ten minutes later I had signed papers, received keys, and was standing in a small bright clean flat of blond wood and metal and halogen, an Ikea-nized space. The windows opened onto a vacant courtyard created by a matching pair of large dark modern stone buildings framed by even darker materials around corporate-sized windows. I could look directly into them and count the louvers of the executive shades in each room as well as the metal railing banisters that zigzag up and down the windowed staircases. Both buildings were completely vacant of people and thwarted my fleeting interest in spying on working German suits. Sterile emptiness. Over the flat box rooftop, I could make out the peaked red tile roofs of the Naturkundemuseum (natural history museum) the next street over, and beyond that the Hauptbahnhof (central train station). A sky-scape everywhere punctuated by huge cranes—the construction of reclaimed space in Berlin will continue for another 20 years or more . . . Herzliches Willkommen. Here now, I was eager to enter it again.

KB - Percival Lowell 1

The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea

By Colin Marshall 

Just before moving to Korea, I took a road trip across America, from southern California to North Carolina. An early overnight stop came in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city overlooked by the Lowell Observatory, a scientific institution (and now tourist attraction) founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, the American astronomer whose research led to the discovery of Pluto. The observatory grounds feature an exhibit about the man himself, and having a look at it I noticed the photo above, in which Lowell sits among a group of 19th-century Koreans, and below it a first edition of his book Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm: A Sketch of Korea.

It came out in 1885, just a couple of years after Lowell first went to Korea as a foreign secretary to the diplomatic Korean Special Mission. Having got the inspiration to travel to Asia from a lecture on Japan he attended in 1882, he remained there for quite some time, going on to write other such non-astronomical volumes as The Soul of the Far East in 1888, Noto: An Unexplored Corner of Japan in 1891, and Occult Japan, or the Way of the Gods in 1894. You can follow the links to download all of them for free from the Internet Archive. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm, the first of them, also counts as the first full-length English-language personal narrative of Korea.

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It also still counts as one of the richer full-length English-language personal narratives of Korea yet published, and quite possibly as the most thorough: Lowell divides this 400-page book into chapters on everything from the country’s geography to its climate to its government to its architecture to its principles to the many hats (literally) worn by its people. All fascinating stuff, and all suitable material for a man of such wide-ranging curiosity, but some modern readers may come up against difficulties right away with the structure and style. Lowell wrote like the scientist he was, not in the English-as-a-third-language way some scientists do — I find much to admire in his prose, the occasional Victorian excess aside — in the way of someone who regards detail and precision, especially pertaining to the natural world, as ends in themselves.

Any first-hand account of Korea, and especially one written in the temperature control-challenged 19th-century, has to say something about the weather. But Lowell almost begins his book with it, having said little about the Korean people but, apparently working his way up to the social after laying as thoroughly as possible a foundation of the natural. He dives deep into the effects of the deflection of the mean annual isothermal line. Elsewhere in the book, he adds his personal experience of the weather, such as his struggles with the cold weather and with the heating systems of the day, a seemingly uncontrollable early version of the now widely used underfloor ondol (온돌) heating, too slow to heat and too hot thereafter, operated by overzealous if somewhat inattentive servants. “I was the victim of the too complete fulfillment of my own previous desires,” he writes, “for I myself had unwisely urged them to feed bountifully the flame. Then I yielded to misery. I reflected upon the exceeding vanity of human wishes.”

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Lowell tells of other old-time Korean discomforts with amusing vividness, such as the only means of long-distance travel available in a country without the wheel (“the thing remains uninvented,” he wrote): “Of the essential properties that commend any method of conveyance, speed and bodily comfort, neither, to our notions, is a conspicuous feature of the Korean palanquin.” In this and other respects, he here and there argues, Korean civilization of the 1880s hardly benefits from comparison to that of China or Japan. The same sort of observations come up in subsequent Korean travelogues by other writers in English: of the harshness of life there, the crudity (or indeed nonexistence) of the infrastructure, the colorless aesthetic of common society, the rigid hierarchies, the women shut out utterly from public life, the deep-seated superstition and indolence. “The servants were as incompetent,” he declares at one point, “as the appliances were wanting.”

But Lowell finds about as much to appreciate as he finds to gripe about, and so Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm also sets a precedent for the sympathetic Korean travelogues to follow, in which the author’s countless irritations with the place give way — or at least lose the upper hand — to a kind of admiration: sometimes grudging and often amused at points of seeming inferiority, but admiration nonetheless. And on the whole, his attitude provides an example even today’s Western observers of Asia would do well to follow: “There is among us a prevailing impression that the far East — China, Korea, and Japan — is delightfully but hopelessly odd, and that the interest attaching to these lands lies solely in this irrational oddity,” and, simply accepting this perception, “partly from want of opportunity, partly from neglect, we open the eyes, shut the brain, and think we see.” (It also helps that, unlike many writers on Korea even now, he displays an understanding of the language.)

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Lowell keeps his brain open, and as a result sees Korea with such clear eyes (in his prose as well as his photographs, a selection of which appear here) that his account holds up today in its revelation of both how much and how little has changed here in the past 130 years, a period at the beginning of which “Korea stepped as a debutante into the society of the world.” First, to the differences. Not only has Korea found out about the wheel, they’ve put up a high speed train that can deliver a modern-day Lowell from Busan, his port of entry to Japan, to Seoul in under three hours, rather than the days and days over sea and land the trip required in the 19th century. And when he got there, he certainly couldn’t make the observation, as Lowell did, that “there is not a single religious building in the whole of Seoul” — not only but most obviously because of all the Christian churches and their blazing red neon crosses that have sprung up since his day.

Only a rare Korea resident reading the book in the 21st century — or even in the second half of the 20th — could stifle their laughter as Lowell offhandedly explains that “nothing in Korea is ever done in a hurry.” Few discussions of Korean society today can avoid coming around to the so-called bballi bballi (빨리 빨리) way of doing things, which elevates hurry to the highest virtue. That sudden shift in the speed of life here, which happened alongside the sudden shift in economic growth, gets the blame for all sorts of things laid at its feet, not least the shattering of the imagined peace and quiet implied by the nickname Lowell popularized with the second part of the book’s title.

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The first part of the book’s title, though romanized in a now-outdated fashion, served to remind us that, when Lowell went to Korea, he went during the tail end of the Joseon Dynasty (조선 시대), which lasted five centuries from 1392 to 1897 and now provides the setting for the vast majority of historical films, television dramas, and novels that come out. (They pay rather less attention to the Japanese colonial period whose gears started turning thereafter.) But those modern Joseon stories tend to involve women, whereas Lowell’s Joseon experience, apart from his attendance at parties with hired geisha-like professionals and a desperate attempt to photograph a a woman who ran away, scandalized, before he could even set up his camera, leads in to declare that “in Korea woman practically does not exist.”

“Materially, physically, she is a fact,” he explains, “but mentally, morally, socially, she is a cipher.” That was not, of course true, and the segregation is over. The public spaces of Seoul, to an outsider free to roam them during the day, now feels as much like a world of women as it felt like a world of men to Lowell. The men of Korea are shut away in their offices, a sign that gender equality is still far off. In a sense, women have led the way in the cosmopolitanization of the capital as well as other cities, patronizing each new wave of cafés, restaurants, and other gathering places while the men, according to the stereotype, remain in more traditional spaces, grilling meat and draining bottle after green bottle of soju.

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Not that the women of Korea, now free to eat what and where they please, readily turn down an evening at the barbecue themselves. Lowell names as “one of the most salient of the national characteristics” an “insatiable appetite,” in thrall to which “the average Korean does not eat that he may live, but live that he may eat,” with the result that “to the average Korean, it is always meal-time.” The culture of eating remains strong still, as does the culture of smoking, a practice that Lowell found “as common in Korea as in Japan; that is, everybody smokes — all the time,” and those who don’t often have to make elaborate excuses not to partake while everyone else around them does. But Korea, more so than Japan, looks lately to have begun turning its back on cigarettes, and in that the women have also taken the lead, and by a wide margin.

The similarities, though, stick out even more than the differences. “The greater part of the steamers that ply there are not what they might be,” Lowell writes of the waters off Korea’s west coast, adding that accidents “happen at intervals.”. Disasters at sea and elsewhere, most recently in April 2014, and any other elements of Korean life people find objectionable, are often blamed on the lingering ill influence of Confucianism. Lowell describes Confucianism as something that has been “artificially, because arbitrarily, prolonged, and has long since outlived its usefulness,” especially in the form of filial piety, which he describes as “the one great moral principle of the far East. All others exist, as it were, in abeyance. Truth is unknown, honesty largely out of practice, and chastity a luxury wherever it is a fact.”

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Yet despite these complaints, Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm doesn’t read like a work written out of frustration. He hates uncomfortable palanquins and what he sees as the shiftless, constantly hungry “coolies” hired to carry them, but usually Lowell withholds judgment, and sees better. His was an undivided Korea of 12 million people, with few roads and no tall buildings; and withholding judgment yields even more insights in the high-tech, hypertrophied 25-million-strong capital of South Korea of today.

“It is a curious case of partially arrested development,” writes Lowell, assessing the state of the Korea he found, marveled at, and ultimately warmed to. “The evolution of the fundamental principles was checked, while the superficial details of civilization went on growing.” Whether those fundamental principles have changed in the past 130 years it falls to modern Koreanists to determine, but boy, did the civilization ever keep on growing. Has that subsequent development been all to the good? Has it been anywhere? Does Korea remain, if not a land of morning calm then, as Lowell put it, “a thrice happy land, indeed, where a man does not make love to his friend’s umbrella”? If you want to know what that means, well, you’ll have to read the book. Rest assured that he explains it all there, to the best of his ability — and in detail.

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


Watching Big Brother: A Q&A with Chinese Political Cartoonist Badiucao

By Sophie Beach

The invaluable China Digital Times website, which has a regular “Drawing the News” feature and publishes related illustrated e-books is releasing a new collection today — Watching Big Brother: Political Cartoons by Badiucao. Along with a rich sampling of works by the artist, who was born in Shanghai and is now based in Australia, the ebook includes an interview with Badiucao (a pen name) conducted by Sophie Beach, executive editor of CDT. The Los Angeles Review of Books has been given exclusive rights to run an excerpt from that interview for “The China Blog.”

SOPHIE BEACH: You have been the subject of Twitter smear campaigns in recent months. Who do you think is behind these attacks, and what was your response? Has it changed your attitude toward your drawing? Has it changed your approach to being active on the Internet?

BADIUCAO: In recent years, I have been subjected to large-scale Internet attacks twice. I believe these attacks are linked to the Chinese government’s control of the Internet, for two reasons: First, both attacks happened after I had drawn cartoons in support of human rights activists who had been imprisoned, and the drawings had been picked up by Amnesty International and the international media. Second, all the slanderous attacks against me use show the political positions of the Chinese government—the language used by the attackers is full of clichés and their user profiles seem to be automated fake accounts. This shows that these attacks are not from individuals, but are organized systematically. The goal of this kind of attack is not just to threaten me, but possibly to pollute search results for “badiucao,” and to block the visibility of my cartoons online.

The first time I faced an online attack, I was terrified. I had previously received sporadic threats, but never this type of coordinated attack. Some “fifty centers” [a nickname for people paid by the authorities to post comments on line] wrote several essays to specifically “expose the ugly soul of hypocrisy under my skin.” From this essay I could see that they had very carefully examined my words and collected specific personal information about me. When it reached this degree, I slowed down my drawing.

But then, I felt I couldn’t control my creative impulse. I also understood that the only way to overcome the fear of such attacks was to make them public and to continue to draw. It is like when facing the threat of terrorists: once you compromise, the other side will only intensify. The second time I was attacked, I could face it calmly. I even saved all the words and articles attacking me, to keep as a witness. In the future I hope to use them as creative materials.

Since we last spoke, fellow cartoonist Rebel Pepper has been living in exile in Japan after being attacked in the official media in China. Do you think there is any space currently for political cartoonists living in China, or is it just too dangerous?

I believe that the Chinese space for political cartoonists in the mainland has already closed.

In the era when Weibo [a Chinese counterpart to Twitter] first launched, online satirical cartoonists were very active. We could see Kuang Biao, Dashixiong, and dozens of other cartoonists commenting on current events.  But now, I almost never see domestic cartoonists’ work.

But I don’t think we can be too hard on cartoonists for not fulfilling their full duties because the threats they face are real. Like the incident with Rebel Pepper; if you have no way to get away, you may have no choice but to shut up.


Read more about this image at China Digital Times.

Over the past year or so, you have drawn several portraits of human rights defenders that have been very well-received online. They are a departure from your previous, more narrative drawings. Is this a direction you plan to take your work in the future, away from the political “cartoons” and into more traditional drawing and painting styles?

This year, I drew several portraits of rights activists who had been detained.

I had three reasons for doing this: First, this year, the suppression of human rights activists was more severe than in years past. In the first half of the year the pressure was concentrated on NGOs and journalist groups. The second half of the year saw the crackdown on rights lawyers. It seems that after the authorities cleaned up competition inside the Party, they had a hand free to interfere with social dissent. Moreover, authorities used CCTV confessions as propaganda. Second, for those who have been on Twitter a long time, they understand Chinese rights activists and when these familiar people encounter problems, it can inspire a strong sense of solidarity. Third, from analyzing the two attacks on me, I have learned that authorities are very concerned about international media attention on the suppression of human rights activism. This encouraged me to continue creating portraits of China’s prisoners of conscience. Cartoons and portraits can create a unified visual symbol, which can help spread the message and attract sustained attention, in order to create pressure from public opinion. Maybe this pressure can improve the situation for those who are imprisoned, as well as comfort the family members of the persecuted.

But, this will not cause me to give up paying attention to and finding inspiration from current events. Showing solidarity for human rights activists and commenting on current events are not in conflict with each other; they both offer excellent opportunities to profile China. However, if you only have activists’ portraits without their background stories or a depiction of China’s overall environment, my work will become dull and weak, and even risks becoming a simple and emotional propaganda tool.

As for my own development, I will not stop creating cartoons. Cartoons and the Internet are already a part of my life. Drawing cartoons has helped form me and my identity.

Of course, I am now trying to use more artistic means to express myself: print-making, oil painting, sculptures, installations. Different media signify different forms of expression, and different platforms (for example streets, galleries, museums) mean different audiences. I hope to become as diverse an artist as Banksy or Ai Weiwei.

释永信 拷贝

Read more about this image at China Digital Times.


    新华社记者 张瑞华 摄

Everyday Life in Mao’s China: A Q&A with Historian Covell Meyskens

By Tong Lam

In addition to teaching at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, historian Covell Meyskens also curates Everyday Life in Mao’s China, a website filled with photographs and other images from 20th-century China. In this interview, Meyskens discusses the project with historian, photographer, and regular China Blog contributor Tong Lam.

TONG LAM: I noticed that you have been posting a lot of old PRC photographs on your blog. Could you tell us more about this project? What are your goals?

COVELL MEYSKENS: In the early 20th century, Paul Valery predicted that one day in the not too distant future, it would be possible for someone to access information from all over the world without having to travel anywhere. With the arrival of the digital age, this prediction has become our reality. The possibilities that this condition has opened up for contemporary scholarship are truly exciting. A few months ago, I began my first venture into this realm, when I created the website Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

The website came about largely by accident. Over the past few years, I had collected a number of digital photos of the Maoist period, but I had not made much of them, except as illustrations in my dissertation. Then, last fall, I began to show some in my courses to spur discussions. A few lively class sessions later, I realized how useful it would be to have a website where people could access all sorts of images of China under Mao.

So, as a public service, I founded a website on life in Mao’s China and started posting photos and paintings from roughly the 1930s to the 1980s. I have chosen this broader timeframe in order to encompass China’s transition both into and out of socialism. So that people can more readily locate images about certain topics, I am careful to appropriately categorize all postings. I also try as much as possible to include their date and location.

Where did you obtain these images? Did you collect them from the internet? Or did you scan them from old magazines, newspapers, or even from the archive?

All of the images are from the internet. The majority of images are from websites based in China, though I have found some on websites from other countries as well. I normally search for images using Mandarin, so most end up being from Chinese or Taiwanese sites. Some of the images come from Chinese archives, which have digitized and made public some of their visual holdings. These images are particularly interesting, because they tend to be more candid than pictures made for national media outlets like Xinhua. From what I can tell, work teams or local journalists appear to have produced most of this type of image. So, for instance, when a work team went to inspect a railroad or city, sometimes they would bring a camera in tow and take images. In archives, I have not come across these photos attached to documents. The only photos I have seen are ID type images attached to personnel files. This is perhaps because of the way that archives file materials. I am not sure.

In any case, another source of images is personal blogs, the biggest treasure trove probably being Sina blogs. Quite a few elderly people in China have written online memoirs on Sina blogs and formed online memoir communities, where people with common experiences exchange and comment on each others’ memoirs. Some people have also uploaded images onto their blogs. Some of these photos come from other sources, such as Xinhua, but individuals also post images that they took on their own. One really large genre is photos taken by sent-down youth, who probably due to their relatively privileged access to basic appliances, were to able to use cameras to document quite extensively their lives in rural China.

As you know, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mao and the Maoist era. Within academia, scholars from a wide political spectrum have been debating the meanings and significance of this period. Do you see yourself contributing to this debate?

Many documents from Maoist China are very programmatic. They are bureaucratic objects. They are about how effectively local areas have carried out some task set by higher levels in the bureaucracy, such as collecting leftover scrap metal, achieving a production target, or teaching correct safety procedures. Their writers focus on telling upper administration about how they are handling whatever administrative assignment they have been charged to do.

Of course, there are also cases where local officials decide not to allow upper levels of government to see into local life and occlude from view certain problem areas or willfully neglect to respond to certain queries by upper administration. Report writers might also employ the reigning wooden language of the day, a dissimulation tactic that also provides very little insight into the happenings of a local area. Occasionally, a bureaucrat might bring up other issues outside the assigned purview of discussion, but bureaucratic documents normally concentrate their descriptions and analyses on a fairly defined range of topics.

I’m not surprised at all that these images as well as their intentions could be very diverse. Instead of speculating on their intentionality, for me at least, it is just wonderful to look at the everyday life, material objects, social and rural spaces, and so forth. These images are telling stories that cannot not be easily captured by texts.

Yes, images are a different sensory apparatus than texts. They allow readers to visually experience time and space in a way that is much different than a text. A document on a given factory might spend pages talking only about whether workers were meeting production targets. On the other hand, a few images can provide a window onto what sort of everyday routines and activities workers engaged in, what clothes people wore, what their hair looked like, how their workplace was arranged, what sort of machinery it had, how people led work singalongs, what sort of tools laborers used, how well a factory workshop was lit. To cover such a wide variety of topics in a text, a bureaucrat would have to write a rather lengthy detailed report and would probably risk being reprimanded for not staying on point and not following proper report writing guidelines.

To look at the same question from a different perspective, some of the images on the EDL website are Potemkin images, which like the famed Soviet village present an ideal representation of socialist life for visitors to experience. In the case of photos, these are images where it is fairly obvious that a photographer has asked for people to arrange themselves in a particular place in a certain way and in which the people in the photos almost always smile, even when they are engaged in practices that would have probably involved a much wider range of emotions than happiness.

This tendency to have one emotion dominate the visual realm of socialist cultural production suggests that there was probably an official rule that everyone in photos distributed in the mass media had to look like they were enjoying what they were doing, as if everyday life was an experience of constant happiness in a country, like Maoist China, where people were in theory incessantly working for the creation of a socialist universe of experience not just in China, but in the entire world. Historians of visual images from Maoist China may have uncovered such a rule already, I do not know, but even if such a rule did not exist, the abundance of smiling faces in Maoist era mass media implies that there was at least a tacit expectation that photographers knew that a good socialist cultural worker would airbrush cheer onto nearly every visage approved for wide distribution.

To be fair, staging for documentary purpose is hardly unique to socialist photography. Many, if not most, of the iconic scenes that we see in poster shops are staged or at least reenactments of something that the photographer had encountered earlier. I guess your point here is that those socialist stagings are rather formulated. But are there also photographs that do not fit into this genre?

There are definitely counter examples, even for such icons of Maoism as Lei Feng, who apparently rode a motorcycle through Tiananmen Square. Other images show that the State wish — fantasy of socialism incessantly lighting up every face with positive feelings was patently not true. For instance, this photo contains a family reading Mao’s works at home. No one in the family looks particularly happy, enthusiastic, or excited, as the dominant ideology prescribed them to be when reading Mao. Nor do they appear to be especially enlightened, even though they are imbibing the great beacon of international socialism — Mao Thought. Instead, most of the figures in the picture look rather bored or amused that someone is taking their picture. Their minds seem to be not there, but elsewhere. They are not occupied with contemplating Mao’s words, nor are they engaging in a lively discussion to more fully understand Mao. They seem instead to be distracted.

The Potemkin style of course was not restricted to images. It had a sort of analogue in the world of documents. It is the kind of document I referred to earlier which consists almost entirely of wooden political slogans, like “lift high the great red flag of Mao Thought” and other bureaucratic phrases that are almost completely abstracted from a specific place or time. These documents erase locality, subtract out geography, and make all China appear as a simulacra of the reigning ideology at any given moment. They make it seem that there is only one China that is the nearly the same everywhere. How a specific political campaign played out at a mine in Sichuan was exactly the same as how it was unfolding in rural Hubei or a Beijing market.

Scholars of China use another type of simplifying language, when they, for instance, describe the few years after the Great Leap Forward (1961–1964) as a period setting the stage for the Cultural Revolution, all the while occluding from view the plethora of social practices various groups engaged in, such as kids riding a hobby horse, professional gamers playing in an international Go competition, families taking portraits, city folk attending a Lantern Festival, a reporter making a newscast from a flood zone, a family going to a pastry shop in Shanghai or taking a stroll in a park, an old man receiving a telegram in Lhasa, thousands of people gathering for an anti-Vietnam War protest, holiday revelers setting off May Day fireworks in Tiananmen, engineers designing a public bus for Beijing, or an artist painting a dam.

Every historian admittedly has to choose a topic, time period, and location to examine and characterize. But, for a historian to become aware of the panorama of practices current at any given time in Maoist China, she has to read a rather large volume of files from a number of different sections of the government, an endeavor that takes a huge amount of time and requires a high level of access to archives that is not likely to be possible in the CCP’s current drive to keep out of view the archival secrets of its past and not reckon with them in anything but political fables.

To attain the same level of scope, a handful of images sometimes suffice. For instance, another genre of photos on the EDL website is young people during the Cultural Revolution engaging in leisure activities such as celebrating the birth of a child, visiting the Leshan giant Buddha, or palling around with friends in Beihai Park in Beijing in 1967 and 1968, a time typically remembered as full of violent political factionalism, not a time for knitting a sweater, practicing martial arts, holding a wedding, or taking a selfie. Historical photographs also show the violent side of the Cultural Revolution in a different light. For example, they contain the kinds of weapons people had, ranging from machine guns to improvised tanks, and what they did with them, which included a whole host of activities, from posing for class photos and parading martyrs around the city to elementary school red guards and students standing by memorials for their classmates who had died in factional struggles.

This last batch of photographs that you are showing here are indeed fascinating. For me, many of these images seem to tell stories that are beyond the narrow confines of politics of the moment. These are also images of young men and women coming of age. These are images of joy, sorrow, love, narcissism, and so forth. It seems that their emotions really do reach out to us — the spectators of these photos. The bottom line is that we need to read photographs against and along the grain. In short, your project encourages to use the Chinese socialist photographs, including those propaganda ones, seriously. This, by the way, reminds me of all the mockery of the propaganda photographs coming out from North Korea these days. Perhaps there are other ways to read those photographs as well.

There is certainly more to learn from photos of North Korea than how ridiculous the regime is. In general, ridicule tells much more about the biases of the person giving the insult than about the insulted. I haven’t examined a large number of propaganda images of North Korea, but I am fairly sure that they provide avenues into understanding much more about life under the regime than how contemptible the [Workers’ Party of Korea] is. Contempt is only one mode of analysis. There are many others.

Image: “The Village Listens to the Radio, Beijing Suburbs September 1954,” from Everyday Life in Mao’s China.

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Finding Korea in Osaka

By Colin Marshall 

My friend Nick Currie, the musician, artist, and writer best known as Momus, has enjoyed a variety of roles in his career, most recently that of the Japan Times‘s Unreliable Food Critic. While he’s long engaged his own fascination with Japan in the service of his music, he only moved to the country relatively recently, about five years ago. (You can listen to a radio interview I did with him on the subject of going there at the bottom of my collection of podcasts related to Japan.) I met up with him yesterday in Osaka, his home as well as one of my favorite cities in the world — in a league with the likes of Seoul and Los Angeles — for what he calls his “prostitution and destitution” tour, an afternoon stroll through a few neighborhoods that happen to sustain those two conditions.

For all their fascination value, neither of these areas have much in the way of high eating. (Though the signs hanging outside the countless tiny, immaculately presented, and open-fronted brothels of Tobita Shinchi do present the businesses as “restaurants,” and, word on the street has it, will actually order in food from elsewhere should a thoroughly oblivious foreigner wander in hungry.) But that makes them no less fertile ground for the Unreliable Food Critic, a title the food-indifferent Nick crafted for himself that comes with a mission, stated in his debut column, to “explore back alleys where gimlet-eyed men in baggy carpenter pants glance up from enormous bowls, surprised to see a foreigner,” to “shop at garish supermarket chain Tamade,” and to “head to Osaka’s Korean district and rhapsodise about the cheap eats in the market.”

He did just that last in his second column, which found him “in the dark arcades below Osaka’s Tsuruhashi Station” chomping on an ojingeo jeon (오징어 전), “a rubbery crepe filled with spring onions and flattened seafood, and I’m able to bite the pancake from the packet as I wander around this warren of rundown arcades. You couldn’t eat okonomiyaki this way, but here, the center of Japan’s biggest Korean community — almost 120,000 people at the last count — it’s not a problem.” And so, after having passed through the prostitution and destitution, I kept walking, making my own way to Tsuruhashi for a local taste, in as many senses of the word as I could find it, of the country I came from.

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But I hadn’t come straight to Osaka from Seoul; I first spent a weekend in Tokyo, a city so vast and varied that, if you dislike it, you’re probably just doing it wrong. (The same principle holds, maybe even more so, for Los Angeles.) But as soon as I stepped off the bullet train and set foot in Osaka, I knew the second-largest city in Japan would successfully defend its title as my favorite city in Japan. While still very much a Japanese city, it has a slightly ramshackle and famously boisterous nature — powered by what Nick once called a current of “vulgar commercial energy” — and an abundance of still-present artifacts in its aesthetic environment of an earlier Japan, the Japan of the Shōwa period, and especially the Japan of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

You can find that sort of thing in Tokyo, but I sense that you have to work a little harder to do it; in Osaka, it surrounds you. One vivid illustration takes the form of two projects by Kisho Kurokawa, a famous architect who designed many of Japan’s iconic buildings of those late Shōwa decades. I first went to see the Nakagin Capsule Tower, an apartment building made of theoretically modular cubical “capsules” owners could “unplug” and replace whole, which has stood in Tokyo since 1972. Alas, this visionary structure has fallen on hard times indeed: a netting now covers it to hold in the parts that periodically fall off, some of the capsules (none ever replaced) brim with junk, others sit long since abandoned, and none of them get hot water. (You can, however, rent one on Airbnb, but not sleep in it.)

Then, when I came to Osaka, I checked into at the Kurokawa-designed Capsule Inn, the progenitor of a type of hotel the world now thinks of as quintessentially Japanese. Though only seven years newer than the Nakagin Capsule Tower, the Capsule Inn Osaka has kept in vastly better shape, surely looking on the whole not much different than it did on opening day. Granted, it’s since developed many a rough edge and absorbed decades of cigarette smoke, but it’s comfortable and very much its own kind of place that operates smoothly in its own way — all things you could say about Osaka itself.

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I did, however, sweat it a bit when I first approached the reception desk. Every foreign language-learner will know what I mean when I say that I followed along well enough when the girl working the counter began explaining to me the rules of the hotel, but then my understanding started to lose traction. Still, I kept “hai, hai, hai”-ing through it, grasping less and less as I went, though I did make out that she’d asked me for my address. I told her I live in Korea, and she gasped with surprise — it turned out she was Korean herself, as I learned after we switched, she overwhelmed with excitement and me overwhelmed with relief, to her native language. A graduate of Ewha Womans University (to which I live practically next door), she’d come to Osaka for, in her words, “just an experience.”

Back out on the streets, I heard the voices of a great many more Koreans out having experiences, each one turning my head toward the bracing splash of understanding, a presence that does its part to make Osaka my Japanese city of choice. It certainly did its part to make Los Angeles my American city of choice, something I wrote about not long ago for Boom in a piece about finding the Korea in California and the California in Korea. But I’ve found some Korea in Japan as well, my enjoyment of which I tried to convey to the lady from Busan (long Korea’s port of entry for things Japanese, for better or for worse) from whose close-quartered Tsuruhashi restaurant I ordered some bibimbap. I wanted to explain how I realized that Osaka brings, for me, some enriching measure of the spirit of improvisationally and directness I so appreciate in Korea to Japan, a country that has elevated procedure and indirectness to cultural art forms.

Instead, I just said that I like Osaka because it has a Korean feeling — a 한국 느낌. “The weather is cold,” as Nick wrote as the Unreliable Food Critic, “but not as brutally icy as it is currently on the Korean peninsula. The arcades are cleaner here, but I miss seeing colorfully dressed ajumma women (the universal Korean “aunt” figure with her tightly permed black hair and brashly clashing garment patterns) sitting on newspapers on the ground chopping vegetables, and I miss Korea’s younger population, with its louder vitality. Like the Korean cuisine here, the Zainichi (ethnic Korean residents of Japan) in Osaka seems a touch cleaned up and toned down. But they still spice up Japan.” And they keep me appreciating both countries, whichever one I find myself in.

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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Ways of Seeing Korean Plastic Surgery

By Colin Marshall 

The first morning of my first visit to Seoul, I went out looking for coffee and came back with a stereotype seemingly confirmed beyond all expectations. After I found the nearest main road and started walking down it, I soon came upon a coffee shop (as I knew even then, Korea has quite a density of them), but couldn’t bear to enter it. The second one I found had the same problem, and I walked on further still, past a third and a fourth that I avoided on similar grounds. They were all open for business, none with too big a crowd, and I certainly had enough Korean to order a coffee. So what spooked me so badly? It was their location: that is, they were all located inside plastic surgery clinics, institutions I had already learned to fear and loathe from the disapproving attitudes of countless trend pieces on Korea.

It hasn’t taken long for them to lean hard on a narrow set of tropes: the tense relationship with the North, the ultra-competitive academic culture, the robust pop music and television drama industries, and, yes, the creepy popularity of cosmetic surgery. No matter the medium, these reports usually make their way to quotes from a few Kim Jihyes on the street who blithely state their intentions to get new eyelids, a new chin, a new nose, or some combination of the three (maybe even bought as a gift by her parents, should she do well enough on her college entrance exam) in order to one day land the right job, the right man, or both. This sort of thing causes a good deal of us in the West, and especially America, to stroke our imperfect chins and lament what we see as some sort of conformist, surface-obsessed dystopia of the image.

The subject comes so laden with baggage and cliché that, on one level, I haven’t really wanted to write about it; but on another level, some of the questions I consider most interesting never really get asked. At the top of the list: what about Korean plastic surgery, exactly, bothers Westerners so much? Different Westerners have different theories. Some think it has to do with a perceived hypocrisy, in that the longer a non-Korean lives here, the more of the glories of the Korean race that non-Korean will have heard implicitly or explicitly trumpeted. So why, they sarcastically wonder, does this world-beatingly superior people so badly need the assistance of cosmetic surgeons?

Others find it bothersome to see such flagrant engagement in an activity so many in the West see as cheating; at least when Americans go in for plastic surgery, they have the decency to lie about it afterwards. Others regard the face as such an integral component of one’s identity that to casually change it seems as inhuman a choice as to casually change one’s name. (Then again, Koreans also do a surprising amount of name-changing, often casting off their “old-fashioned” given name in favor of whatever name happens to be most popular at the time; imagine the equivalent in America, where a few thousand grown Johns, Roberts, and Davids each year apply to change their name to, say, Jaden.)

Others still put forth a more controversial opinion: that Koreans use plastic surgery to make themselves look more Western, but refuse to admit it. To what extent we can consider Westernization an aesthetic goal of Korean plastic surgery has, so I’ve discovered, become something of a third rail in conversations about all this. I’ve scrolled past many a knock-down, drag-out online argument about whether Koreans have been spending all this money on lighter skin, wider-open eyes, and tapered jawlines in order to meet Western standards of beauty, or whether they do it to meet “classical Chinese” standards of beauty — a trivial distinction, to my mind, if the outcome is the same either way, but clearly not to the combatants in these elaborate debates.

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Surely we can all agree on one thing: that Korea and the United States have very different standards of appearance indeed. I first noticed signs of the chasm between the societies when I began to understand enough Korean to get a sense of what Koreans talk about when they talk about how people look: for instance, I’ve heard evaluations of the quality of skin in great detail, skin always having been something that, to my mind, you either had or you didn’t. I’ve heard much about the concept of face size — the smaller the better, according to their schema — which I’ve stopped even pretending to understand.

But the importance placed on appearance applies as much to clothing as it does to bodily characteristics. Many a Korean-American who pays a visit to the ancestral homeland returns filled with bitterness about the ceaseless nagging drawn by their style of dress, or lack thereof. I met one such lady who still seethes about how, when first she went to Korea back in the 1990s, her relatives all gave the stink eye, and worse, to her baggy jeans and Doc Martens — though she never once paused to consider whether her baggy jeans and Doc Martens may have been ugly.

When it comes to dress, I would submit that the Korean dystopia of the image doesn’t have it all wrong. Often when I think about what drove me from America, I think of the fact that, granted the freedom to dress just about any which way we like, we schlub around in hoodies and cargo shorts, a choice we make out of pure laziness but, if pressed, couch in incoherent terms of egalitarianism (or worse, self-expression, a concept which, to my delight, hasn’t yet caught on here as an absolute good), as if our slovenliness somehow put us all on an equal plane. In fact, even under those sartorially miserable conditions, the strata remain visible: witness how, in a city like Los Angeles, poor people dress in cheap sweatpants and flip-flops, whereas rich people dress in expensive sweatpants and flip-flops.

At least in Korea you see people putting in the hours, so to speak, by which I don’t mean that everyone here has somehow become a style virtuoso; far from it, especially among the older generations, whose women raise socks with sandals to the status of native garb, and whose men sport some of the most hilariously incongruous toupées I’ve seen everywhere. Words fail me to explain the preference for socked sandals, but in the case of the hairpiece-wearers, I don’t think they’re trying to fool anyone as much as they’re trying to feel as if they’ve made the effort, and be seen to have made the effort, in the manner of Americans who conspicuously work out five days a week at the gym.

Physical fitness counts as one of the qualities of self into which Americans feel little shame about plowing time and money. Another, one much more uncomfortably similar to the plastic surgery so tut-tutted about in Korea, is orthodontia. When I was growing up and even before, many if not most American kids could expect to have to go through what amounts to a years-long cosmetic surgery procedure, albeit undergone in something like a dentist’s chair. Orthodontists can justify this eloquently and fearsomely with talk of how little Jaden’s crooked teeth will surely, if left unchecked, grow into his brain by his junior year, but the fact remains that American parents will gladly shell out for it because they don’t want their kid looking like a poor.

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On a higher level, we might draw a comparison between cosmetic surgery in Korea and psychotherapy in America, in that both have at least the ostensible motive of self-improvement, and both give you something to talk about and signal your relative wealth, especially to friends of roughly equal wealth. And then they have the Sisyphean element in common: you’re never really done with either one. Just as you meet Americans who profess, not without a hint of pride, to having spend decades on the couch, you see Koreans on the street (especially in Apgujeong, the neighborhood where I searched in vain for coffee that first morning) wearing telltale bandages whose non-bandaged parts also attest to previous rounds under the knife.

We tend to think of serial plastic surgery recipients in America as falling into several looked-down-upon categories: the delusional would-be celebrity, the washed-up real celebrity, the aging society wife. Here, cosmetic procedures get advertised to everyday (if reasonably well-off everyday) people as addressing a more practical suite of concerns. The simple fact that job applicants must always attach their photograph to their resume, effectively granting preferential hiring to the most attractive from the get-go (as opposed to in an enlightened society like America, where companies have to consider everyone before they can proceed to hire the most attractive anyway), along with what some Korea observers see as a lasting influence of superstitious face-reading, constitutes reason enough to consider it.

Those eminently utilitarian considerations, of course, doesn’t make me or other Americans any less weirded out by it. The overall effect, given the prevalence of the same set of procedures all meant to produce a basically similar same set of supposedly ideal features, can look like a chilling conformity. (I still can’t get over how, when Koreans rank the beauty of the celebrities, they agree.) Still, I resist the notion of Koreans as a nation of mindless trend-following drones. The force behind all this looks to me less like conformity than resignation, a sense of, “Screw it, if changing my eyelids will get me a raise, I’ll change my eyelids” — or, for that matter, “Screw it, if working at Samsung will get me a more comfortable life, I’ll work at Samsung,” or “Screw it, if moving to Gangnam will get my kids into a slightly better school, I’ll move to Gangnam.”

But I, personally, have no more honest or cogent objection to cosmetic surgery as practiced and consumed in Korea than that I don’t particularly like the look it produces. Take this as the one man’s opinion that it is, but you need only watch older Korean movies, from the 1960s, 70s, or even 80s, to realize that people looked better, or at least more distinctive, before. Whatever people have gained with the advances in plastic surgery — and you could put a positive spin on it by calling it it the democratization of beauty, assuming you find its results beautiful — they’ve also lost something.

This pressure about looks has begun to weigh on Korean men almost as much it has on Korean women. (The hot trend piece of late: In Korea, Men Buy Cosmetics Too!) But to the extent that the men have entered the plastic surgery market later than the women, they’ve taken on that much less of a freakishly bland similarity of appearance. Korean friends, after a couple of drinks, often ask me what I think of Korean women. I always say the same thing: the regular, real-life ones present themselves with a skill few others in the world can equal, but the celebrities — well, frankly, I can’t tell them apart. Then they agree with me and we all have a good laugh, but part of me worries that Korean plastic surgery won’t have accomplished its mission until I can’t tell anybody apart at all.

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


Words Hurt

This is the 19th 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 Brendan O’Neill

We shrinking few who still believe in freedom of speech have got ourselves into a terrible bind. We too often defend freedom of speech by insisting that speech isn’t particularly powerful or harmful. In one breath we argue that the freedom of people to think and utter whatever they want is the most important freedom in the world; in the next we suggest that people’s utterances are not weapons, can not wound, and thus should be categorised as “harmless” and should be none of officialdom’s business. Faced with a new kind of fragile and self-regarding censor, one who claims that novels can trigger PTSD and controversial campus speakers can make students feel physically ill, we respond with the favoured chastisement of the frustrated grown-up: “They’re only words. They won’t hurt you. Chill out.”

We must stop doing this. We cannot simultaneously hail the freedom to speak as the building block of democracy and civilisation and treat words as small, innocuous things. Either words count, or they don’t. We must recognise that words do sometimes hurt — and we should celebrate that. We should cheer the power of words to wound, to rattle, to turn upside down people’s and a society’s deeply held beliefs and possibly misplaced self-esteem. Forget telling censorious students and others that “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”; we should tell them: “Words do hurt. That’s what makes them great. And that’s why we should oppose every single effort to silence or strangle them.”

It is easy to see why many free-speech warriors are opting for the “only words” defence of freedom of speech. In recent years, a new form of sensitive censorship has emerged, one which seeks to protect people from the alleged psychic harm of ideas or images that run counter to their personal belief system or identity. This censorship as a safeguarding of individuals’ self-esteem is rampant on campuses in the US and Europe. Student leaders rage against speech they don’t like, whether it’s people calling into question the idea of reparations for slavery or feminists insisting that trans women are not real women. They insist that such speech can directly impact on certain students’ mental health. It can make them ill. It can destabilise their minds and their lives.

Many of these sensitive censors treat words as actual violence. Echoing the 1980s feminist warriors against pornography — who insisted that pornographic images were both an act of violence in themselves and the instigator of further acts of violence by the men who consumed them — campus censors claim offensive speech is as disorienting as a punch to the face, as lethal as a knife to the gut. In a recent piece for the Duke Chronicle, a Duke postgrad summed up the dread of words that now motors many student activists. Denouncing libertarians who trot out the “sticks and stones” line, he wrote: “Words hurt as much as actions; indeed, words are actions.” He went so far as to say that the distinction between distributing a racist pamphlet and committing an extralegal murder is “only of degree.” That is, racist words are as repulsive as a racist murder. We must dismantle the fiction of a “firm separation between speech and action”, he said. (“Free speech, Black lives and white fragility”, Bennett Carpenter, Duke Chronicle, 19 January 2016.)

It is of course incumbent upon defenders of freedom of speech to insist that there is a profound moral distinction between being insulted and being stabbed: the former makes you feel bad, possibly really bad, but the latter is a direct assault on your moral and bodily autonomy, on your ability to go about your daily life. But we must be careful to insist that the harm potentially caused by words is different to the harm caused by a knife – very different indeed – rather than denying the power of words to cause harm. For if we do that, then we denude freedom of speech of its greatest quality: its power to upset, to overturn, to freak out, to bring about moral and social upheaval.

We must first understand why many young people see words as physically, existentially painful. Over the past year, as campus censorship has become headline news in both the US and the UK, there has been a tendency among observers of a certain age to rage against the intolerance and authoritarianism of ungrateful youth. The problem is too often treated as a generational one. A writer for The Nation says students’ desire to “navigate material in a way that would be better for them psychologically” speaks to a “generational chasm” on matters of freedom of thought. This is wrong; the censorious behaviour of today’s students is in fact the logical conclusion to the academy’s own problematisation of offensive words and ideas over the past 30 or more years.

The idea that words wound, that books can invoke stress, that universities must be turned from “hostile” spheres into Safe Spaces, is not new. Such notions have been expressed in campus speech codes for decades. As far back as 1993, before most of today’s students were born, the academic contributors to a book tellingly titled Words That Wound argued that offensive or hateful speech could cause “severe psychological trauma.” They argued that minority students in particular are “acted upon and constructed by… speech.” (Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment, Mari J Matsuda et al, Westview Press, 1993.) From the early 1990s on, campus speech codes have said universities must not feel like “hostile environments.” Today’s students have imbibed these ideas, viewing books and speakers as the harbingers of “psychological trauma” and offensive ideas as “hostile.” Indeed, their Safe Spaces are surely only their answer to the academy’s own redefinition of itself over the past three decades as a potential “hostile environment” that can cause trauma or mental disarray.

Today’s censorious students are not alien creatures, arrived out of nowhere, overturning older generations’ beliefs; rather, they speak to the diminished moral autonomy of our times, to earlier generations’ disavowal of academic rigor, the right to offend, and the glories of pedagogic upset in terms of developing people’s minds and horizons. In an era when self-esteem is cherished more highly than robust individualism, and when the politics of identity encourages people to define their entire character and worldview according to their racial, gender or cultural traits, it makes perfect sense that a new generation should view words that call into question their beliefs as stabs to the gut, as violent threats to their sense of self and identity. For very real historical reasons, they genuinely experience words as destructive.

And our response should not be to say “they’re only words,” but rather to encourage the young – train them – to welcome and value the psychic disarray words can bring about, the moral discombobulation of speech that cuts against what we think is true and right. Words can hurt you, and that is good. Being offended is good for you. It forces you, in a confronting, sometimes ugly fashion, either to get better at articulating your deeply held beliefs or to rethink them, and maybe change them. It invites mental self-improvement or dramatic moral change. It keeps fit our mental and moral muscles. In the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman, “The energy of the human intellect does from opposition grow.”

Words hurt. They’re meant to. Christians were hurt by the demands of gay-rights activists. The Church felt genuinely rattled by Copernicus’s insistence that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the centre of the solar system. Monarchists were deeply wounded by European revolutionaries who publicly questioned the link between God and Kings. Those ideas hurt people – they were designed to. So much of the freedom and enlightened comfort we take for granted today is a gift of people who used their words to hurt – to hurt the authorities, traditionalists, the backward, the wrong. If it were not for the power of words to wound, to bring about mental and social upset, our societies would not be as free as they are today.

Words are weapons. They’re the best kind of weapons – weapons which shake minds rather than harm bodies. And that’s why we must never left officialdom or anyone else disarm us of these weapons, for they are the most important armoury the ordinary citizen has for challenging what he thinks is wrong and overthrowing what he considers unjust or anti-human or just silly. Where sticks and stones may break your bones, words won’t. But they will hurt you. Get used to it. Embrace it. It’s a wound that could benefit you.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked, the London-based online magazine, and is also a writer for the Spectator and the Daily Mail. He writes a column for Reason in the US and for the Big Issue in Britain, for which he was nominated as Columnist of the Year at the Press Publishing Awards. Described by the Daily Telegraph as “one of Britain’s sharpest social commentators”, he has written extensively on freedom and autonomy, and has spoken in favor of free speech at Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, and numerous other British universities. He was banned from speaking about abortion at Oxford in 2014, on the basis that he doesn’t have a uterus; his piece about this experience, titled “The Stepford Students” and published in the Spectator, has helped to shape the debate about campus censorship in the UK. His essay “From No Platform to Safe Space: The Corrosion of Enlightenment” will be published in the book “Unsafe Space: The Crisis of Free Speech on Campus” this year. He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.

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‘Bitter, Sweet, Seoul’: a Vivid Crowdsourced Portrait of an Unromanticized City

By Colin Marshall 

Even the least well-traveled Americans have a mental image — no matter how fantastical, outdated, or simply inaccurate — of cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo. But bring up Seoul, and apart from a few of the more garish sights seen in the “Gangnam Style” video, most of my countrymen draw a complete blank. I actually lamented this just today to a lady who works for Seoul’s city government, an organization that knows all too well the Korean capital’s lack of international recognizability.

That, given the steady flow of mostly Seoul-produced Korean cultural exports, will change in time, but therein lies the multi-million-dollar question: what will form that the ready-to-hand international image we all one day have of Seoul? Or perhaps, given the money Seoul has put into self-promotion in recent years, we should call it the multi-billion-won question. Some of that money funded “Seoul, Our Movie,” a campaign that called for video clips of everyday urban life there and ultimately brought in over 11,000 of them, shot on everything from film-industry-professional cameras to cellphones by people from all around the world.

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The filmmaking brothers Park Chan-kyong and Park Chan-wook (known together as PARKing CHANce) edited and soundscaped about 150 of them into an admirably coherent hour-long movie. (You may know the latter Park brother for having directed pictures like Joint Security Area, the first Korean movie I personally every knowingly watched, the grotesque thriller turned unexpected flagship of Korean cinema Oldboy, and the more recent international collaboration Stoker.) If you’ve never been to Seoul and want at least some foundation on which to base your own mental image of the city, you could do much worse than give that hour-long movie, which appeared with the title Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (고진감래, a saying meaning “sweet after bitter” or “pleasure after pain”), a watch, which you can do free on Youtube.

The viewing experience will provide you with glimpses of a host of elements of the Seoul experience, including but not limited to mechanized parking garages, bowing robots, forests of concrete apartment towers, people compulsively taking and viewing pictures of things, journeys on various conveyances across (and down) the Han River, the aftermath of infrastructural disaster, commutes on the buses and trains, elderly street vendors, even more elderly women tasked with manual labor, deliverymen scooting to and fro, all-seeing CCTV surveillance cameras, swarming police troops, neon-illuminated crosses, traces of shamanism, amplified public proselytization, Chinese shoppers, various performers in animal costume, a girl opening her very own coffee shop, and children dancing before video screens.

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I shouldn’t imply that Seoul has no image at all in anyone’s mind; there does exist a faint, received view of the it as a gray, crowded, harshly pragmatic sort of place, a kind of Asian capitalist boomtown version of a drab Soviet capital, a city that has known only the forces of destruction and construction, an unforgiving urban grind whose people work themselves nearly to death (between bouts of misery-palliating drunkenness) that they may emigrate from it. When you talk to Koreans who did emigrate, especially if they did so between the 1960s and the 1980s, they probably remember a Seoul not terribly unlike that; as for the Korean War veterans who didn’t care if they never even heard the place’s name again, they probably remember an ever worse one — one we see in bits of grainy wartime footage included for comparison and contrast to the modern megalopolis in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul.

As the film reveals, Seoul has changed. But as it also reveals, Seoul hasn’t made a complete 180 from hardscrabble backwater to Fun City, ROK. It may never become as tourist-renowned as Paris or even Tokyo, but I consider that wholly to its credit. I’d rather not live in a city where every tenth person on the street has a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand (although you can already spot a fair few of their Chinese equivalents), or one that practically comes ready-made with landmarks in front of which to photograph oneself. Not that constant, widespread, and habitual selfie-, or selka- (셀카) taking doesn’t happen here in Seoul; there just aren’t so many canonized locations in which to do it.

KB - Bitter Sweet Seoul 1

This aligns with my personal taste for unromanticized cities. Others in my favored group include Toronto, whose reputation for bland stolidity masks untold urban riches; Osaka, powered by an avowedly uncouth commercial energy that sets it vigorously apart from the rest of Japan; and indeed Los Angeles, subject though it is to more mythologizing than most cities, but whose departures from traditional city forms and sensibilities invariably color that mythology with disdain, or the perception thereof. Seoul may not boast much inherent romance, but it has the much more appealing quality — at least to me — of not needing to.

Then again, just after my conversation with that representative from City Hall, I did go right out the front of City Hall to Seoul Plaza (that popular protest site) to join my girlfriend for an afternoon of ice-skating in the rink the city sets up every year, just about as happy an urban experience as one can imagine. Some of the footage used in Bitter, Sweet, Seoul consists of interviews with men and women on the street about their feelings for the city, though few of the interviewees can put those feelings, if they admit to having any into the first place, into concrete terms. The most telling response, to my mind, comes from a young soldier who, when asked what Seoul means to him, responds, “A place where 24 hours in a day is not enough.” Putting the finishing touches on the post well after midnight at the end of a full day indeed, I think I know just what he means. 

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



By Barton Gellman

This is the 18th 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.

Some of this material appeared previously on the website of The Century Foundation, and is republished with the foundation’s permission.

On September 24, 2015, I gave a keynote presentation at Purdue University about the NSA, Edward Snowden, and national security journalism in the age of surveillance. It was part of the excellent Dawn or Doom colloquium, which I greatly enjoyed. The organizers live-streamed my talk and promised to provide me with a permalink to share.

After unexplained delays, I received a terse e-mail from the university. Upon advice of counsel, it said, Purdue “will not be able to publish your particular video” and would not be sending along a copy to me. The conference hosts, once warm and hospitable, stopped replying to my e-mails and telephone calls. I don’t hold it against them. Very likely they were under lockdown by spokesmen and lawyers.

It turned out that Purdue had wiped all copies of my video and slides from university servers, on grounds that I had displayed classified documents briefly on screen. (Eventually, my colleagues and I managed to and post it on the Century Foundation web site.) A breach report was filed with Purdue’s Research Information Assurance Officer, also known as the Site Security Officer, under the terms of Defense Department Operating Manual 5220.22-M. I am told that Purdue briefly considered, among other things, whether to destroy the projector I had borrowed from them, lest contaminants remain.

Just after I published the first version of this post, I received an e-mail from Julie Rosa, who heads strategic communications for Purdue. She confirmed that Purdue had wiped my video after consulting the Defense Security Service, but that the university now believed it had gone too far.

“In an overreaction while attempting to comply with regulations,” she wrote, “the video was ordered to be deleted instead of just blocking the piece of information in question. Just FYI: The conference organizers were not even aware that any of this had happened until well after the video was already gone.

“I’m told we are attempting to recover the video,” Rosa continued, “but I have not heard yet whether that is going to be possible.”

Let’s rewind. Information Assurance? Site Security?

These are familiar terms elsewhere, but new to me in a university context. I learned that Purdue, like a number of its peers, has a “facility security clearance” to perform classified US government research. The manual of regulations runs to 141 pages. (Its terms forbid uncleared trustees to ask about the work underway on their campus, but that’s a subject for another day.) The pertinent provision here, spelled out at length in a manual called Classified Information Spillage, requires “sanitization, physical removal, or destruction” of classified information discovered on unauthorized media.

If I had the spider sense that we journalists like to claim, I might have seen trouble coming. One of the first questions in the Q&A that followed my talk was:

“In the presentation you just gave, you were showing documents that were TS/SCI [top secret, sensitive compartmented information] and things like that. Since documents started to become published, has the NSA issued a declass order for that?”

I took the opportunity to explain the government’s dilemmas when classified information becomes available to anyone with an Internet connection. “These documents, by and large, are still classified,” I said. “And in many cases, if you work for the government and you have clearance, you’re not allowed to go look at them… Now, it’s perfectly rational for them to say, we’re not going to declassify everything that gets leaked because otherwise we’re letting someone else decide what’s classified and what’s not. But it gets them wound up in pretty bad knots.”

By way of example, I mentioned that the NSA, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence “have steadfastly refused to give me a secure channel to communicate with them” about the Snowden leaks. Bound by rules against mingling classified and unclassified communications networks, they will not accept, for example, encrypted e-mails from me that discuss Top Secret material. In service of secrecy rules, they resort to speaking, albeit elliptically, on open telephone lines.

My remarks did not answer the question precisely enough for one post-doctoral research engineer. He stood, politely, to nail the matter down.

“Were the documents you showed tonight unclassified?” he asked.

“No. They’re classified still,” I replied.

“Thank you,” he said and resumed his seat.

Eugene Spafford, a Purdue professor of computer science who has held high clearances himself, wrote to me afterward. “We have a number of ‘junior security rangers’ on faculty and staff who tend to be ‘by the book.’ Unfortunately, once noted, that is something that cannot be unnoted.”

Sure enough, someone filed a report with the above-mentioned Information Assurance Officer, who reported in turn to Purdue’s representative at the Defense Security Service, a government agency. By the terms of its Pentagon agreement, Purdue was officially obliged to be shocked to find that spillage is going on at a talk about Snowden and the NSA. A small number of secret slides, covering perhaps five of my 90 minutes on stage, required that video be wiped in its entirety.

This was, I think, a rather devout reading of the rules. (Taken literally, the rules say Purdue should also have notified the FBI. I do not know whether that happened.) A more experienced legal and security team might have taken a deep breath and applied the official guidance to “realistically consider the potential harm that may result from compromise of spilled information.”

Or perhaps not. Yes, the images I displayed had been viewed already by millions of people online. Even so, federal funding might be at stake for Purdue, and the notoriously vague terms of the Espionage Act also hung over the decision. For many lawyers, “abundance of caution” would be the default choice.

This kind of zeal is commonplace in the military and intelligence services. They have periodically forbidden personnel — and even their families — to visit mainstream sites such as The Washington Post and The New York Times for fear of exposure to documents from Snowden or Wikileaks.

But universities are not secret agencies. They cannot lightly wear the shackles of a National Industrial Security Program, as Purdue agreed to do. The values at their core, in principle and often in practice, are open inquiry and expression.

I do not claim I suffered any great harm when Purdue purged my remarks from its conference proceedings. I do not lack for publishers or public forums. But the next person whose talk is disappeared may have fewer resources.

More importantly, to my mind, Purdue has compromised its own independence and that of its students and faculty. It set an unhappy precedent, even if the people responsible thought they were merely following routine procedures.

Think of it as a classic case of mission creep. Purdue invited the secret-keepers of the Defense Security Service into one cloistered corner of campus (“a small but significant fraction” of research in certain fields, as the university counsel put it). The trustees accepted what may have seemed a limited burden, confined to the precincts of classified research.

Now, the security apparatus claims jurisdiction over the campus (“facility”) at large. The university finds itself “sanitizing” a conference that has nothing to do with any government contract. Where does it stop? Should a faculty member ignore the Snowden documents when designing a course on network security architecture? Should a student write a dissertation on modern U.S.-Saudi relations without consulting the numerous diplomatic cables on Wikileaks?

I honestly do not know how faculty and trustees can be comfortable with this arrangement. Some are not, I discovered.

“There is a fundamental conflict between the role of the university and the application of the [facility clearance] rules,” Spafford told me. “I’m not sure if the university is taking them too far, or if the rules are too constraining and they didn’t understand what they were getting into.”

Before writing this post, I reached out to a vice president and other senior figures I met on campus. I hoped to find that there had been some mistake. I received no reply. Days later, when the incident became briefly notorious, Purdue issued a , alleging that my lecture was an act of civil disobedience in breach of “clear federal law.” That compounded the damage, I think. It is an eccentric view of federal law, at best, to equate First Amendment speech with civil disobedience. The government itself has made no such claim. Marty Lederman, who served in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, offered a  .

The irony is that the Dawn or Doom colloquium was the personal project of Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who became Purdue’s president two years ago. Daniels had introduced my talk and asked me to speak again for guests at a dinner he held that night.. Two of the organizers told me he is fascinated by the contradictory responses — from celebration to alarm — that tend to accompany big technological advances. He proposed to convene Purdue faculty members and leading national experts to explore the risks and promises of artificial intelligence, robotics, and Big Data surveillance, among other developments.

In his own view, Dawn or Doom is not a hard question. Daniels and I chatted about that theme as we stood in the wings off stage, shortly before my talk.

“The answer always turns out to be, it’s dawn,” he said.

I wonder.

Postscript: At Princeton, where I have been a visiting lecturer, two of my best students nearly dropped a course I taught a few years back, called “Secrecy, Accountability and the National Security State,” when they learned the syllabus would include documents from Wikileaks. Both had security clearances for summer jobs, and feared losing them. I told them that I would put the documents on Blackboard, an internal university server. They need not visit the Wikileaks site itself, but the readings were mandatory.

Both, to their credit, stayed in the course. They did so against the advice of some of their mentors, including faculty members. The advice was purely practical. The U.S. government will not give a clear answer when asked whether this sort of exposure to published secrets will harm job prospects or future security clearances. Why take the risk?

Every student and scholar must decide for him- or herself, but I think universities should push back harder, and perhaps in concert. There is a treasure trove of primary documents in the archives made available by Snowden and Chelsea Manning. The government may wish otherwise, but that information is irretrievably in the public domain. If higher education has one sacred mission, it is to seek out authoritative sources of knowledge, wherever they reside, and defend the freedom to read, speak and write about them without fear.

Barton Gellman (@bartongellman), a Pulitzer Prize and Emmy Award winning writer, is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and visiting research fellow at Princeton. He led coverage of the NSA at The Washington Post, based on a classified archive that Edward Snowden gave him in 2013. He is now writing a book for Penguin Press on surveillance and privacy. Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, his previous book, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a New York Times Best Book of 2008He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.


Do Cartoonists Have the Right to Offend?

By Zunar

This is the 17th 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.


It was recently the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, when two brothers who claimed to be Muslims stormed the French satirical newspaper’s offices, killing 11 people. This saddened me both as an artist and a Muslim. Freedom of expression is a universal right, and if something offends or bothers us, violent retaliation is not the right response. It is never the right response. Prophet Muhammad was a peaceful man – our response should be peaceful just as the Prophet’s response would have been, and just as other religions would espouse as well.

While people might not agree with the artist’s content or message, the right of the artist should be respected, just as a person’s right to express an opinion – whatever the opinion – should be respected. Instead of resorting to violence, Muslims should, instead, find peaceful means of expressing their opinions.

In Malaysia, where I’m from, the parameters of freedom of expression continue to shift, at the detriment of the people. Article 10 in our constitution guarantees our freedom of expression although laws like the colonial-era Sedition Act, which criminalises acts with ‘seditious tendencies’ to silence

In March 2015, I was charged with nine counts of sedition, with a maximum jail term of 43 years should I be found guilty on all counts – and all for tweeting cartoons. Instead of taking legal action against me and suing me, the government treats me like a criminal for doing the ‘wrong’ that is drawing cartoons that criticises them. 

As cartoonists, we need to make our stands clear, and if this stand is seen as ‘threatening’ the government’s power, it is cartoonists like me who suffer as a result. For this reason, I’ve removed the copyrights to my cartoons to allow people to freely reproduce them. Cartoons are powerful: often no words are needed and their messages are clear, making them accessible no matter what a person’s background. Perhaps that is what the government is most afraid of.


Laughter, after all, is the best form of protest.

The internet has been and still is a game-changer as it provides Malaysians with a place to express their opinions without fear of censorship, although the government is trying to clamp down on that. The government, through the Inspector General of Police, is known for ‘policing’ Twitter for seditious remarks and, a few months ago, whistleblowing website Sarawak Report was also blocked for publishing that $700 million linked to 1MBD, a state investment fund, had mysteriously made its way into the bank accounts of the Prime Minister. Anything that goes against how the government wants to depict itself and that causes it to lose the people’s mandate is immediately shut down.

I will continue to fight through cartoons because, not only is it my right, it is, first and foremost, my responsibility.

Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) is  a political cartoonist from Malaysia. Through his cartoons, he expose corruption and abuse of power committed by the government of Malaysia. His slogan is “How Can I be Neutral, Even My Pen Has a Stand”.  He is now facing nine charges under Sedition Act and facing possible 43 years jail if found guilty. He was detained and locked behind bars twice – the first time was on September 2010 for two days and recently on the 10th of February 2015 for three days.  Five of his cartoon books have been banned and his office has been raided a few times and thousands of his cartoon books were confiscated.  The printers and bookstores around the country which carry his cartoons have been raided and they have also been warned not to print or carry any of his titles.  Last October, three of his assistants were arrested for selling his latest cartoon books. The webmaster who manages his website and online bookstore, was called in by the police for interrogating. He will participate in the conference Freedom of Expression in a Changing World: What Cannot Be Said.