Two Conference Paper Proposals

I recently submitted two conference paper proposals. One is somewhat connected to one of the chapters of my dissertation, and the other is something of a prequel for a post-dissertation project I hope to work on.

If they are accepted, I have a foundation of notes to work off of, but there is some more research that needs to be done and I welcome any comments, suggestions, etc.

The ‘Democratic Police’ under US Military Occupation: Torture and Reform in Korea and Japan, 1945-48

The reform ideals of every postwar United States military occupation have faced one of their greatest tests in the question of how to address the pre-occupation institution of the police: Are they to be preserved largely intact in order to carry out the essential duties of preserving public order, and guarding against new insurgent forces? Or are their post-conflict remnants to be completely dismantled or at least thoroughly purged for having been the most efficient tools of state oppression? This paper examines and compares the attempt by US occupation authorities in early postwar Korea and Japan to balance its strategic need to preserve social stability and its desire to eliminate the worst symbols of police brutality and oppression. It focuses on the campaign to bring about an institutional rebirth in the form of the new ‘Democratic Police’ and the responses to it within the Japanese and Korean police establishment. US occupation officials and post-occupation advisors were forced to acknowledge, often with embarrassment, the failure to eradicate torture. However, the United States police forces that supplied advisors and instructors for the occupation were no distant strangers to brutality themselves, with torture, or “third degree” interrogations reported widespread in the 1931 Wickersham Commission’s “Report on Lawlessness in Law Enforcement.” Despite a genuine disgust with brutal methods, the very willingness of US forces to quickly disassociate themselves from the ‘dirty work’ of occupation security guaranteed the persistence of such methods by Japanese, and in a more politically violent environment, especially the Korean police.

Pan-Asianism or World Federalism? Raja Mahendra Pratap and the Japanese Empire, 1925-1945

A number of Indians opposed to British colonial rule made their way to Japan and found their voices welcome among Japan’s leading pan-Asianist thinkers. The most famous of these figures include Rash Behari Bose and Subhas Chandra Bose, former president of the Indian National Congress and eventual commander of the Japanese supported Indian National Army. The collaboration between these Indian nationalists, sworn to an anti-imperialist cause, and Japan’s own brutal empire has been of great interest to historians. The more eclectic figure Raja Mahendra Pratap, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932, was also a fervent activist against British colonial rule in India and likewise turned to Japan for support, but Pratap also developed a highly evolved and spiritually charged conception of world federalism. Pratap found some support for his ideas in China, Japan, and elsewhere in Asia, where he raised money and corresponded with intellectuals long before the idea of World Federalism would briefly enjoy widespread interest in Japan and around the world from 1945-1947. This presentation will show how Pratap worked to prevent his conception of a world federation from clashing with Japan’s imperialist conception of pan-Asian union and suggest the ways in which his exploration of the relationship between the regional and the global foreshadowed postwar and contemporary debates of a similar nature.

Update: The first proposal was rejected and I delivered the second presentation at Columbia University. I’ll try again with the first proposal for another conference in the fall.

Anti-Korean Sentiment in Taiwan

Having spent a wonderful year or so in Korea I have had occasion to speak of my experiences to people I meet here in Taiwan. I have been surprised to see some anti-Korean sentiment amongst people I have met here.

I first got a hint of this soon after I arrived in Taiwan. At a Sichuan style restaurant here with a group of friends I was asked what I ate in Korea and I said that I was a huge fan of Korean food, and that is probably what I miss most about it now having left Seoul. My words were met with what seemed to me utter shock and disbelief around the table. It was almost like I had insulted their mothers.

One of my friends responded, “But in Korea all they eat is meat and kimchi! What is there about Korean food to like? They have no vegetables!” I tried to explain that there are many dishes in Korea that have a wonderful assortment of vegetables but my further defense of Korean cuisine only seemed to make things worse. We moved on to other topics.

Since then I have kept my ears open when it comes to the way people I have met respond to things related to Korea and sometimes I have come right out and asked, “What do you think about Korea?” or “What is your impression about Korea.” The results have been interesting. Three recent responses:

1. Taipei, pro-Blue female. “Koreans are so arrogant! You know they tried to register the Dragon Boat race with [some UN organization] as a Korean tradition that they invented?”

2. Kaohsiung, female. “I hate (討厭)Korea! I have interacted with many Korean women at international conferences and they are always talking. They are so loud and very rude.”

3. Kaohsiung, male pro-Green graduate student. Has studied Korean at university level. “I hate (討厭) Koreans! I knew many Koreans at university and they were so rude, arrogant, and obsessed with their pride. Koreans hate the Japanese. They are always trying to show how they are as good as the Chinese, and when it comes to the Taiwanese, they look down (看不起) on us.

Though they fortunately lack any rocky islets to fight over and no effigies are being burnt in street protests, I was really surprised at the really strong emotions evoked here in Taiwan. I never got “我不太喜歡” or other more moderate phrases. The sentiment was unusually direct. Of course, it is nowhere near the kinds of reactions I have seen among many young Chinese towards the Japanese (first encountering these powerful emotions in Beijing in 1997 was my first motivation to study Sino-Japanese relations and the contentious historical issues in the region). Korean sentiments against the Japanese seems, by contrast, a little more tame these days, though I may get this impression because I have been hanging out with a lot of more younger “pro-Japanese” treasonous types when I lived in Seoul.

One explanation might be a general clash of personality types. As some of the comments above hint at, the generally more relaxed and polite personality style I have found to be common on this island may simply clash a bit more with the sometimes more intense and aggressive style often found on the peninsula to the north. Obviously, I have seen plenty of exceptions to this on both sides.

Something I heard indirectly which may play is role was from a Taiwanese woman who I’m told said that though Korea and Taiwan were long lauded as two of Asia’s leading economic “tigers” some Taiwanese feel like they “lost” to the larger and more powerful Korea, thus leading to the development of a kind of insecurity complex when they find themselves compared to their more populous and culturally distinct rival.

There is no doubt that Korea has a certain degree of international visibility that Taiwan lacks. Asus does not quite have the brand power of Samsung or LG and Taiwan’s cross-straits crisis doesn’t have the benefit of an official axis of evil member next door. If my Korean friends complain that most Americans can’t find their country on a map (to be fair, we apparently can’t seem to find most places on a map, even after we invade them) then imagine the chances of them locating this little Formosan paradise. My Taiwanese friends who have a lot of international experience often refer to the frustration they feel at having to explain to everyone that they are from TaiWAN, not from ThaiLAND. Yes, they survived the tidal wave nicely, thank you (when I hear such complaints I’m reminded of my Korean friends who express their annoyance at being mistaken for Japanese when they travel, and sometimes revealing a more condescending discrimination when recounting their much greater horror at being mistaken as Chinese. As for myself, I have long since stopped caring if people introduce me as coming from Sweden or Finland, I just feel a bit sorry for Denmark, since it rarely gets offered as my homeland and, really, to be fair, the Danish kingdom did rule over Norway the longest).

Korea’s visibility extends to Taiwan as well. I see buses around Taipei plastered with huge advertisements for the latest Korean historical drama, and a Korean drama always seems to be playing on some channel or other here. Somebody must be watching them. This afternoon I ate Korean food in a food court in a Kaohsiung shopping mall, and Korean 泡菜 (kimchi) or the word 韓式 (Korean-style) is added as a prefix to many food items in many regular Chinese-style restaurants.

Of course, I don’t get the impression the “Korea” brand is anywhere close to the “Japan” brand here in Taiwan in terms of its power. Thousands of Japanese products are sold in stores around Taiwan with their Japanese packaging and labels fully intact. The word “Japan” or “Japanese Style” is printed in big fat or highlighted characters on signs for all manner of products (especially anything related to cosmetics, electronics, and very often for food related items) in a way reminiscent of products sold in the US with “NEW! IMPROVED!” attached. Maybe my memory is off, but I don’t seem to remember anywhere near this extent of explicit use of the Japan brand in Korea.

Of course, everyone knows that Taiwan is infamously pro-Japanese. Japanese men seem to believe they stand a better chance of finding love here in Taiwan than anywhere in Asia. The postwar experience of dictatorship, the 2/28 massacre, and the importance of the long Japanese colonial period to the claims of a distinct Taiwanese national identity all contribute to this. This weekend I was introduced to a somewhat inebriated Taiwanese doctor who was told that I was doing my dissertation on Chinese traitors (漢奸). He turned to me, somewhat perturbed, and proudly announced, almost toppling over as he straightened up, “我就是漢奸!” (I am myself a 漢奸!)

When it comes to Taiwanese sentiments towards Korea, if my very limited exchanges are at all suggestive of anything, the Korean brand power, food culture, and drama fandom seen here are not incompatible with a degree of emotional disdain. Even one of the women included in the comments above who expressed a hatred of Korea and especially Korean women also says that while she loves Japanese kimonos and culture of all kinds she doesn’t like the Japanese people themselves because they, “Are so polite to you all the time but who knows what they are thinking on the inside.” This deep dislike of a purported Japanese “two-facedness” is a familiar image. I remember an elderly neighbor of my parents in Oklahoma who, after decades of negotiations with Japanese chemical companies told me something along the lines of, “Them Japs’d always lie to your face. ‘Yes’ never meant ‘yes,’ and ‘maybe’ always meant ‘no.’ And you’d never know when they might pull a Pearl Harbor on ya.” (His distrust wasn’t limited to the Japanese, however. He spent a lunch once trying to convince me that every evil of the 20th century could be blamed on the inherently demonic nature of the Englishman. I think he bore a very serious grudge against the English ever since he was arrested by an English MP in World War II when he was on shore leave in Gibraltar).

All being said, however, I was a bit surprised to find anything more than, at worst, indifference towards Korea. Instead, I might have expected a feeling of camaraderie for an economically successful and culturally rich counterpart that is similarly struggling to define itself in a challenging geopolitical environment dominated by its larger neighbors.

UPDATE: There was a surprising amount of interest in this posting but I feel my posting didn’t come across quite the way I wanted it to. I am not justifying any of the claims that I quote hear, nor do I think the feelings expressed by my informers were much more than the kinds of stereotypes we all engage in or somehow reflect some kind of genuine bubbling discontent here in Taiwan. On the contrary, of all places I have lived in East Asia, the people I have met here in Taiwan are the most cosmopolitan and open. That was precisely why the rare expressions of dislike for a particular group of people stood out such that it made me notice it and become curious since I expected the contrary to hold true among two places with much in common in their recent history and development.

2010.11 UPDATE: This posting continues to attract attention and I’m sad to see that apparently some Korean sites are linking to it. I just received an email which takes issue with my use of the word hate to translate 討厭:

One point about your interpretation of 討厭 as hate. There is a (quiet big) difference here.  Hate is more like 憎恨, 痛恨 which is much much stronger than 討厭 which can be interpreted as “I don’t like.” For example, if you are trying to do your home work and your brother keeps poking/bothering you, you will say 討厭.  Or in your word, it’s a more stronger “我不喜歡” (notice the missing 太 here since “我不太喜歡” is a little bit less strong then “我不喜歡”. The former is kind of detour a little while the later more straight-forward.)  Probably you don’t really care. But by interpreting 討厭 as “hate” makes all non-Chinese speaking people thinking that man Taiwanese “hate” Koreans which if far from true.  My wife and I have checked out many Korean dramas from our local library.  We use Korean products all the time (TV, cell phones, camera, monitor, etc.)  In fact, I just bought a Samsung camera about 3 weeks ago and this is the second Samsung camera we own.  So I’d appreciate that you can spend couple minutes correcting it. Of course, you can ask around and make sure my interpretation is correct.

The writer is correct that 討厭 is not as strong a word as the visceral hatred implied by 憎恨, etc. but I think it ignores that the English word “hate” also has a much wider range – as in “I hate Ice Cream” or “I hate it when he does that.”  At any rate, I stand by my basic point, that I have often been surprised to see a pretty emotionally strong (and quick) response from a number of my Taiwanese friends when it comes to Korea and I think it is common enough for us to ponder the reasons for it in the absence of any major historical grievances.  Some Koreans are taking this posting as evidence of Taiwanese perfidy to feed their own anger, while some Taiwanese are seeing this is as a blanket condemnation of them. If I did not feel strongly that I should leave my writings, both strong and weak, online, I would take the posting down since it has only led to a negative effect as far as I can see. As the writer indicates, many Taiwanese have a great love for Korean products and culture. I met a number of Taiwanese students studying Korean in various Korean language programs I have attended. It is perhaps partly because of this that there is a strong reaction (though the similar feelings of some of a much older generation need other explanations) against the sudden popularity, as Kerim suggests in his comment. We see similar things in Japan with the rise of the despicable 嫌韓流 related publications that give rise to old racisms.  As Sayaka said in the comments: let us all chill out – I raised a flag here, of curiosity as much as of concern, and merely wish for all the peoples of the region to get along well.

Couldn’t you wait a few years?

Couldn’t the Korean government wait until I got my first book published or at least until I finished my dissertation?

The new government will not extend the mandate of five out of the 10 current presidential commissions — the Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations with Japanese Imperialism, the Truth Commission on Forced Mobilization under Japanese Imperialism, the Presidential Commission on Suspicious Deaths in the Military, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Investigative Commission on Pro-Japanese Collaborators’ Property.

Lee Myung-bak is getting rid of two commissions that were going to get a starring role in my introduction! It is one thing to be accused of dealing with “ancient history” in one’s work but that is hardly going to hurt a historian’s feelings. On the other hand, there are few things as uncool as peddling “yesterday’s news.”

And then they came for our goblin…

I’m spending a quiet Friday night here in Seoul, Korea after my first week of summer Korean language classes at Yonsei (I was at Seoul National University’s program the last two summers). I have gotten into the habit of watching the 9pm news on Korea’s MBC channel and was especially amused by one of the stories for tonight:

Could it be that the familiar image of a 도깨비 (a kind of goblin or monster that appears in various Korean folk tales) is not the real Korean goblin but in fact a foreign goblin?

The MBC investigative reporter visits an elementary school and opens up the students’ textbook to an image showing a bunch of horned monsters. She asks the students, “Which country do these goblins come from?”

The students all happily shout, “우리 나라!” (Our country!)

But, are the children being deceived? Are they being spoon-fed images of the foreign demons of their former colonial overlord and being told that they are really Korean goblins?

The screen cuts to a book filled office where a professor of folklore compares the various familiar images in contemporary Korea of the goblin, shown with one or two horns and a spiked club, with…very similar looking images of Japanese demons or Oni (鬼). We are then shown authentic Korean representations of the 도깨비 figure, shown without any horns, but with a distinctly Dragonball-like haircut.

How can it be that these Japanese 오니 (Oni) images have come to replace the images of the true Korean goblin? Something must be done to prevent the corruption of our children! Can we not recover the subaltern Korean goblin from the grasp of Japanese imperialism?

Read related articles on this shocking discovery (Doesn’t have all the picture comparisons shown in the MBC version, however):
Yeonhap Article

Planes, Airports, and the Military

My parents live in Oklahoma. When I was getting ready to begin my final year of high school at the International School of Stavanger my family moved to the United States and I expressed my great reluctance to join them. I stayed behind in Norway and finished high school while, ironically, doing a home-stay with an American family there. Since then I have frequently visited my parents in Oklahoma, especially at Christmas time. I arrived last night in Tulsa, Oklohama after my cheap Expedia travel arrangements took me through Milwaukee (which is a city in Wisconsin, apparently) and Dallas.

I have often flown through Dallas before, but this time I was struck by the huge number of military personnel traveling through both the E and C terminals of that airport yesterday, especially when compared to Boston and Milwaukee. I have a few theories about why this might be the case: 1) Dallas is a large hub and since it is getting close to Christmas many military personnel are going on leave to visit their families. 2) Dallas happens to act as a hub which connects somehow to whatever transportation network that the military has set up for its forces going on leave. 3) Perhaps American Airlines, which uses Dallas as a hub (especially C gates), is especially good at providing for military personnel through various services and discounts. 2) Dallas is in the South and connects to many cities in the south. Perhaps there is a larger percentage of military from the South than other areas of the United States. If this is true then the stereotype that the South is more nationalistic or militaristic or, more likely, the fact that there are a lot of the poorest states in the United States located in the south combined with the fact that the military has a disproportionately larger percentage of recruits from poorer classes can help explain this.

A few further things that struck me. First, I made a rough count of the soldiers I came across, and while this is perhaps not a good sample, I was really surprised to see that a full 1/3 of the soldiers I counted were female. I wonder how female recruiting has changed and what percentage they have come to occupy in the overall makeup of the United States military. I wonder if the struggles to meet recruiting targets in the current wartime circumstances of the US has lead to any changes or special efforts to make further inroads in recruiting women?

I don’t know if it is the only one, but American Airlines opens all its “Admiral Clubs,” which are usually for first class passengers, to military personnel when they show their military ID. They advertise this on a large sign in front of the club’s entrance. I didn’t find this too remarkable. American Airlines can benefit from promoting its nationalist image and its support for the troops, many of which are returning from a wartime theater or going to one.

I was also struck by the strong support for the troops among American travellers. As I walked from about gate C20 to my gate C37 I walked behind a young soldier. In that short 5-10 minute walk I saw two different adults and one child randomly approach the soldier, slap him on the back or shake hands, and give him various words of thanks and support for his efforts. The child that ran up to him gave him some kind of a gift but I couldn’t make out what it was.

As I started thinking about this I realized I had really mixed feelings about all this. Last Christmas when I arrived in Tulsa I saw a couple sit down next to a soldier returning from Iraq near the baggage claim and ask him sympathetically about the challenges of his military duty there. I remembered how difficult it seemed to be for him to put his experiences into simple sentences to share with these inquisitive strangers.

The collection of mixed feelings this all gave me really came to a head when I arrived in Tulsa last night. When the flight landed in Tulsa, there was an extra message issued at landing. The American Airlines stewardess announced that, “I have a favor to ask everyone. In seat 23C we have one of our military boys who has just come back to Oklahoma to visit his wife and family. When the seat belt sign turns off I would like to ask everyone to remain seated and let him get his bag and get off the plane first so he can get to see his wife who is waiting for him outside.” When the seat belt light went off the whole plane erupted into applause and loud hurrays. These continued as the young man in 23C, who was not wearing his military uniform, removed his baggage from the overhead compartment and ran triumphantly off the plane. As far as I could see I alone refrain from shouting and applauding, but instead sat quietly in complete shock and disgust. I felt suddenly and strangely nauseous, even as I tried to reflect on the reasons for own reaction while watching the man and the passengers around me.

This experience was made all the more bizarre because in the seat behind me was sitting another, this time female soldier, still dressed in her fatigues and heavy boots, who told her boyfriend (I learnt later that she was engaged) on her cellphone that she had arrived and would be disembarking soon. She waited patiently as the 23C military man was drowned in shouts of support and ran off the plane, propelled all the more quickly by the back slaps of other passengers.

I heard an older woman sitting next to the female soldier say sympathetically, “I think it should be standard policy to always let all the army people get off planes first.”

I walked just ahead of the female soldier as we approached the baggage claim area and left the secure area. There was a whole crowd waiting for her with signs of support and welcome. Her fiance, who had a military style hair cut, was waiting for her in a wheelchair and held a sign, “So, J. are you ready to sign your life away AGAIN?” He read out the sign he was holding as she approached him. After she answered in the affirmative everyone went wild and crowded around her with congratulations.

To be honest, my thoughts and feelings on all of this are just too unprocessed and complicated for me to feel comfortable discussing them here. To cap off an evening of complex emotions, it just so happened that the Netflix movie waiting for me to watch last night when I got to my parent’s home in Bartlesville was “The Best Years of Our Lives” This award winning 1946 movie about three soldiers returning from World War II includes the story of a disabled veteran (apparently he was disabled in the war) who is worried his fiance back home will only stay with him out of pity and cannot possibly love him as he is.

Iceland Wins The Viking Wars

Img 2514-1– These first two street signs are to be found in my hometown of Stavanger, Norway while going for a walk in my neighborhood last week. I wanted to start a little collection of pictures showing how Norway is crazy about its viking past. However, I just have to concede that Icelandic national identity has completely out-done all the other Scandinavian countries in their endless use of viking images, words, and symbols. There is everything from Viking beer to Viking hotels, and every other thing seems to have the words Saga, Edda, famous vikings, or one of the Norse gods in it.

IMG_2608.JPG IMG_2605.JPG If you want street signs examples, there are plenty of them. I’m sure the whole Nordic pantheon must be represented within just a few blocks of the downtown area of Reykjavík. I’m not always familiar with the spellings, but I’m pretty sure they are the same guys. It would actually be great fun to teach kids some of the old myths, and then drag them through the town to look at signs and have them identify things. For example, “Hey kids, what is the name of this health food store from?”


Then you could cruise up on the hill to that funky Lutheran church and point at the massive statue in front and say, “Hey kids, who is this big hunk of a viking? I’ll give you a clue, he wasn’t no Lutheran, and he sold a map to Columbus…Hey no cheating…nobody is allowed to look at the names on any of the streets connected to this roundabout or the name of that bed & breakfast across the street…Hey Jón, I didn’t say you could read the inscription on the back…”

 Users Fool Library Application-Support Ecto Attachments Img 2604

The Culture House (which I mention in my posting on my “Notes from Iceland”) had a great little section talking about just this phenomenon in its great historiographical section:

“In the first half of the 20th century, street names in Reykjavík drew heavily upon the sagas, and the layout was even intended to reflect their plots. Skarphé∂insgata (“Skarphedin’s street”) lies east and south of streets named after his parents, Bergpórugata and Njálsgata and between the couple is Barónsborg kindergarten, recalling their fate when they lay down to die in their burning farmhouse with their grandchild Thord Karason between them.”

Ok, so imagine working at the kindergarten and giving some new parents the tour, “Oh ya, did I mention that our kindergarten is conveniently located in such away to remind everyone of the burning corpses of Bergpóru (sp?) and Njál?” Above the caption was a map to show some of the examples:

Reykjavik Saga Streets

Iceland’s National Museum

Yesterday afternoon, I paid a visit to Iceland’s National Museum, located just next to its largest university, the University of Iceland. The museum is in nicely designed church-shaped concrete structure with three floors, a gift shop and cafe. The upper two floors are the permanent exhibit with temporary exhibits on the first floor.

Like many nationalist historical museums, the permanent exhibit tries to describe the centuries needed to accomplish “The Birth of the Nation” which, appropriately, was the title of the exhibit. The structure of the Icelandic national historical narrative is very similar to that of the Norwegian one (and dozens of other national narratives around the world). There is a glorious, if violent golden age which is celebrated as the source of national virtues, symbols, and heroes. This is followed by a decline and corruption of this noble tradition, followed by a long dark domination by a foreign power when the culture and independence of the nation are suppressed. The nation then emerges once again from the darkness as its glorious past is remembered and the national spirit awakens during its struggle for freedom from its oppressor.

In the Norwegian case, the Viking age, when we raped, burned, and pillaged Western Europe are the “good old days.” Mongolian nationalists know exactly what I’m talking about when they think of their own “good old days.” I mean, this was the period when we showed the world what it really meant to be Norwegian. This is the age from which the national symbols, stories, and heroes are taken. This is followed by the “500 years of night” when we were under the control of the Danes and our language and culture were suppressed by those evil Danish overlords. Apparently nothing of any real consequence happened at night, except that Reformation thingy. We then have a century of a kind of pre-dawn frost under Swedish domination, during which Norwegian nationalists rediscover their pure language and culture and rant about those horrible centuries of damaging Danish dominion and followed by full independence in 1905.

The Icelandic case shares much of this story but with less raping and pillaging, more democracy, and Norway gets to play a brief role as the bad guy. The roots of the Icelandic nation, if I have absorbed the narrative correctly, is to be found in the democratic and individualistic glory of the Commonwealth period, dating from the settlement of Iceland in the late 800s until it finally came to an end with Norwegian domination in the mid 1200s. The democratic legislative/judicial role of a kind of parliament (the althingi-mabob, can’t remember how to spell it) is a central source of pride. The next great source of pride is the incredibly rich production of literature – which all of Scandinavia and Germany have shown their great respect for. This glorious age was followed by the dark ages of domination first by Norwegians and then the Danes. Lots of nastiness ensued, granted, not all of it Danish. The Black death came late in the early 1400s and carried off half the population. The Reformation thingy went really bad. A Danish monopoly on trade for two centuries begins in early 1600s. Volcanoes erupt in late 1780s, including one under a glacier which all caused a terrible mess. Then, by a series of steps towards independence beginning in the late 1800s and later in 1905, 1918, the nation finally completed its lengthy birthing with the founding of the republic in 1944 while, perhaps a bit ironically, under US wartime occupation.

The museum was wonderful, especially since the population of the entire country is smaller than the last Tokyo suburb I lived in. Like the Cultural House, they did a fantastic job of presenting the materials with lots of little subject-specific areas. They also had about two dozen short documentaries available for viewing at screens place throughout the museum. Each screen had 1 to 3 mini-documentaries, which in turn were divided into 2-5 chapters. Each chapter in turn had supplementary pictures and texts covering aspects that were mentioned during the documentary chapter. It was interesting, effective, and in case someone is hogging a screen with documentaries you want to see, at the end of the 2nd floor there is a “Reading Room” with half a dozen computers that have all the documentaries viewable (unfortunately, all the books in the Reading room were in Icelandic, and thus, unreadable). They also had “touch and feel it” rooms with various clothing and other items. They had little telephones you could pick up which would tell about the daily life and stories of one particular individual (such as a fisherman). They had examples of their four kinds of national dress.

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I was also impressed that the visitor was not treated like an idiot (although the little cartoon-like figures in the documentaries were slightly cheesy they helped the viewer recognize and identify players in the sometimes complicated power struggles described). I’ll give one cute example. One of the mini-documentaries surrounded the theme of Christianization of Iceland around 1000. The documentary faithfully described the process as it is recorded in the sagas (I can’t remember which, but every documentary had a “references” button with a full Icelandic language bibliography). It basically says that the entire country converted together (allowing pagan worship in private) because that was the reasonable thing to do. “An unlikely story,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed the title of the last chapter was, “Is the story true?” When it started playing, the English language voice started, “An unlikely story?” It then confesses that we cannot always trust the stories handed down but that overall, the process of Christianization did proceed quickly and with relatively little violence. How many Korean, Chinese, and Japanese museums have I visited where I wish I could push the “Is the story true?” button…

The only disappointing thing about the museum is perhaps partly due to the fact that the theme of the exhibit was “the birth of the nation.” You see, once the nation is born, there isn’t much else to say, is there? This means that the 20th century, as in the case of many other historical museums got very little space. I get the feeling that the museum’s designers just took all their 20th century material, put it in a pile and said, “What should we do with all this stuff?” Then, after a few desperate moments of silence, perhaps someone piped up with the idea, “Hey let’s put all this stuff on a kind of revolving conveyor belt, kind of like in the airport baggage claim or like one of those sushi restaurants!” Apparently everyone thought that was a good idea because that is what happened to Iceland’s history in the 20th century. I was a bit depressed to see a little pile of items labeled “World War II” as its place on the conveyor belt creaked slowly by me. There was a little more than just the conveyor belt, but considering the huge changes on the island in the last hundred years, a lot more space could have been given over to it.

Timothy Burke on the Rentiers of Sovereignty

Timothy Burke is an excellent historian and writer whose postings always deserve a close reading. I recommend that everyone read some of his comments on sovereignty in his posting Rentiers of Sovereignty

Angola is the kind of situation that made me think very differently about sovereignty, and about the kinds of politics, both conservative and leftist, that mark the achievement of sovereignty as the initial and necessary condition of achieving prosperity and freedom. Sovereignty is the material resource that the Angolan elite controls and sells, not oil. They are rentiers who extract wealth from selling permission for extraction. But they are no different than a car thief who hotwires a car parked outside a suburban home, drives it fifty miles, and then sells the car on eBay. The difference is not in what they do, but in the legal and governmental mechanisms that permit what they do. The car thief is going to run into trouble establishing a title that can be transferred legitimately. The Angolan elite has no such difficulty.

All the international institutions which exist recognize them as possessing title to sovereignty. They are the ones who send representatives to the United Nations. The are the ones who fill embassies around the world. They are the ones that the World Bank or NGOs speak to and reach agreements with. That as not a conservative or liberal thing, not a failure of the United Nations or of the Bush Administration. It as an indictment of the entire interstate system built up over the course of the 20th Century, in all its parts and particulars. That system gives titles and ownership to thieves, and allows thieves to sell their goods to supposedly legitimate businesses.

I think Burke is very well aware of the fact that any careless attack on the concept of sovereignty (and my own broader attack on nation-states in general) without thinking about alternatives. However, I fully agree with him that we must all make a call to action. In his conclusion, Burke says:

I think that the beginning of a new era of action involves a steady contempt for sovereignty and the claims made in its name, and the construction of a new international system that reflects that contempt. Let as call Angola as elite what they are: thieves. Let as call the companies pumping oil out of Angola what they are: the purchasers of stolen property. Let as make it as difficult as we can for thieves to fence stolen sovereignties, and for purchasers to buy the same.

I agree, but with one qualification. In so far as I hope the challenge of the 21st century will be to create a less violent and divisive home for humanity, I would rather not see any kind of inter-national system at all. The serious exploration of alternatives to the nation-state must be done hand in hand with the exploration of alternatives to the modern conception of sovereignty.

More on the Nation-State

I have arrived in Korea after spending a wonderful week in Tokyo. Language classes begin next week so I have a few days to settle down into my small apartment near Naksŏngdae station, a short bus ride from campus, and review material from last summer.

As most who have been reading anything from the Korean media or its English language weblogs know, there was just a major set of local elections here recently. It wasn’t terribly exciting as everyone had expected the conservatives to sweep the elections in all but a few southwestern strongholds. However, it was significant in that it was the first local election in Korea to allow permanent foreign residents the right to vote. Read an interesting posting by Skindleshanks, who discovered this fact. Although due to a requirement related to the length of residency, he thought he might have been ineligible, he has reported that materials regarding the election were all delivered to him and he voted successfully in the election. Yesterday in The Korea Times Kim Rahn reported on the participation of foreigners, almost seven thousand of which qualified to participate, most of which were apparently citizens of the ROC (Taiwan).

This is wonderful news and allows me to make another rambling follow-up on my recent anti-nationalist rant.
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