Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Person Sitting In Darkness

The Korea Herald’s “Kaleidoscope” column has struck again. On July 23 it featured "Society respecting no authority" by Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the American Studies Association of Korea, in a thoroughly confused defense of authority against those who disrespect it. This is a motif that’s been getting a lot of play in South Korea lately, in reaction to the candlelight vigils, though of course it turns up everywhere else, including these United States. It’s a handy ad hominem, useful for distracting attention from the issues at stake, and its popularity is a good reason to subject it to some jaundiced scrutiny.

Professor Kim falls on his face right off the bat:

Recently, radical African-American scholars began vehemently attacking white American writers as racists. The allegedly racist authors include Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Margaret Mitchell. It appears to have become fashionable these days to shoot down major canonical writers who are historical pioneers of American literature.

Evidently Professor Kim is unaware that these and other writers and others have been criticized for their treatment of race for a very long time, and not only by ‘radicals’ (though I think Professor Kim is using that term simply as an expletive). Faulkner and Mitchell, besides, are no “historical pioneers of American literature”, and the label of pioneer hardly fits even the 19th-century Twain. Even if they were, it wouldn’t automatically put them above criticism. (Nor is Mitchell as canonical a writer a Professor Kim seems to think.)

Professor Kim then defends his triumvirate against the charge of racism with what he calls “well-known” facts – Mitchell’s donations to Morehouse College, for example, or that Faulkner “took African-American children to school, holding their hands and valiantly marching through the intimidating picket lines of white protesters. How, then, could he be racist?” I’ve had trouble verifying this specific claim about Faulkner. He did speak out against white racism with great courage – for a while. But in 1956 he retreated, urging blacks to “slow down,” prompting Martin Luther King, Jr. to comment that “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.” (King, like James Baldwin who also criticized Faulkner’s counsel, was no doubt one of those “radical African-American radical scholars” who so annoy Professor Kim.) Faulkner was ambivalent about race and about desegregation, and it does him no honor to try to erase his less edifying pronouncements.

Twain’s attitudes toward race, in his life and work, have also been much debated. I’m not going to try to settle the question here. What amazed me was Professor Kim’s authority for Twain’s moral purity:

Leslie Fiedler, who was Samuel Clemens Professor of English at SUNY/Buffalo, used to lament the recent academic trend of defaming Mark Twain as being racist. "They completely misread Huckleberry Finn," Professor Fiedler once told me. "Twain was never a racist. Au contraire, he sharply criticized slavery and racial prejudice in Huckleberry Finn." … [T]he radical scholars have not been able to read between the lines or uncover the underlying messages in Huckleberry Finn and Puddin'head Wilson. Yet, these militant scholars seem to unscrupulously repudiate anyone who they think belongs to the canon.

Professor Kim betrays his ignorance and selective reading here by citing Leslie Fiedler, the great Bad Boy of American literary study, in defense of authority and the canon! The maverick Fiedler is notorious for having argued in what is probably his most famous work, Love and Death in the American Novel, that the love between Huck Finn and the slave Jim was “homoerotic” – indeed, that “homoerotic” love between males was a dominant theme in canonical American literature. (Fiedler used the word “homosexual” in his 1948 essay Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” but later substituted “homoerotic,” denying that he’d meant to imply that Huck and Jim committed “sodomy.” More recently scholars, relying on a misreading of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men, have adopted the term “homosocial” to keep suggestions of sodomitical vice at, um, arm’s length.) Fiedler's thesis didn't go down well with most boosters of American literature -- calling Huck and Jim a couple of fags, how could he! And how could Professor Kim quote someone who makes such awful attacks on the historical pioneers of American literature?

But going back to Twain, I agree that he was opposed to slavery, though this was less controversial in 1885, when Huck Finn was published, than it was when the story took place. The trouble for Professor Kim’s case is that Twain was hostile to other established authority, especially religion and imperialism. Given Professor Kim’s following lamentation about the disrespect for authority that now characterizes Korean society (“Even North Korea does not seem to respect South Korea much”!), I shudder to imagine what he’d think of Twain’s blistering 1901 polemic against American imperialism and racism, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” The first time I read that piece, its tone and substance reminded me of Noam Chomsky:

Then They that Sit in Darkness are troubled, and shake their heads; and they read this extract from a letter of a British private, recounting his exploits in one of Methuen's victories, some days before the affair of Magersfontein, and they are troubled again:

"We tore up the hill and into the intrenchments, and the Boers saw we had them; so they dropped their guns and went down on their knees and put up their hands clasped, and begged for mercy. And we gave it them – with the long spoon."

The long spoon is the bayonet. See Lloyd's Weekly, London, of those days. The same number – and the same column – contains some quite unconscious satire in the form of shocked and bitter upbraidings of the Boers for their brutalities and inhumanities!

As Professor Kim’s op-ed rises to its peroration, it collapses:

Indeed, South Korea is currently suffering from endless demonstrations, frequent workers' strikes, and violent protests. People no longer respect the government, the National Assembly, or the police. Having lost its authority, the Lee administration is not capable of prosecuting those who organize demonstrations and conspire to overthrow the government. …

Many South Koreans either confuse authority with authoritarianism, or misunderstand authority as an inherited or unjustly acquired privilege. They assume that all authorities should be denied and defied, which is why Korean society always looks unstable and faltering. Unfortunately, that is precisely how foreigners perceive South Korea from the outside. We desperately need to restore the long-lost respect for authority.

I agree that many South Koreans confuse authority with authoritarianism -- President Lee's supporters defend his authoritarianism as authority. I guess I have to repeat that if the Korean people had slavishly respected authority in the past, the South would still be ruled by a military dictatorship. (And if you want to enforce respect for authority, the North still does very well in that department; maybe Professor Kim would be happier there.) Since Professor Kim refers to President Lee’s predecessor only as “the leftist Roh administration … [when] the Confucian decorum of respecting the authority of one's seniors and superiors was completely eradicated,” I take it he doesn’t have in mind the Right’s conspiracy “to overthrow the government.” Not all authority deserves respect and obedience in Professor Kim's eyes, it appears. And South Korea doesn’t appear “unstable and faltering” to this outsider. But then I’m one of those radicals who don’t recognize authority, who consider that the burden of proof lies on those who demand respect -- let alone obedience.