- The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.
April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain Planet, Sailor Moon, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.
As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.
The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.
I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.
The “right” and “wrong” anthem
Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.
My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.
As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.
It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.
Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.
College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.
North to South
In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.
The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.
As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.
These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.
But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.
North versus South
A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.
The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.
Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion
My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.
The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”
Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”
Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.
My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.
I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.
On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.
“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.
“They’re a bunch of liars.”
“They don’t really care about the people.”
As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.
An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)
Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.
Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.
At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.
A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.
I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.
“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”
I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?
“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”
The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”
Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.
“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.
Conviction and democracy
To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.
I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”
The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?
What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.
When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.
The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.
By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”
Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.
But of course, if that is too subtle for you, you can always rewind a few seconds and there staring you in the face from the very moment the trailer starts is the flag on the áo dài. The tailor’s hand gently caresses a swath of yellow with three red stripes. Genuinely ask yourself if this is all coincidence. Of all the patterns in the world that the filmmakers could have featured on the dress, why this one? And why does the voiceover make the statements she does as this pattern is displayed?
A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?
The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.
Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.
On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.
|About the Author:|
“Law of the Jungle” for Pham Doan Trang
This article was written in Vietnamese by songwriter Tuan Khanh and published on The New Viet magazine. The Vietnamese would like to thank The New Viet and author Tuan Khanh for allowing us to translate and publish this article in English. This article was translated into English by Y Chan.
While combing through my notes about Pham Doan Trang, I recalled many details which only now have been connected together, which could make up a symbolic book depicting the journey of a young person, from growing up under the socialist educational system to breaking out of the barbed wire of propaganda. She raised her voice to become a symbol of Vietnamese youth born after 1975, who committed themselves to an ideology to help their country rise up.
But what is no less crucial is that along the same journey, we have also experienced a depiction of Vietnamese law, a legal system that is used by the state as “joss paper” to be burnt in traditional ritual and sanctimonious duties, which in essence is completely meaningless.
Pham Doan Trang has unwittingly somehow become the main character in a tragic story that unveils, through her blood and tears, the nature of that so-called legal system.
I have uncovered that brief personal struggle of hers and found three markers that could have predicted many recent events.
Pham Doan Trang has always opted to fight for democracy in a peaceful manner through her writings. But the “law” that surrounds her is completely the opposite.
The first marker was in April, 2017, when the situation around Trang had grown intense. The Hanoi police shelved their kind and friendly attitude toward her, opting for other more “direct” measures. It started with a bicycle demonstration in Hanoi that was stopped by the police. The event was meant to commemorate the anniversary of the Formosa environmental disaster, which resulted in massive fish deaths in the seas off the coastal provinces in central Vietnam. Despite not having taken part in the demonstration, Pham Doan Trang was taken to the police station for interrogation.
“Mother fucker you cuntface!” Trang recalls a young policeman pointing at her and shouting, angered because he was unable to tell her why she had been detained. When Trang protested against his attitude, the young officer, again unable to respond, shouted again, “I’ll pee in your fucking mouth”. It happened in front of several other police officers, women included. But all stayed dead silent. The incident marked the beginning of a stage when the police no longer treated Trang as a normal citizen who raised her voice on social issues. After that unlawful arrest, journalist Pham Doan Trang started to face much more brutal treatment from the authorities.
The second marker was June, 2018, when many demonstrations broke out in Saigon and Hanoi, protesting the lack of environmental protections as well as voicing criticisms against the Cyber Security Law and the Special Economic Zone Law. Trang took part in one of the demonstrations. She noticed at the time the presence of a young muscular man who was silently walking beside her. She felt a bit doubtful, but assured herself that the man would do no harm to her, but simply follow her.
She was wrong. In the midst of all the chaos and confusion when the demonstrators encountered the police, the young man suddenly approached and stamped on her foot to keep it from moving, then very skillfully delivered a kick under her knee. Trang immediately fell to the ground. The ankle joint, severely injured, swelled. The young man quickly vanished. She thought it was just a minor injury that would heal itself within days. But severe pain later forced her to go to the hospital.
In the two hospitals she visited in Hanoi for examination, after taking X-rays, the doctors all assured her that her injury was nothing serious and that she needed no treatment at all. Later, sensing something was not right, Trang decided to see a doctor she personally knew who worked in a hospital in Saigon. Only then did she find out that the expert kick she had suffered that day had seriously damaged her cruciate ligament, leaving only an almost necrotic lingering fibrous tissue. Had this injury gone undetected for just one more day, she might have had to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
What is a cruciate ligament? As the doctor explained, it is used to connect the thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia), keeping the lower extremity straight and bearing the body weight while still enabling the folding and stretching activity through the knee joint. When the cruciate ligament is damaged, the thigh bone and shin bone instead of bonding to each other will become two loosely connected bones, and can not form a structure that bears the body weight while standing.
The kick on the knee will make the knee joint abruptly turn inward, either tearing or stretching the cruciate ligament. This kind of injury is mostly seen in football when a footballer suffers from a malicious foul or in tennis when a player folds his knee while falling down. Or, as in this case, it is the result of a powerful kick from someone who is well trained and knows exactly the consequences of his act. Although having recovered and been saved from losing her leg, Trang now has to spend the rest of her life limping, never again regaining her ability to walk normally.
The third marker was at the concert of singer Nguyen Tin in August, 2018. The melody was replaced by a continuous banging, the sound of bike helmets being smashed against Trang’s head. The act, performed passionately by four fully-masked young men with strong northern accents who were on motorcycles, lasted until the helmets broke apart.
According to Trang, right before this beating, she was taken away by the police after they interrupted the concert and arrested several other people, including her. She was pushed into a seven-seater car and driven to a deserted street in the middle of the night. One officer, who seemed to be the man in charge, then ordered her to get out of the car. Having all her personal identification papers and belongings confiscated by the police, Trang protested and tried to explain to the police that there was no way she could get back if she was left alone in that area. The man in charge handed her a 200,000 dong note (less than US$9) and told her to take a taxi.
Standing in the middle of a street, confused and still in pain after the initial strikes by the police at the concert, Trang noticed the police car did not leave but stopped a few hundred meters away, from where the officers kept watching her. That was then the helmet-attack happened, after four young men on two motorcycles suddenly approached her. The young men immediately got to work without saying anything, striking her on the head, adding the curse “fucking” with every blow. Only when they all left did Trang manage to hobble away and seek help to get to a hospital.
The stories from the three markers that I point to are filled with countless acts that don’t fit into any legal framework. One can relate such acts to the kind of tactics used by criminal gangs who exert their brutal power to control their turf. The systematic and gang-like attacks used against this woman were planned and coordinated in a perfect manner, and any law-abiding citizen could easily become a victim of such brutality.
In the coming trial for Pham Doan Trang, none of these stories will be mentioned. The Vietnamese State never represses its citizens. No peaceful activists have ever been arrested. Only those who break the law are rightfully punished. There are no human rights violations in this country. Vietnam is a country that always respects and ensures human rights. These words will be engraved on the joss paper being burned on the stage where people who put on judge’s robes hand down their law of the jungle.
A Letter To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Dear Justice Ginsburg,
I hope this letter will somehow reach you in heaven or in the afterlife. I have not seen any evidence for the existence of either place, and I will not presume you prefer one to the other. But I hope there is a place in the cosmos where you have gone after a life well-lived, and that you are happy there. I also hope your husband, Martin Ginsburg, is also there with you and for you, as he had always been. You both deserve each other for eternity.
I do not intend to put on a pretense that this letter is only for you. The message is addressed to you in death, but I mean to speak to the living. More specifically, I want this letter to be read by my fellow Vietnamese people. This is why I am writing in both English and Vietnamese. I want to talk to my people about your legacy.
I believe we cannot sincerely treasure a legacy if we do not attempt to understand it as much as we can.
We can learn a lot from you and how you lived your life. I hope this letter can explore and elaborate a bit more on that possibility. I do apologise beforehand for any misunderstanding or misconception in this letter. It is only a starting point in my own process of learning about you and your life.
We have heard in the US media in the past few days many cries of how your legacy is being threatened by the Trump presidency and the prospect of the Supreme Court consisting of six conservative-leaning judges, with just three liberal-leaning judges remaining who are likely to protect your legacy.
But I think your legacy should be understood more widely. Yes, the progressive legal advancements you left behind have been challenged and will continue to be challenged, perhaps even more vehemently.
But suppose more people worldwide understand the lessons from you and how you lived your life. In that case, I believe the forces that will protect and enhance your legacy will be grown beyond a group of three US Supreme Court justices.
So, what do I think we Vietnamese people can learn from you and your life? The first thing is feminism.
What is feminism?
I am glad to learn that you were not born a feminist (to be honest, it always seems a bit dangerous to be born with an ideology implanted in your head).
You are now a feminist icon, but you first came to feminism through a process of learning and teaching what you learned.
This is important as it suggests that any person, no matter what their gender or background, can choose and learn to become a feminist. This matters to me because I am a man born and raised in the heavily patriarchal Vietnamese culture.
The starting point for your feminism seems to be 1970 when you were a 37-year-old law professor at Rutgers Law School.
On May 1 of that year, you chaired a student panel on “women’s liberation.” Later that year, in a panel at the Association of American Law Schools’ annual meeting in Chicago, you put forward two arguments. The first is against the stereotyped characterizations of women. The second is about “the infusion into standard curricular offerings of material on sex-based discrimination.”
According to your book My Own Words (2016), you did not just wake up one day in 1970 and decide to become a feminist. It was the students whom you taught who, in turn, inspired you.
It is quite inspiring to know that in the late 1960s, there were “newly activist women law students” at the Rutgers Law School. And they inspired their professor to shift her academic focus from court procedure to women’s rights.
So, you read and researched everything you could on the subject. Within a month, you had perused every federal decision ever published involving women’s legal status, and every relevant law review article.
In 1971, you taught your first seminar on sex discrimination and the law. Later that year, you started working with the American Civil Liberties Union on two litigation matters concerning sex discrimination, one against men and one against women.
These two sex discrimination cases provided you the first opportunities to bring your academic research straight from academia’s ivory towers to the judiciary’s dusty colosseums. You retrained yourself from a law professor to become an attorney who could prepare briefs, then present and argue cases in court.
To root out sex discrimination using the US court system, you and the ACLU chose to persuade the courts that any law that seeks to discriminate purely on the basis of sex is in contravention of the US Constitution. The Equal Protection Clause in that constitution stipulates that the state shall not deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The case involving sex discrimination against women is Reed v. Reed. While you did not argue this case in court, together with the ACLU director, you did prepare the brief, which was submitted to the US Supreme Court.
The woman in the case, Sally Reed, was not allowed to administer her deceased teenage son’s small estate. The state law stated that only men were allowed to administer the estate of relatives who died without a will.
Having heard the arguments, the US Supreme Court ruled that the state law is unconstitutional. This is because the state law did discriminate solely based on sex and thus protected Sally Reed’s husband but not her. The law, therefore, denied protecting Sally Reed at least equal to how it protected her husband.
In the case of sex discrimination against men, you acted on behalf of Charles Moritz. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the cost of providing care to his elderly and invalid mother. The law stated that such tax deduction was only available for women and formerly married men. Moritz was a single man.
In this case, you worked in partnership with your husband, Martin Ginsburg, a brilliant tax attorney. Both of you argued the case in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
The court heard your arguments and ruled in favour of Moritz. In passing the judgment, the judges relied on the US Supreme Court’s decision in the case you had worked on earlier that year: Reed v. Reed.
As a result of the above cases, several laws that discriminated purely on the basis of sex were changed or abolished. A lot of such laws discriminated against men as well as women.
The year 1971 was just the beginning. The years that followed saw you produce “a tsunami of articles about gender and law that flooded law journals.” You also argued and won six landmark cases on sex discrimination in the US Supreme Court.
I started this section of the letter by asking what feminism is, then together with you, I jumped from feminism to women’s liberation to women’s rights to sex discrimination.
So, what really is feminism then? Does feminism mean the absence of sex discrimination?
Yes. To you, to advance feminism is to promote gender equality.
Your feminism seems not to be focusing on the sole advancement of women’s rights at the expense of men’s rights. Both men and women deserve to have their rights protected.
Your view of feminism may be a revelation to many members of my sex. Many men view feminism with fear and disdain. For they think that feminists are coming for their rights and that the only way to satisfy a feminist is for a man to sacrifice all his rights, privileges, and entitlements.
I guess it made sense for you to adopt such a view of feminism: As a lawyer, you had to rely on the US Constitution’s powers to strike down discriminatory laws.
And that constitution, written by a group of white men in the 18th century, never mentions women, sex, or gender.
There was an attempt to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution, which says that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This amendment was passed by the US Congress in 1972, but it was never ratified by the states, and so it is now dead in the water.
Therefore, the only words in the US Constitution that could be relied on to fight sex discrimination are the Equal Protection Clause’s very words.
So that is your feminism: the legal advancement of gender equality standing on the shoulders of the giant – the US Constitution.
It is a type of feminism that is not merely for preaching. It was forged through the sleepless nights on your work desk through the myriad of lectures, seminars, debates, and then through the US courts’ intense scrutiny, including the highest court in the land.
Your legally pragmatic view of feminism is termed by legal scholars as “formal equality.” It has undoubtedly helped many men and women in protecting their rights, as we have seen from the effects of your first legal victories and the legal victories that came after.
But in reading about you, I have also learned that your view of feminism is not free from criticisms.
The limits and future of your feminism
It has been pointed out by your most vocal critics that out of the six landmark cases on sex discrimination which you won in the Supreme Court, you argued for equality for men in four of those cases.
Professor Judith Baer, in her essay titled “Advocate on the Court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Limits of Formal Equality“, criticised you, saying that your legally pragmatic view of feminism is too obsessed with protecting both men and women, to the extent that it hurts women.
Because men and women are naturally different and men already enjoy certain advantages over women in society, the insistence on treating both men and women the same in the eyes of the law can actually hurt women more than men.
This is perhaps explained more clearly and vividly by Catharine MacKinnon, a radical feminist legal scholar:
“Almost every sex discrimination case that has been won at the Supreme Court level has been brought by a man. Under the rule of gender neutrality, the law of custody and divorce has been transformed, giving men an equal chance at custody of children and at alimony. Men often look like better “parents” under gender-neutral rules like level of income and presence of nuclear family, because men make more money and (as they say) initiate the building of family units. In effect, they get preferred because society advantages them before they get into court, and law is prohibited from taking that preference into account because that would mean taking gender into account.”
This failure of the law to consider the fact that a group in society may traditionally enjoy certain advantages and privileges over other groups is very significant in the eyes of many of your critics.
These critics have argued that your feminism is white feminism – a kind of feminism that seems to benefit only white women who already enjoy certain economic benefits and social privileges more than women of colour.
Having read the criticisms against your feminism, I am concerned for anyone who chooses to celebrate you as a feminist icon without first going through a critical evaluation of your feminism.
I have felt a certain uneasiness upon seeing some women of my colour celebrating you as a feminist icon purely through the universalist prism, which sees that women anywhere are the same and any difference due to race, social class, or religion does not matter at all.
But I do not agree with those who have claimed that your legal work has helped destroy all affirmative action programs that help women.
That view is deliberately exaggerated and fails to consider the facts that you advocated for women’s affirmative actions in 1975. Later, as a Supreme Court judge in 2003, you argued for affirmative action to address societal discrimination.
I am quite curious to learn more about how you square the two: the need to ensure equal protection of the laws and the need for affirmative action, or positive discrimination, to rectify “both civil and social inequalities and helps disadvantaged groups achieve a measure of freedom within the societies that oppress them”). But that is for another day.
Here, another criticism can be suggested: Your feminism helps advance formal equality for both men and women. So what?
Unlike in the United States, we have no problem with formal equality in Vietnam.
Yet, it would be an overstatement to say that the women in Vietnam enjoy a kind of gender equality that allows them to flourish.
On the global scale in 2020, Vietnam is ranked 31 out of 153 countries in ensuring women’s economic participation and opportunity, 93 out of 153 in ensuring women’s educational attainment, 151 out of 153 in ensuring women’s health and survival, and 110 out of 153 in ensuring women’s political empowerment.
Vietnamese women, on average, still earn $130 less than Vietnamese men per year.
On a more micro-scale view I can still see that many women in my country suffer from sexual abuse, domestic violence, and extreme misogyny.
I am ashamed to see that some of this Vietnamese misogyny has been shown in many things written about you on the Vietnamese social media in recent days.
Some Vietnamese people seem unable to get over the fact that you supported the women’s right to abortion. They claimed that you were obsessed with killing unborn children.
The fact is that you simply supported women’s right to choose, following your feminism. As you said to the US Senate in your confirmation hearing, “[i]t is essential to woman’s equality with man that she be the decisionmaker, that her choice be controlling. If you impose restraints that impede her choice, you are disadvantaging her because of her sex“.
More than anything, such a hostile attitude towards abortion rights – which tends to be seen amongst Vietnamese men of older generations – betrays an underlying belief that Vietnamese women are not entitled to own and control their wombs.
Suppose a Vietnamese woman’s decision to abort offends a Vietnamese man’s religious belief in the sanctity of her child’s life. In that case, it is the Vietnamese woman who is wrong, not the Vietnamese man. That seems to be what some Vietnamese people, men, and women, still believe, 74 years after the Vietnamese Constitution proudly announced that women shall have the same rights as men.
So, it appears we need more than “formal equality”, to make Vietnam a better place for women.
Does that mean your feminism is obsolete to us Vietnamese? That would be an overstatement based on only a partial understanding of your feminism.
Professor Joan Williams argued that, as a lawyer, you fought for women’s rights with more than just a steely insistence on gender equality.
In your legal briefs and later court decisions, you aimed to deconstruct the traditional male-female divide in which men must be the bread-winners, and women must be the dependants and caregivers.
For example, in the case of Charles Moritz we discussed earlier, Moritz was discriminated against by the law because the law back then refused to recognise the possibility that a single man can be a caregiver for his elderly mother. Caregivers must be women or formerly married men (who have family members they could care for).
Your legal arguments did not just point to the Equal Protection Clause. You sought to deconstruct that traditional assumption that caregivers must not be single men. In doing so, you reconstructed a new premise for the law: caregivers can be women, married men, single men, whoever has someone they have to care for.
Social roles are social constructs. If a social role results in unfairness, we must attempt to deconstruct and then reconstruct that social role.
It is another surprise to learn that your feminism originally was not only inspired by your law students. It was inspired by your research on Swedish laws and legal reforms in the 1960s.
Back then, Swedish advocates argued that “imprisonment in the masculine role is at least as great a problem to men as conformity to a feminine ideal is to women” and “that a debate on liberation and equality must be about how men as well as women are forced to act out socially determined stereotypes.”
Adopting such stances, you became a constructive feminist who “defines equality as treating men and women the same but only after deconstructing the existing norms defined by and around men and masculinity, and reconstructing existing institutions in ways that include the bodies and traditional life patterns of women.“
Maybe you described your constructive feminism best in your own words:
“[W]ere I Queen, my principal affirmative action plan would have three legs. First, it would promote equal educational opportunity and effective job training for women, so they would not be reduced to dependency on a man or the state. Second, my plan would give men encouragement and incentives to share more evenly with women the joys, responsibilities, worries, upsets, and sometimes tedium of raising children from infancy to adulthood. (This, I admit, is the most challenging part of the plan to make concrete and implement.) Third, the plan would make quality day care available from infancy on. Children in my ideal world would not be women’s priorities, they would be human priorities.”
Here are perhaps hints of a future of gender equality that the Vietnamese people can consider.
We have formalised gender equality, but how far have we attempted to reconstruct the existing norms and institutions to free both men and women?
Why is it so easy for Vietnamese men to assume and joke that if a young woman is wealthy, she must have a “sugar daddy”?
Why were many Vietnamese people irked to see a 17-year-old girl celebrating a bit prematurely when she was on the verge of winning a television contest against three male opponents?
Maybe I am reading too much into these behaviours. Still, I suspect they are because of the expectations deeply rooted in our culture about how women should live and should behave. Such expectations seem to dictate that, in her role, a young woman cannot become rich on her own; and that, in her role, a young girl should not over-celebrate and should not live true to her emotions.
On the other side of the coin, I suspect that there are other deeply rooted expectations that imprison the Vietnamese men in specific roles as much as the Vietnamese women.
I have yet to see these expectations, roles, and social norms being debated and deconstructed by the Vietnamese people. But I am hopeful that one day they will be.
The letter is now quite long. I do not want to bore both you and my Vietnamese audience too much, so I will stop here.
I hope to write to you another time. So that I can discuss more things I have learned from you, things that my Vietnamese people can also know to further their pursuits of freedom and happiness.
I thank you for your feminism, and I wish you a good eternal rest.
With Economic Development Comes Greater Government Oppression: Why the EU Must Reconsider Its Free Trade Deal with Vietnam
The agreement threatens to legitimize a brutal regime unless greater human rights protections are incorporated.
On the same day in 2020 that Vietnam chaired its first Security Council meeting in New York, just a few hours earlier and some 8000 miles away near its capital, Hanoi, the Communist Party of Vietnam directly attacked Dong Tam village for refusing to give up its land.
The result? Police shot dead Dong Tam’s beloved leader and former Party village chief, Le Dinh Kinh, an 84-year-old veteran who had been a Party member for 57 years; three police officers also died after falling down a sky-light, ostensibly pursuing “suspects” who resisted the authorities. Twenty two villagers have subsequently been arrested, with twenty being charged with murder. If convicted, these villagers could face the death penalty.
The Dong Tam land seizure event of last week is therefore a watershed moment in Vietnam’s post-war history for many reasons. First, it marks for the first time in the age of social media an open and deadly clash between the Party and its once loyal support base: villagers in northern Vietnam. According to a 2015 Bloomberg finding, almost 70% of Party members live in the north, even though the north is home to less than half of the country’s population of 96 million.
Second, it shows the Party’s determination in ending the dispute, no matter the costs, and the great lengths it will go to muzzle public outcry afterwards, both on- and offline.
Just two days after the incident, the Ministry of Information, which controls and censors all media content in Vietnam, called for Facebook – by far the most popular social media platform in Vietnam, used by some 55 million netizens – to be punished for ‘not following Vietnamese laws’ in allowing ‘distortion and fake news’ to be spread on its platform.
Following official warnings and thanks to a large cyber-troop force the government employs, some users reporting on Dong Tam have been locked out of their accounts or had content taken down by Facebook, a fact Amnesty International has confirmed in recent days.
Offline, the Party’s determination couldn’t be more clear. Less than 24 hours after the incident, the most senior member of the Politburo and Vietnam’s top leader, Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, posthumously awarded the officers killed the title of “martyr”, designating them as first-class heroes.
A week later, in an elaborate ceremony held at the State Funeral House, the Prime Minister himself along with other Politburo members, including the powerful Minister of Public Security, attended the funeral, noting that the officers ‘sacrificed their lives to protect national security’.
It is, indeed, not surprising that the Party views the incident as a matter of significant national security. After all, though land disputes are common in Vietnam because the government does not recognize private land ownership, never before has an entire village dared to resist government seizure of its land at all costs and announce its intentions accordingly on Youtube and Facebook.
With Vietnam’s economy expected to grow faster in the next decade, land designated for development purposes and seized by the government will likely exacerbate the security situation on the ground if not dealt with decisively. In the case of Dong Tam, the land seizure was for Viettel Group, Vietnam’s military-run communications company. They had to act.
But the timing could not have been worse. In the coming days, the EU Parliament’s Trade Committee is expected to vote on the EU – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement, worth 42 billion dollars annually and described by the EU as ‘the most ambitious free trade deal ever concluded with a developing country’. If passed, it will go to Parliament for a final vote on February 10.
According to Human Rights Watch, already there is significant concern among some EU MEPs regarding Vietnam’s worsening human rights record. Just last month, they also discovered that the trade deal rapporteur, MEP Jan Zahradil, has institutional links with the Party, leading to his immediate resignation.
With the latest incident in Dong Tam, it is also important for the 751 MEPs to realize that while the deal will bring more economic benefits to Vietnam, without clear and concrete human rights benchmarks, the deal will likely provide more incentives for the Party loyal and powerful to grab more land from the poor for developments without proper compensation and recourse.
As a result, if passed in its present form, expect more land losses and tragic deaths in villages across Vietnam, not less. After all, 65% of Vietnam’s population still lives in rural areas.
As for the Security Council of which Vietnam is the President this month, expect no resolutions on the matter. Dang Dinh Quy, head of Vietnam’s permanent mission in New York, is a Communist Party member himself.
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