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A Letter To Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo courtesy: TIME

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. 

Our Constitution enshrines women’s rights and has done this since 1946. Our Gender Equality Law came into effect in 2007. 

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. 

Yours sincerely,

Nam Quynh 

Opinion-Section

September, School, And The Politics Of Memory

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Vietnamese students at their first day of school. Photo Source: Nguoi Lao Dong Newspaper.

September is when the school year starts in Vietnam. However, this academic cycle is like no other, as the country is struggling with a deadly virus that claimed more than 10,000 lives last month. [1] How will this pandemic be remembered by those who survive? How will it be taught in schools in the years to come? Who will remember the missteps of the government, and will they demand justice for those whose deaths should have been avoided? We must not forget that a large part of Vietnam’s political landscape is the politics of memory, because as George Orwell once said in 1984, ‘he who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.’ My journey through schools, first in Vietnam and then overseas, illustrates why education and the politics of memory are intimately connected.

‘Under the roof of the socialist school’

I am a researcher, and most of the people I interview for my research are activists and supporters of various social and political movements in contemporary Vietnam. These people are also around my age and come from Vietnam’s post-war generation. Every time I ask about their school experience, they almost always jokingly start with “under the roof of the socialist school”; they then tell me about a time when they were completely unaware of, or even lied to, about many historical events, including the 1968 Hue massacre, the fall of Saigon, the existence of re-education camps, the boat people exodus, or the border war with China. If the truth of these events was widely known, it would raise serious questions about the crimes North Vietnam’s government committed against central and southern Vietnamese and the legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

For us who come from the post-war generation [2], our education has been entirely engineered by the government under the leadership of the VCP. Thus, there is little surprise that some people and events were glorified while others were vilified or completely erased from public consciousness [3]. After all, one cannot secure one’s rule without being seen as legitimate, and in the case of the VCP, the spectre of the past is a constant threat to its contested legitimacy. The singular narrative in which the VCP is portrayed as the brave and glorious liberator of the Vietnamese people was told and repeated throughout the 12 years of our education through textbooks, symbols, rituals, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments to reinforce these ideas.  

Needless to say, I grew-up to become a VCP-nationalist – someone who equates loving Vietnam with believing blindly in the VCP. Likewise, I also ended up believing that modern-day Vietnam was the culmination of the VCP’s countless victories, especially during the ‘War Against America to Save the Country’ (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ cứu nước); I was made to believe that the VCP was “on the right side of history.” This singular narrative is easy to digest for children and teenagers because of its simple dichotomy of hero and villain, supported by a complex system of other institutions – especially the media – that echoes the same story.

Looking back, I can still vividly recall how proud I was when I became a member of the Communist Youth League at the age of 15. I remember humming one of the Party’s hymns as I walked home after attending the membership ceremony. It was not easy for me to escape the preconceptions of my childhood and the sad reality is that many Vietnamese people cannot. 

Pedagogy of the oppressed [4]

When I left Vietnam to pursue my bachelor’s degree, my sociology and history classes challenged this singular narrative from my childhood and managed to deconstruct the VCP’s simplified and skewed perspective of the world. Yet, my most eye-opening experience did not happen in the classroom. 

I remember stumbling upon a stack of books in the university library. They were a collection of stories about the Vietnamese Boat People who survived their exodus. These pages held more than just tales of tragedy and of sinking ships. They held the sorrow of husbands and wives separated by circumstance with little to no hope of ever seeing each other again. They carried the rage and despair of fathers watching their daughters being raped and killed right in front of their eyes. They contained the hopelessness and ennui of throwing corpses into the sea and of the countless lives left broken even after rescue. These stories stood in stark contrast to the image of Vietnam peddled by the VCP. Yet, I could not deny them; the pain and suffering of my countrymen were too raw and too real. The Vietnam I once knew, a Vietnam built on a shoddy foundation of strategically crafted lies and upfront deception, slowly began to crumble. 

It was this evening in the library that changed me forever. Since then, I have become my own educator, gradually undoing what had been done to me “under the roof of the socialist school.” After getting my bachelor’s degree, I continued my education and had the opportunity to study the history of the Vietnam War (instead of the “War Against America”). I also write about contemporary events in Vietnam with the knowledge of how the past helps shape the present. This path I have chosen, albeit not easy, is nonetheless deeply rewarding. Its reward is both personal, as it gives me an avenue to re-build and express my authentic self and collective because I can speak for those whose stories have been erased from history.

Having said all this, education is not confined within formal institutions; I just happen to follow an academic path. Most of my research interviewees have learned through their own means. While I found my first moment of truth in the library, they may have found theirs as they participated in the street protests of the early 2010s in Vietnam, read blogs and websites that have become widely accessible thanks to the rise of the internet in the country, talked to their church members, or met with people of the Vietnamese diaspora. Regardless of the different routes we took, what we share in common is the self-awareness we gain as members of disenfranchised groups: Catholics, “the losing side,” southern Vietnamese, northerners who did not side with the victors, or protesters who were beaten up simply because they peacefully exercised their rights. We also share our role as keepers of the stories the powerful would rather erase.

Free schools and revolutionary journalism

I do not foresee the education system in Vietnam undergoing any radical change. I anticipate that the pictures of the long line of vans waiting in front of the crematorium in Saigon, the thousands of faces behind the death statistics, the grief of their loved ones, the indignation of those who have been pushed further into poverty because of the collapsed welfare system, and countless others whose lives have been overturned in the past weeks with endless confusing and incoherent decisions made by the government, will once again be at risk of being written off of history. It is likely that students will not be told about the year 2021 the way it has happened. Thus, no difficult questions will be raised about the (lack of) competency, accountability, and morality of those in power [5].

However, if history – the history of the oppressed – has anything to teach us, it is the power of Free Schools and revolutionary journalism. We must not forget that Phan Chu Trinh established Free Schools across Vietnam to teach what the French did not allow us – their subjugated people – to learn. We must not also forget that Phan Boi Chau spent his entire life conducting revolutionary journalism, not only to educate and inform but also to cultivate a sense of authentic identity for the Vietnamese people, without which we would not have had the basis to organize ourselves and achieve national independence [6]. I trust that if we could revive the spirit and practices of the days of the two Phans, with Free Schools and revolutionary journalism being once again a vibrant part of civic life in Vietnam, we will not only do justice to the past and to those whose stories would otherwise not be told, but also to our future generations and to the prospects of a better Vietnam we all deserve. 

References:          

  1. Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. “New deaths” for August was 10,067. Available at: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/region/vietnam. Retrieved on 3 September 2021.
  2. Vietnam’s post-war generation is defined as people born between the end of Vietnam War in 1975 and the years of Đổi Mới 1986-1989.
  3. See Vu, T. (2014). Triumphs or tragedies: A new perspective on the Vietnamese revolution. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 45(2), pp 236–257. Reviewing the contents of textbooks used in the cultural revolution led by the VCP, Vu concludes that such education “sought to indoctrinate people, not to enlighten them in the normal sense of the word”, and one of the consequences could be “enslav[ing] people by limiting their information to one particular way of thinking in order to create obedient subjects of the state” (p. 252).
  4. We borrow the name of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first written in 1968, for this section.
  5. We suggest readers to also read Bia Dua’s article Chúng ta còn lại gì nếu ngày mai hết dịch?, published on Luat Khoa on 1 September 2021, to get a more detailed picture of the devastation in Vietnam, and the author’s thoughts and sentiments as a resident of Saigon in these sad and difficult days. Available at: https://www.luatkhoa.org/2021/09/chung-ta-con-lai-gi-neu-ngay-mai-het-dich/?fbclid=IwAR1FtFrxrw3aHp_Pii1D3S2mOMh2muTbjThwIZ4VeLLDGi_JOZcEJN_-Zdk
  6. See Duiker, W. (1976). The rise of nationalism in Vietnam, 1900-1941. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press. An elaborate discussion of Phan Chu Trinh’s Free Schools, Phan Boi Chau’s journalism, and the significance of these works in creating the identity of the Vietnamese people, can be found in Part 1 Scholar-Patriots (pp. 21-101) of the book.

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Human Rights

Journalist Pham Doan Trang Can Still Be Freed In Vietnam. And The US Could Help Win Her Release.

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Pham Doan Trang at her home. Photo: Thinh Nguyen.

While in Vietnam, Vice President Kamala Harris has significant leverage to make a change: free one of the most prominent journalists and democracy activists in the country.

For the Vietnamese Communist Party, political prisoners are bargaining chips in international negotiations. They sell their own citizens to gain a trade deal or a more favorable security treaty. That’s because they know human rights are the soft spot of major powers, such as the United States and the European Union. 

Thus, they release political prisoners in exchange for economic and political gains. The problem is the prisoners are released conditionally: they are expelled from the country. Most of them settle in the United States.

But journalist Pham Doan Trang, one of Vietnam’s most respected journalists, is a different case. Unlike other political prisoners, she has not been indicted or convicted yet; she is a detainee under investigation and still has a chance to be released in Vietnam.

Once the police have determined that an accused person did commit a crime, there is absolutely no way that person can avoid conviction and sentencing. The only option left is to negotiate a settlement in another country, as had happened with some other political prisoners.

Of course, the investigators have now gathered more than enough evidence to make a case against Trang and put her away for up to 20 years. Chances are, the Communist Party has not decided yet on how to move forward with her case to maximize its own interests. All options are still on the table. 

Doan Trang has insisted that she doesn’t want to leave the country until it becomes a democracy. As a close friend and colleague of hers for over a decade, I know how painful it is for her to be forced out of her only home, her beloved Vietnam.

As one of the most prominent and talented journalists and democracy activists in Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, she has always aimed at breaking down the censorship curtain that puts the country at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Her writings and activism include various samizdat political books, two independent magazines (Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese), many protest movements, and international advocacy campaigns.

As a result, she was awarded the Homo Homini Prize from People in Need (Czech Republic) in 2017 and the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Without Borders (France) in 2019. But more importantly, Doan Trang’s way of working and living inspires other Vietnamese to stand up for their rights and a better, kinder country.

No authoritarian regime would tolerate her. After years of cat-and-mouse games with the authorities, and many physical assaults, the police have detained Doan Trang since October 7, 2020, charging her with spreading propaganda against the state. The criminal provision has been widely condemned by human rights groups as a way the government silences critics – a clear violation of free speech protected by the Constitution and legally binding international treaties.

Doan Trang was on her way to meet then-president Barack Obama in May 2016 in Hanoi before the police kidnapped her and detained her for the rest of the day. Vice President Harris may not be able to meet Trang in the detention center, but she can surely do a lot to free her in Vietnam.

The trade relations, especially the semiconductor supply chain and strategic partnership are believed to be the reasons Vice President Harris is paying a visit to Vietnam.

In such circumstances, I believe that the United States, and Vice President Harris, in particular, have an excellent chance to push for Doan Trang’s release right in Vietnam while the case is still undecided. And there is a precedent for that.

In June 2007, Vietnam released attorney and democracy advocate Le Quoc Quan after three months of temporary detention and two days before Chairman Nguyen Minh Triet visited the United States. Attorney Le Quoc Quan had not been indicted yet, and a major reason he was freed was a mountain of pressure from the United States government and civil society, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, where Quan did a fellowship before his return to Vietnam.

It is now urgent to push for Doan Trang’s release, before it’s too late.

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Opinion-Section

Panorama of Flags, Panorama of Lies

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A street in Vietnam. Photo: Asia Democracy Chronicles

The panorama of flags

Foreigners visiting Vietnam can hardly miss the abundance of flags, posters, statues, and slogans that remind them of who is leading Vietnam and of the Communists’ “glorious” struggle against the French, Americans, and the South Vietnam regime throughout the last century. 

However, isn’t it a bit too archaic to still flash the symbol of the hammer and sickle these days, when the means of production and the economy no longer rely on these tools? Farmers and factory workers neither drive nor fuel modern-day politics as well. Likewise, what is the point of having the statues of Ho Chi Minh, Karl Marx, and Lenin in public parks and in the meeting rooms of schools, universities, and governmental departments? Do ordinary people who showcase the red and yellow flag in front of their houses every April 30 cherish the fact that the country was “reunited” in 1975?[1] Do police officers–who check and remind households that fail to do so–love the flag so much and wholeheartedly believe in the cause? In essence, what is the significance of this panorama of symbols? 

Vaclav Havel, the dissident intellectual of communist Czechoslovakia and later president of post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic,[2] can point us to the answer.

The panorama of lies

Following the end of World War II, Czechoslovakia was ruled by the Communists. The iron fist of Communist rule drove dissidents out of the country and clamped down on those who remained. Other than the Prague Spring of 1968, an unsuccessful effort to steer Czechoslovakia back towards democracy, there was hardly any resistance. 

However, communist Czechoslovakia was not just about who held the government; life itself had to adjust in a way that fit the current political climate. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011), who is arguably one of the most respected dissidents in the history of Czechoslovakia, lived most of his life under Communist rule. He grew up to become a playwright, and at the same time, he established himself as a prominent and well-loved politician. A high point of Havel’s dissident writing, The Power of the Powerless, [3] does not concern itself with formal politics; rather, it deals with the “hearts and minds” of the people.

A significant character in The Power of the Powerless is the greengrocer who puts the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his front window every day, along with his vegetables. He is neither passionate nor concerned about whether or not the workers of the world unite, but he does this anyway. This irony reminds me of my family who obediently and diligently displays the Vietnamese flag at times in the year when they should, but remains so apathetic that they do not even care if the flag is hanging upside down. There also seems to be other households quite similar to my own which led to the government’s legal guidelines (3420/HD-BVHTTDL) that specifically address this violation.[4]

The greengrocer’s act is the observable tip of the iceberg of how the hearts and minds of the people work in communist Czechoslovakia; they want to avoid trouble with those who have power. By displaying the slogan, the greengrocer implies: 

I, greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.  

(Havel, 1978, p. 6)

I am once again reminded of my family. I recall that every time my father was late in hanging the flag, my mother would berate him. She would constantly tell him to do it now because she didn’t want the hassle of dealing with the police. When I asked my parents about this, they said that they just wanted to be “left in peace” (yên thân). Likewise, if you ask teachers, students, or employees of governmental departments about the statues of Ho Chi Minh and Karl Marx in their buildings, they would probably tell you something similar.

But, why do the authorities punish such a trivial thing? Whether or not the greengrocer displays the slogan would certainly have little to no effect on the workers’ movement, nor does it pose any tangible threat to the existence of a government that possesses the hard power of the courts, the military, and the police. The greengrocer does not even replace the slogan with another one that is critical about the regime. 

To address this question, Havel points out that, in fact, people would ignore the greengrocer’s slogan, but they do so precisely because such sayings are everywhere – in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletins, and buildings. The key here is that while they ignore individual slogans, the people are well aware of the panorama of these slogans as a whole. The existence of this panorama tells people that dishonesty goes hand-in-hand with obedience here; this is normal, everyone does it, and so must you. In the same vein, transgressions must be punished because “anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself” (Havel, 1978, p. 8). 

Therefore, if a Vietnamese policeman, school administrator, or government official reproaches someone who questions the phrase: “Live, fight, work, and study like our great Uncle Ho” (Sống, chiến đấu, lao động, và học tập theo gương bác Hồ vĩ đại), it is extremely likely that this policeman/school administrator/government official himself has also questioned, albeit in private, the very same slogan! Yet, they also believe that nobody should disrupt the rules of the game and that everyone should blindly follow what the system demands.  

My next question is, how do people live with themselves when their existence is surrounded by so many lies, ironies, contradictions, and hypocrisies, including those of their own making? Would they feel embarrassed and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid and thus becoming unquestionably obedient? These questions, Havel argues, boil down to man’s dignity and authentic identity. To be able to live in lies, the greengrocer deludes himself into believing that there is nothing wrong with the workers of the world unite; he separates the part of himself that questions the slogan from the other half that accepts the excuse. Living in a world of lies and deceit for so long warps our perspective and this bastardized reality becomes our “new normal;” the greengrocer becomes accustomed to the state of his compromised dignity and comes to accept the deception and inauthenticity of the system as part and parcel of life. In effect, he loses his authentic self. 

On the question of dignity and identity, it is interesting that the slogan “Sacrifice for the country and serve the people” (Vì nước quên thân, vì dân phục vụ) is hung in every police station, in a country where police, alongside tax officials, are seen as the most corrupt group (Towards Transparency and Transparency International, 2017). A few years ago, when I passed by one of Vietnam’s border checkpoints, I was baffled by the contradiction between the arrogance of the border control officer and the fact that he was sitting right under a “serve the people” banner. My subsequent conversations with poor Vietnamese migrants who often cross the border for work revealed that this was how they were always treated; they often bribed these arrogant officers and kept their heads down to avoid trouble. 

As I listened to these migrants and recalled my own experience, I wondered how these officers could look at themselves in the mirror. They see the “serve the people” banner in their office every day but shamelessly extend their hand through the small window of the checkpoint to receive bribes from the people they look at with disdain – the “lowly” people they are supposed to serve. On the other hand, the migrants are left with little choice but to comply and are forced to accept being treated with less than half the dignity they should be afforded by the simple virtue of being alive.

Furthermore, Havel argues that the panorama of lies is internally solid, for there is a “metaphysical order binding all its components together,” thus “guarantee[ing] the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). Through all the examples I have provided, isn’t there a sense of such order emanating from Vietnam’s panorama of (pseudo) symbols? The checkpoint officers and those who bribe them, my parents’ disinterested flag-hanging, the equally disinterested policeman who checks the flags, and the people who put the statues of Ho and Marx in their meeting rooms are all parts of a system that everyone who lives or has lived in Vietnam knows all too well; it is a system where “the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, [where] the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, […] [and where] the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code” (Havel, 1978, p. 10). 

In fact, one of my interviewees [5] told me that before he left Vietnam and started to look at the country from a distance, life there was quite “smooth” for him, because “things hung together…everything I heard in school, in the newspaper, in the street etc. was in harmony with each other…I didn’t feel the urge to question things.” This “harmony” is the glue that holds the panorama of lies together. Secondly, as my interviewee’s response also points out, this panorama is solid because those who lack the individual will and instead excel in the use of empty phrases are the ones who thrive (Havel, 1978, p. 13). 

Havel thus concludes that “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 9). This conclusion runs contrary to what many intellectuals and laymen alike often think about authoritarianism as entailing an evil ruler and people who are controlled against their will, or a class that oppresses all other classes, and where the line of struggle is between the oppressor and the oppressed. The concept of “the panorama of lies” goes beyond such binary definitions and shows that the line of struggle “runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1978, p. 16-17).      

Conclusion

I work with and observe a wide range of activists who work tirelessly and voice their opinions hoping to one day make Vietnam a liveable country for ALL and not just for those with unearned privileges and unchecked power. They pursue different paths of change; some try to run for seats in the National Assembly, others focus on analysing the actions of the government, and there are those who try to nurture a different kind of Vietnamese. For them, a different kind of Vietnamese means Vietnamese citizens who feel anger when their own dignity, or the dignity of others,’ is negated; they are those who strive for “what should be,” instead of settling for “what is.” They are those who are honest with themselves about right versus wrong, instead of surrendering their own judgement, mindlessly obeying the state and condemning those who do not conform. 

Vaclav Havel and his people saw the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but the democratic miracle did not immediately follow. Havel, then in the position of president, argued that democratic politics and the market economy, both carrying the promise of a good life, cannot happen in the face of “post-communist morass” (Havel, 1997). The ghost that kept haunting post-communist Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic was called out in Havel’s speech before Parliament in 1997:

Many people believe that democracy or no democracy, the people in power are again people who cannot be trusted and who are more concerned about helping themselves than about the greater good….The prevalent opinion is that it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties – though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words – are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.

(Havel, 1997)

I understand that the different paths of change I mentioned above ultimately feed into each other. However, with the lesson from Czechoslovakia/the Czech Republic and Havel’s thoughts, I cannot help but wonder how best to prioritise these tasks and decide when to pursue which. 

I would also like to believe that Havel’s thoughts give Vietnamese activists hope, especially during the present time when a relentless crackdown makes revolutionary change seem like an utterly unreachable dream. After reading Havel’s work, I see the sparks of our own “Vietnam Spring” starting not in the places representing the power of the system – the National Assembly, the election, state-owned media, or the police – but in the very hearts and minds of ordinary Vietnamese people. The revolutionary Vietnamese of the present day are those who dare to live in truth.

Bibliography:

  1. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam forces entered Saigon and officially ended the existence of the Republic of Vietnam as a nation. North Vietnam and South Vietnam were then joined and ruled by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), and Hanoi became the capital of the whole of Vietnam. In the narrative of the VCP, April 30 is called reunification day and a cause to celebrate, whereas people who sided with South Vietnam call it ‘Black April,’ amongst other names that convey pain and sadness for the loss of their country.  
  2. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992-1993. Vaclav Havel’s presidency was from 1989 to 2003, with some intervals in between.
  3. To be fair to this great work of Havel, I should be clear that the panorama of lies is only a small part of it. I focus particularly on this concept in order to unpack the omnipresence of (pseudo-) symbols in Vietnam.
  4. I am not saying that all Vietnamese display the red and yellow flag in the same disinterested way as Havel’s greengrocer. We will not know unless we ask every single Vietnamese. However, we can always make an educated guess. In Vietnam, there are pockets of the population who resent or distrust the regime for many good reasons, from the historic 1975 event and family members lost at sea during the Boat People exodus to forced evictions and rampant corruption. Growing inequality and poverty drive young people from rural areas to cities or overseas, and also expose even more the lies about the socialist utopia which the VCP claims it pursues and which it trumpets with slogans and posters in public places.
  5. This interview is part of my PhD research on activism under authoritarian rule in the 2010-2019 period in Vietnam.

References

Havel, V. (1979). The Power of the Powerless. Available at: https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/resource/the-power-of-the-powerless/

Havel, V. (1997). Address to the Czech Parliament. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/1087560.html

Towards Transparency & Transparency International (2017). 2017 Global Corruption Barometer: Vietnam. Hong Duc Publishing House.

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