Below is a 1770-word response to this recent 541-word blog post by Nancy Napier, a distinguished professor emerita and former director of the Center for Creativity and Innovation at Boise State University’s College of Business and Economics. That’s more than 3 times as long as the original post. Writing as therapy, I guess. It helps that I type fast, the most useful skill I acquired in junior high school in the pre-personal computer age of electric typewriters.
It’s rare that I take the time, life’s most precious commodity, to respond to a colleague’s blog post but this one cried out for one. I read it with some anticipation, expecting to learn something. I was bitterly disappointed. I know both countries pretty well, having been born and raised in one and lived in the other for over 15 years with my first trip in 1996, i.e., in the “early days,” just 10 years after the Đổi Mới economic reforms. One of my points, stated more diplomatically for the benefit of this G-rated blog, is WTH does any of it have to do with the US?
The Four F’s of Moving Forward in Challenging Times: My Response
There are many lessons the US and other countries can learn from Viet Nam; however, I didn’t find any in this post. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll respond to each of the “four F’s” in the same order in which the author presented them.
But first, I would like to take issue with her Pollyannish assertion that the US has turned a new page and “looks toward a fresh start for the future” and her question, “’How can we put the bitterness that has accumulated over the past four years behind us to move forward together as a nation?’”
The notion that the conditions that gave rise to the election of an authoritarian malignant narcissist whose administration was incompetent, corrupt, and cruel were only a blip on the historical horizon and that the Biden/Harris administration represents a “fresh start for the future” is naïve, at best. It reflects a lack of knowledge about US history and some of the existential problems currently facing that country, problems that will not be solved during a four- or eight-year presidential term, or even in a generation, if at all.
The recent airstrikes in Syria, a sovereign nation, in case you’ve forgotten, which resulted in at least 22 deaths, are a clear indication that it’s business as usual as far as US foreign policy is concerned. So much for the “fresh start for the future,” just more of the same.
As I noted in a 1 February 2021 essay entitled Trumpism is Exactly Who Many of US Are
Trump was a symptom not a cause, one that has been in the making for much of US history well before the founding of the country. The conditions that gave rise to Trump and all that he says he stands for (in reality, of course, he stands mostly for himself) have accelerated in the last few decades. Both Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the two major political parties in this oligarchical system that Gore Vidal once referred to as “the Property Party” with “two right wings,”, share responsibility for the sad state of affairs that is the current US disunion. (In a September 2009 interview with The Times of London, about three years before his death, Vidal predicted that there would soon be a dictatorship in the US.)
Poverty is on the rise, personal debt has skyrocketed, income and, more importantly, wealth inequality are at record levels. The American Dream, which was always a dream for most US Americans, is long since DOA for all except a select few. The cultural myth lives on, albeit in tarnished form.
Among “the supreme challenges of our time” that I listed and briefly described are functional illiteracy among a staggering 54% of all adults, defined as people from 16 to 74, racism that dates to the early days of British Colonial America, and nationalism, the irrational yet heartfelt belief that the US is the “greatest nation on earth,” reams of evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.
Now to the dissection and demolition of the four F’s in cross-cultural context.
I’m not sure how this applies to US Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom never learned about their country’s history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, which means there’s nothing to forget. What many US Americans remember (“never forget”) are the lies they were taught growing up, the cultural myths, the belief in cultural superiority that is nationalism. What the US desperately needs is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at least a digital one because I doubt it will ever happen offline. Its people, at least as many as possible, need to come to terms with and overcome its past in the sense of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, as Germany did after World War II and the horrors of Nazism.
For most of its history, the US has been a victimizer and invader while Viet Nam has been repeatedly victimized, violated, and invaded, including by the US. (For an overview of that tragic period of history, have a look at this 2020 essay of mine A Letter From Viet Nam on the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the End of the War.)
Correction to the 3 million figure mentioned in the blog post: An estimated 3.8 million Vietnamese were killed during the war, over half of whom were civilians, according to a Harvard Medical School and University of Washington study. (Let me know if you need the citation or, better yet, look it up.)
Try to forgive
This is an apples and oranges comparison. Try to forgive whom and for what? Here are two more relevant excerpts from my essay on Trumpism:
Support for ex-president Trump is support for, or at least tacit acceptance of, abuse, anti-intellectualism, arrogance, authoritarianism, bullying (cyber and offline), cheating, corruption, cruelty, discrimination, division, exploitation, extortion, fascism, greed, ignorance, incompetence, instability, irresponsibility, lies, malevolence, malignant narcissism, misogyny, mockery, nationalism, nativism, racism, (statutory) rape, sedition, sociopathy, theft, traitorism, and xenophobia. You don’t get to pick and choose, even you’re a single-issue voter, which many are.
Agree to Disagree? It Depends.
There is no discussion with Trumpies, the USA’s fallen angels, no middle ground, no mutual respect, no unity, no agreeing to disagree. Corina (@cdvaughn16) graphically illustrated this point when she Tweeted last year, ‘Agree to disagree’ is reserved for things like ‘I don’t like coffee.’ Not racism, homophobia, and sexism. Not human rights. Not basic decency. If I unfriend you during this, it IS personal We do not have a difference of opinion. We have a difference in morality.
What’s required is a concerted, long-term effort to improve the societal conditions that gave rise to people who follow someone like Donald Trump. They have not disappeared with his defeat nor have the conditions in which their beliefs fester.
Viet Nam won the US War in Viet Nam at inestimable human and other costs, including the war legacies of Agent Orange (AO) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO). It defeated a superpower and thereby regained the right to independence and national sovereignty.
Make friends with our enemies
The forward-looking mindset of the Vietnamese is rooted in their culture, including its pragmatic view of the world and the arc of history. ( While all is not forgiven or forgotten, this is what US Americans and the French before them like to hear.) It also explains the country’s foreign policy which, in a nutshell, is to work with all countries for mutual benefit. In short, this is another apples and oranges comparison that adds nothing to the discussion at hand.
Please indulge me with yet more excerpts from the aforementioned article. (I don’t have the time to paraphrase my own writing…)
Most US Americans grow up learning that there are two sides to every argument. Us vs. them, for and against, Democrats and Republicans. As a result, they end up inhabiting an intellectually limited dual world in which everything is either/or without realizing that arguments can have many different sides and perspectives.
I recently saw this exchange on Facebook in connection with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on 18 January by two women. “Yes, we must all learn to live together as brothers. I agree. Hopefully, both sides can do this and not just talk about it. Hopefully, both sides can agree to disagree with each other and respect each other’s opinion without slinging ugly words at each other. I have faith in our nation and know we can do this.” Someone added “I agree completely. America can come back together and agree to disagree, calmly.”
These comments, while perhaps well-meaning, are infused with moral equivalence, the notion that everyone has a right to her or his opinion (true) and that all opinions are created equal (false). This uniquely US American way of looking at the world reminds me of this quote by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four-term U.S. Senator, ambassador, administration official, and academic: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
People who utter these inane thoughts wonder why we can’t all just get along. The simple reason is that some differences are irreconcilable. We can “agree to disagree” on our favorite ice cream or which is the better vacation destination – the mountains or the beach – but not whether or not people of color are inferior to white people or whether climate change is fake news. Those US Americans who talk about “agreeing to disagree” also overlook the sobering fact that they’re living in a “broken land,” as President Biden mentioned in his inaugural address, a reference rarely uttered by a sitting US president.
Speaking of enemies, most of the USA’s are domestic not foreign. The blinders of nationalism prevent its adherents from identifying problems right in front of their eyes, the first step in solving them. While Viet Nam has unresolved issues and conflicts with some countries, including China, it tries to solve these problems peacefully. What other choice is there?
Look to the future
Yet another flawed comparison. Do US Americans “respect the past”? Most don’t even know their own country’s history, not to mention that of Viet Nam or the rest of the world. In addition, a lot of their optimism, which is not what it once was, is based on cultural mythology, e.g., the rags-to-riches American Dream that is not borne out by reality. This 2017 Atlantic article The Dark Side of American Optimism – And the bright side of rising pessimism about the American Dream (PDF download) discusses this in some detail.
There are clear differences between the US and Viet Nam. In general, the former is nationalistic while the latter is patriotic. Most Vietnamese are more open and outward-looking than most US Americans. The US is an empire in decline while Viet Nam is a country in the ascendancy riding the wave and contributing to the 21st Asian century. Just look at how the Vietnamese government has successfully contained a global pandemic, to the benefit of its people and economy, and in tragic contrast to the US and other countries that have failed spectacularly.
Finally, the US has a bloodstained history with its government and military as the aggressor. Viet Nam, as a perennial target and victim of invasion, occupation, and war has no such burden or past to overcome. There are lessons that the US and other countries can learn from Viet Nam, including an open-minded, progressive, and peace-oriented foreign policy, and the desire to learn from other countries as positive and negative role models. The “four F’s” are not among them. The pablum that was this post left me shaking my head and wondering, Where’s the beef?
Shalom (שלום), MAA