The ghosts in the room & skeletons in the closet

In Cộng Đồng on 2009/06/08 at 05:20

Note: This essay was written as a response to a call for dialogue from Da Màu (Colored Skin)–an online Vietnamese Literature Magazine. As some of you might recall, the Multi-Art Show “F.O.B. II: Art Speaks / F.O.B. II: Nghệ Thuật Lên Tiếng” organized by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) became too controversial with many public protests to remain open for the weekend of January 17, 2009 in Santa Ana (Orange County, California). Da Màu Magazine then invited people participate in a writing dialogue on January 30, 2009. So we engaged via the below essay from the lens on race, class, privilege, generational gap, oppression, and memory.

the dead haunt the living…

Michel de Certeau

There are many comments about the protestors. But it’s rather cavalier to conclude that “… angry protesters unwilling and incapable of dialogue” because that assumption is completely missing the point. The protesters do not care about arts. The protestors do not seek dialogue with VALAA. Their aim and motivation are purely political as has been in many protests in the past and would be in the future. Generally speaking, each dialogue has a purpose and invited participants. In this case, it turned out that the would-be participants didn’t agree with the agenda or format, so came the boycott and protest. For the protester’s purpose, the dialogue between Vietnamese Americans do not further any changes in Vietnam, nor address the wound of the past, or create any progress in the transnational political field. If there is any dialogue it should then come directly from the in-power who needs to willingly disavow their power and come to the table.

The protesters want the in-power to acknowledge the ghosts in the room and skeletons in the closet. [The ghosts in the room are dictatorship and oppression. The skeletons are crimes committed before, during, and after the war: from political assassination to mass civilian killing, from land reform executions to re-education camps]. Only then there would be productive results and things could move forward. Any other ways are merely promoted illusions of dialogue and reconciliation.

One often evokes the silent majority to be on their side. In the context of the Vietnamese American community, what silent majority one refers to? Who are they? The middle-class, the upper-class, the educated elites, the technocrats, the acculturated, or rather, assimilated. Most (almost all) of my friends belong to that group, including me. But definitely we’re not such a majority. There are “others”, invisible, marginalized, and not counted. They would never amount to a majority since they are invisible, no matter how many they are. The “so-called” silent majority chose not speak up and purportedly felt intolerable for being silenced by a vocal minority. But, it’s not so “intolerable” as one so thought. That intolerable is the bourgeois histrionic malaise. That silence is so tolerable as much as a comfort of a lie — an assuagement of self-deceit — in order to be safe in the middle of the herd, letting others on the margin vulnerable.

Such silence is not only tolerable but also justifiable. There is nothing to gain but much to lose so silence is the best prescription for the “so-called” majority. There is also an advantage for being in this “so-called” silent majority in order to judge the protests as “reactive”, “illogical”, “un-democratic”, and “uncivilized”, as well as the protesters fanatics and extremists. Being considered as losers and spoilers, the protesters are presumptuously viewed as the hindrance to a “normalized” situation, an unwelcome third party in a dialogue between the (self-)anointed. These protesters are not regarded as engaging participants, and at most, merely spectators. So then comes a view of a silent majority who supposedly support peaceful dialogue and participate in the discussion. Together with a mix of naivete and ignorance this “so-called” majority forgets the invisible majority who neither has the means to participate nor the language to speak. Who sets the agenda, who frames the question? Who decides what and how to participate? Who speaks? Why would the protesters have to be “peaceful” and “orderly” in their objection? The “progressive” intellectuals who were sitting-in, demonstrating, burning flags, blocking roads, defacing public properties once touted their acts as “civil disobedience”, but ironically now labeled the recent Vietnamese American protests as “fanatic” and “barbaric”!?

There are ghosts (the invisible ominous presence) which possessed objects, symbols, space, and place. The red flag with yellow star and statue of Ho Chi Minh are such symbols/objects. Their presence evokes the invisible manifestation of ghostly horror of deaths and sufferings. More than the swastika which represents the Nazi party, a forgone regime no longer exists, the red flag with yellow star represents the continuing suffering, humiliation, and oppression, then, now, and ongoing. Regardless how those symbols and objects morphed or disguised into educational tools, communicative art or commercial items, they remain possessed. The protesters screamed out to the ghosts at which others turn a blind eye and ignore. Such disregard is often achieved by forgetting, by excluding, and by craftily framing. In contrast, the protesters want to dig out the skeletons in the closet, hidden and buried for many years without acknowledgment.

Very often people curse the hungry ghosts who possessed an area and demanded payment. Metaphorically and materially. In Vietnam, they are the local gangsters, often supplanted by local police, traffic police, and special police. People give bribes so the hungry ghosts don’t raise hell. People avoid them at all cost in order to keep on living but ultimately one wants to rid them permanently. There is an aura of ominous and imminent danger in their ghostly presence that evokes fear and abhorrence in the living regardless of how well the hungry ghosts are dressed and sophistically presented. The evil spirits in disguise as “reform” and “progress” have offered pacts to global hungry bidders. Who could take advantage but the privileges’, many are self-claimed “liberal progressive”. One could be very progressive in the mainstream framework but exploitative and internalized neo-colonialist in the faraway third world countries—those political identities are not mutually exclusive. Many have unwittingly (or rather strategically) abetted in making blood pacts, facilitating the red capital mixed with new found capital abroad in order to wash out the blood stains. Old money, new money. Old elites, new elites. Blood are also mixed to create an elixir for eternal power and privileges. One doesn’t have to look far to see. The daughter of current PM Nguyen Tan Dung married the son of an ex-RVN deputy minister. America, the land of opportunity no longer offers quick rich whereas the ancestral homeland bestows a much fertile ground for wealthy repatriates to exploit. They hid under the façade of heart-tugging call to rebuild Vietnam.

The privileged Vietnamese Americans have power of language, media, access, security, and capital accumulation on their side for expressing their thoughts and feelings, even if only in the confine of an ethnic enclave. Moreover, they set the agenda, frame the discussion, speaking on other behalf while the wounded just react based on their feelings in deep-seated experiences. Even in this “open” forum in the public space, I still doubt that any of the invisibles (even if not surreal or imagined) have a voice. Who speaks then?

Vi Nhân

Vietnamese Translated Version: Hồn ma và xương khô

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