Write it down: General Giap and Robert McNamara

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

Vo Nguyen Giap (top left) with Ho Chi Minh (center) and other commanders, 1950

General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led North Vietnam’s armed forces to victory in its wars with France and the United States, died today in Hanoi, at the probable age of 102. I have little to say in praise of military men, or for that matter of the unfree Vietnamese regime he helped to build (and which sidelined him circumspectly in later life). But this man defeated two great powers — one of them the greatest power in the world at the time, at any time. No other people struggling for liberation from colonialism had to fight so many masters, so long, against such overwhelming odds. Whatever else can be said of Giap, he contributed to human freedom in his terrible century.

His death reminded me of his counterpart Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense during the war, perhaps his most brilliant yet somehow stunted opponent. McNamara resigned his office in 1968, announcing it even before the Tet debacle. He was in despair over the war, yet he could never bring himself to denounce it fully, or, over the wasteland of ensuing years, to evaluate his role in moral rather than technical terms. “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” he wrote, a quarter century after; even then no one quite knew whether he thought it wrong to lose the war or to lose all the other things we lost. In 1997, at 81, McNamara returned to Vietnam for a conference bringing together US and Vietnamese strategists from the conflict. (He met for an hour with Giap, who delivered a propaganda monologue and declined conversation.) The New York Times published a long article on his sojourn — his power walks through Hanoi at dawn, his persistent refusal to countenance certain questions:

Feelings were not on McNamara’s agenda. ”That’s not what I’m focusing on,” he declared before the trip. ”I may not tell you how I’m feeling.” And he never did, even when questioned about the thoughts that were running through his head as he walked around this city, among these people. ”I try to separate human emotions from the larger issues of human welfare,” he replied. ”Human welfare requires that we avoid conflict. I try not to let my human emotions interfere with efforts to resolve conflict.”

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

McNamara (center) in a cabinet meeting with Lyndon Johnson (left), 1968

There’s one part of the article that’s stuck with me ever since. McNamara and several US colleagues

agreed that casualties did not seem to weigh heavily with North Vietnam, either in diplomacy or military planning. ”Was there any consideration of the human cost in Hanoi as they made these decisions?” McNamara asked. ”Is the loss of life ever a factor?” He noted that while 58,000 Americans had been killed, the most authoritative estimate — in a September 1995 article by General Uoc [Nguyen Dinh Uoc, head of the Institute of Military History] — put the number of Vietnamese deaths at 3.6 million. ”It’s equivalent to 27 million Americans!” McNamara exclaimed. …

”Were you influenced by that loss of life?” he asked [veteran Vietnamese leaders] in the conference. ”Did it move you to probe the negotiations?” Considering that a man responsible for so many casualties was accusing his enemies of caring less, the Vietnamese responded with exceeding courtesy. At first, when McNamara asked [former Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach] the question over lunch, “the answer was, They paid no attention whatever to the casualties,” McNamara reported triumphantly. ”What I thought was — and I was wrong — that a very high rate of casualties would lead them to be interested in trying to find a less costly way of achieving their objectives — i.e., negotiations.” But all he had got was the standard line that the cause was worth any sacrifice, based on the often-quoted mantra of Ho Chi Minh: ”There is nothing more precious than freedom and independence.” 

McNamara found these values, this stubborn insistence, baffling. And this leads to the passage that despite all my efforts I can’t forget:

To explain this to himself, he remembered seeing, during World War II in China, a worker fall and get crushed by a huge roller flattening earth for an airfield. The Chinese laborers laughed. There were some people to whom life was not the same as to us, he reasoned as he stood one evening in the hotel lobby. ”We’d better understand that and write it down.”

This is the man who calculates that he killed more than three and a half million women, men, and children. He is surprised that others let him kill them. Those people don’t see life the same way he does. He doesn’t laugh, he just acts, and measures others’ morality by observing their reactions. We’d better understand that and write it down.

Cultural Cold Wars: Where “traditional values” came from

"Communism destroys the family": Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

“Communism destroys the family”: Spanish fascist poster, 1936. With one women screaming as the Red abducts another, the possibility that this is a lesbian family is not to be discounted.

There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.

A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War.  It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.

I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?)  But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well.  (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,

25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.

Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.

All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but  it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)

What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.

"This Godless Communism": Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

“This Godless Communism”: Treasure Chest comics series, starting in 1961

These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.

When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.

Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.

USE communist-comic-page-6 copy
Getting Mommy in the workforce isn’t the half of it, though.  Next come state-run nurseries, and “So ends the story of the American family.”

USE communist comic family 2 copy
We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.”  But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.

Canadair advertisement, 1955

Canadair advertisement, 1955

The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):

USE communist comic school 1 copy
Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.

USE 5285959413_b70f5d6106_b
And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:

USE 5285954299_699a8f98d0_b

It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.

This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

Not so simple these days: From 1971 cartoon by US evangelical megapublisher Jack T. Chick

But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.

US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Poster for António Salazar's dictatorship in Portugal: "Salazar's Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education"

Poster for António Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal: “Salazar’s Lesson: God, Fatherland, Family: The Trilogy of National Education”

The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to

Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.

After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that

for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.

Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.

Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.

USE 121-1024x698 copy

This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”

USE fig4.1 copy

“Chile: Yesterday” –street violence — “Today” — family; 1975 propaganda

This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.

“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”

Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA

Top L: "Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!" Top R: "Vote Christian" -- while snakes labelled "Divorce" and "Free Love" hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: "Mamma and Papa are voting for me."

Top L: “Mother! Save your children from Bolshevism!” Top R: “Vote Christian” — while snakes labelled “Divorce” and “Free Love” hiss at the family. Bottom L: A 20th-anniversary poster for Christian Democracy features a white-clad virgin. Bottom R: “Mamma and Papa — Vote for me.”

More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.

USE thailand-vs-china-03-family copy

“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”

thailand-vs-china-04-property copy

“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.

CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:

The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.

The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.

We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?

The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters

200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …

Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.

During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Top, recruiting ad for Rhodesian army, 1970s; bottom, warning against loose talk

Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:

USE Rhodesian Insurgency propaganda - Terror and death is the way of the communist terrorists in Rhodesia copy

Leaflets distributed in government-controlled villages by white Rhodesian forces, 1970s

You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.

Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God!  And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”

USE grenada-01-1 copy

What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!

There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in  – so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals.  Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.

America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.

What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communist Crusade

Last page of Two Faces of Communism, comic produced in 1961 by the evangelical Christian Anti-Communism Crusade

Vietnam: Marriage, authoritarianism, and social control

Dykes on bikes, Hanoi style: © AFP

Hanoi held its first LGBT Pride on August 5, a march-cum-ride that went from the National Stadium to a downtown park.

Dozens of cyclists decorated with balloons and rainbow flags streamed through the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on Sunday for the first gay pride parade in the nation’s history.

Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists, despite their lack of official permits. …

“We don’t have permission for this and even if we had asked for official permission it would not have been possible,” said Van Anh, to the AFP news agency. “But we have a lot of support from Vietnamese society. Many people told me they want to attend the parade,” she added.

That’s from an AlJazeera English report (it’s almost as fascinating to have a Qatar-based news outlet devoting extensive coverage to sexuality these days). AP adds:

Demonstrators trailed rainbow-colored streamers and shouted “Equal rights for gays and lesbians!” and “We support same-sex marriage!”

It was a scene that was unimaginable a few years ago, when Vietnam still labeled homosexuality a “social evil” alongside drug addiction and prostitution. The country’s gay community was once so underground that few groups or meeting places existed, and it was taboo to even talk about the issue.

There are many more pictures here. 

Breaking away: © Reuters

This comes after Vietnam’s government announced in late July that it would address the status of same-sex couples, possibly with provisions for same-sex marriage, in a coming overhaul of marriage laws:

Video of Vietnam’s first publicized gay wedding went viral online in 2010, and a few other ceremonies followed, capturing widespread public attention. The Justice Ministry now says a legal framework is necessary because the courts do not know how to handle disputes between same-sex couples living together. The new law could provide rights such as owning property, inheriting and adopting children.

“I think, as far as human rights are concerned, it’s time for us to look at the reality,” Justice MinisteHà Hùng Cường said Tuesday in an online chat broadcast on national TV and radio. “The number of homosexuals has mounted to hundreds of thousands. It’s not a small figure. They live together without registering marriage. They may own property. We, of course, have to handle these issues legally.”

As I grow older I find I am becoming Eeyore, always determined to look at the unbright side of life. God forbid I should rain on this parade of cyclists, or their courage (AFP notes that the parade website warned each marcher to “consider his/her personal circumstances and the risks possibly involved before participation”).

Yet this march is no sign of widespread social liberalization. Vietnam remains an extremely repressive polity, and other politically as well as socially marginally groups still bear the brunt. Here’s more news from yesterday:

Vietnamese police detained at least 20 people on Sunday as they broke up a protest in Hanoi against Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, witnesses said.

Demonstrators were forced into waiting buses and taken to a rehabilitation centre usually used to detain sex workers and drug users, after attempting to gather in defiance of a heavy police presence, one detainee told AFP.

“There are at least 25 people here and there are arrestees elsewhere,” the person — who requested anonymity for security reasons — said by telephone from the Loc Ha detention centre. [emphasis added]

Or this, from last week — one reflection of a growing government campaign to imprison dissident bloggers:

The mother of a prominent Vietnamese blogger has died from her injuries after setting herself on fire in front of government offices, her family says.

She was protesting against the detention of her daughter, Ta Phong Tan, who is facing charges of anti-state propaganda, another daughter told the BBC’s Vietnamese service.

Dang Thi Kim Lieng set herself alight in southern Bac Lieu province. Her daughter faces trial in August and could be jailed for 20 years.

Ta Phong Tan

Ta Phong Tan, a former police officer, wrote a blog called Cong ly va su (Justice and Truth), drawing attention to state abuses and demanding social justice. Arrested last September, she faces trial this month and could be sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Cuba, of course, also indicated recently that it may move toward same-sex marriage, under the stewardship of Mariela Castro, President Raul’s daughter. The cases seem to me remarkably similar. Both are authoritarian governments, with Communist parties still steeped in the repression of dissent, and powerful histories of social control. Both seem to have decided that the best way to deal with a new, increasingly visible and vocal minority without a clear or oppositional political agenda is to integrate it into the existing structures of society and subordination. They rely on recognition to contain it, and marriage is one of the most trustworthy containers around.

Nikolai Krylenko, b. 1885, shot 1938: I know a stinky secretive bordello when I see one

Authoritarian governments do not like invisible groups, sneaking around in the subterranean structures of society. They want a transparent life-world, with everybody’s activities fully exposed like ants in an ant farm, or happy hamsters. The instinctive response to identities that prefer the safety of occlusion is to drag them kicking and screaming into the light– the switchless light of prison, under the perpetually buzzing electric bulbs of the Lubyanka.  Stalin’s prosecutor Nikolai Krylenko famously expressed these fears, and this solution, in clarifying why the dictator recriminalized homosexual conduct in the 1930s. Homosexuals were subversives, he shouted:

Classless hoodlums, either from the dregs of the society, or from the remains of the exploiters’ class. They have no place to go. So they take to — pederasty. Together with them, next to them, under this excuse, in stinky secretive bordellos another kind of activity takes place as well — counter-revolutionary work.

The traditional response of repression is not always the best-working one, however. Sometimes, if you can’t beat them to a pulp, it’s better to join them. Or, more properly, to make them join you.  Recognition is a comparatively painless way of easing the invisible into the light. Recognition in marriage is potentially a splendid means of identifying, registering, and integrating dissident sexualities, subjecting them to a state-defined structure that normalizes and depoliticizes them, nullifying and Novocaining any residual anti-social impulse.

There’s a pretty extensive literature on how marriage serves this function, even (or especially) in ostensibly democratic societies. After the Civil War and emancipation, for instance white American leaders hoped to shove or shovel former slaves into marriages, expecting that legal recognition of their relationships would impose on them a new form of institutional regulation — and would tame them for membership in a contract-dominated society. Tamara Nopper describes some of the motives as well as consequences:

African Americans were aggressively pushed to marry and register their marriages with the state.  Registration policies (and the granting of certain rights to Blacks in general) also became a means to police and criminalize African Americans.  For example, Blacks who married and failed to register with the state were prosecuted.  Demonstrating the afterlife of slavery, the attempts of slaves to express some emotional autonomy and forge their own marriages (without the legal ability to contract) on plantations became the basis of social control in the post-Emancipation period.  Black codes in different states declared slave couples who lived together during slavery as legally married.  … In cases where a Black man might have multiple spouses, Freedmen’s Bureau agents would designate the Black woman with the most children to be his wife. Additionally, these policies and practices served as forms of privatization and anti-Black austerity as “the government used marriage to financially and socially domesticate newly freed Blacks to ensure that the white public faced minimal responsibility for former slaves’ economic security.”  Put simply, instead of reparations, African Americans got marriage.

And Nopper detects in so-called “welfare reform” a contemporary, neoliberal revival of this push:

the message is very simple

While some have described how Americanization campaigns encouraged marriage among immigrants during the Progressive Era or how gay marriage was facilitated by some city and local governments in the early 2000s, the most striking example of governments promoting marriage among U.S. minorities is the targeting of African Americans.  ….

As several scholars and analysts emphasize, contemporary welfare reform, primarily targeted at the mythical “Black welfare queen” (despite the diversity of welfare recipients), pushed marriage among poor women as a solvent for poverty and female-headed households.  Indeed, as Priya Kandaswamy points out, the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) begins with the following “finding” from Congress: “(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”  … PRWORA enacted, among other draconian measures, “stricter paternity identification practices” designed to force poor women to become more dependent on men with whom they had children (men who were most likely also poor).  With little consideration for the dynamics of the relationship (be it violent or collegial), poor women were expected to maintain a particular type of relationship with men than to continuously access state support for taking care of themselves and their children.

Cuba and Vietnam are authoritarian in a different way from the United States, and they lack the full flowering of the US’s racial paranoia about a segregated underclass. But in confronting the sudden emergence of uncontrolled and unregulated forms of sexuality, their inchoate responses so far have a certain similarity to post-slave society, post-Great Society America.

A few examples do not a tendency make, but I wonder to what degree societies in the grip of authoritarianism (either in its neoCommunist or neoliberal versions, which in any case clearly are on the merge) will find same-sex marriage a useful tool for co-opting and controlling a novel social group.

China will perhaps be the test case. Right now, China is having enough problems with heterosexual marriages to keep it busy. If the People’s Republic starts moving toward recognizing same-sex unions, though, the rhetoric about marriage equality as a new step toward freedom will deserve a bit of re-examination.

But then, who am I to say? I’m Eeyore. Don’t pay any attention to me.

 

The military and modernity

Red states

In his brilliant history of the US war in Vietnam, which I’ve been reading desultorily, Gabriel Kolko writes:

By early 1963 … W. W. Rostow had initiated discussions among Washington planners of the military’s role in the Third World, bringing the then fashionable military “modernization theory” to the executive’s attention. In effect, he argued, the reliance on civil authorities in the Third World after 1945 had been an error. The military establishments were far better transmitters of Western values and the most promising modernizers of the traditional orders. And because the United States controlled aid to them as well as direct training, Rostow urged much greater exploitation of these levers to advance US interests. Its “benevolent authoritarianism” would both create national unity and hold power in trust for the less competent civilians. … In Indonesia or Vietnam there were few options to a reliance on the military; the idea was then, as it is today, quite respectable among decision makers.

Kolko wrote this in 1985, at the Reagan administration’s height. But when you look at the regimes the US supports now in places like Egypt or Uganda, one has to wonder how differently the decision makers imagine “modernity” today.