I’ve been a cultural activist all my life, so where I stand on the question of culture is clear: with Augustin Girard when he wrote more than 30 years ago that “Culture concerns everyone and it is the most essential thing of all, as it is culture that gives us reason for living, and sometimes for dying.”
I’m still waiting for the world to catch up. Despite ubiquitous evidence of people caring passionately about things that don’t register on a balance sheet or an inventory; even though everywhere around us we see people motivated by such caring to act even against great obstacles, inspired to take on even what appears impossible—the dominant view continues to be that culture is a trivial matter.
That must be why cultural controversies are treated with such incomprehension by the press. Join me in considering the controversy over naming the main Vietnamese neighborhood in San Jose, and in understanding its relevance for all of us.
Ly Tong, a Vietnamese activist and former Air Force pilot who escaped from a North Vietnamese prison camp, has pledged to continue the hunger strike he began last week until the San Jose City Council agrees to call the city’s Vietnamese district “Little Saigon” instead of the name it designated in November, “Saigon Business District.” So far, the City has countered with idea of a citywide election in which several names would contend. The matter will be discussed at a Council meeting on March 4th.
A Vietnamese community group supporting the name “Little Saigon” has created an elaborate Web site with text and video, providing a minutely detailed insider account of the controversy. But the meaning of the controversy does not reside in an account of the events. Rather, it lies beneath the surface of the name “Saigon.”
This fight over naming goes back several years. Before it had been narrowed down to the two names that now compete, others were in consideration, including “Vietnam Town Business District” and “Vietnamese Business District.” These monikers were rejected by many—especially in the older generation—because they felt it essential to include the name “Saigon.” Here’s how this feeling was expressed by Venerable Nguyen Thanh Liem, a member of The Vietnamese Cao Dai Congress in Northern California, who wrote that the name Saigon is “an icon I always treasure as a remembrance of our former capital Saigon, which name has been stripped by Vietnamese Communists.” In other words, for community members like Ly Tong, who fought with the Americans, the name “Saigon” is the essential symbol of what they lost in leaving Vietnam. Nguyen Thanh Liem testified that “I strongly support LITTLE SAIGON because this naming along with the heritage flag with three red stripes on a yellow background are the symbols for the fight for Freedom, Democracy and Human Rights of the Vietnamese living abroad and in Vietnam.”
The controversy has exposed political and generational differences within the Vietnamese American community, which—like every other ethnic community—is anything but unitary. Indeed, Vietnamese talk about four distinct waves of immigration to the U.S., each with its own distinct political and cultural flavor. The family of Madison Nguyen, the young San Jose City Council member who has been condemned for supporting alternate names in defiance of these strong sentiments, came to the U.S. in the early 1980s. (The breach opened when she at first supported names featuring “Vietnam,” rather than “Saigon,” as the primary element.) She is the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to office in California, and her resume tells a very different generational story: She received a B.A. in History from UC Santa Cruz; and a Masters degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago. She taught Sociology and Vietnamese American Culture at local colleges.
The flood of controversy over naming has generated tributaries: the most conservative elements of the Vietnamese community (San Jose is home to approximately 100,000 Vietnamese Americans) have charged Madison Nguyen with backstage deal-making and ignoring the will of the electorate, and have demanded a recall. Her supporters (a much more culturally diverse group; she was endorsed by many different community leaders and groups, only a fraction of them Vietnamese) point out the the district is not entirely Vietnamese; both the local Business Association and the San Jose Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposed “Little Saigon.”
The outcome remains to be seen. But even if it were already known, I could never pretend to untangle the threads of this controversy so as to make them line up neatly into black-and-white sense. That is because it is not so much facts that are contested here as feelings, and those feelings are encrusted with accumulated cultural information, the way a snowball picks up sticks and pebbles rolling downhill.
This much can be said, however: hunger striker Ly Tong and his allies are part of the first generation of immigrants who left at the fall of Saigon, and who ever since have kindled the flame of opposition to communism and to the current government in Vietnam. The name “Little Saigon” and the flag with three red stripes on a yellow background symbolize all they fought for, all they lost, and all their hopes for a very different future Vietnam. From this distance, it is easy (and true) to say there were two sides in the Vietnam War, both animated by strong feelings, and both claiming to be on the side of freedom. As someone who worked and protested against U.S. intervention in Vietnam, my own feelings about the South Vietnamese government were highly critical, grounded in the corruption and callous self-dealing the U.S. encouraged in that misbegotten war, and I see no reason to change them. But my strongly positive feelings about the then-North Vietnamese have been tempered by observing the way they have governed, with many abuses of human rights.
But however one felt about events of nearly half a century ago—and however close to home those feelings hit—time has brought changes. Younger Vietnamese have begun trade and social relations with the Vietnam of today. Many in the younger generation don’t speak Vietnamese, and these decades-old controversies seem distant, another world. For many of them, the intensity of these elders’ passion has little meaning, except as an attachment to the past that makes people behave irrationally in the present. There’s an interesting discussion of the issue—and the generation gap—on the same Web site referenced above.
All this fuss over two names that differ only slightly? No, all this fuss over the meaning of a life, of a history, of a sacrifice, and of the pain that attaches to the defeat of one’s ideals, whether or not another may judge them valid.
I was thinking of this last week while reading Tony Judt’s brave and interesting essay on “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe” in the New York Review of Books, stimulated by Hannah Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism. In his essay, Judt describes how, after decades of turning away from the realities and impact of the Holocaust in postwar Europe, the subject is now ubiquitous in curricula, memorials and commemorations, and the result is perhaps the opposite of what was intended. The specific character of the Holocaust is stressed with such energy, and the lessons urged from it are so narrowly constrained to its particular effects, that the people who by age or distance from those events have no special connection to them are failing to see what they may teach:
The problem of evil—of totalitarian evil, or genocidal evil—is a universal problem. But if it is manipulated to local advantage, what will then happen (what is, I believe, already happening) is that those who stand at some distance from the memory of the European crime—because they are not Europeans, or because they are too young to remember why it matters—will not understand how that memory relates to them and they will stop listening when we try to explain.
If we understood that “it is culture that gives us reason for living, and sometimes for dying,” then the Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and the Jews who are dedicated to never forgetting the Holocaust’s lessons would cease to engage in symbolic, even quixotic battles over names and memorials, and instead break open the symbols to get at the questions they enclose. We would be talking about hope invested and hope misplaced in the promises of those in power, of sacrifice and loss, of the barriers that separate the generations and the risks we run in accepting them. These would be our debates, and just by having them, we would honor memory and refresh cultural possibility far beyond anything that is happening today.
But that would mean taking culture seriously.