Sympathy for the Devils Within: A Review of Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Forty plus years after the U.S. abandoned Vietnam to the Communists, Viet Thanh Nguyen captures the duplicity of all sides in the war and its aftermath in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Sympathizer.

Reading Nguyen reinforces my belief that I was on the right side in the 1960s when I joined the anti-war movement before it imploded in the 1970s, exhibiting similar excesses to those perpetrated by the North Vietnamese (and Cambodian) on their own people.

The American anti-war movement morphed into an anti-American movement with groups like the post-SDS Weather Underground waging war on the American working class for failure to take up arms against the American government. In Vietnam, the victorious Communists subjugated anyone and everyone who had not been on their side during the war as well as those who had been on their side for the wrong reason.

It is easy to see in retrospect how the anti-American left could ally itself with the North Vietnamese ignoring their commitment to the same totalitarian ideology that had led to the deaths of millions of Russians and Chinese citizens under Stalin and Mao.

The victorious Vietnamese employed torture methods invented by the Russian and Chinese Communists including re-education techniques where confession is offered as the means to salvation. Smartly, Nguyen employs confession as the format for this novel having his protagonist be made to write a confession to rehabilitate himself for having succumbed to Western ways during his exile in the U.S. The entire novel is that confession.

Nguyen deserves praise for the lack of heroes in his story––especially not his bastard protagonist who is both a captain in the South Vietnamese army and an agent of the Viet Cong, and who commits multiple crimes, including murder, out of this divided loyalty. No one is clean perhaps with the exception of the protagonist’s mother who was forcibly impregnated by a French priest and then abandoned to a slow death of poverty and neglect.

Nguyen holds the French and United States responsible for their part in the war’s horrors, but doesn’t absolve the Vietnamese people on both sides, for each played a part in the war, victimizing their own as the price for the victory that one side failed to achieve and the other converted into a kind of defeat.

For Americans, The Sympathizer reminds us the ideals of our founding are not sufficient to protect us against the arrogance that led us to think no price was too high to prevent Vietnam from falling to the Communists. Unfortunately, we continue to pay that price, often misjudging where our national interest lies. There is no more evident an example of this failure than Barack Obama’s ignoring the Iranian government’s murderous ideology out of some misguided desire to make amends for America’s past sins.

Yes, Communism had to be opposed and American aid for people suffering under Communism or on the verge of falling under Communism’s iron yoke at times required a military response, but we misjudged Ho Chi Minh and the North Vietnamese and drove them into the Communist camp, as we did in Cuba with Fidel Castro, both of whom admired America’s revolutionary commitment to individual freedom. The consequence of our arrogance was both became totalitarians who oppressed their own people, deciding their ideological goals justified any and all means of achieving those goals.

Americans should also read The Sympathizer because we have failed to recognize the price the boat people paid for their freedom, coming to the United States where they were expected to forget the U.S. role in the devastation of their country––the napalm bombings, wiping out villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong agents, the manipulation of the South Vietnam government and more, as Nguyen so skillfully portrays in this novel.

The Sympathizer is above all a brilliantly written story about a man we sympathize with while not absolving him of his crimes, but it can also be read as a form of national therapy. Nguyen offers a lens through which we can examine ourselves and perhaps recognize in ourselves a tendency to betray and murder our own, for who can say for certain they would not have acted like his main character in similar circumstances.

How Liberalism Divides America: A Review of Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Basic Books, 2015

Don’t be misled by this small book’s subtitle, or even the title for that matter. Neither reflects Shelby Steele’s thesis that post 1960s Liberalism is built on a house of lies that has relegated many blacks and other minorities to positions “of inferiors and dependents.” (179)

Shame reveals among other things why eight years after the election of the first African-American president, issues around race still divide our country. Steele also explains why Liberalism seems to be more about absolving whites and government from America’s past than helping minorities overcome that past and why conservative commentators are not taken at face value.

To understand Steele’s thesis one needs to start with slavery because slavery was not just an evil in and of itself, it was a black mark against the foundational principle of American exceptionalism––the core principle embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution that freedom of the individual is the ideal foundation of a just society. Although some did oppose slavery from the start, it took half a century before it was abolished. Unfortunately, slavery was replaced by another pernicious social institution––Jim Crow, which was based on theories of African-American inferiority. Segregation and its rational survived until the 1960s when the struggle for equality became the central issue of the day and the necessity of extending the promise of freedom to all brought about a massive social upheaval.

Shelby Steele’s contribution to what happened next reflects his experience growing up in an era where America sought to show the world it had broken with its past by instituting a variety of programs designed to remedy that past, including the War on Poverty, affirmative action, racial preferences in hiring, lowered welfare standards, et al. The short-term impact of these programs was to give blacks an opportunity to join the mainstream of American society, but there was an unintended longer-term consequence that both handcuffed blacks and gave rise to the distorted political culture we call Liberalism.

Steele illustrates how blacks have been hampered by these post-Civil Rights policies by citing the case of Clarence Thomas who found getting into Yale Law School undermined people’s willingness to give him credit for his accomplishments. People assumed Thomas only got into Yale because he was black and that his high grades at Yale were not deserved. This “catch 22” still hampers blacks today. One wonders if Barack Obama feared he was only elected president because of his race, and not his qualifications or platform? Does that explain the aloof manner by which he conducted himself as president?

The flip side of the post 1960s liberal equation is that many whites feel they must continually prove they are not racists by asserting that America is a racist society despite the fact blacks today are “far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” (17)

The 1960s gave rise to the notion that America was inherently evil as evidenced by its treatment of women, blacks and other minorities, by its disregard for the environment and by its willingness to interfere in third world liberation struggles––the war in Vietnam being the primary example. The remedy was affirmative action on all those issues and in the process discrediting of the notion that a commitment to the freedom of the individual was sufficient. In Steele’s terms, America embarked on a new mission “to establish ‘The Good’ . . . on par with freedom.” The Good requires equal results be guaranteed not just equal opportunity. The purpose of The Good, he writes, “became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities.” (128)

The Good was a relativistic solution––a commitment to results over process and it required people to dissociate themselves from America’s past. Liberal public policies and programs were promoted as evidence of rejection of America’s evil past and refusal to endorse such programs was seen as lingering affiliation with that past. Belief in America as a city on a hill, as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, as an exceptional nation was rejected. “American exceptionalism and white supremacy [became] virtually interchangeable.” (164)

Liberalism underscored its commitment to The Good attacking traditional American culture and invading the political arena. To post 1960 liberals the drive for political power was seen as “nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” (156)

In order to maintain their political and cultural dominance, liberals have become committed to what Steele calls the ‘poetic truth’ of American society, a false vision that is necessary to support their ideological position. The chickens of that falsity, embodied in academia, big government and groups such as black lives matter, came home to roost in November, 2016 when sixty plus million people rejected the liberal candidate.

Criticism of liberal programs by whites can be dismissed as evidence of a person’s association with pre-1960s America, but it’s harder to make that label stick when the critics are black. Labeling people like Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, and Shelby Steele ‘uncle toms’ only demonstrates how unglued liberals become when confronted with facts that fly in the face of their make believe world.

Sadly books like Shame rarely get the visibility they deserve. I found no reviews in the New York Times or the Washington Post, despite the fact that Steele is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Content of Our Character (1990).
Shame has only 49 reviews on Amazon and a 4.3 rating while Ta-Hehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has 3,157 reviews and a 4.6 rating. Coates has received numerous awards for his writing, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” but Coates’ thesis that racism survives because whites are attached to the benefits of being white is a perfect example of what Steele unclothes––a false narrative that is accepted because it re-inforces the story that America is as tainted today as it was in the time of slavery. Coates views “whiteness” as inevitable and permanent but fails to recognize that the price of conflating slavery and segregation, discrimination and unintended bias is that blacks will never be free! That’s where Steele parts company with Coates.

Steele gives us a window into his evolution from a sixties radical to a twenty-first century conservative. The turning point came in 1970 when he and his wife spent several weeks in Africa where he discovered that the revolution the Black Panthers and others were championing was a false and bankrupt dream. His experience reminds me of the degeneration of the civil rights movement in Albany, New York around the same time. I had been involved in the optimistic years before King’s assassination, which understandably caused many to become bitter and the rhetoric of revolution to gain currency. When the Black Panthers came to Albany, however, they sent a heroin dealer as their representative. Apparently at that point anyone willing to spout their revolutionary rhetoric was acceptable.

While post 1960s liberalism has been losing currency at the polls, it still dominates our culture, the entertainment industry, and the news media. Conservatives who reject the relativism of Liberalism, who stand behind the founders’ original insights, have an opportunity to turn the tide. Steele urges conservatives to be sensitive to the “psychological and cultural damage done to minorities by American hypocrisy,” by showing how the original dream of equality for all and a commitment to freedom, is still America’s essential truth. The time to win that war is now.

Hyprocrisy in Politics: Criticizing Trump

A friend wrote a Facebook post outlining every action Donald Trump has taken in his first days as president and at the bottom wrote, “dictator.” The problem with such a claim is that nothing Trump did was illegal or unconstitutional. So, my question is did that person or liberals in general who are now upset with President Trump’s policies protest when Barack Obama extended the use of executive orders to by-pass Congress and legislate policies? Did they call him a dictator? Answer, no they did not.

Hyprocrisy in politics is not new, but those who delight in attacking the sitting president for every act he takes should understand what they are doing has unintended consequences that undermine their objective. If criticism is meant to lessen support, then attacking a president for his every decision is a poor way to accomplish that goal. Why? First, people weary of the constant posts all with the same message and stop paying attention. Second, the constant negative drum beat makes no distinction between issues that are minor and of import only to a few and major issues where they might actually garner support. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. If you cry wolf every day, when a real wolf appears, no one will pay attention to you.

Executive orders are extra-constitutional, and arguments can be made on both sides of the issues––that they are needed for situations when there’s no time to get Congress to act and that they grant presidents too much leeway. But they have been in use for more than a century. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order. Congress and the courts can also interfere when presidents do go too far. For example, a federal judge a year ago rejected President Obama’s attempt to use executive privilege to deny to Congress access to documents relating to “Fast and Furious,” the policy that allowed the sale of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug gangs and Congress blocked Obama’s executive order which sought to close Guantanamo.

Sitting presidents are fair game for criticism. My advice is know your facts and hold your ammo until you see the whites of his eyes. In other words, don’t shoot just for the sake of shooting. Make sure your target is real and your remarks have a chance to make a difference.

What’s wrong with Liberalism? The case against the FDA

If you want to understand the revolt against Liberalism as exemplified by the policies advocated by Obama/Clinton Democrat Party, look no further than the way in which the FDA is shutting down cigar manufacturing in the U.S. costing hundreds of people their jobs under the guise of protecting smokers from themselves.

The “FDA is in the business of reducing the harms associated with tobacco use,” according to Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, as quoted in the December 4th Washington Post. The FDA has introduced new regs that “require manufacturers to get approval for new products, pay increased fees and add prominent warning labels.” The result, however, will only succeed in putting American manufacturers out of business or forcing them to move their remaining plants overseas. Ironically, this is being done at the same time we have opened to door to Cuban cigars.

“On the one hand, the government is saying ‘smoking is bad’ and making us jump through all these hoops,” stated Eric Newman, co-owner of the last cigar manufacturer in Tampa Florida. “On the other, they’re welcoming Cuban cigars––which haven’t been tested, which aren’t taxed––into the country.”

Whether the new fees and regs will reduce cigar consumption is an unproven assumption on the government’s part. My guess is that it will not, as unlike cigarette smokers, cigar smokers are a much more independent breed. Further, it is highly doubtful the new regs will prevent underage use of cigars since young people don’t smoke cigars in the first place.

The core assumption that Americans want or need a government agency to protect them against tobacco use lacks grounding in reality. Everyone knows the “harms” associated with tobacco use. Since smoking remains legal, however, those who are over 18 ought to be treated like adults and allowed to make up their own minds. Further, government agencies should not be interfering with legal manufacturing by imposing fees and regulations to accomplish social ends.

If you don’t understand why manufacturers have been leaving the U.S., here’s a perfect illustration, and if you don’t understand why people rejected Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and voted for someone whose past behavior has clearly been offensive to traditional mores, here’s another case in point.

History Matters

If anyone needs evidence that what is taught in our schools impacts public behavior, look no further than the response to the results of the November 8 election. In the days after the election, when it became apparent more people voted for Hillary Clinton than Donald Trump, columnists, editorial writers, and social media posters trumpeted calls for the elimination of the Electoral College.

Learning that doing so would take a constitutional amendment and thus fail to impact the 2016 election, those who felt cheated turned to other panaceas, attempting to sway electors to betray their mandates and recount filings. That none of those has a chance of succeeding seems irrelevant.

Their efforts now focus on denying Trump’s victory legitimacy and undermining his ability to fulfill his campaign promises. The strength of the protest movement depends, however, on the lack of knowledge of its followers of the history of our country and how our political system works.

Every four years millions are shocked to learn that the person who wins the most votes is not automatically elected president. Every four years millions are dismayed to discover that America is not a direct democracy where the majority rules, but a representative republic. This can only be attributed to the failure of our educational system to teach those essentials or to have done so in a manner that sticks.

I can hear the protesters’ objections to my claim. What happened in the past doesn’t matter, they might say. We need a system for the present, they add, and of course, some will argue, as the man some Democrats have put forward to chair their organization once did, that the Constitution can be dismissed as a document of a rich, white, male elite, providing further evidence of the failure of our educational system.

If the past is irrelevant, there’s no need to teach about slavery or Jim Crow or women’s struggles for equality since those are all part of our past. Right? Either history is relevant or it is not, and I can’t imagine too many people coming down on the side of ignoring it altogether.

That said, what corrective can be offered in terms of our political system? Let’s start with a re-writing of the textbooks to go back to the core story––from the settling of the continent to the Revolution to the writing of the Constitution and the first ten amendments.

What a study of those events would disclose is that our system represents a compromise between competing interests. Let’s take the matter of slavery. Had those among the founders who objected to slavery been unwilling to compromise with the Southern states, there would have been no United States of America. Had the compromise failed, England would have found little resistance to re-conquering the continent since the colonies barely won the war and faced a future with depleted resources.

Further, had those in favor of a strong, centralized national government lessening the power of the states held out, the Constitution would not have passed, and once again the colonies would have been subject to conquest. The Electoral College is testimony to the compromise that established a central government for the protection of the country, but allowed states to retain a strong voice.

The notion that our system of government is the product of a compromise is something today’s protesters fail to appreciate. That it is the best political system mankind has yet created is something they don’t understand given how poorly history has been taught in our public schools and colleges, and by the willingness of some to ignore both the rationale for our present system and how well it has worked for 240 years.

Two Must Reads to Understand International Politics in a Trump Presidency

People spending their limited energy trying to reverse the election results or demonize Donald Trump in hopes he will fail and be impeached are missing a huge opportunity to understand what lies ahead of the U.S. on the world stage.

Two brilliant articles provide insightful analysis of the implications of Trump’s victory for those with the ability to remain dispassionate and advance their personal comprehension of where things stand internationally and what needs to be done.

Start with Ruthie Blum’s “Why Abbas does not emulate Sadat,” which can be found at http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_opinion.php?id=17707&r=1.

The title doesn’t do justice to the column which reviews past peace negotiations and explains why any hope that the leader of the “Palestinians” will negotiate a peace deal with Israel is a pipe dream.

Next read the lengthy, but brilliant analysis of the current world order based on Henry Kissinger’s recent book (World Order, 2014) and his own reading of U.S. history by Niall Ferguson, entitled “Donald Trump’s New World Order,” which can be found here: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/11/21/donald-trumps-new-world-order/.

Ferguson lays out a potential path for Donald Trump’s administration to re-balance the world order reversing the disastrous policies of Barack Obama and taking a Teddy Roosevelt-like approach, based on existing realities and actual power alignments rather than wishful interpretations.

 

You don’t have to agree with every point made by Blum or Ferguson to come away with a greater understanding of where things stand in the world and the positions a Trump administration might take to bring restore America’s role as the number one superpower on the world stage.

Hillary Lost: Get Over It

All the post-election moaning, whining and carrying on by Clinton supporters is embarrassing to them and their followers. It’s time to face the facts of this election and to move on.

Some are whining because Hillary’s total popular vote topped Trump’s, but that’s irrelevant because that’s not the game they were playing. The Constitution says the winner is the candidate who wins a majority of the electoral college votes which are based on the population of each states as defined by seats in the House of Representatives plus two votes for the members of the Senate. That’s why Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North and South Dakota and Vermont each get three votes while California with 53 House members gets 55.

The losers want to change the rules of the game after it was played. Good luck, but it isn’t going to happen now or in the near future.

Should the electoral college be eliminated?

No! There are good reasons the person who gets the most “popular” votes should not be the winner. Not only would that make all but a few large states irrelevant, but it would change what campaigns are about, making it much easier for the person who raises the most money to win. That would be bad for our republican (small r) form of government.

The results of the 2016 campaign reflected the current rules. Clinton campaigned in the closing days in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Why? At one point she thought she was going to win by a land-slide and thought of campaigning in red states to try to alter control of the Senate, but her own polling showed her to be in danger in those four states. It is significant that she LOST all four states where she made the greatest effort to win.

The Liberal Double-Standard

A double-standard is when you advocate something for others that you aren’t willing to do yourself. Liberals are past masters at doing so, and this election is a perfect example.

Some want enough GOP’s electors to vote for Clinton to reverse the results. Not only isn’t that going to happen, but what would it mean if it did? Are you really advocating someone go back on their word? Should electors betray the people who voted for Trump in their states? Is that something you’d tolerate had Clinton won? I don’t think so.

What about those who call for Trump to abandon his campaign promises and retain Obama’s policies? They advocate this claiming the popular vote should dictate. Again, we have to ask had Clinton won in a close race, would you have tolerated Trump supporters calling on Clinton to abandon her policies for Trump’s? Hardly!

For Crying Out Loud

There’s been a lot of moaning and whining about the election results. College professors gave students the day off, and students could get free puppies and coloring books at one college. Why not baby bottles filled with chocolate milk, too?

But face it people: all this crying is a result of the Clinton campaign strategy to try to win the election by going LOW, by focusing on Trump’s negatives––some of which he provided, others they simply made up or were responsible for, such as the violence at some Trump campaign events that were instigated by paid Democrat Party protestors.

Giving in to the fear your party created is not becoming nor is it rational. You may not like some of the policies Trump and Congress will bring about, but right now you don’t know what will happen. You don’t know which policies Trump advocated during the campaign will see the light of day or in what form or whether Congress will go along or whether the courts will upload them.

Take the Supreme Court for example. First, he has to nominate a candidate; the Senate has to consent and the person has to take his or her seat. Then any issue you are fearful about has to be brought to the Court in the form of a case passed up by the lower courts. Not only can that take years, but the outcome of any case cannot be predicted in advance. Despite Justice Roberts’ recent rulings, justices swear to uphold the Constitution, not advance a president’s agenda. Maybe a Trump appointee will be more honorable than Roberts and other liberal justices have been.

I don’t expect you Democrats to go away or stop advocating your positions, but I suggest you abandon the silly season issues of the electoral college and focus on why you lost before you try to prevent Trump and Congress from implementing the changes the public is demanding. You lost because people did not want more of your party’s policies. They did not want more economic stagnation, or more foreign policy set backs, or more expensive and intrusive government interference with every aspect of their lives. They wanted America to be great again, which means they realize America is not what it could be. Maybe you should listen and look for ways to help bring about a revival of our society, to lift people up instead of tearing them down, and to being once again a beacon on the hill for those less fortunate throughout the world.