The Vietnam War Remnants Museum is full of gruesome displays. Children in the room on Agent Orange are pictured without arms, without eyes, with stubs for feet, with single-fingered hands.
It is also full of propaganda. To begin with, the juxtaposition of anti-war signs along the wall with tanks in the front of the museum is jarring. How can they say, “No War,” at a museum about the Viet Cong’s victorious war to defeat both the French and the American-backed South Vietnamese?
The theme continues inside, as the first floor displays images of groups protesting American involvement in Vietnam. “The world supports Vietnam in its resistance,” one sign says, with an image of a dove. To call such a group “anti-war” would be inaccurate. After all, it explicitly supports “Vietnam in its resistance.”
Yet the museum doesn’t include much information about that very resistance. Almost all information is on the suffering Vietnam faced at the hands of the Americans. It would seem almost as if the U.S. weren’t fighting anyone. It is a very one-sided museum.
One interesting cartoon on the first floor states that the US Strategic Organization (Office of Strategic Services) trained one of Ho Chi Minh’s military forces during World War II. It is perhaps the only item that doesn’t present American meddling abroad in a negative light. (In fact, according to HistoryNet.com, “In the mid-1940s, the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, looked to the West for help in its independence movement and got it.”)
As with any good Communist regime, the Vietnamese government apparently hasn’t figured out that “propaganda” has negative connotations with Western audiences. So, as they display images created by anti-American-involvement-in-Vietnam groups made to sway public opinion, the museum text refers to such images as “propaganda.”
“Propaganda poster of the student representatives and international youths supporting Vietnamese people in their resistance against US aggression, April 5, 1973,” one image with a child’s face and a bomb on it says.
It would seem uncharitable to refer to one’s own supporters as “propagand[ists],” but they probably don’t even know it is a bad thing in the English language—the Chinese museum on World War II (the Sino-Japanese War) refers to a Japanese activist who made anti-Japanese broadcasts as doing “propaganda,” and local Chinese government information offices still refer to themselves as “propaganda offices” sometimes. (Maybe they’re being honest.)
But it’s not just the words they choose: the way the Communists present information is propagandistic, too. Rooms are full of carefully chosen photographs with carefully chosen captions. “Even women and babies are targets of U.S. Americal Division mopping up operations,” says the caption under an image of an American soldier standing at what looks like the door of a Vietnamese home.
The information presented is all one-sided. There were indeed woman and children and civilians murdered at My Lai and Thanh Phong Village and elsewhere, so there should be displays about those assaults, which there are. The one on Thanh Phong Village includes photos of Sen. Bob Kerrey, who was the presiding Lieutenant overseeing the operation, and notes, “It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.”
But the Vietnamese government should be understanding of Kerrey’s reluctance to come clean considering that they still haven’t come clean about Hue. There is no display about the civilians who were killed, imprisoned, or buried alive up to their necks by the Viet Cong at places like Hue, because of their class background or their status working civilian jobs for the South government or their religion or some other suspect reasons.
The language they use to present simple facts is also needlessly loaded. It wasn’t the “War in Vietnam,” not even the “American War in Vietnam,” it was “the war of aggression in Vietnam.” The Ngo Dinh Diem government was “the repressive and murderous U.S.-Ngo Dinh Diem regime.” The U.S. military were “henchman military forces.” Special warfare was “utterly ruined.”
The names of rooms—“Aggression War Crimes” and “Historical Truths”—leave no question about the viewpoint.
Even the display on the third floor of Trip Advisor awards the museum won is braggadocios behavior more becoming of Madame Tussauds than of a historical museum.
The museum did do some things well. The photo exhibit on the top floor presents amazing photos from journalists from international journalists and does so with neutral language. There is an extensive display of U.S. military guns. And, for all its propaganda, it does get across the Vietnamese government’s point of view and perhaps educates some foreigners about some of the cruelties visited upon Vietnam by the American side.
But the Vietnamese government might have done a better job convincing foreign visitors to accept their judgment fully if they were more honest in its display—or at least looked more honest. If they didn’t make the language so transparently overwrought, the style of presentation and the images and captions so clearly written to induce a reaction, the information could more easily penetrate a visitor’s subconscious. As it is, a visitor who is educated about history and politics would put up a wall of skepticism upon seeing such presentation. Many visitors comment that they take it all with a grain of salt.
Maybe the Vietnamese government was actually doing the honest thing. They presented unfettered propaganda, and they didn’t hide it behind a facade of neutrality.
Wade Shepard is the author of Ghost Cities of China, a book that explores the phenomenon of Chinese new city development. Why are so many cities seemingly empty?, Shepard thought, seeing what the media often describes as “ghost towns.” In fact, he argues, many of those “ghost towns” are actually in the stages of development, and will be populated soon, if they aren’t already. His book explains how development happens in China and gives specific examples from many cities he visited. I will be posting a review of the book later, but first, here is his answer to a question I asked by email.
Shepard is a contributor to Reuters, CityMetric, and the South China Morning Post, and the owner/editor of Vagabond Journey, a website that I have frequently contributed to.
My question was about the large-scale of developments:
You mentioned Pudong and some other districts with wide, 6-lane roads as examples of what new cities often look like. A writer for The Atlantic Cities [actually, The Atlantic, James Fallows] last year contrasted Pudong with the narrow, walkable streets of the French Concession. What kind of effect do new cities have on what might be called “livability”?
The older part of Shanghai—Puxi, “west of the river,” including the quasi-colonial international districts and the partly preserved French Concession—of course has its share of skyscrapers and elevated freeways and deluxe shopping malls. But it also has small, intimate streets lined with little stores and full of passers-by doing their daily shopping.
The newer part—Pudong, “east of the river”—is built on a Speer-esque inhuman scale of giant boulevards and huge walkways plastered with morale building “China dream” posters and barely a little shop in sight (until you go around to the alleys in back). Its center includes the spectacle of an 88-story, a 101-story, and a 128-story skyscraper side-by-side, as shown at right.
Photos from Wikipedia.
I used to live in Pudong, and I more of less agree with Fallows, but Shephard offers an alternative argument:
We really need to alter our concept of “livability” to fit the modern Chinese context. Generally speaking, the attributes that make up a desired living space are very different between Westerners and Chinese. Living in a cramped room on the 32nd floor of a high-rise that’s sticking up out of the top of a shopping mall that’s suffocated by jam packed eight lane boulevards and elevated highways sounds like some kind of dystopic urban nightmare to me, but that’s the “white picket fence” of the Chinese dream. Who am I to tell someone that their ideal living environment actually sucks?
What’s really interesting is how ingrained these contrasting perspectives on what constitutes “livability” actually are. For example, I have an apartment in a beautiful new development area that’s right on the beach just outside of the busy build-up core of Xiamen Island. I have the best view of the sea that I can imagine, the streets aren’t busy, it’s quiet, comfortable, and walkable. For Westerners, the place is the closest thing that we can get to our idea of livability in China, and an entire colony of us have just naturally gravitated over. But when my Chinese friends come over, they, almost without variation, complain: “Why do you want to live out here? It’s far from downtown, it’s too quiet.” They look at my island paradise with as much contempt as I do when looking at their high-rises sticking out of shopping malls that are wrapped in highways.
As far as livability is concerned, we need to take into account that the way modern Chinese communities are set up creates an incredible stark insider-outsider dichotomy. People here are gravitating to gated apartment complexes, which tend to take up the entirety of a 500 x 500 meter plots of land — which, not coincidentally, are often how they are auctioned off to developers. If you’re just walking down the street in these places you will often find little more than an eight foot high fence on one side of you and an eight lane highway on the other. Many of these new development areas seem like cultural dead zones of little more than massively wide boulevards traversing huge blocks, monstrous set-backs between the streets and buildings, few pedestrians, and nothing resembling what we would call community. But if we get over to the other side of those gates we find ourselves in a very different reality. Generally speaking, in most apartment complexes there are extensive gardens, pedestrian pathways, ponds, playgrounds, benches, and a relatively decent amount of open public space. Each evening the high-rises empty their residents out into this area, where they stroll, talk, play music, and watch their kids as they play together. Everyday after school my daughter rushes home to play with all the other little kids in our complex. They run around in a big mob without fear of being run over by cars or commandeered by perverts. Everybody watches everybody else’s kids. Apartment complexes in China are called xiao qu — little districts — and that’s exactly what they are. In modern China, “in the streets” is not where street life is taking place.
Fourteen years after America’s invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a new government, it is widely accepted that Afghanistan is an unstable state with democratic deficits and that the results of the intervention were far from the goals. A report from the Vision of Humanity in 2013 that called that Afghanistan the least peaceful in the world put those failures in stark relief. But just to hear the numbers—4,500 people died from terrorist attacks in 2014, 20% of young women are literate—doesn’t do justice to the victims.
Each number in those datasets is a real person. Heidi Kingstone, in her book Dispatches from the Kabul Cafe, gives voice to some of their stories, especially those of the women who are usually silent. Kingstone, a Canadian foreign correspondent with experience in Iraq as well, who has been published in the Financial Times, the Spectator and the Guardian, lived and worked in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2011. Her time there, being towards the end of the mission, after the irrational exuberance of the first days of “flowering democracy,” gives her a good position to comment on the problems the operation has faced.
To start with, she shows the human stakes, with a picture of a free-spirited woman who is faced with violence when she turns down a man’s advances and must go into hiding.Continue reading
More and more it seems like the divide in politics and society isn’t so much left vs. right as it is between individualism and collectivism. Cultural issues are becoming politicized. One’s entertainment interests, sexual preferences (including kinks and such), and other personal issues are fodder for political analysis.
However, having dropped most of those archaic practices, we are not all utilizing our freedoms to live our lives as we see fit. Some people can never give up a fight, and these career activists, called “social justice warriors” by some, having nothing more to fight for, want to regulate our personal interests.
It isn’t about left vs. right. A liberal should support women or men expressing their own personal sexual desires, right? From a sex-positive point of view, no one should be ashamed of liking a particular kind of sexual practice. Yet there are debates on feminist blogs over whether “Liking BDSM Makes Me a Bad Feminist?”, as if the practice done consensually causes someone to support the oppression of women.
Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly have long waged war on rap for its lyrical content. “A lot of the music by those artists is chock full of the n-word and the b-word and the h-word, and racist, misogynist, sexist anti-woman slurs none of those retail executives would be caught dead using,” Hannity said, while calling for rap albums to be banned from stores. He sounds like the feminist groups that want the Australian government to ban Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Tyler the Creator from touring the country for the same reasons.
I happen to believe Jay-Z was right when he rapped, “If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward.”
Although I am not a big enough fan of any of those artists to purchase a ticket (though Collective Shout activist Talitha Stone apparently is*), I don’t want to deny anyone else the right to attend the concert. Hell, one might even think their lyrics are distasteful but still think that no individual, group, or government organization—beyond extreme circumstances like that of terrorist recruiting—should have the power to make the decision to censor someone. I happen to believe Jay-Z was right when he rapped, “If you don’t like my lyrics, you can press fast forward.”
The tides of political correctness have ebbed and flowed in the past. Music and drama have always been attractive targets for the wrath of censorious busy bodies. Going back to the Puritanical 17th century, stage performances were banned during the Interregnum from 1642-1660. Go back to 1985, and rock stars were called before Senate to testify about their lyrics, as Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Council was lobbying for albums to be rated.
There are different levels of anti-free speech sentiment. On the one hand, criticism is itself free speech. Yet the idea that calling something “offensive” is in and of itself enough to discredit something, to cow its supporters, and, if a social media mob is raised, to end the career of a Nobel laureate, goes against the spirit of free speech. The First Amendment in the U.S. and other such free speech protections abroad only legally protect people from government suppression, but someone who believes in individualism and tolerance would, as a matter of personal beliefs, be open to a wide range of thoughts being expressed in the private sphere as well.
Having thought about this, I decided to create a political compass charting this paradigm of individualism vs. collectivism. Often political compasses chart government power (or “authoritarianism” vs “libertarianism” in some examples) on one side and economics vs. social issues on the other side. I plotted left vs. right and individualism vs. collectivism. (A social conservative who opposes gay marriage, abortion, or birth control and wants to apply those views to the whole society is taking a collectivist view.) Recognizing that there is a range of tactics people can use to attack speech, I put outright bans at the top, with boycotts, labeling, and shaming criticism or “suggestions” on down. The actions of a government body or of a private organization are all taken into account, with allowance given for the fact that a government body, by virtue of having power over all entities in a locality, has more power to suppress. Many of the campaigns start with an activist organization lobbying the government to use its power to ban something, as you can see with Britain’s ban on advertising a weight loss product.
Collectivist Authoritarians Britain bans “sexist” ads
Charlotte Baring started a Change.org petition to ban Protein World ads that advertised weight loss and featured a skinny woman. She said, “They’re about image. Is it really necessary to sexualize a woman or even a man to sell a product? It’s not everyone’s top priority to look a certain way.”
However, it may be some people’s priority to look good, as evidenced by the existence of the ads and of the weight loss program. Just because some people don’t personally care about losing weight, Baring wanted to ban it for everyone.
And sexualizing people isn’t necessarily a bad thing. From a liberal, body-positive point of view, there is nothing wrong with sex or with skinny bodies. Furthermore, one should not view a woman as being sexualized just because she is wearing a bikini. That would be a sexist point of view that polices how women should dress and views women primarily as sexual objects.
The UK Advertising Standards Authority banned the ads in Britain, and ads in the U.S. have been defaced.
Everyone vs. Video Games
Video games are a big target for a lot of reasons, and the reasons cross the left-right spectrum. Some of the same reasons can even be applied to either end of the spectrum for the same reasons. For example, while conservatives are often against violence in media, liberals are increasingly against violence, too, when it is directed against female characters. Conservatives are offended by seeing too much skin or open displays of sexuality. Yet feminist critics like Anita Sarkeesian attack video games for exactly the same reason: they too are offended by sexually-empowered female characters dressing in certain ways.
Sarkeesian said this about Lara Croft: “[E]ven female protagonists like Lara Croft are still objectified and sexualized for a presumed straight-male audience.” The statement manages to shame both women and straight men for their sexuality. Women should be able to dress like they want without being presumed to be looking for sex. Maybe a woman just likes to dress that way? Maybe she likes to tease men, for all we know? Would there be anything wrong with that? On the other hand, straight men are born with their sexual preferences innate, and there isn’t anything wrong with them being attracted to beautiful women and enjoying such imagery. Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with women being attracted to the shirtless vampire men in “Twilight” who were thrown in specifically to attract female viewers.
Politicians across the spectrum like Hillary Clinton (Dem.), Rick Santorum (Repub.), Joe Leiberman (D) and Sam Brownback (R) fought Grand Theft Auto. Jack Thompson has sued video game companies that he claims have influenced violent kids to shoot up schools. Nichole Survivor started a Change.org petition that resulted in Target pulling GTA from its shelves.
Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center
Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, cofounded the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985 due to her concerns about the lyrical content of music. She wanted music labeled for references to drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, and even the “occult.” She got a lot of support from Congresspeople, and hearings were held, in which musicians, like Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, pwnded the Washington politicians.
As with video games, concerns about music span the political spectrum. On the one hand, male rock stars with big hair and leather, some of them dressing androgynously, should be good examples of self-expression, a liberal value that would offend the sensibilities of traditional conservatives. Furthermore their songs about sex and drugs offended conservatives. Yet liberals who felt that women were sexualized in songs about sex were also offended. Some even read (or misread) references to rape into songs.
Sen. Al Gore thought “Under the Blade,” a song about surgery, was about BDSM. In showing such concern that BDSM content (if it did exist) should be labeled, he showed a bias against BDSM, yet such acts, when performed consensually, of course, should be viewed from liberal, sex-positive perspective as normal things that some people are attracted to that shouldn’t be the cause of shame.
(In fact, many liberal-leaning artists and bands like NOFX, Rage Against the Machine, and Ice-T slammed PMRC in their songs.)
Because PMRC was asking for labeling (under political pressure) and not outright bans, they don’t rank as high on the collectivist scale as some other campaigns. Ultimately they succeeded in getting Parental Advisory stickers applied to records, which helped increase record sales among teens.
On an additional note, I should say that I positioned the Clear Channel memorandum on songs to avoid after 9/11 at the bottom end of the spectrum because it was an in-house decision, not influenced by government or outside pressure, and because it wasn’t a not mandatory ban but rather a suggestion, according to Snopes.
Not only is Snoop Dogg guilty of “woman-hating lyrics and pimping,” he even does drugs!
“You may be aware that he violated Australian law while in the country including smoking and promoting marijuana on stage,” the group wrote in a public letter to the immigration minister.
According to Urban Dictionary.com, the word “narc” means, “the lowest form of human being on this earth. a person who in first grade is labeled as a “tattler”. Most commonly used while talking about someone who tattled on them for having or doing drugs.”
Both protest campaigns are reminiscent of a long-running campaign by American Christian fundamentalists against Manson. In 1997, the conservative Christian group the American Family Association protested Manson’s nationwide tour and succeeded in having a number of his concerts canceled. After pressure from the governor, the University of South Carolina canceled his concert that would have been held on their property, and the state legislature passed an unconstitutional bill banning him from performing anywhere in the state. The city manager of Richmond, Virginia announced the concert would be banned, but it was reinstated after the ACLU threatened to file a lawsuit.
On the other end of the spectrum, here are some individuals who promote freedom of expression and personal choice. There are many philosophers and thinkers who have espoused views on free speech. However, in real life, most of this section would be harder to fill, because someone who lives their life on the basis of “live and let live” wouldn’t be going out of their way to do something about something they don’t like or care about. It would be someone not attending someone’s concert. It would be a Collective Shout activist not attending Tyler’s concert because she doesn’t like his lyrics. Or a conservative attending a NOFX concert, because even though Fat Mike rocked against Bush and expresses liberal sentiment in the lyrics of many of his songs, that person still likes NOFX’s music and doesn’t think everything should be evaluated on the basis of politics.
I chose a few people from recent news to illustrate how you can hold views on hot button issues but still support free expression:
Bill Maher on “Stop Rush”
“This might surprise you, but I am not a big fan of Rush Limbaugh. However, if you are the one with a website devoted to making him go away, you are part of the problem. And, ironically, you are not even a proper liberal, because you don’t get free speech. You’re just a baby who can’t stand to live in a world where you hear things that upset you.”
Romal J. Tune on being a pro-choice Christian
You see, for many of us who are Christians and support choice it is because we believe that it is unfair to try and make people who are not Christians live their lives based on our beliefs. Just as we cannot force someone to become a Christian, changing laws to force women to do what we believe God requires still will not make them a Christian, it will only make them followers of the law. That person would not be changing their behavior because of their relationship with God. Pro-choice Christians understand that a relationship with God is based on accepting God’s love for us; it cannot be forced on people nor can they be manipulated into it. The Gospel is “good news,” not a scare tactic or a tool used to control people. We are also mindful of those historic examples of when Christianity has been used to perpetuate discrimination and injustice.
[I]t’s important to have female villains as well as heroes. However, the desire demons of Dragon Age have vanished from view, despite being the only visibly female demons in the canon. Granted, the demons have always supposed to have been genderless, but they’re also reflections of heightened emotional states from the mortal world. If they’d made over the desire demons the way they redid the sloth/despair demons to make all demons amorphous blobs, that would have been one thing. Instead, however, they kept the vaguely masculine-looking pride demons and just removed the desire demons from visual participation.
The thing is, I want gamers to be my audience. Because I’m a gamer. Not a “girl gamer.” Just a gamer.
I love video games. I love that they usually make me feel good. I love that they push limits and take risks, even when those risks don’t work. But I can’t find a place in the video game community that will pay me a living wage unless I’m prepared to draw blood against “the Enemy.” What is this? A religion?
Borrowing that metaphor, I won’t sell my soul that way. And when developers who lent me a sense of belonging express open support for the leaders of factions that are actively bullying me, I lose the sense that these developers who I have supported, in turn, support women like me who don’t conform to a false modesty paradigm. There are women like me all over the world who have found ways to be proud of our flawed, unique bodies, and we refuse to accept that breasts or hips over a certain size indicate anything inherently immoral. This puts us in direct opposition with Feminist Frequency, since they call out characters in the Tropes vs. Women videos just for having large breasts.
Gaming was founded on people who were bullied in other places. I won’t be a part of becoming bullies ourselves. An attempt to oppress ones oppressor does not end oppression. We can’t solve sexism with Mean Girling, and we can’t solve a sense of female inadequacy with Queen Bee tactics. Anita Sarkeesian should not have the right to determine that my body type is inherently bad when used in video games.
More similarities between social justice warriors and the Parents Music Resource Council
Social justice activists who get offended by seemingly anything often try to define their campaigns as a matter of “choice.” People should know that Tyler is offensive to women. They should know in order to be able to make an informed choice, even though, if they had any interest in attending his concert in the first place, they would have already heard his lyrics. So too was the PMRC’s campaign framed as being about choice, letting the parents of children know through “voluntary” labels on the cover of an album—rather than the artist’s “Satanic” imagery—that rock song might surprisingly contain lyrics about drugs and sex—even through white-haired bureaucrats and politicians are the worst judges of lyrics and meaning.
It began with lyrics, but it starts looking like it’s branching into other areas.
Yet the very fact that the musicians were in front of a government panel defies that claim. What interest does the government have in something voluntary? “Record lyric labeling” is something an OCD music fan with too much time on his hands should be doing, not a Senate committee. As Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) said at the start of Zappa’s testimony, the Senator wanted the industry to “voluntarily police” lyrics, not the government, and he would only support legislation if the industry didn’t “voluntarily” do what the government wanted under government pressure.
The testimony of musicians Dee Snider and Frank Zappa and the comments of the Senators is still relevant today.
“You have a situation where, even if you go for the lyric-printed thing in the record, because of the tendency among Americans to be copycats—one guy commits a murder, you get a copycat murder—now you have copycat censors. You have a very bad situation in San Antonio, Texas right now where they are trying to pass PMRC-type individual ratings and attach them to live concerts with the mayor down trying to put San Antonio on the map as the first city to have these kind of regulations against the suggestion of the city attorney who says he doesn’t think it’s constitutional. There’s this fervor to get in and do even more, even more.
It began with lyrics, but even looking at the PMRC fundraising letter in the last paragraph at the bottom of the page, it starts looking like it’s branching into other areas when it says, ‘We realize this material has pervaded other aspects of society…’ And it’s like, ‘What? Are you going to fix it all for me?’”
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Mitchell Blatt is an intrepid travel writer, and an author of two top China guidebooks, who brings his readers deep into the cultures of the places he explores. Subscribe now to get real stories of real people in real places around the world delivered right to your inbox.