Like many people, I’ve helplessly watched the extraordinary events of the last year through tweets, facebook posts, newspaper articles, podcasts, and so forth. It’s been incredibly frustrating and depressing. One of the major themes of the period has been the sudden and meteoric rise, and then just as sudden collapse, of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory among a lot of my non-academic, especially my working class, friends.
While I had been absentmindedly interested in the conspiracy movement since its inception, it was really after Covid lockdowns began, and especially after the “Plandemic” youtube video and “Save the Children” movement of the tumultuous late spring and summer of 2020, that these themes reached their peak. I watched with an alienated and contemplative interest as a religious panic washed over my facebook feed. Many previously for the most part apolitical people who had been primarily concerned with high taxes, gas prices, Democratic Party corruption and general liberal hypocrisy, were suddenly convinced of a vast global conspiracy which, in its most extreme variant, was planning to enslave Americans and harvest their children for the production of an elixir of eternal youth. Most people who wittingly or unwittingly subscribed to some version of the movement didn’t promote this most extreme version of the ideology, but they nonetheless were clearly influenced by aspects of its general outlines: from Hollywood’s pedophiliac propaganda to deep suspicions of the cultural programs of NGOs, to the pandemic lockdowns and the subsequent black lives matter rioting, everything was an elite machination to justify totalitarian monopolization and the economic destruction small businesses and working people. The speed with which this loose constellation of concerns were united into a cohesive ideological project was dizzying and scary to us ‘Smart Liberals’ who, naturally, saw our education and cosmopolitanism as a politically neutral social good.
And how could it have been any other way? Were not the conspiracy movements followers the same people, after all, who thought Obama was a muslim communist spy? The people who thought the earth was only 6,000 years old, and that evolution shouldn’t be taught in school? The same people who thought that all muslims were terrorists and that torture was good? The same people that thought women shouldn’t have access to abortions? In short, weren’t these the same people we had been fighting with on social media, or worse, over thanksgiving dinner for the past ten years?
So when liberal intellectuals and media figures began to more energetically take notice and condemn the ideas, I felt it was a natural extension of my own prior political commitments. I engaged in facebook arguments trying debunk this or that aspect of the ideology. “Deplatforming” Q Anon, by which I mean pressuring private interests and employers to censor or fire the movement’s supporters, seemed like a natural extension of “anti-fascist” tactics to which I was already broadly, though in retrospect erroneously, committed. Q-Anon seemed essentially a continuation of the Milo Yiannopolis-led campaign against my campus, one that brought “patriot prayer” protesters to start brawls, and one that I perceived as part of a global white supremacist and revanchist conspiracy controlled by secret cabal of imperialist-capitalists who fooled one portion of the masses to fight for the general enslavement of all. I was on the victorious side of history, the rubes and chuds were just pawns in the hands of global elites.
The irony of the parallel was totally lost on me at the time.
And it was only as I watched Vietnamese Q Anon gather steam that a sense of cognitive dissonance began to grow within me. This isn’t the first time attention to Vietnamese history and politics has caused me to question my own values, and some instances have been more humorous than others. For example, I watched the 2016 election live at an American Consulate-sponsored event in the luxurious Gem Center in Downtown Saigon. The scene was absurd: one of the ritziest venues in the country, brushing shoulders with suit wearing State Department and Amcham business elites; everyone chatting over buffet style offerings of free McDonald’s Egg McMuffins and Dunkin Donuts, which were handed out by handkerchief wearing Vietnamese caterers. It was grotesquely American in an endearingly Hunter S. Thompson sort of way. The absurdity only grew as state after state came back for Trump. The Vietnamese present, who had been invited for the didactic purpose of learning about the goodness of American democratic institutions, cheered in increasingly rowdy celebrations. A liberal Vietnamese-American friend who had accompanied me left in a panic after Michigan was declared, he was having some sort of emotional breakdown. I saw more than one consular official brought to actual tears. Truly a great democratic upset that succeeded in transmitting the desired message to the Vietnamese guests, but at great cost to the hosts! The irony of the situation still makes me chuckle, I was so overcome by the shadenfreude of the spectacle that it’s still hard to take the election seriously, despite the very serious national divisions that I think it made visible.
Other instances aren’t so ironic though. My leftist assumptions about Vietnamese politics were shaken by learning about the land reform, the wartime massacres, the beauty of South Vietnamese literature, and the truly horrific fates that faced many of my friends’ parents during and after the war. These historical anecdotes have combined with more recent events in the country, like the suppression of intellectuals, land grabs, police murders, pollution, the violent repression of dissidents, the graft, and the palpable geopolitical anxieties that weigh over the country. Far from clarifying things, the more I’ve learned about the place, the less certain I’ve become that I could accurately pick out the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys.’ I coped with this disjuncture by imaginging Vietnam as a sort of ‘opposite world’: here the leftists are good and progressive underdogs, but over there in bizzarro land on the other side of the Pacific, they are actually the oppressive rulers. There are a dozen or so plausible ways to justify this apparently contradictory position, but in hindsight I think it was mostly a psychological defense mechanism.
It became much harder to hold this tension as 2020 plodded forward. It was wrong to begin with: a sort of relativist haven I had carved for myself to avoid the impossibility of finding a moral common denominator for my sympathies. But as the prospect of civil conflict weighed more and more over America, the easy heuristic of the “working class” seemed to apply less and less to either place. What had hitherto been a simple identification of my side with the “oppressed”, was haunted by a self criticism of my own institutional and class privilege. This forced me to recognize that the struggle, in the American case, couldn’t be reduced to one between capital and labor, but was rather the old contrast between town and country. In the American case this had formed into competing utopic visions which had intensified to the point that both sides had extrapolated vast paranoaic fantasies out of a contellation of loosely related data points. On the one side, the illusions of the hinterland petty businesspeople, agriculture, oil, forestry. On the other side, school teachers, professors, lawyers, technicians. On the one side is god and country. On the other is technocratic benevolence, cosmopolitan science and the religion of facts. Our arguments over thanksgiving dinner are reenchanted: we are either unwitting deepstate shills or unwitting agents of white supremacy.
So what does this have to do with Vietnam?
All this reflection is background for my ambivalence with Vietnamese Q Anon, and by extension, my qualms with the current state of the American liberal campaign against the movement as a whole. I’ve recently been privileged enough to hear the opinions of some young Vietnamese Americans who are upset about their loved ones’ embrace of an ultimately absurd worldview. I’ve also watched as some of my own Vietnamese friends and family, as well as various online discussion groups, have been swept up in the movement. This happened to them at almost the same time as it happened to my American friends. It seemed sometimes as though no Trump supporter was unaffected in at least some small way.
In the American public sphere, the most intense problematization of Vietnamese pro-Trump beliefs has been restricted to Vietnamese Americans. This is particularly the case after the January 6th storming of the capitol, where the sight of a Republic of Vietnam flag triggered public reflection on behalf of Vietnamese-American intellectuals. Most prominent among them being liberal darling and pulitzer prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who penned a Wapo op-ed arguing that Vietnamese Americans supported Trump because they shared an emotional disorder with “white nationalists” which was characterized by “lost-cause” nostalgia. The psychological handicap, according to Viet, will only be overcome with “reconciliation”, which entails “reparations” of some sort. Who would pay? Only a vague sketch is given: the Vietnamese Communist Party would “allow for dissident voices,” and Vietnamese Americans would “recognize the communist party”. It’s elegant in theory, and it appeals to a naive hope that rival political movements can simply kiss and make up like children after a playground scrap. But it doesn’t make sense that 75 million Americans, concentrated more in Ohio than Georgia, were aggrieved by the abolition of slavery. Nor does it make sense to point to the many Vietnamese nationals, living in Vietnam, who believe that Hillary Clinton is currently part of a demonic child sex and organ harvesting ring. Why would this phenomenon be due to a nostalgia for a government under which they never lived? And a lack of “recognition” of the government which has ruled them for generations? It could possibly explain the individual psychology of one of the flag bearers at the capitol, but it gets us nowhere closer to understanding the phenomenon of radical Vietnamese Trumpism.
However, a more realistic explanation was smuggled between the lines of Viet’s hip-fired social-psychological diagnosis:
While Asian Americans as a whole voted 2 to 1 for Joe Biden over Trump, Vietnamese Americans supported Trump over Biden, 57 percent to 41 percent. A deep animus toward China, amplified by misinformation in Vietnamese-language media, bolsters the support for a president they see as tougher on foreign policy.
This is a more probable, and certainly the most common, understanding of the phenomenon. This explanation is also more palatable because it renders the whole phenomenon much easier to understand and fix. On the one hand we can have easy recourse to a stereotyped, but nonetheless readily apparent, fear of Chinese imperialism. We can reach for a ready-made historical explanation which, typically, would make a ritualistic reference to the supposed “thousand years of domination” during the first millenia of the common era, and the subsequent wars against Mongols, Ming, Qing, and PLA, we can rest easy that the threat, however unreasonable its manifestation, is at the very least based upon a plausible geopolitical rationale. Likewise misinformation provides us with an easy but dismissive shorthand for a general condition of stupidity. Whatever circumlocutions we use to disavow the condenscending implications of our statement, when we avail ourselves of misinformation as a causal explanation we are in effect calling the faithful “suckers” who are neither educated nor intelligent enough to see through the lies being fed them by bad actors. We recuperate the faithful as moral actors only by infantalizing them and granting subjective power to some aspect of information itself.
I am dissatisfied with the reasoning on both accounts. I don’t believe that Joe Biden is a hologram, nor that Comet Ping Pong is the secret lair of satanic ritual rape, nor many of the other absurd tenets of the movement. However, something of the prevailing explanatary mode reeks of the haughty excuses so often dispensed by the powerful. I couldn’t quite place it, but on further reflection, I think I was deterred by the strong resemblance to French colonial excuses for the millenarian movements of a century ago.
One example is the case of Red Dragon Phan. Phan was the son of a colonial policeman. He worked briefly as live-in servent to a French family, but left this job to seek power and enlightenment in the magical Seven Mountains region deep in the Mekong Delta. From there he was tutored by magicians in Kampot and Battambang, Cambodia. He returned to a rural village east of Saigon and set up in a pagoda, where he wore a crown of jewels, magical amulets, and told passersby that he was a descendant of both the Nguyen and Ming dynastic lines, and, naturally, a bodhisattva.
In late 1912, colonial police began to notice pamphlets littering major thoroughfares in both town and country. The pamphlets proclaimed that an army of spirits would soon descend from heaven and lead the righteous in a holy war to overthrow the French. At any moment a mysterious monk was to leave the mountains, and earthly injustices would cease. The value of the colonial currency fluctuated as Vietnamese began to circulate alternative banknotes issued from an “interim revolutionary government” hiding a thousand miles away in Guangdong.
Then, in March 1913 French intelligence was tipped off to a bomb plot, and Red Dragon Phan was intercepted by the police. News of the arrests never reached the other righteous warriors, and on the 28th six hundred of them, draped in magical amulets, attacked French colonial positions with only makeshift spears and machetes. One hundred and eleven were arrested, and Red Dragon Phan was to be exiled to Guyana.
But World War 1 interrupted his travel, so Phan remained in the central prison in Saigon. Meanwhile rumors spread that the attack on Verdun signaled the imminent defeat of the French. Villages refused to submit taxes and rural martial arts clubs connected to local mafias began to openly conduct militia training. Around 3am on February 15th 1916 around three hundred peasants landed a flotilla of small boats on the riverbank near downtown Saigon. Dressed in matching black shirts, white turbans, and wearing magical amulets, they took their machetes, spears, and farming implements, and attacked the front gate of the central prison in an attempt to spring Red Dragon Phan. The putsch collapsed due to miscommunication, and the siege was quickly routed, but sporadic rebellions subsequently exploded throughout 13 of the 20 provinces of South Vietnam. Looting, robbery, arson, assassinations, and according to one colonial policeman turned scholar “a general excitement which halted all ordinary business, paralized industry and spread fear among the farmers” spread wildly throughout the territory. The French undertook systematic repression. 1,660 men were detained and 261 imprisoned.
So why did Red Dragon Phan put his life on the line to tell everyone that blessed monks, magical amulets, and a legion of vengeful ghosts would carry a bunch of ignorant bumpkins to invade the citadel of colonial power? And how could so many thousands of people be so gullible as to believe that magical amulets and incantations would protect a ragtag gang of machete wielding farmers in a suicidal charge against professional troops armed with repeating rifles and firing from fortified positions?
The French had a few ideas. In the 1st Trimester of 1913 Report on the Political Situation of Cochinchina, the colonial Governor reported to Paris that, despite the bomb plot, “the greater part of the population remains estranged from the latest events” which were part of plots led by expatriates hiding out in Hong Kong and Bangkok. The governor had “no doubt” that “secret societies” were responsible, and that clandestine meetings in the swampy hinterland darkness were spawning “anti-French protests”. Some were influenced by the Japanese, others by the Chinese, others by North Vietnamese deportees who were stirring up trouble. Especially threatening were people of “ill-defined professions, such as the teachers of Chinese characters, pagoda caretakers, etc… they surround themselves with anti-French propaganda and actively spread agitation and disorder among meek but credulous indigenous circles [milieux].” Although the Governor didn’t think these groups posed “an immediate threat to our domination”, he did believe that they “nevertheless have succeeded, thanks to the near absolute impunity which [the Northern deportees] had been assured by [French] laws” of fostering a sense of “anxiety” and “general passivity” among the population. This passivity had to be replaced with a reawakened “love of order and security”. The governor also blamed the overly-liberal press, and emphasized the problematic “xenophobia” of the rebels. The solution? Public executions, didactic publicized trials, a thoroughgoing uprooting of the networks of secret societies which introduced treasonous propaganda from abroad, and a counter-propaganda distribution of folksy poems that, as one historian put it, “extolled the benefits of French rule and warned people not to support the rebels”. In short, the problem was misinformation spread by bad actors in a free press, the solution was arrests, exile, censorship, and propaganda. This is a recurring theme in colonial history.
Historians tend to side with the millenarians of yore against the colonial government. Hue Tam Ho Tai, who’s definitive treatment of the topic I consulted to write this post, attributes the spread of unrest, not to foreign-supported secret societies duping rural bumpkins, but to escalating colonial pillage of the hinterland: the mise en valeur of the painstakingly drained swamps needed roads, the roads needed corvée labor, and the labor requisitions further stressed farmhands who were already eking out a meager living. One Vietnamese notable penned a letter to the governor, explaining,
“You have instituted a regime of forced purchase of corvée at a very high rate by promising the population that it would be free of labor requisitions; yet, by devious means, you continue to requisition the labor of poor villagers so that all roads without exception can be widened to 6 meters […] and all that so that you can gad about in your cars more easily.”
The First World War added forced drafts to the list of grievances, while the newly built roads allowed the agitating bonzes to travel further afield. One of the conspirators, himself a village notable, testified at his trial that,
“Most of the rank and file is composed of agricultural workers, peasants, and village people; the workers and artisans who joined us all worked in the fields to some extent. The leaders were itinerant peddlers or occasional practitioners of traditional medicine, as well as jacks-of-all-trades, which gave them the advantage of being put into direct contact with people.”
For many historians today, as for some of the conspirators themselves, the millenarian rebellion couldn’t be reduced to the organizational activities of its partisans. It couldn’t just be birthed wholesale from the unyielding will of treasonous conspirators, rather it was a social and political growth that gained salience by addressing real abuses, and grievances. No historian denies that conspirators were crucial to these movements, and neither does any historian truly believe in the amulets and angels that delivered the righteous uprising to ignominious defeat, but neither do they believe, as far as I’m aware, that wiping out the channels for peasant unreason could have solved the problem of millenarian revolt.
But today’s intellectuals don’t have the same comfortable distance from events, and there is no safe space to relax in the satisfied knowledge of eventual victory. Like the colonial officials and collaborators of yesterday, today’s intellectuals, and the whole professional and managerial class more generally, is justifiably afraid of the paranoiac fantasies of such a maniacal jacquerie. After all, the peasants despise them and the world they’ve built.
And why assume the historian’s anti-colonial prejudices are correct? Sure, it’s relatively easy to point out that, for example, the power of the Franco-Vietnamese agricultural lobby in the Colonial Council brought about certain harmful social effects: it accelerated the concentration of land, ravaged the “moral economy” that supposedly governed village hierarchies, sped the proliferation of “entrepreneurial brokers”, and so on. But given the nature of the class interests congealed in the colonial state, what else could it have done besides: 1) physical repression, 2) censorship of anti-government misinformation, and 3) promotion of a counter-narrative that debunked the claims that mother France had anything but her dependents’ best interests at heart. Here one might object: the problem was the colonial state and the racial-economic order inherent to it. The problem would wither away once the state ceased to exist.
But few of us are ready to make similar jocular condemnations of our own state-enforced privileges in response to Q Anon. We instead repeat the colonial script: it’s actually a minoritarian movement, it’s financed by foreigners and led by self-interested and resentful troublemakers who are duping the gullible peasants with misinformation in order achieve their selfish agenda. One could transport Viet Thanh Nguyen’s analysis a hundred years into the past: the millenarian peasants were still too attached to their deeply problematic traditions, and were holding tightly to an unreasonable nostalgia for the regressive and defunct empire of Dai Viet. They needed to recognize French moral and political authority, and the colonial power needed to recognize their complaints. However, one might complain, we moderns recognize the deep inequalities and injustices of our society. But the colonists were also well aware of the racial and economic ravages of theirs, they just thought that peasant insanity couldn’t solve those problems. A good liberal republican alternative was needed to stave off minoritarian extremism, in the meantime, a holding pattern of repression would have to keep the religious hysteria at bay until the Vietnamese were mature enough to govern themselves… The Vietnamese struggle over governing themselves, and what form that should take, would finally resolved by force of arms on April 30th, 1975. A different set of millenarians won.
When I said that I was ambivalent, I meant it. I have no easy answer. American Q Anon presents paralyzing moral and political calculations, and I’m having a hard time convincing myself that handing MORE power of censorship over to the well-meaning liberal intellectuals, not to mention the already terrifying tech oligarchy, won’t itself only further exacerbate the relations of domination and marginalization that are making these bouts of religious hysteria more intense in the first place. Vietnamese Q-Anon adds another layer of friction because any intervention into Vietnamese language social media would have outsized effects on political movements taking place in another country.
What would those effects look like? It’s hard to say. No doubt the movement is much smaller there than it is here. But going over my albeit limited lists, the major vectors of misinformation are also the major forums for critical discussion of current events within the country. Indeed, the very language of misinformation echoes the contemporary Vietnamese government’s approach to nearly all critical dialogue, and certainly all of which reeks of political and religious “superstitions”. The Vietnamese government’s approach to misinformation is much more robust than ours, not only do they hand out lengthy prison sentences to people who post on Facebook, they also employ a large force to harass users and manipulate facebook’s reporting policies to shutdown profiles and forums. I fear that an American liberal campaign against Vietnamese Q anon will not only directly aid the state in suppressing critical discussion, it will also further empower the levers of power that the state-aligned forces already so deftly abuse to deplatform their opponents.
I don’t know what’s causing all the hysteria, but I don’t think “fact checking” it will work.