Commentary on Fujii and Packer

SOCSC-UH 1112: Introduction to Political Thinking
Professor Leonid Peisakhin (NYU Abu Dhabi), Teaching Assistant Alissa Strunk
Mark: 93/100 

The texts of Fujii and Packer—though concerning two different national and regional settings, in Rwanda and Tunisia respectively—shed light on the patterns of conflicts. According to Fujii, popular participation in the Rwandan genocide was tightly linked with local ties, elevating incentives for ordinary people to join and, like their friends and relatives, commit murder. In Packer’s “Exporting Jihad,” young people chose to join radical terrorist groups to escape persistent unemployment and economic instability, while also demonstrating their frustration and anger towards the failing state. The two authors largely suggest that violence outbreaks do not necessarily reflect ideology or certain group purposes like the promotion for ethnic or religious superiority, unlike the conventional view on the issue. Arguably, conflicts can serve as an individually satisfactory but socially destructive process of uplifting the perceived marginalized voices and exhibiting group-based resentment. 

In his article, Fujii emphasizes a new understanding of conflicts—based on the scholar’s fieldwork studying the genocide in question—regarding this social phenomenon as a dynamic process that involves multiple, neglected by academics, micro-processes that allow people to act in certain ways and contribute to certain degrees. The research “does not deny the importance of ethnicity,” yet Fujii is critical of the lense shared by many scholars that ethnic diversity is the main engine for inter-group disagreements and, thus, conflicts. This theory does not take into account the complexities in human interactions and risks offering a partially correct explanation of popular participation in genocidal conflicts. Ethnicity—though important—cannot entirely dictate how people think, act, and respond when facing threats or experiencing perceived suffering. Meanwhile, “identities, interests, and alliances emerge endogenously” as individuals interact with one another; a reference used by Fujii is the Holocaust, indicating that what incentivized these men to participate in mass murder was “a feeling of obligation to one another and a desire not to leave such an unpleasant duty to peers.” This also applied to the Rwandan genocide, as family and social ties became an active platform for recruitment—pressuring young men to join a movement with which they might not completely agree—and participation, which shaped how much violence or resistance one exercises.

In addition, since feelings are shareable and people—as subjective social beings—are persuadable, the participants in conflicts might not have a clear, well-informed ideological stand or political motivation. They may just be involved due to the frustration and anger absorbed from their friends, colleagues, and relatives. Since bloody conflicts like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide are significantly based on people’s observing and imitating one another, ties-based participation is individually satisfactory because it empowers Joiners to collectively express their resentment while being protected by one unified identity: “Through ties, they knew how to think and, thus, how to act.” However, it is important to consider that since participation is a result of social obligations, the resentment the Joiners shared, and violently exhibited, might have come from a very small group that had many ties from which they could benefit. Such resentment, hence, is arguably not representative, and by transferring that misguided anger into “elite projects of genocide or ethnic cleansing,” “they [ordinary people] incur most of the costs.”

Similarly, Packer—in his article on the movement of young Tunisians joining foreign radical groups—suggests that the youth participation in the country’s and region’s conflicts has been “an expression of rage, not of ideology.” Once again, this is a decision made for individual satisfaction, as these people left Tunisia and participated in violence in the hope of escaping “marginalization and joblessness.” In short, their contribution was not motivated by any religious or ethnic ideals, but by a deep sense of frustration. Moreover, this highly resembles what happened in Rwanda, as “recruitment spreads […] through informal networks of friends and family members,” underscoring a considerably universal pattern of conflicts. Since people were under the impression that many had joined the terrorist groups, they consequently felt obliged to join; they were also influenced by others’ indignance, which they hadn’t necessarily experienced themselves, and therefore got involved in self-destroying conflicts with no rationalist cause. 

In conclusion, Fujii argues that participation in large-scale conflicts can be incentivized not by well-informed ideological preferences but by self-interests and social interactions between individuals. Hence, popular participation in violent conflicts is potentially both individually satisfactory and socially destructive. This stand is supported by Packer, despite studying a different dilemma in a different nation. Thus, many can conclude this phenomenon to be a considerably universal pattern of conflicts and how mass violence unfolds in such settings, hindering the conventional lense on the matter which thinks of ethnicity as the main cause of outbreaks.

Baldwin, Fanon, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Vance on How to Constructively Respond to Resentment

CCOL-UH 1065 Resentment and Politics
Professor Patrick Egan, Wilf Department of Politics, NYU
Grade: 25/25

Baldwin, Fanon, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Vance wrote about the multifaceted suffering of the groups which they belong to or have a significant attachment to explore how resentment should be responded to. Their proposals are fundamentally similar, indicating how ineffective—even harmful—it is for marginalized people to blindly hold grudges against others for their misfortune. Nevertheless, what differentiates the authors from one another is what they suggest the experience of resentment needs to be transformed to: self-appreciation and empathy for cross-group progress from Baldwin; empowerment for social movement from Fanon; spiritual awakening for guided ethics from Alcoholics Anonymous; and individual awareness for upward mobility from Vance. This difference leads to four unparalleled arguments, and arguably Baldwin’s stand is the strongest. He recognizes resentment as a social problem which can only be solved by the people’s own continuous, history-motivated efforts that benefit everyone, something the other three authors fail to do one way or another. 

There are some strong similarities between the four perspectives on the damaging consequences of having an ill will on groups that are believed to be the cause of one’s perceived misery. In other words, the foundation of a constructive response to resentment is to recognize its toxicity, whose symptoms—like anger and bitterness exhibited by indignant blaming—may persistently hinder one’s chance of escaping his spiral of negativity. When one relies too much on displaying his dissatisfaction while choosing to remain in the comfort of inaction, he can never endure resentment in a constructive manner. He, if so, has the risk of being consumed critically and emotionally by those ill-intentioned feelings—distracting and forcing him to demean himself, people like him, and people unlike him—while not delivering any actual solution to address the unjust system that caused his suffering in the first place. One, thus, must question not only his wronged conditions but also his reaction to ensure that his attitudes and actions are not destructive both to him and to his society. For Baldwin, he acknowledges the ineffectiveness of being resentful in the greater context of reclaiming a socially denied black identity, claiming that “The rage of the disesteemed is personally fruitless, but it is also absolutely inevitable.” Since rage—and the act of directing it at people—is so easy and inevitable, the first meaningful step one can take is to deconstruct the expressions of resentment to know what are good, which should be done, and what are not. This significantly resembles the perspective of Fanon, also a writer concerned with the position of the black community in a predominantly white society, who wrote “Fervor is the weapon of choice of the impotent.” Fanon himself was resentful—towards white people’s horrendous discrimination on black people at the time—but he chose not to write Black Skin, White Masks when he still didn’t know how to productively and constructively express himself. Fanon’s decision to withdraw his angry yet incomplete voice to develop his resentment into a concrete argument is a great illustration of how one can begin to internally respond to such strong emotions. 

Despite differences in concerns and target groups, Alcoholics Anonymous and Vance both have an overlap with Baldwin and Fanon regarding how necessary it is for one to behave beyond the ordinary forms of resentment, such as emotions like jealousy and anger and actions like blaming. While Alcoholics Anonymous believes that “It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. […] If we were to live, we had to be free of anger,” Vance—who credited not rage but stubborn passivity and desperate blaming for the crisis of his people—explained the innate dilemma of the Hillbillies as “a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government.” It can be seen that all four authors in question begin with the same foundation, encouraging the readers to understand the potential harmfulness of ill-willed resentment in hope of changing the way vulnerable groups exhibit their sense of injury or insult from being passive—or even self-destructive—to being reflective, critical, and impactful. The authors urge people to transform their experience of resentment into something beneficial and greater than an individual’s disregarded, voiceless bitterness. However, the four arguments here depart from one another, with solutions that have different directions and varying strengths and weaknesses.

In both “Stranger in the Village” and “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin argues that resentment should be derived into empathy, and black people—when facing oppression from white people—“cannot be free until they [white people] are free.” Here Baldwin introduces a new approach to racism and how to tackle it, and he provides the readers with his version of “the word integration […]: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and being to change it.” For Baldwin, the most constructive response to resentment is “love”—empathy—which is an odd solution, as that positive thinking can stand in sharp contrast with the negative connotation of resentment. One might encounter an extraordinary struggle when working to grow from being resentful to being empathetic to his oppressors. Thus, some may argue that Baldwin is too idealistic, and his solution is impractical to solve resentment. However, the depletion of resentment is never of interest for Baldwin, despite his acknowledgment that one of the main exhibitions of resentment—rage particularly—is ineffective. Blaming, hence, becomes an irrelevant action in Baldwin’s vision; instead, Baldwin wisely uses his and black people’s history of resentment as materials for any change to come. He states the truth—from “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason” and “In this long battle, […] the white man’s motive was the protection of his identity”—about his race, his people, and white people. Yet, he does not blame. His argument is that a history—not just an experience—of resentment due to deeply-rooted injustice, though horrifying, has to be remembered but should not stir up hatred. A history-motivated, inclusive solution is needed for people’s efforts to be long-lasting and for their impacts to be remarkable. Thus, it makes sense that Baldwin takes into account also the white American identity—which he describes to be “ still trapped in a history which they do not understand”—to trace back the core of institutional racism while ambitiously aiming to tackle it. 

Furthermore, resentment is manifested by white Americans too, who suffer from “the loss of their identity” and whose crisis needs to be addressed for the sake of both blacks’ and whites’ well-being because “denying the overwhelmingly undeniable [which is black people’s presence in America’s identity] forced Americans into rationalizations so fantastic that they approached the pathological.” Baldwin remains in a position of critical awareness of not just his people’s resentment but also other groups’ to propose a solution that benefits the entire society—because everyone is subject to resentment based on their history of perceived suffering. This is one thing Fanon, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Vance cannot accomplish or don’t believe in, which makes Baldwin’s argument stand out. Baldwin is idealistic because he wants to respond to resentment by a means that helps black people escape the haunting negativity of slavery and systemic discrimination while still cherishing what defines them as a non-excludable part of the United States: “He is not a visitor to the West, but a citizen there, an American.” Therefore, Baldwin endorses a neutral and carefully thought solution that makes use of resentment which arrives in empathy and self-appreciation for a purpose grander than just an individual’s subjective emotions. Cross-group progress—where barriers between peoples are overcome for equality—is Baldwin’s demand and plays an essential role in his argument. Baldwin believes that resentment is a critical part of life—as it’s often felt from our histories interacting with different social groups—and there’s no more constructive reaction to it than to understand others’ grudges and rescue each other from such a harmful attitude. Baldwin’s optimistic approach transforms the negative connotation of resentment into a pathway to justice. His response is exceptional because it gives the individuals an agency to regain, reconfirm, and reinforce their desired social position, without forgetting and wasting one’s own history—like Fanon, being passive and helpless to shortcomings—like Alcoholics Anonymous, or being socially ignorant—like Vance.

Fanon resembles Baldwin yet is so different from him. Both—as educated, sophisticated black men concerned about racism, structural inequality, and black identity—point out that black people can do better than to only be bitter to white people while remaining silenced on the unjust. Nevertheless, on an opposite stand from Baldwin, Fanon argues that the experience of resentment should empower the marginalized to initiate and get involved in conflicts with their oppressors, at whom their indignant grievance is directed. Fanon, in Black Skin, White Masks, refers to Hegel—“It is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained”—to underscore that justice is fully achieved only when it is fought for. Hence, resentment should be responded by the willingness and need to fight, regardless of any possible compromise or negotiation that can avoid confrontations because “the former slave wants to make himself recognized” and “human reality in-itself-for-itself can be achieved only through conflict […].” Fanon embraces rage—instead of empathy—by questioning the nature of freedom. If freedom is given to black people or is easily achieved without any means for resentment to be released via actions like violence, “the black man is contented himself with thanking the white man.” The constructive response to resentment is based on the complex power dynamics between the oppressor and the oppressed, indicating that the oppressed are placed in a position of internalized powerlessness and, consequently, develop a deep sense of constrained resentment. The resentful black community, therefore, needs to unlearn their helplessness by gathering a common voice and power, even with the cost of violence: “For the Negro who works on a sugar plantation in Le Robert, there is only one solution: to fight. He will embark on this struggle, and he will pursue it […] because he cannot conceive of life otherwise than in the form of a battle against exploitation, misery, and hunger.” Such a social movement requires a constant reflection on the group’s history. However, Fanon contradicts himself on this notion—which significantly weakens his argument—when writing that if the revolution succeed, “I [will] have neither the right nor the duty to claim reparation for the domestication of my ancestors. There is no Negro mission; there is no white burden.” Fanon fails to realize that the response to resentment must be a continuous one, so as the fight for equality. By refusing to be “the man of any past,” Fanon’s suggestion separates him and the vulnerable from reality, regarding resentment as a temporary feeling instead of a socially reproductive dilemma. Fanon’s stand—though strong—contains contradictory elements that undermine itself, unlike that of Baldwin’s which emphasizes that injustice and, consequently, resentment are persistent and require a response that is not only constructive but also long-lasting and cross-generational.

The last two authors, Alcoholics Anonymous and Vance, generally have weaker arguments than Baldwin. Alcoholics Anonymous, in its Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, insists that one’s shortcomings can all be overcome if he submits himself to God. Overall, the advice is relatively positive by giving the alcoholics—whose drinking habits come from their negative emotions—a purpose and new values to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”  Yet, it allows passivity to perpetuate, which might solve the issue temporarily but cannot sustain that impact. Resentment is not just deemed to be harmful; it is entirely disregarded. Alcoholics Anonymous dismisses people’s subjective perceptions that shape their resentment—which “were often quite wrong”—to direct men to a powerful superficial figure. Outside forces now dictate a person’s behavior, and alcoholics—according to the optimistic organization—will give up any toxic thoughts and lifestyle due to their spiritual awakening. Guided ethics, consequently, is the answer. Nevertheless, this is not a suggestion for a constructive response to resentment, and more like a piece of short-term advice in use for Christian propaganda because of the heavy religious presence.

For Vance, he wrote Hillbilly Elegy as one of the few upwardly mobile persons in the “millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree”—the Hillbillies. These people suffer from persistent poverty, and their resentment—derived from their “learned helplessness”—has become so ingrained that Vance hopes the white working-class would drop “the feeling that our choices don’t matter.” He thinks the Hillbillies should use their resentment as a motivation to develop their work ethics as a productive means to improve their mental health and living conditions. They need to stop blaming others for their problems without questioning themselves. As a Hillbilly who successfully moved up the socioeconomic ladder, Vance’s recommendation—based on his critical and personal life observations—is largely valid. However, his argument is too individualistic since it suggests the Hillbillies to only care about their own lives to become upwardly mobile. Throughout the course of his memoir, Vance constantly compares and, eventually, criticizes the American elite, but one can criticize him for growing to be one of the elites—socially ignorant and concerned solely with financial success. The Hillbillies’ struggles represent a failure of American public policies—tax distribution, welfare, public goods—so an individual should not be entirely blamed for their suffering and course of actions, because these bad life choices can all be impacted by various social factors. Undoubtedly, for many, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book and Hillbilly Elegy may offer incredibly relevant and useful advice. Yet, their arguments are flawed and, thus, need to be looked at critically to avoid misperceptions on resentment and its mechanisms.

In conclusion, Baldwin, Fanon, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Vance aim for the betterment of the resentful people, which can be seen from their advice. The four authors think of resentment—if done wrong—as potentially toxic. They all support people to not be blindly angry or bitter and to stop using blaming as a way to justify their inaction in their own lives. Nevertheless, they have different visions on what resentment must be used for. Baldwin is optimistically convinced that it can turn into an understanding of one’s history and others’ contempt; social solidarity and transformation—along with positive thinking for each individual—is what Baldwin aims to achieve. Fanon, in contrast, believes that people should respond to resentment by empowering themselves to contribute to the fight for their deserving status; this author, despite having a solid standpoint, contradicts himself at times. Alcoholics Anonymous proposes a religiously motivated approach that urges others to submit themselves to God in the hope of a destined life change. Finally, Vance suggests an individualistic solution—focusing on a smaller scale than the previous three—to change a person’s attitude and behavior for more success and, in turn, less resentment. From the analysis, Baldwin’s argument is the strongest out of the four because it takes into account every party involved in resentment while also taking a step further to understand the oppressor’s sense of injury or insult perceived. Baldwin’s proposal allows people to acknowledge and respond to resentment both as a personal issue and a social dilemma in a mutually thoughtful process, and it has a great level of neutrality and criticality with which the other three cannot compare.

Footnote.

  1. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.” In Notes of a Native Son. 2012, page 169
  2. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 11
  3. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 11
  4. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 2001, page 66
  5. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. 2016, page 194
  6. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 22
  7. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 21
  8. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 18
  9. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.” In Notes of a Native Son. 2012, page 177
  10. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 19
  11. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 20
  12. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.” In Notes of a Native Son. 2012, page 176
  13. Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.” In Notes of a Native Son. 2012, page 178
  14. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 218
  15. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind. 1949, page 230
  16. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 217
  17. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 218
  18. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 219
  19. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 224
  20. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 221
  21. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 228
  22. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. 1952, page 226
  23. Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook.” In The Fire Next Time. 1963, page 15
  24. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 2001, page 62
  25. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 2001
  26. Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 2001, page 66
  27. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. 2016, page 3
  28. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. 2016, page 177
  29. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy. 2016, page 186

An Escape From Class Inequalities, But An Unequal Chance At Education

This essay was published on the Gazelle, NYU Abu Dhabi's student newspaper, on November 9th, 2019 in the form of a shorter essay: https://www.thegazelle.org/issue/168/features/an-escape-from-class-inequalities-but-an-unequal-chance-at-education  

On January 2nd 2017, I received a letter that would change my life forever—an offer letter from United World College (UWC) National Committee in Vietnam to study at UWC Costa Rica, one of the 19 campuses in a renowned, rigorous global high school system aiming to use diversity and education as a means for peace-building and social change. I had not expected much, thinking that it would be another rejection like the many times my application had been declined to participate in local extracurriculars. My heart skipped a beat when seeing the word “Congratulations,” and I immediately screamed for my grandparents. We were all crying happy tears, for the first person in the household to study abroad on a generous scholarship and to have the chance to go to college. I went to bed that night feeling hopeful for the future that my family and I may live one day, and I had never expected it to be such a remarkable turning point for my perspective on education.

Before I knew it, my extended family threw a big party, killed multiple chickens and bought too much food, and invited many of our friends, most of whom had barely finished secondary education. I recall one of the many conversations during the party, “Finally, a kid from us can escape!” The event was exciting, but also something I have lingering thoughts about. Looking back, I wonder why everyone was so thrilled about me studying abroad. What did she mean by “escape?” What were we running away from? Was it poverty? Vietnam’s education? Or our own powerlessness when seeing our lives—and our children’s future—constrained by our lack of money? If so, what exactly were we longing for?

I come from a working-class family with my doting grandparents whose little savings have gone to their 1-bedroom house, monthly medicines, and their grandchildren’s schooling; my father working as a contract-based driver whom I rarely interacted with when I was in Vietnam; my loving mother who has been a garment seller for over two decades; and my brother who loves football but can’t play for too long due to asthma. None of them have gone to college. None of them can speak English. Yet they are still aware of the role of education—a degree, with some employable skills and work ethics—for people like us in an ever-changing, increasingly degree-requiring labor market. “He went to a very decent college, and he’s now working as our assistant after being unemployed for a year,” my father came home after driving for 3 consecutive days; he was a container driver at the time. “That poor kid failed to make the most out of his education!”—he said before lighting up his twelfth cigarette that morning.

For the longest time, many, at least those whom I am close with, have regarded education as the pathway to success and well-being. In other words, one can be upwardly mobile by making the most out of their education—learning the right things, getting to know the right people, and growing to become the right person. Some may distastefully call this attitude power-hungry or cutthroat, because desire for power is socially undesirable and there exists a heavily negative connotation associated with the term. Those who want more are deemed to be bad. But are we—the working-class—bad for wanting more? Am I bad for wanting more? It is important to remember that we want more from the position of nothingness, and the power we desire is nothing like what is falsely painted by the media that blatantly forgets us and our problems.

I think of power as the ability of one to form an argument, claim an identity, and become personally upwardly mobile in terms of intellectuality, finances, and networks. To achieve one of those three elements (ie, to strive for power), one can resolve to education—an institutionalized platform implemented as a universal public good, readily of service and whose quality is ensured. Hence, education, in short, is a battle for power especially for the working-class. Education is supposedly the most available and convenient opportunity for anyone, regardless of one’s status and background, to elevate their potential. Nevertheless, that was not what I have seen happening.

Education—at least for me and for my friends back home—is not always available or appears to be equal like in theory. Besides recognizing the power of education, I also understand, and despise, the socially destructive power dynamics in education. My family is hyper-aware of our disadvantaged position when trying to accomodate my and my sibling’s needs as students, because sustaining their children’s education means (over)spending and, unfortunately, a financial burden. From extra fees to extra classes, our educational expenses extend beyond tuition. For a country that works so hard to ensure extremely low tuition fees, we fail to acknowledge and address on the large scale the existence of our education’s shadow market—run by people in authority, like teachers and school administrators—that allows kids from well-off families to continue being well-off, and kids like me to continue suffering. This reality is visible, especially in predominantly working-class neighborhoods like mine.

In addition, highly useful opportunities like scholarships, fellowships and exchange programs, and extracurriculars are often only available to students from certain specialized schools, the middle class, the upper-middle-class, and the upper-class. Such students are prepared to succeed and those like me are expected to be ordinary, which partly explains why many—my relatives included—were so shocked when I made national news for successfully leading a non-governmental organization and receiving a UWC scholarship. Ironically and painfully, to escape poverty, we need education; but letting our children participate in education, we are daily reminded of our poverty to the extent that we internalize and normalize that very social position.

When receiving the acceptance letters from United World College and—2 years later—New York University Abu Dhabi, I was struck with the realization that everything is possible, a concept in which I hardly believed due to my circumstances. This is power, and this is the only means for many—me included—to reclaim the power that has been long neglected by our unequal societies. Education is undoubtedly a significant tool for those seeking a way to overcome their individual and family struggles. However, at the moment it is still operating as a novelty—the one thing that can get us out of poverty but also the one thing we can’t afford, and that needs to stop so that more young people from the working-class can actually enjoy the benefits of education.

Now I am concerned with how privileged I am to be here, write this personal article, and have my voice firm and respected. People like me don’t usually get to do this. Although my struggle is not uncommon for Vietnamese people, my story is unusual. I have become upwardly mobile by successfully taking advantage of the very few educational resources available to disadvantaged students. I am one individual out of the many hard-working students who deserve much more than what they have now.

Sadly, education itself is a paradox, serving as a means to lift people up but only a lucky few can ever have the chance to be socially relocated by their academic achievements. We have heard so much about how education is a crucial path to fairness, but getting access to high-quality education is a labyrinth in itself since we have to consciously navigate its dynamics ourselves. And we get exposed to the naked truth—the system in place is not working in our favor—so early that many of us start giving up, dropping out, and being drowned in our own internalization of unjust classist identities. Education reflects our society, not only in what is taught but also in what is manifested and perpetuated. Education, like life, is an unequal battle for power where wealthy people aim at achieving something remarkable while we—the working-class who sleep dreaming a blurry dream of upward mobilization—just want to survive.

Response to Hariri’s Article on Middle Eastern and Muslim Exceptionalism

SOCSC-UH 1112: Introduction to Political Thinking
Professor Jeffrey Jensen (NYU Abu Dhabi), Teaching Assistant Alissa Strunk
Mark: 92/100

Democracy in the Middle East has long sparked heated debates. Many scholars regard the lack of democracy there as unusual. Jacob Hariri—in his “A Contribution to the Understanding of Middle Eastern and Muslim Exceptionalism” published in the Journal of Politics—is against that observation. In his article, Hariri argues the region’s history of strongly-rooted precolonial state, with various authoritarian and informal rules, prevented it from acquiring Western democratization and thus fell behind in this global progress. The author argues that the Western settlers initiated semi-democratic institutions in their colonies and thus have an important, and positive, role. This stand is controversial. Despite rightfully and ambitiously rejecting the existing thought of Middle Eastern and Muslim exceptionalism by providing abundant data analyses, Hariri unfortunately delivers a heavily Westerncentric narrative that unconsciously normalizes and validates colonization as a necessary historic force.

The article, first and foremost, is arguably profound in political regime research. Here, Hariri offers a new perspective on why the Middle East has not experienced the democratic transformation that most of the world has gone through primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries. The author provides readers with a great balance between quantitative and qualitative analysis. Rare it is nowadays, when scholarship frequently focuses on the utilization of only one type of approach or another, leading to a problem addressed by Hariri himself, “[…] the notion of Middle Eastern or Muslim exceptionalism seems to spring largely from the omitted variable bias when we don’t account for history” (p.478). Historical facts strengthen data. The historical roots of democracy and contemporary Democracy stock- and Freedom House-measures are altogether taken into account to support the argument that the region’s democratic deficit is not as exceptional as many scholars believe it to be. Distinctive factors thought to foster Middle Eastern and Muslim exceptionalism—significant reliance on oil for economic development, “coercive capacity” shown by great investments in the militaries, and “societal heterogeneity” manifested by the intertwinement of governments and Islam—don’t leave much of a remarkable impact on regional democracy. As Hariri points out, the Middle East and other authoritarian nations or regions share a similarity in their “early development of statehood,” minimizing European colonial impacts because of the pre-existing rigid “system of indirect rule.” However, this is where Hariri begins to unconsciously stray away from his attempted objective position. 

Large parts of the article indicate a Westerncentric narrative, perhaps though unintentionally. Undoubtedly, Hariri makes efforts to sound neutral, going from the critical data references to an academically informed acknowledgement that territories with great precolonial establishment, like the Middle East, “often saw traditional authority structures reinforced by Europeans” (p.489). Nevertheless, a concluding remark is not enough to neutralize a narrative that suggests something otherwise. With statements declaring that “an early development of state institutions is likely to have itself constrained the historical development of democracy” (p.480) and European colonization impacted the global East and South “in two complementary ways” (p.481), the author puts blame on indigenous people—whose states had been in different stages of regime development before the Europeans came to “destroy and rebuild or bring their own” (p.480)—while conveniently ignoring the horrendous consequences of colonization. Furthermore, what makes Hariri’s account here dangerous is how the writer fails to acknowledge the continuous interaction between the democratic West and the non-democratic East. Based on “The End of the Democratic Century” by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, global democracy is a battle between ideologies that involve individual values, self-interests, and economic and soft power between the West and the East and between the democrats and the aristocrats. Thus, democracy should not be explained as a mere consequence of Western colonization which praises colonialism, giving that culturally harmful and severely inhumane structure applause for a causal democratic system that was intended neither by the kings nor for the colonized. In addition, the Western influences on the Middle East’s, or any region’s, regime trajectory did not stop when the colonies became free. This wrestle between schools of thought has always been there since the World Wars, since the Cold War, since the Vietnam War, and since September 11th 2001. Hence, this reveals some biases in Hariri’s analysis. His saying that “precolonial state development is negatively and significantly associated with democracy” (p.487) is a lazy way of thinking about colonialism and democracy. This raises questions on whether the author is indirectly arguing that all non-Western structures are innately bad. That is a strong, controversial statement to make, and the data Hariri uses—though sophisticated—is not enough to support that conclusion.

The article offers a new view on Middle Eastern and Muslim exceptionalism, arguing that many regions that had strong precolonial structures also have a less democratic regime trajectory. Thus, the Middle East’s democratic deficit is not unusual and should not be regarded as so. However, although the scholar carefully proves that the Middle East exceptionalism does not actually exist by taking account of the past, he makes an assumption that state institutions, thus democracy, can only be exchanged effectively under Western colonization by not taking account of the present affairs. This makes his research debatable and much less neutral. Therefore, one, when reading this article, needs to stay critically aware, recognizing both the informed approach on the issue and the biased narrative of the author.

Exploring the relationship between female sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and the patriarchal masculinities constructed by the shifting global economy

Social and Cultural Anthropology, Extended Essay (a 4000-word independent paper required for all students pursuing the International Baccalaureate Diploma)
Supervisor Maria Tsvetkova, United World College Costa Rica
Mark (externally graded): A
Maria's feedback in the first review session on October 12th 2018: "This is a very impressive, college-level, work."
This was uploaded at 00:00 July 7th 2019, after Khoi checked his IB final results. 

INTRODUCTION

In this Extended Essay, my research question is created with concerns about how and why female sex workers were motivated and able to act upon and shape the unequal structure in Vietnam’s ever-changing context: “How do female sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam actively take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities constructed by the shifting global economy?” 

Ethnographic framework

The analysis of this Extended Essay is based on the ethnographic materials offered in “Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work,” conducted and written by Kimberly Hoang, a Vietnam-origin sociologist. In the five-year fieldwork in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the author conducted participant observation, supported with semistructured interviews with 276 persons. The ethnography delivers a different lense of Vietnam, its people, and how they position themselves in the changing global order, which is completely opposite to Vietnam’s stereotypical image usually associated with the Vietnam War. 

Justification

The sex workers in “Dealing in Desire” were highly aware of their expected images and behaviors in the industry. They consciously acknowledged that Asian elite businessmen used intimate bars as “where they can engage in deal-making practices crucial for organizing business ventures” besides “leisure and consumption” (Hoang 12) and Viet Kieus (i.e., the overseas Vietnamese men) and Western men, including both businessmen and backpackers, utilized the spaces that didn’t exclude them due to their then limited economic transactions “to displace their status anxieties onto women’s bodies” (Hoang 13). Four niche markets then were constructed, catering to four types of customers with specific needs and expectations.

Such complex and dynamic interactions between the stakeholders in this intimate labor market led to my interest in the female sex workers’ agency in actively taking control of their identity and categorizing themselves into different niche markets. They were, from my reading and analysis, critical of how power is socially practiced, associated closely with the capital flows in Asia and in Vietnam particularly, and how flexible identity is. As a result, they made use of the existing patriarchy, a deeply-rooted oppression on women including the sex workers. My analysis here is established through a feminist theoretical lense, examining the relationship between women and the patriarchy, with support from Michel Foucault’s theory of power regarding the prostitutes’ purpose of actions. 

Context

Less than three decades after Đổi Mới—Vietnam’s remarkable economic, social, and political reform in the 80s—the country has experienced “rapid economic growth and development and transformed Vietnam from one of the world’s poorest nations to a lower middle-income country” (The World Bank). A free market was established, which eventually raised certain related social issues that had never existed before in the context of war and social reform, including the involvement of prostitution in business. The underground sex industry gradually became critical in reflecting what men expect in women, how men perform their masculine superiority, and how women adapt into the structure.

Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2007, not long before the 2008 global financial crisis, striking the most developed and influential economies such as the United States’ and European countries’. Yet, the crisis did not affect many developing nations, mostly located in Asia, as negatively as the West. In other words, “[…] while the advanced economies still remained mired in stagnation and uncertainty, developing countries have largely shrugged off the effects of the crisis and are recovering with a healthy dose of certainty and momentum” (Park et al. 103). This shift resulted in a new hierarchy, in which Western global domination started to be threatened by Asian countries, many of which successfully maintained stable growth during the crisis, becoming more economically independent and capable. 

The interactions between Vietnam and other Asian economies also got stronger. By 2010, according to the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, foreign direct investment (FDI) to Vietnam came mostly from Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong, respectively. This created new opportunities for cultural and social exchange via negotiation of investment and trade, where Asian businessmen presented and strengthened Asian-oriented values and lifestyles; some of which were patriarchal and stereotypical. The Western and also the Viet Kieus were seemingly left behind as dollars started losing its once significant worth in international monetary flows. As a result, female sex workers, who play an important role in Vietnam’s economy, catered themselves to a specific group of male customers of each niche market, satisfying the men’s needs of practicing masculinity by either embracing their rising capital power or denying their potential capital powerlessness.

Hypothesis

Prostitutes in HCMC utilized male’s expressions of masculinity, determined by economic and social changes, by actively adapting their performative identities into the patriarchy and keeping themselves aware of social changes and consumers’ behaviors. Furthermore, they successfully exploited the system financially with full acknowledgement of their capability while embracing the expected staged femininity. Therefore, the female sex workers not only survived but also defied within the structure of male domination and the hierarchy of power.

ANALYSIS

Financial Benefit and Gained Autonomy 

There were four niche markets within HCMC’s sex work, including “(a) local Vietnamese business elites working to attract foreign direct investments from their Asian business partners, (b) Viet Kieu men tied to nostalgic remittances, (c) Western men investing in small-scale businesses through benevolent remittances, and (d) Western budget travelers who still view Vietnam as […] in need of aid or charity through benevolent remittances” (Hoang 39) from the most luxurious to the least regarded, respectively. In this mutual and dynamic process, each group participated with their own interests in mind. While the male customers had the incentive to exhibit or protect their power and masculinity, the prostitutes benefited from the industry with a new, significant source of income and a sense of autonomy by actively sensing the international economic shifts and catering themselves accordingly. Feminist theory can be used to analyze this phenomena as the female sex workers and the male clients consumed, behaved, and negotiated around the frame of patriarchy.

Financial Benefit

“Patriarchy has no gender” (Hooks 142) because it is exercised by everyone. While this toxic order of gender roles could cause harm to certain groups explicitly and implicitly, those willing and able to take advantage of the system, including women, could to an extent benefit from it. Particularly, the income brought by sex work could be very appealing for the underprivileged, especially women from rural areas or hadn’t had access to general education. The Vietnamese female prostitutes, mostly coming from low-income or working-class background, could earn “roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in tips for joining men at their tables and U.S.$150–$200 for each sexual encounter” (Hoang 42) in the niche market targeting Vietnamese and Asian elite businessmen. The situation was quite similar in other niche markets, in spite of the relative variation in income depending on the specific group of customers and alcohol purchased. Furthermore, due to the preexisting wage gap, highly educated women working in leadership positions in the legal job market were underpaid. This also explains the motivation for some women, who were socially intelligent and were capable of leading business, to turn to this underground industry and work as mommies (female pimps): “The mommies earned U.S.$3,000–$4,000 per month in tips (in comparison, women with master’s degrees in managerial positions made roughly U.S.$2,000 per month in HCMC)” (Hoang 42). Sex workers, therefore, could make ends meet and may have exceeding savings. Their first and most directly important goal was to survive, financially, in one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.

Even though patriarchy was initially and mostly beneficial to men, regardless of each’s privilege and background, women could still benefit from it as long as they were conscious of the tacit expectations on them. It took critical observation and awareness to possess such knowledge, as women were likely to become extremely passive if they started to institutionalize and normalize one’s inferiority or superiority. The women participating in Ho Chi Minh City’s sex work, as noted by Kimberly Hoang, were young female mostly coming from rural areas and not obtaining higher education. With the undeniable lack of educational and vocational preparation due to a variety of reasons, they could have tremendously struggled in Vietnam’s legal and semi-capitalist job market, mainly consisting of vacancies requiring at least a vocational degree. Furthermore, gender inequality was still profound in Vietnam’s workplace, shown by the wage gap and the unequal distribution of labor between male and female in certain fields such as STEM and the heavy industry. Therefore, joining the legal job market didn’t make much of a difference—economically speaking—from joining the underground sex industry. For some, especially those working in the higher end of the market, they not only made ends meet but also had a quite well-off life.

Female sex workers, through the process of interacting with men from different financial, racial and ethnic, and social backgrounds, acknowledged what were happening and what they could do to make the most out of such an unpredictable setting. Feminist theory, besides investigating the patriarchy and its oppressive system of degrading women and minorities, also focuses on how women possess an agency to benefit from the structured inequality. In this case, the prostitutes were aware of the systematic shifts, influenced by global economic changes and influencing the local social order, and were then purposefully shaping the industry and exploiting the market as soon and as much as possible.

Gained Autonomy

Although maintaining financial stability was one of the priorities, it was not the sole reason motivating the sex workers’ consciousness of their role and benefits. It was the freedom that mattered, creating a myriad of benefits that went beyond the financial ones. An intertwined relationship was established through which one’s agency strengthening their autonomy and vice versa. The sex workers provided themselves with the autonomy they had never had as poor uneducated women in a fairly conservative context since “their involvement in commercial sex work shapes their own personal trajectories of economic and social mobility” (Hoang 79) For example, they, according to the ethnography, had complete access to safe sex if needed and total right to negotiate in their sex work. They, therefore, possessed not only spending power but also freedom that allowed them to make their own decisions such as giving consent (e.g: they could refuse to involve in sexual intercourse) and observe and understand not only their but also the clients’ capital worth on the market. This was surely dehumanizing, in which human beings were viewed as objects based on one’s monetary value, but it was necessary, even important, for the sex workers to get out of the passive role of victims by gradually equalizing both sides’ influences on each other in the industry.

Still, the female sex workers could not entirely escape the structure because, as Conrad Kottak once stated, patriarchy is a political and social system that maintains women’s inferiority in status and access to human rights. Patriarchy, unfortunately, was everywhere, including but not limited to the city’s sex work, and had profound impacts on every individual. This situation was also noted by Hoang herself: “But while women were able to capitalize on Vietnam’s rapid development, it is important to situate their mobility as constrained within structures of patriarchy” (Hoang 17-18). As a part of a larger industry interrelated with many other societal aspects with an assigned role, the prostitutes could neither freely express their knowledge via actions nor create any immediate impact on their lives. Therefore, it can be reasoned that they were still much constrained in agency. This, however, further indicates how thoughtful the sex workers’ agency and autonomy were, fully aware of their being underprivileged while slowly but firmly enhancing their power and exploring new limits. What they could do were limited, in contrast with what they could understand, because “women in lower-class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women’s liberation as women gaining social equality with men, since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status” (Hooks 19). Nevertheless, they still weren’t hesitant to shape the sex work industry into different niche markets and maintain their relative freedom to make decisions and execute negotiation. Such a tacit method of empowering oneself and regaining power was prominent. The autonomy they gained was crucial, enabling them to be more independent, empowered, and aware. 

As a result, the female sex workers in HCMC, in spite of numerous challenges and restrictions, were determined to take advantage of the patriarchal system of global masculinities via making ends meet and developing a gradual sense of freedom. From the feminist theoretical lense, their agency and actions were feminist, even though they did not, and could not, explicitly disobey as it may have caused them to bear financial and social hardships. They refused to remain passive in a prejudiced structure that had long assumed women, specifically sex workers, to be inferior and powerless. Their courses of work and agency might be objected by many due to their prior preconceptions (that prostitution is destructive and anti-feminist) and its negative systematic effects, but it is undeniable how female sex workers, at least in Hoang’s ethnography, possessed critical knowledge about and made the most out of the patriarchy was applaudable, especially for feminists supporting women’s rights in being able to afford their lives and protect their endangered autonomy.

Knowledge as Power

Although the prostitutes could not obtain full independence to defy the structure, resist the powerful patriarchy, or simply refuse to enter the sex industry in the first place, they still had certain autonomy. It was executed with full awareness, directly affecting the sex work in general (e.g: how they formed the niche markets and objectified and regarded their customers differently). This phenomena can be observed through Foucault’s Theory of Power, through which every exercise of power is taken into account and power is perceived as an interrelated and inseparable part of any society. In this case, the lense focuses on how the sex workers perceived themselves and their clients in the global hierarchy and its local manifestation and, in turn, exercised power themselves. The allocation of power was generated in the presence of the niche markets and the performances within them, “as male clients and female sex workers negotiate their changing status—either by embracing the shifts in global capital flows that bolstered Asia’s ascendancy or by reproducing old regimes of global power that hinge on Western dominance” (Hoang 13). Such a constant interaction required the knowledge base from both sides, which determines to what extent the prostitutes could act and benefit, depending on the niche market they belong to. The sex workers here took advantage of the shifting system implicitly, obtaining knowledge that helped enhance their activeness and power.

 Knowledge held a profound role in the construction of power because knowledge, and how it is presented and utilized, represents the flows of power between different groups in a society. One of the most influential supporters of this phenomena is Michel Foucault: “For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge” (“Power/Knowledge”). In this situation, the prostitutes understood not only their social status but also their clients’ in an ever-changing global economy. Female sex workers in Vietnam held the position of inferiority as women participating in the field were significantly associated with stigma, but they were not completely powerless or unaware of how to function in the hierarchy. Their acknowledgement of to what extent individual and social capacity allowed them to critically interact with customers played an incredible role in determining their power in the industry. The importance of knowledge in the notions of power is explicitly shown in Hoang’s book’s ethnographic materials. 

One of the examples is how the sex workers purposefully categorized themselves into four separate niche markets and catered their bodies and personalities to the particular demand of each general group of male customers, characterized by the changing economy, signified not only their willingness to take advantage of the patriarchy imposed on them but also their capacity, motivated by their knowledge, to do so: “In order to entice clients, sex workers who cater to wealthy local Vietnamese men and other Asian businessmen construct themselves as distinctly pan-Asian modern subjects, while workers who cater to Viet Kieus construct themselves as nostalgic cosmopolitan subjects, and women who cater to Western men construct themselves as Third World subjects dependent on Western support, to satisfy their clients’ racialized desires” (Hoang 16). By utilizing their knowledge, made by careful observations of the world affairs, the prostitutes stayed in demand and in the market, making impacts on their capacity, though implicitly, and on the structure in general: “Through these performances, sex workers effectively work together with clients to contest and actively reshape global race-, nation-, and class-based hierarchies” (Hoang 16). 

The investigation of the agency of the oppressed requires an acknowledgement of the existence of marginalization. Despite the changing and unstable state of the economy, which in turn impacted the underground sex work, and the sex workers’ profound understanding of how to take advantage of such changes, they were still positioned in the inferior rank in the patriarchy as women and as prostitutes. However, their act of tacit resistance towards oppression, enhanced by their shared knowledge of the then social affairs, needs to be recognized as motivated from the position of inferiority but not from the position of passiveness; in other words, “to operate within the matrix of power is not the same as to replicate uncritically relations of domination” (Butler 42). Although they were situated in the oppressive system and were undeniably oppressed by being categorized as a highly taboo group, they were able to act within and upon their capacity, being in charge of the structure of the niche markets that many would believe to be oppressive instead of empowering. 

Viewed from the theoretical lense of Foucault, their mindsets and actions can be seen as the epitome of critically exercising power, the pervasive and fluid feature of social relations, in the form of knowledge. They fully understood that the capital flows, business activity, and economic domination were considerably shifting from the West to the East, which caused the gradual collapse of Western hierarchical power imposed on Asia’s investment scene and HCMC’s sex industry. Since the patriarchy is a system of power and everyone, according to Foucault, practices power regardless of their social status, the prostitutes could not entirely escape the structure or resist to follow it. Therefore, by catering themselves to four niche markets directly targeting a specific type of male customers based on their wealth, economic potential, and race and ethnicity, the female sex workers, constrained within the patriarchal frame, found a way to most utilize their knowledge to implicitly equalize their capacity with that of men in this intimate labor market. The nature of power relations, especially of and in this market, should not and cannot be separated from forms of resistance, knowledge in this case, and their complex set of purposes, to benefit from the system while also weakening it in this case, whose complexity is in turn acknowledged by Foucault himself, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In the intertwined matrix of power, the female sex workers in the ethnography defied the oppression by preparing themselves with knowledge, a significant factor in determining and maintaining one’s position of power and the society’s structural power relations, and by applying it consciously at work. They didn’t just exploit the system, whose unequal hierarchy had long degraded and marginalized them, but they also acknowledged and took full advantage of the new-found inequality within their male customers in terms of economic potential and social influence. This phenomena has long been issued by various thinkers interested in how women, regardless of their status, think and act within the intersectional and complex social structure: “Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to?” (Hooks 19). Knowledge in this case, therefore, became incredibly crucial in shaping how the sex workers regarded both themselves and their customers, which in the end shaped their explicit performative identity according to one’s niche market and implicit awareness of the relationship between the market, and the individuals within it, and the economy in a much bigger scale.

It can be concluded that the female sex workers in HCMC benefited from the systematic oppression imposed on them, which was analyzed above based on Hoang’s ethnographic materials and feminist theory. Nevertheless, it is also important to take into account how such bold thoughts were applied and critical actions were motivated. Knowledge, undeniably, was the main reason for the remarkable accomplishments, although most of them were tacit and perhaps more structure-oriented, of the sex workers in empowering themselves and being involved in the economic and social changes. The niche markets and the sex industry in general, despite being established to satisfy men first and foremost and being explicitly oppressive to women, appeared to be the engines for the sex workers to exercise their capacity of power, grounded by their profound knowledge. Their minds were unsettling and their knowledge was powerful.

CONCLUSION

From the ethnographic account provided in “Dealing in Desire,” we can reason that the female sex workers in HCMC were able to actively, consciously take advantage of the patriarchal masculinities by exploiting the system for personal benefits, empowering themselves with new-found autonomy, and advancing their knowledge about the world’s economic changes that significantly affected people involving in this intimate labor market. This phenomena, in my Extended Essay, has been analyzed through the lenses of feminist theory and Foucault’s theory of power. I believe that, being positioned in and constrained by the patriarchy, both the female prostitutes and male customers could not do much to exercise and act outside of their limited capacity. However, the sex workers, through my analysis, went beyond their systematic constraints to manifest their agency, with very clear interests to become more active in manipulating the industry, gaining more capital power, and making personal decisions. 

Some may perceive the prostitutes’ mindsets and actions in the ethnography as toxic and negative when they, instead of resisting the patriarchy and the unequal hierarchy of power, supported and fully adapted into it and could further worsen gender inequality and class stereotypes in the long run. However, such a problem doesn’t fit into the scope of this Extended Essay and also is not specifically targeted in Hoang’s ethnography, so I, to not make any assumption or conclusion that is not evidently supported by ethnographic accounts and theoretical argument, would neither agree nor disagree with the above perception. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that the interactions between the prostitutes and the clients were placed in a highly complicated and constantly changing social and economic setting, and the formed niche markets and the relationships within those can be viewed as initiatives, actions, and networks that were not motivated to create any long-term structure change but were to expand the sex workers’ limited space and capacity that helped them benefit from the oppressive patriarchy and male-dominated economy. 

The prostitutes’ relationship with the masculine exercises of economic power  and patriarchal expectations granted them with expansive agency, performative identities, and empowered control over their own lives and the closest system that affected them. Through the niche markets, they successfully not only exploited the system but also defied it by subversively establishing an intertwined connections of power rather than an imposed hierarchy. They were, in short, anything but powerless.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York, Routledge, 1999. 

Hoang, Kimberly Kay. Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Oakland, University of California Press, 2015. 

Hooks, Bell. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Second ed., pdf. ed., London, Pluto Press.

—. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York, Routledge, 2010.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Mirror for Humanity: A Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. Seventh ed., pdf. ed., New York, McGraw-Hill.

Park, Donghyun, et al. “Why Did Asian Countries Fare Better during the Global Financial Crisis than during the Asian Financial Crisis.” Responding to Financial Crisis: Lessons from Asia Then, the United States and Europe Now, by Changyong Rhee and Adam Simon Posen, PDF ed., Washington, Asian Development Bank, Oct. 2013, pp. 103-39.

“Power/Knowledge.” Social Theory Rewired, routledgesoc.com/category/profile-tags/powerknowledge. Accessed 13 Aug. 2018.

“Sources of Foreign Direct Investments in 2010.” Foreign Direct Investments, General Statistics Office of Vietnam, 2011. Accessed 29 July 2018.

The World Bank. “Vietnam Overview.” The World Bank, 19 Apr. 2018, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/vietnam/overview. Accessed 25 July 2018.

Tiền ảo Libra: bỏ đi lý tưởng “phi tập trung” để tiếp nối nền tài chính hiện tại

It is my absolute honor to share that I will be working as Assistant to Vu Chau (Châu Thanh Vũ), and having this fascinating piece of writing about Facebook’s Libra cryptocurrency as our first collaboration is an out-of-this-world experience.

Vu Chau is a PhD Candidate in Economics at Harvard University, while also dedicating his time to the UWC Vietnam National Committee as its Head of Finance and Student Affairs. This is a precious opportunity for me to get first-hand experience in editing and networking, while having a glimpse of what it is like to be an academic so that I can make the right decision later on.

I look forward to seeing what I can make out of this incredible working and learning experience!

The article below, in Vietnamese, was written by Vu Chau and edited by me. 

Châu Thanh Vũ

Châu Thanh Vũ

Dàn trang & Edit: Ngô Xuân Khôi
Để bài viết tinh giản, nhiều nội dung được viết ở phần chú thích. Xin đọc thêm nếu quan tâm.

Facebook vừa công bố đồng tiền ảo của mình, đồng Libra, và ngay lập tức nhận được nhiều ý kiến trái chiều. Các phản hồi tích cực cho rằng đồng Lira là một lựa chọn tốt hơn Bitcoin, không những vì thiết kế giúp ổn định giá trị đồng tiền (stablecoin), mà còn vì Libra có thể tận dụng lợi thế “mạng xã hội” sẵn có của Facebook. Ngược lại, các chính phủ và ngân hàng trung ương lần đầu tiên buộc phải suy nghĩ nghiêm túc hơn về vai trò của tiền ảo trong nền kinh tế và ra chính sách tương xứng.

Sự xuất hiện của Libra mang lại nhiều câu hỏi: Libra khác với các tiền ảo…

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On Being Queer and Vocal, again

The University of Chicago Admissions
Supplementary Essays

Author Note: This essay blog was created to embrace my imperfect writing and, thus, imperfect self (“I have this space for my intellectual and personal reflection, from which I strive for the better of myself.”) On this website, I—without hesitation—want to share that I was rejected by the University of Chicago when applying to college. I approached the admissions process in a very experimentative way, despite the cutthroat nature of admissions to elite universities and the added-up challenge for a disadvantaged person. Hence, the two essays below may surprise you at first, as they don’t conform to what usual essays should be like. This also may partly be why I wasn’t accepted to UChicago and another Ivy League institution, and no one really knows. However, I don’t regret having my essays unconventional—these two specifically—because they allow me to explore this exciting sphere of creative writing and reflect on my earlier life in my own words, without the boring do’s and don’ts.


UnCommon Essay Prompt: Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in it or what is it? What does it do? [Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021]

“Why are you on their side? Are you a faggot too?”

I was at dinner with my family when an interview with Huong Giang, a popular transgender singer, had just begun to play on the television. My aunt had complained, “Why does the TV these days have to show corrupted content like this?” and I had protested, “I’m sure that these individuals are not corrupted. They are just being themselves.” The vitriol of her response shocked me.

I found myself sitting, silent, not sticking up for what I believed was right. I had the answer —“Why does it matter if I am gay?”— on the tip of my tongue. But staying silent was easier than being rejected by my own family or coming into conflict with people I loved. I let the awkward silence fill the room until my grandmother got up and started offering us seconds.

Since then I’ve noticed silence creeping into my conversations as I struggle to confront those I love with words that they do not want to hear. When I heard my childhood friends straight-washing Xuan Dieu’s sensual queer poetry, they turned to me for confirmation of their interpretation. I knew that if I told them they were right, I would betray my identity, but if I corrected them, I would betray my secret. As they realized I was holding back, the silence dragged on. Months later, I went on a first date with a closeted, sexually frustrated teenager who was a member of the school gang. I was silent, speechless, when he, struggling to reconcile his gay self with the homophobia his gang imposed on him, sighed, “Why do I happen to be like you?”. To hear you said with such distaste was worse than any discriminatory label, but I held back, knowing that any response would make things worse for both of us. In both situations, the answers were at the tip of my tongue, just like they had been in that dinner with my aunt, but I stayed silent to protect myself from being ridiculed and transformed into nothing more than a disgusting item, labelled “faggot.”

Time and time again I have found myself wondering why it was so hard to speak up in those conversations. Why had I disappeared into silence? I was usually willing to correct others when I thought they were wrong, even if the people in question were adults. I was able to speak out in class. But somehow, surrounded by those I loved most, talking about subjects that I cared about more than anything, I found myself unable to speak.

Awkward silences in my experience aren’t awkward because nobody has anything to say. They are awkward because everyone knows someone does have something to say, and isn’t saying it. Awkward silences slip in when everyone knows who is in denial of a secret, or who is burning with rebellious desire. In that dinner with my aunt, in that moment when she asked if I was “a faggot” too, everyone realized what was happening. The answer was “yes,” but I could not say it for fear of hurting both myself and my family. Her response would’ve been of disgust, but she couldn’t say it either, because I was still her nephew.

“Speakaboo” changes that.

“Speakaboo” is the spell to break awkward silences. It is a non-verbal spell, so the caster is safe from having to shout the spell out in the middle of a dying conversation. But when the caster uses it, it gives them the ability to be heard, to be proud and unapologetic, and to not feel ashamed of who they are. The spell doesn’t magically change the subject. It doesn’t give its caster sudden creativity. It doesn’t take away one’s ability to judge what is and is not tactful. It isn’t veritaserum. It instead provides us with the courage to say what we know we ought to but are too afraid to voice.

“Speakaboo” can be beneficial for those whose thoughts are systematically silenced, for transgender and non-binary folks receiving insensitive questions, for orphans dealing with tacit discrimination, and for minorities being interrupted in any discussion by those who “know better.” It lets everyone realize how powerful they are vocally no matter how little power they have outside their voices. “Speakaboo” is the magic of an individual, transforming individuals. For me, “Speakaboo” is my #LovesWin.


Why UChicago prompt: How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

The Communist Youth Union training was mandatory for all secondary school students. At every session, we were forced to regurgitate what each speaker told us without space to question or discussion of what was said. I remember one specific period, though, where the presenter was passionately lecturing us about Vietnam’s post-war efforts to reconstruct its political identity in Đổi Mới in the 80s, but his enthusiasm was lost on the class. Suppressed anger at our lack of agency had grown into helpless acceptance that in turn became clueless defiance. Students walked into the room convinced that their ideas would be rejected by those in authority. So they in turn rejected every idea presented.

Suddenly, the presenter caught my attention: “Although the government did make a few, tremendous, mistakes…”. He quickly shifted the focus solely to the positive, but he had slipped for a moment. He had acknowledged the flaws in the system. Tentatively, I put my hand in the air and said, “Weren’t the people made to sacrifice their private sentiment for the sake of the government’s fragile superiority?”

The classroom went silent. Nobody knew how the presenter would respond to being challenged. His eyes grew wide, surprised and, strangely, excited, “But let’s consider Vietnam’s situation then, being economically isolated by the United States and neglected by China.” he said. “Wasn’t establishing a solid foundation for future advancement a much better political and social focus?” This was the same official view we had been dismissing for years. The speaker argued that individualism was surely important, but it wouldn’t mean anything if people starved. For the first time, a figure in power didn’t tell us to be quiet. He challenged the strawmen we had created out of the imposed ideology, giving us details that weren’t in our textbooks.

My classmates and I had become far too used to rejecting every thought that resembled the government ideology. How could a group that systematically denied us the right to object be correct about anything? Every statement was suspect, clearly a pretense for propaganda. But we had forgotten that we too could be wrong.

The situation in that classroom should never have occured. No authority should suppress the ideas and thoughts of its members as my teachers in Vietnam had. On the other hand, our decision to exercise resistance by ignoring every oppositional argument out of hand was harmful both to society and to ourselves. We had neglected an opportunity to establish an equal and respectful monologue and to expand the knowledge base of both sides.

I want to study in an environment that encourages its individuals to freely exchange ideas and critically question them.

Many colleges promise freedom of speech, but Chicago goes beyond that and promises that we will be rigorously challenged and asked to revise our opinions. I want to study in the university that prepared Gloria Raheja and Ann Gold to co-author an ethnography on women’s polyvocality in North India, deconstructing false Western assumptions of their “ideological abasement.” I want to study at the university where Professor Kimberly Hoang, when asked whether she involved sexual intercourse in her fieldwork, answered “And why is this question, and others like it, used to scrutinize particular scholars, often scholars of color?” defying the gendered and racialized trends in academia that devalue minority scholars. I want to be surrounded by thinkers for whom no intellectual construct is too strong to be questioned and no idea is left out of the dialogue for the sake of comfortability. At the University of Chicago, I will find my place.