March Against Progress: Viet Cong and the Specter of Illiberalism
By Brent Ables | 18 March 2015
Modern liberalism breeds a certain kind of historical complacency. Free expression is not an eternal human right; it is the contingent product of a particular kind of socio-political arrangement, and in the scope of recorded history, it’s still pretty new. Perhaps most governments have not rounded up their poets and sent them into exile, like Plato proposed; instead, they have brought them before inquisitions and interrogators and had far worse fates inflicted. After the secularization of Western civilization in the Enlightenment, the state no longer needed to appeal to a divine authority to justify stifling expression: its own authority was enough. This authority had to be dismantled on its own grounds. Thus, the right of free expression that we take for granted today was necessarily established as the result of a democratic struggle against those who would dictate the bounds of public discourse. It was not just progressive, it was the very essence of progressive thought: no matter who you are, the idea went, you too have a voice that cannot be silenced.
Today, there is a new kind of challenge to freedom of expression. This is not to say that the Platonists have retreated into their caves: in America, the baseline conservative reaction to criticisms of that country from within remains: “leave.” But it is increasingly the Left, not the Right, that tends toward censoriousness in the West. The rise of what has been called the illiberal or anti-liberal left has been documented in a series of important articles, all of which point to a similar conclusion: that the left has been split in two, divided between those who uphold the traditional enlightenment values and those who see such values as tools for maintaining oppressive power relations. What makes the latter camp historically distinctive is that it has harnessed the authentic frustration and rage born out of centuries of oppression and directed it not against the oppressors first, but against symbols of oppression, which react upon those who use them: words, in particular, but also images and even dances. Because symbols (or signs, if you prefer) are the currency of artists, this political strategy has naturally led to some problems when the two collide.
Which brings us to the curious case of Viet Cong. For those who didn’t keep track, this Canadian rock band has been the subject of some controversy because of their name, which refers to a Vietnamese military organization guilty of many wanton human rights violations. The band has been accused of being insensitive and judged guilty of cultural appropriation; their motives ruthlessly dissected; their artistic integrity questioned. They have been called racists, and worse. People who had raved about their music online (or promoted their concerts) suddenly found themselves deeply offended and swore off the band for life. The suspicion assumed retroactive power: weren’t these the same dudes who were in an all-male band called Women? Most outrageously of all, when the band members were confronted about their name, they had no political justification, no ideological support at all, for the name they chose. It was almost as if they didn’t even know they needed one.
The Viet Cong case is particularly interesting because it happened almost entirely in a vacuum. By all indications, the band might as well have flipped open the dictionary and played darts to choose a name: there are no accusations (that I know of) that Viet Cong wanted to send any message at all. By contrast, consider the case of Black Pussy, a Portland band whose (white, male) members give every indication of having chosen their name to provoke reaction—and, presumably, garner the exact attention it has in fact brought them. Or, like, Eminem’s entire career. Shock value has long been gold for artists with nothing else to express, and the only real problem with such cases, it seems to me, is that its purveyors continue to get national press rather than the cold, unprofitable shoulder they deserve.
But Viet Cong, as they have made clear in a recent statement, weren’t trying to shock anyone, or offend anyone, or challenge anyone. Nevertheless, the charges against them have taken a distinctively personal, or rather, typological tone. The band members are white and male, therefore privileged; their use of symbols belonging to non-privileged cultures is profitable and aesthetically unjustifiable, therefore appropriative. Because of the type of people they are and the culture they belong to, their use of the symbol is inherently “problematic”; because the symbol has painful associations for another type, it should not be used in any case. Guilty of the double crime of appropriating and triggering, Viet Cong is personally culpable. The burden is therefore on them to rectify the situation. Never mind that the band, all of whose members hold inglorious-sounding jobs, has spent the last two years trudging back and forth across the continent in order to, as the expression goes, make their name—the name was never theirs to make in the first place.
If my reconstruction of this position seems oversimplified, it is only because I’m trying to find logic in a way of thinking that, to me, seems dangerously illogical as well as illiberal. Let me make clear that I do not make light of the history of the Viet Cong (army), or deny that their legacy is deeply complex and painful for those influenced by them one way or another. Nor do I want to paint Viet Cong (the band) as victims or martyrs for an ideal here. What troubles me is, very specifically, the way of thinking which predicates moral and political judgments on the type of person being judged. What else does the mantra of “privilege” amount to in this situation? There seem to have been no obstacles to those of Vietnamese descent making their voices heard, which is of course as it should be. In a democracy, that should be enough. But this is longer enough for the new left: if what you say is offensive, you rescind your right to speak. Or, depending on who you are, it might never have existed. That isn’t democracy. It’s an -ism that belongs nowhere near democracy.
Viet Cong are not victims of censorship. They are an empty, circulating square, overwritten with discourse and hostility that bears no relation to them or their art. The relation is to the symbol. And here is where the logic of illiberal critique breaks down: the symbol cannot be identified with those who use it any more than the object to which it is attributed. By taking the names or slogans of historically oppressive entities and recontextualizing them, artists have the power to combat the terror those names imply. Far from avoiding sensitive topics, the virtue of much great art lies precisely in its power to make them bearable at all. “Viet Cong” is just such an instance, or could be if we want to read it that way, rather than labeling it racist by default.
This speaks to a more general point about art: it consists largely in the transformation of symbols, which is to say that artists are mostly thieves. “Appropriation” is the genesis of artistic creation: taking something that has one meaning and giving it a new meaning. Rock music itself was an act of appropriation. More often, perhaps, appropriation is not conscious at all, as when words from one language find their way into other languages through sheer circumstance. And in an increasingly globalized world culture, it is all but inevitable that cultures are going to borrow from each other not just symbols, but ideas, styles, and stories.
I don’t see this as a bad thing. It seems to me, rather, an extraordinary opportunity for cultures all around the world to communicate in the service of creating something new. But then, I am a white male and most of my experience of the world comes through my laptop. I have had many privileges that less fortunate people near and far have not. I spent most of the last week playing Dark Souls and listening to Drake rather than working. I don’t deny that my perspective is limited. What I vehemently deny is that any of this has any bearing on the truth or falsity, or value, of these words you are reading. The answer to oppression and false enlightenment is not counter-oppression and force, but genuine enlightenment. Everyone must be allowed to speak, and sing, and if the market turns against them then so be it. No one will be too upset if Black Pussy goes out of business, except maybe Black Pussy. But let us not take steps in the direction of dictating what can and can not, or should and should not, be spoken and sung. That road only moves in one direction, and woe to those who lose their footing in that traffic.