In 1972, Frances Fitzgerald published her book Fire in the Lake, a work about the Vietnam War, and more specifically about the aspects of Vietnamese and American Culture that helped shape the more obvious political and military events of the war. In 1972, this was in many ways a novel and neccesary idea. The United States had mostly looked at the Vietnamese as subjects of the war between the United States and the communist world, and not as a culture with its own intrinsic cultural objectives. Fitzgerald set out to write about the cultural forces that had shaped the Vietnamese. Further on in the book, writing about historical happenings, it is easy to see that she is a very good researcher. Her writing style is very lucid, as well. It is good that I managed to get to these later chapters, because the first chapter of the book, really an essay in its own right, made me want to throw the book across the room.

This chapter, or essay is entitled "States of Mind" and it deals with the thesis that the United States and Vietnam have different histories with different cultural values, and that the United States did not take the Vietnamese cultural differences into consideration when becoming involved with the war. Not a bad thesis. The problem is that Fitzgerald, while a good journalist and a good writer, is not a good anthropologist. She makes many statements about Vietnamese culture that seem to me to be over-generalizations, non-sequitors, backhanded compliments or just plain wrong. This chapter should be read as an example of how not to do anthropology.

Among the cultural facts she proposes about the Vietnamese is that they lived in a largely rural, agricultural economy where tradition was revered; that not only was progress not revered as it was in American culture, but that progress wasn't even an idea that would make sense; that the idea of the family was superimposed on the national structure, so that the people viewed the leader of the government as a father figure who ruled through personal example as much as policy; that the people were ruled by Confucianism, which is a reactionary social system that glorifies authoritarianism; that the Vietnamese didn't view themselves as individuals but rather as parts of a social web of relationships; and that because the Vietnamese used the system of Chinese characters for so long, they could not understand abstractions, because you Chinese characters are pictures of specific things, and can't communicate concepts.

I mentioned those more or less in order of least to most ridiculous. Although Fitzgerald presents these cultural differences in a way that seems sympathetic, she still manages to dichotomize it so that American cultural is rational, abstract, egalitarian and progressive, while Vietnamese culture is a bunch of people stuck in a village repeating the same actions for a thousand years because they can't think abstractly. It is a very back handed praise she gives the Vietnamese. And indeed the Vietnamese were more rural and traditional than the United States in the 1960s, but I don't think it is a given that this is a product of Vietnamese culture: Western culture was rural and traditional for hundreds of years before technological change started changing people's lives in the 1700s. In Vietnam, the government might have been meant to symbolize the patriarchal family, but such symbolism is not unknown to the West. The founders of the United States are known as our "Founding Fathers", notwithstanding their desire for an egalitarian society. And the idea that a leader should show personal character is not a weird one in the United States, because even before Bill Clinton got reprimanded for misconduct, American schoolchildren for generations learned about George Washington and the Cherry Tree and Abe Lincoln being born in a log cabin. Her treatment of Confucianism, an area I have some expertise on, was the most mystifying to me. The problem with writing about Confucianism is much like the problem with writing about Christianity: many different people over many different years have thought it was many different things. Of course, Confucianism has been around longer than Christianity, and is less dogmatic, so that it is even harder to describe what it is. Even within the narrows confines of the type of Confucianism Fitzgerald seems to be talking about, State Confucianism, there are too many generalizations and misrepresentations. She seems to be taking Confucianism as a blind support for authority, something that is actually the opposite of what Confucianism teaches. The silliest belief she states is her misunderstanding of the Chinese character system, which she seems to infuse with the inscrutability of the Orient. She seems to believe that Chinese characters are all pictures of concrete events (a false statement), and that therefore the Vietnamese couldn't follow the abstractions that underlie American ideas of constitutional government and rule of law (a statement that I couldn't believe the strongest supporter of the Safir-Whorf hypothesis would agree with. It is true that Chinese philosophy has followed a somewhat less abstract track then Western philosophy, although it seems doubtful this had anything to do with the formation of characters, and what impact this would have on Vietnamese societies contact with Western enlightenment thinking deserves a much more thoughtful treatment. (As a sidenote on this linguistic matter: the back of the book has a laudatory quote from Noam Chomsky, whose status as a linguistic and a leftist are both called into doubt if he believes that the Vietnamese can't think abstractly because they write using pictures).

So what Fitzgerald seems to do in this essay is try to draw some stereotypes and generalizations from thousands of years of Chinese and Vietnamese culture and history, try to form them into a dichotomized opposite of what American culture is, and then use that to explain how the Vietnamese reacted to being used as a battle ground for five gigantic world powers over the course of thirty or forty years.

Occasionally, anthropology can give you an understanding of a culture that lies behind historical events. The problem is, while it works well in hindsight, it often does not have any predictive power. It might have made sense in 1972 that the factors and movements that made up Vietnamese culture would have led to the events of the Vietnam war: but there was many other agricultural societies where peoples who had lived in generations of conservative, autocratic societies didn't face the changes of modernization with a thirty year civil war that would be won by tyrants. To me, (if you will excuse some analogizing), it would be like trying to figure based on the culture and linguistics of 1890's Europe what the poltical map would be like in the 1940's, and some of Fitzgerald's statements are as ridiculous as saying "The Germans were bound to turn into genocidal maniacs, they put all their verbs at the beginning of sentences".

So, I suppose what I have learned from this chapter of the book is that while anthropology may be able to explain some political changes, it is not a reliable guide, especially when it is not particularly sharp or insightful anthropology.

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