Saturday, February 23, 2008

Vietnam through Hayden's eyes

I recommend an article called The Old Revolutionaries of Vietnam by Tom Hayden (from the March 10, 2008 issue of The Nation). People my age remember Hayden for his SDS presidency and the Port Huron Statement, his arrest at the 1968 Chicago convention, his political work in California and, most of all, his opposition to the war in Vietnam. We also remember that he likes to be in front of cameras and is attracted to Hollywood celebritydom. He divorced his first wife to marry Jane Fonda and when they divorced he married another actress. Reading his bio in wikipedia, I found that he's done some admirable low-profile political work which belies the publicity-hound image you might get of him from the many headlines in which his name has appeared over the decades.

The article is short and relatively free of bombast. It shows Hayden's nostalgia for the ideals of the 1960s and his current opposition to our culture's superficiality and the growing inequality of haves and have-nots. It also shows the difficulty he has in coming to terms with the quick-growth economic policies of the current socialist government in Hanoi. He says, "far be it from me to question the desire of Vietnamese to share our globalized consumer culture like everyone else," but it's obvious that's not the outcome he would have wanted.

He tells of secular Santa Clauses and Christmas carols in Hanoi's shopping district and quotes a young Vietnamese blogger: "I have only one dream is buy one of brand new Harley-Davidson, now I waiting for Harley-Davidson deal to open in Saigon. I need a Fatboy."

Much of the article is given over to reminiscences with Vietnamese members of the old guard whom he sought out on a visit to Hanoi last Christmas. They, like he, are saddened by the younger generation's loss of revolutionary fervor, its wholesale adoption of American values, and its growing passion for material possessions.

One says, "Look carefully now at the peace we have, painful, bitter, and sad. And look who won the war. To win, martyrs had sacrificed their lives in order that others might survive. Not a new phenomenon, true. But those still living to know that the kindest, most worthy people have all fallen away, or even been tortured, humiliated before being killed, or buried and wiped away by the machinery of war, then this beautiful landscape of calm and peace is an appalling paradox." Another says, "The government is trying to reduce poverty, but it's already a reality. The rich are getting richer because they have the means. And the poor don't. We are better off materially, but not mentally, ethically."

In the end, he resists the temptation to bludgeon the reader with the old-timers vs. youngsters dichotomy. Here are the closing paragraphs:
Finally, there was a visit to my oldest friend, Do Xuan Oanh, who first greeted me at Hanoi's airport on a December day forty-two years before. He went through a "bitter period" after retirement, someone told me, but was feeling better, having recently translated into English an edition of Vietnamese women's poetry. He lived alone, his wife having died after many years of illness, his three sons all abroad. As I remembered him, Oanh loved America in unique ways. For example, after learning English from the BBC, he translated Huckleberry Finn into Vietnamese, a massive challenge. A musician, he could sing many American protest songs. A romantic, he wept easily and became close to many Americans.

Now, in a carload of old revolutionaries, I traveled along a narrow cement path past houses, until we came to the gate of Oanh's home of fifty years. He was standing in the door, a thin shadow of the Oanh I remembered. Taking my hand, he led me into a windowless room where a couch and piano were the most prominent fixtures. There were alcoves for painting and a kitchen. We sat and looked at each other. He held my hand on his knee, while the others sat in a quiet circle. It was more a last visit than a time to renew an old conversation.

"Do you want some booze?" Oanh asked with a low chuckle, pointing to a half-bottle of Jim Beam. I deferred, worried what might happen after a few drinks. My wife said Oanh seemed fit and energetic for an 85-year-old. She asked if he would play the piano, and he performed an original piece in a classic European style. He gave me a copy of the song, signed to his "precious friend," and a small carving of a beautiful Vietnamese woman carrying a student briefcase, which he said reminded him of his wife "before the revolution." He repeated the phrase, then relaxed. Gradually, the others began to reminisce about the old days. I wondered if we would ever meet again. I remembered an e-mail from Oanh's son in San Francisco: "I believe God assigned my father and myself to serve the American people." His son would come for a visit in the summer, Oanh said.

We walked back along the dark path to the street filled with motorbikes and strolling couples out for a coffee. Oanh looked at me intently, pointing a finger for emphasis. "Nothing can be predicted," were his last words before we said goodbye.
Hayden has his own website and he blogs on Huffington Post. Noting that he was a community organizer in Newark, New Jersey, in the mid-1960s, at the same time Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) was there, I did a Google search and turned up a fascinating bit of history. This comes from Alan Ginsburg's description of his FBI file:
Ginsberg said that some of the papers in his file come from related customs and Treasury Department investigative bureaus. His file crisscrosses those of other writers. "They include Leroi Jones, who was the victim of much more attack than people understand and, in that context, his anger is understandable," Ginsberg said. "Most people don't realize what he and other black literati have been through, assuming that all past injustices have been redressed or somehow disappeared out of mind. The waste remains, the waste remains and kills. The section on Tom Hayden in Newark intersects with Jones, since Jones was influenced by an FBI misinformation campaign to denounce Hayden as an [FBI] agent and drive him out of Newark.
{Source: Allen Ginsberg's FBI file from Herbert Mitgang, Dangerous dossiers : exposing the secret war against America's greatest authors (New York : D.I. Fine, 1988)}
Addendum: Leroi Jones comes up in a post on this blog a few months back: two women. I was given his book, Blues People, as a Christmas present and have half a thought to do a blog post on him one day.

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