Archive for November, 2009

Vietnam – Day 2

November 22, 2009

As a Westerner making his maiden trip to a non-Western country, the first thing I noticed when walking around Ho Chi Minh City was the palpable sense of danger that lurked at every intersection. Everyone in the city owns a motorbike, and at any given moment of the day or night I think that at least 50% of the population is riding theirs through the street. The street is too crowded, you say? No problem; just ride on the sidewalk. There’s a break in traffic in the opposite lane? Just move over and switch lanes—don’t worry if you’re going in the “wrong” direction. If there were traffic rules, I saw no one enforcing them.

View from our cab, starting the day.

This was near the main tourist area.

All this excitement made crossing intersections rather hairy, and I spent the first few days practically hugging Noah as I made my way across the city. Soon, however, I realized that it was no different than a game of frogger, with the one rule change being that you can only move forward. Just keep moving, stop only if necessary, and the motorbikes will swerve around you. The busses and cars were more intimidating, as they seemed to stop or slow down for no one.

The second thing to strike me was the remarkably cheap prices, especially for pho, which I consumed in great quantities over the course of the week. A bowl of beef noodle soup was never any more than 30-40,000 dong, or under $2. I greatly weakened my vegetarianism/pescetarianism during this whole trip, despite the ample supply of meatless options. Pho, I found, simply tastes much better with beef than anything else. Chicken pho seemed like a poor take on chicken noodle soup, seafood pho didn’t mesh well with the herbs, and vegetarian pho was missing a certain punch that the beef variety had.

Glorious Pho. Breakfast of champions.

The main post office. One is never far from the watchful eye of uncle Ho.

After eating, our first stop of the day was the war remnants museum, formerly named the more incendiary (and arguably more accurate) “Museum of American War Crimes.” This was very informative for an American whose knowledge of the war came mostly through the lens of other Americans. The exhibits exhibited various atrocities committed by American soldiers, including some graphic photos of children born with birth defects (supposedly from Agent Orange) and a particularly striking photo of a group of GI’s posing with dead North Vietnamese that they had proudly decapitated. I was a bit amused by the propagandistic descriptions of the photos. They were all “brave patriots” this and “colonialist Americans” that. Of course the entire museum was a piece of propaganda itself, as I saw no mention of atrocities that surely had to have been committed by North Vietnamese on the South. I guess it’s impossible to have any sort of government-sponsored interpretation of political events without it feeling like propaganda in some way.

Here I am in front of a Chinese tank.

Description of a re-creation of a South Vietnamese prison camp.

We then made our way over to the Ho Chi Minh City museum, which was much less impressive but still worth a visit if you’re in the area.

From the HCMC museum.

Reunification Palace.

By the end of the day I was completely exhausted. I guess 27 hours of travel followed by 6 hours of restless sleep on a strange couch will do that. I remember putting my head down on a table and falling asleep cold in a café while we visited with some of Noah’s English teacher friends. Not even the iced coffee could save me.

Not sure what this says.

uncle Ho, in front of a goverment building.



Rule of Law

November 14, 2009

I really enjoyed this recent article from The Onion:

Although it’s clearly intended to mock populist conservatism, I think that the main idea can be readily applied to almost anybody who has strong opinions on what the constitution means, regardless of their political affiliation.

It reminded me of John Hasnas’s article, “The Myth of the Rule of Law,” where he argues that there is no objective rule of law, as much as people would like to think otherwise. Lawmaking is an inherently political process, subject to both numerous public choice problems (special interests, concentrated benefits and dispersed harms) as well as people’s biases and interpretations of ideas such as justice and equality. Here’s the article:

In his novel 1984, George Orwell created a nightmare vision of the future in which an all-powerful Party exerts totalitarian control over society by forcing the citizens to master the technique of “doublethink,” which requires them “to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel[] out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.” (3) Orwell’s doublethink is usually regarded as a wonderful literary device, but, of course, one with no referent in reality since it is obviously impossible to believe both halves of a contradiction. In my opinion, this assessment is quite mistaken. Not only is it possible for people to believe both halves of a contradiction, it is something they do every day with no apparent difficulty.

Consider, for example, people’s beliefs about the legal system. They are obviously aware that the law is inherently political. The common complaint that members of Congress are corrupt, or are legislating for their own political benefit or for that of special interest groups demonstrates that citizens understand that the laws under which they live are a product of political forces rather than the embodiment of the ideal of justice. Further, as evidenced by the political battles fought over the recent nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the public obviously believes that the ideology of the people who serve as judges influences the way the law is interpreted.

This, however, in no way prevents people from simultaneously regarding the law as a body of definite, politically neutral rules amenable to an impartial application which all citizens have a moral obligation to obey. Thus, they seem both surprised and dismayed to learn that the Clean Air Act might have been written, not to produce the cleanest air possible, but to favor the economic interests of the miners of dirty-burning West Virginia coal (West Virginia coincidentally being the home of Robert Byrd, who was then chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) over those of the miners of cleaner-burning western coal. (4) And, when the Supreme Court hands down a controversial ruling on a subject such as abortion, civil rights, or capital punishment, then, like Louis in Casablanca, the public is shocked, shocked to find that the Court may have let political considerations influence its decision. The frequent condemnation of the judiciary for “undemocratic judicial activism” or “unprincipled social engineering” is merely a reflection of the public’s belief that the law consists of a set of definite and consistent “neutral principles” (5) which the judge is obligated to apply in an objective manner, free from the influence of his or her personal political and moral beliefs.

I believe that, much as Orwell suggested, it is the public’s ability to engage in this type of doublethink, to be aware that the law is inherently political in character and yet believe it to be an objective embodiment of justice, that accounts for the amazing degree to which the federal government is able to exert its control over a supposedly free people. I would argue that this ability to maintain the belief that the law is a body of consistent, politically neutral rules that can be objectively applied by judges in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, goes a long way toward explaining citizens’ acquiescence in the steady erosion of their fundamental freedoms. To show that this is, in fact, the case, I would like to direct your attention to the fiction which resides at the heart of this incongruity and allows the public to engage in the requisite doublethink without cognitive discomfort: the myth of the rule of law.

I refer to the myth of the rule of law because, to the extent this phrase suggests a society in which all are governed by neutral rules that are objectively applied by judges, there is no such thing. As a myth, however, the concept of the rule of law is both powerful and dangerous. Its power derives from its great emotive appeal. The rule of law suggests an absence of arbitrariness, an absence of the worst abuses of tyranny. The image presented by the slogan “America is a government of laws and not people” is one of fair and impartial rule rather than subjugation to human whim. This is an image that can command both the allegiance and affection of the citizenry. After all, who wouldn’t be in favor of the rule of law if the only alternative were arbitrary rule? But this image is also the source of the myth’s danger. For if citizens really believe that they are being governed by fair and impartial rules and that the only alternative is subjection to personal rule, they will be much more likely to support the state as it progressively curtails their freedom.

In this Article, I will argue that this is a false dichotomy. Specifically, I intend to establish three points: 1) there is no such thing as a government of law and not people, 2) the belief that there is serves to maintain public support for society’s power structure, and 3) the establishment of a truly free society requires the abandonment of the myth of the rule of law.