June 7, 2016

Dad's letters

A year’s worth of reading: Letters, 1930-1939

I have been writing this for over a year now. We are in Vermont (again). Beautiful hot weather when the sun is out; chilly enough for a wood stove fire when it’s not. Deep quiet; I can hear individual cars coming down Jamaica Mountain and passing through the village. I can hear voices from somewhere up in the village. Also birds. A cardinal sat on the telephone wire, cackling and whistling.  Something large slept in the raspberries last night, leaving a mashed area the size of a king bed.

Down in Brattleboro, 23 miles southeast following the river, they have an annual celebration of the dairy industry called “The Strolling of the Heifers.”  Here’s a moment from the parade last Saturday: kids with cows from their family herds. There were many booths with people selling jewelry, jam and baked goods. No evidence of actual farm workers, as a letter to the Brattleboro Reformer pointed out a few days later. It’s a tourist event.

Cow parade

My various writing assignments are quieting down and I am bit by bit more able to read “long things,” whole books, whole academic papers. I have read the whole of a book by Bryan Dorries, The Theater of War, (Knopf 2015), nearly all of Robert Frost’s collected poems (as of 1930), and the second volume of a wonderful fantasy series with dragons by Naomi Rovik. Something I like to do in Vermont is read whole books.

I am thinking more, not less, about Viet Nam as time goes by. I’m in email touch with 3 or 4 people there; I want to refresh my contacts with others. I see many students on Facebook; it looks as if they’re vacation these days, posing near beaches. Joe and I are working through the Handbook (the collective bargaining/organizing teaching handbook). We got stalled when Joe took two classes at City College and had to spend time with that. The first section of the handbook has been sent to Vinh for translation.

In the meantime, Obama has been to Viet Nam “to rapturous” response (according to the US press). Vinh was invited to his Town Hall meeting in HCMC. Obama has promised a “free flow” of arms to Viet Nam, as if there weren’t enough unexploded bombs in the rice paddies  — and cities, too — already. This agreement to sell weapons to Viet Nam is related to the tension with China.  Bob Kerrey, who led a massacre during the American war, has been appointed to the Board of the new Fulbright University. There is some discussion about this, not a lot, in the press here.

Hollis has had heart surgery; he has a new mitral valve and is now home, recovering. We went down to Monterey Bay to see Angie Ngoc Tran and her husband, Joe Lubow, and had  great long evening of intense conversation. And the California primary is today. Amazingly, but not surprisingly, the Associated Press ( a news agency) did a “survey”, called up uncommitted superdelegates to the Democratic convention and “found out” that enough were planning to vote for Hilary so that in effect, she has won the primary — the day before the California (and 6 other states) actually vote.  One can always be amazed at new strategic moves!! People will confuse a survey with an election, and seem to be doing so already. Will this affect turnout? Or will people who were saying, “Oh, Bernie can’t win so I’ll vote for Hilary to prevent Trump from winning,” now say, “OK, she’s won already so I’ll vote for the person I really want”? I actually believe that everything possible will be done to stop Bernie.

(Note from July 8, the day after: Hilary won California, 56% to 43%. Click on individual states at http://www.nytimes.com/elections/results in order to see how things shifted as the votes came in.)

On our way here we changed planes in Las Vegas. I looked into the smoker’s lounge. There are slot machines everywhere; in this one, you can smoke and slot at the same time. Throw it all away at once, why not? These are people who I assume would be Trump supporters. Nihilists, content to risk it all for the sake of a spinning wheel, some bright lights.

smoking Vegas airport

It’s beautiful here in Vermont, but people in my generation are dying. I went to the Lady’s Benefit lunch last week, eleven or twelve women over 60, holding a meeting in the church and sharing pot luck, mostly salads. The stories were about husbands  who are ill or dying in nursing homes. Dale Ameden, Karen’s husband, died about a week ago, after 8 years of illness. I remember him as a quiet, strong, good-looking guy. Their romance was the talk of the town at the time, and they produced 5 kids, now all grown or at least graduated. Karen is working in the store every day, seems to be moving in slow motion, taking deep breaths, says she’s doing fine.

Property, Political and Civil Rights

Hilary gave me an article to read which although it’s  a draft (2015) is available on the web at http://drodrik.scholar.harvard.edu/files/dani-rodrik/files/the_political_economy_of_liberal_democracy.pdf

Mukand and Rodrik propose three categories of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. Property rights are a concern of the elite: the right to the private ownership of property is a right extracted from the king’s total ownership of everything (like the Magna Carta).  Political rights are a concern of the majority, the right to be counted among the people who, because of their numbers, are the decision-makers in a society. These rights are voting rights, extracted from the elite on the principal that the majority wins (the elite being, by defnition, not the majority). Civil rights are the concern of a minority; the right to be treated equally or protected despite not being either among the elite or in the majority. Mukand and Rodrik say that most of the time, civil rights and political rights are bundled together; this makes it hard to see what deals can be made when the interests of the majority and the minority coincide, for example, against the elite, or when the interests of the elite and the majority coincide against the minority. They want to be able to consider what happens in a country when it goes through transitions (that’s how this relates to Viet Nam). They are asking how it happens that the share of democracies is increasing world-wide (from about 15 in 1950 to about 82 in 2005, according to their figures), why most of these are electoral democracies (run by majorities) and why liberal democracies (in which civil rights are protected) are so fragile.

They offer South Korea, Lebanon (before 1975) and South Africa as case studies of liberal democracies (not the US). South Korea became a liberal democracy because of a powerful labor movement; Lebanon was a “cosociational” government, with power distributed among three religious groups; and South Africa became a liberal democracy (respecting the rights of minorities and establishing majority rule) because the minority happened to be identical with the elite; the white Afrikaners were both the elite and the minority. All three transitioned to a liberal democracy. The authors want to know what pushes a transition in that direction (what makes liberal democracy the “downhill” into which power flows).

They write, in their conclusion:

The crucial building block of our analysis is a taxonomy of political regimes, based on a tripartite division of rights: property rights, political rights, and civil rights. We have argued that these rights operate across two fundamental types of cleavage in society: an elite/non-elite cleavage that is largely economic or class-based, and a majority/minority cleavage that typically revolves around the politics of identity. Property rights are important to the elite; political rights empower the majority; and civil rights protect the minority. Liberal democracy requires all three sets of rights, while the bargains that produce electoral democracy generate only the first two. 

Democratic transitions rely on the resolution of conflict between the elite and the masses. Our central message is that in the presence of additional cleavages — identity cleavages in particular — this resolution does little, in general, to promote liberal politics. The stars must be aligned just right for liberal democracy to emerge. The rarity of liberal democracy is not surprising.

I am thinking about this on the day of the Democratic primary in California (with the AP announcing Hilary’s victory before the vote). I am also thinking about the transitions going on in Viet Nam.

Here, the Hilary supporters are going for an electoral win that unites the elite and the majority. The majority in our case refers to the majority of people who vote, who are predominantly middle class as compared to poor and/or ethnic minority. The minority means people who may be the most in number (“the 99%”) but who either have never exercised voting  power equivalent to their numbers, or who have been systematically excluded from political power by voter suppression, such as we have seen in the recent primaries. Focusing on the preferences of the majority cuts out the needs of the minority, which include basic public goods such as universal healthcare, public transportation, safe drinking water and free higher education, for example. (I am thinking of the roads, electricity, schools and water that we saw in the villages in Sapa.) These are all on the list that Bernie makes, in every speech.

Hilary has made common cause between the majority and the elite and their money, but the race is tight enough that they – Hilary’s campaign –  doesn’t trust the vote; they send the AP to go do a survey of super delegates and pre-empt the outcome of today’s primary. This is why Bernie talks about his campaign as being a political revolution.

I would say that in the US, we have property rights and limited political rights but not civil rights — not as long as the police can shoot people and nothing happens to them; not as long as we have the death penalty and “detainees” in Guantanamo. But a regime that lacks civil rights is an electoral, il-liberal democracy: majority rule and the hell with the rest of you. Or it can be a right-wing autocracy, which is what Trump is going for — property rights only, no civil rights and no electoral rights.

Mukand and Rodrick write out these relationships using Greek symbols and equations, and then chart them on x-y axes in order to show where the possible zones converge that allow alliances and compromises. I am not actually sure how they can do this without using numbers. But their conclusions — they show that the zone of alliance that can pull the minority and majority together against the elite is small –is provocative. It mainly shows how hard it is  (and thus what a great job Bernie’s campaign has been doing).

So what kind of democracy is taking place in Viet Nam? At the end of the American war, I think Viet Nam was what Mukand and Rodrik would call a political regime organized as “democratic communism” which means a political system that respects civil rights and political rights but not property rights. Is it an electoral democracy today? I am not a good judge of the way voting takes place in Viet Nam. I have had it described to me, and I have seen evidence of Party Congresses, and I know that a certain small number of non-Party people participate in a National Assembly which is elected every 5 years and in turn elects the President, but I do not really know how it works or what what you have to do or be in order to participate. So I can’t comment further on the “political rights” aspect. Also, I am only too aware of how distorted political rights are here in the US to be a judge of what goes on in Viet Nam. So, let’s start with democratic communism. Probably beginning with doi moi in 1986, Viet Nam began to move toward recognizing property rights; businesses could be privately owned, etc. Even today, all the land in Viet Nam is owned by the government or the nation, and is leased out for use. So, with the spread of property rights, does Viet Nam become a liberal democracy (where civil rights, political rights and property rights all combine?) or a liberal autocracy, where the masses of people have civil rights and property rights, but few political rights?

All of these are on a spectrum, all of them are in transition (because there is a struggle going on over all of them) and all of them tangle together like plot lines in a novel. The current election has surfaced many issues that were treated as concerns of the minority; it turns out that inequality has increased so much that now they are majority issues, too. This  mainly means that the fight will get tougher, or, as Bernie says, “The struggle continues.”

Barn attic

I went up into the attic of the barn to measure the dimensions of a chair to have cushions made. This chair was used by my grandfather when he was a student at Amherst College in 1900. After I took the measurements, and realized that the chair itself may be too fragile to be used even if it gets re-glued, I decided to proceed with a major project that I engage in every time I come to Vermont: opening another box.

The first box I opened contained 6 or 8 matched volumes of works by Victor Hugo in red bindings. Some were sections of Les Miserables. There was also The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Han of Iceland, and Ninety-Three, which I’d never heard of. I took these down to the house and read quite a bit of Ninety-Three, which means 1793 and is about the counter-revolution invasion of France, supported by England, that attempted to overthrow the government set up by the French Revolution. Long speeches by leaders on the aristocrat and revolutionary sides express conflicting world views exhaustively.

The second box contained letters from my father to his mother.

It looks as  if they cover the years 1930 – 1939. Many letters back from her as well, and some from his sister Talitha. I had no idea these existed. A year’s worth of reading, if such a thing is imaginable.

The third box contained vertical files labeled Viet Nam, Cuba, China, etc. They are full of newspaper, newsletter and magazine articles. Here are some photos  of the April 7, 1967 issue of LIFE magazine that had a spread of photos by Lee Lockwood taken during a month-long visit to North Viet Nam earlier that year.

Life cover

Life photo villages

Life Mag prisoners

Life photos Hanoi

We will go through all this, thinking about what might be of value at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC.



Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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