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Identity Politics at its Nadir: the Viet Cong Controversy

Although we shouldn't be shocked that the limitations of identity politics has reached its nadir, it has definitely reached its point of self-destructing ignorance in the case of the recent furor over the name of the indie band Viet Cong.  As I've argued before, identity politics is the result of a valid impulse to deal with the problematic of sites of oppression that were not theorized by traditional marxism, and yet ended up becoming a set politics with serious limitations.  In the case of this Viet Cong "controversy" (which is also, to be honest, a hipster tempest in a tea cup, but still revealing), however, we have a case where an identity politics discourse is left in form but right in essence.

To summarize: the band Viet Cong wanted to play a DIY art space in Toronto, "Double Double Land", and was told they couldn't because one of the artists who runs this site, Jon McCurley, found their name offensive.  He described the name as a "joke at [his] expense," because he has family members who were killed in the Vietnam war by the actual (and not the post-punk) Viet Cong.  It's unclear whether McCurley is Vietnamese, or whether his family members were part of the US imperialists, but that's besides the point.  Indeed, the article goes on and on about the victims of the Viet Cong, and how it is disgusting for a band of white folks to name themselves after an organization that was traumatic for those who were its victims.  The entire tone of the article uses a left-wing rhetoric of racist cultural appropriation, angered that a white band would call itself Viet Cong.  If the reader knew nothing about the Viet Cong, and was ignorant of history as the writer and the complainants seem to be, then it would read as anti-racist.  Like some white Canadian asshole decided to name his band "Kataeb" or some equally dodgy shit.

Except we're talking about the Viet Cong.  Not some fascist third world grouping, but a People's Army that succeeded in beating back American Imperialism.

The Indie band that unfortunately…

…doesn't understand that it should be endorsing this.

Hell, when I saw the headline of this shitty Exclaim article––written by someone who clearly has no grasp on history but thinks they're a leftist (while clearly being a reactionary)––I initially thought it was a critique of how the band in question was problematic because they called themselves "Viet Cong" out of some fetishization of a third world movement.  "We need an exotic name to be cool: let's call ourselves Viet Cong!"  And though, as I will discuss below, this is probably (and sadly) the reason why the band in question chose this name, it is far more reprehensible that the reason why it was being lambasted was not for this problem of exoticization; it was because of a clearly right-wing (though conceptualized, thanks to the terminology of identity politics, as left) disgust of the Viet Cong.

The fact that the article claims that the name "Viet Cong" is "loaded with a history of violence and trauma" is enough to indicate that its understanding of history is one that sides with imperialism.  Let's be clear: the violence and trauma signalled by the Viet Cong is only the violence and trauma experienced by imperialists and their running dogs.  It is entirely laughable, and extremely surreal, that there is even a controversy over this issue in an article that uses nominally anti-racist lingo to justify its contempt of a band that would dare to name itself in the memory of a people's army that successfully repelled US imperialism.  Loaded with a history of violence and trauma?  How about the violence and trauma inflicted on Vietnam by the US invasion that the Viet Cong successfully repelled.  Hilariously, the article mentions how someone who does "anti-racist work in Toronto" is offended by the name because she volunteered at an orphanage in Vietnam and "met children born with defects as a result of their parents being exposed to Agent Orange during the war."  Apparently this person wonders how the band would think of their name if they volunteered at the same orphanage.  I've got news for you, person who does "anti-racist work in Toronto": your work is shit if you have no understanding of imperialism––meaning, if you blame Agent Orange on the Viet Cong.  Read some history: it was the US who was dropping Agent Orange and Napalm on the country and the Viet Cong that was fighting against this.  Blaming the victims is pretty far from anti-racist work, so your anti-racist activities are complete garbage: especially if you are offended by those who fought against the racist imperialist intervention in the global peripheries.

The actual Viet Cong, because of its ability to repel the most vicious imperialist intervention, was once successful in rallying an entire generation of anti-imperialists around its activities: hence the New Left of the late 1960s.  Not just white folks "culturally appropriating" the activities of the Viet Cong but also Black Nationalists––hell, even MLK spoke out in support of their resistance.  To call yourself an "anti-racist activist" and be offended by the name of a resistance movement that once possessed such historical importance is beyond ignorant.

Oh yeah, and the Viet Cong, being a people's army, represented the majority of the Vietnamese population who were part of this large army because they were being attacked.  The truth is that if you go to Vietnam and ask about the Viet Cong, the majority of people will speak of them as heroic because the majority of people had family members who faced down US aggression and succeeded in defeating this aggression.  Seriously, I challenge this anti-racist activist mentioned in the above article, regardless of her probably conservative Vietnamese-Canadian family, to be honest about her visit to Vietnam.  To speak to the people in these orphanages and ask them what they thought about the Viet Cong.  This isn't really a controversial point: anyone who has spent any time living in Vietnam knows that the majority of the population, regardless of their criticisms of the current government, generally agree on two things about their political history: i) the Viet Cong was a people's army that defeated the United States (they even have popular museums about this); ii) Uncle Ho is pretty awesome.

But forget these concrete facts: this identity politics discourse gets even better.  In the aforelinked article, parallels are drawn between the band Viet Cong and the band Joy Division.  The latter used a name that was associated with fascism, which was clearly inappropriate, and so somehow the former––which uses a name that was once symbolic of the international struggle against world imperialism––is the same?  The entire content of the politics represented by these names disappears.  More names are mobilized and homogenized, such as the Gang of Four.  But then identity politics, as an approach to organizing and an incoherent ideology, was never interested in political content: invested in the level of appearance it would eventually end up participating in a flattening of the discourse, where fascists and communists are supposedly the same, where it's progressive to support imperialism as "anti-racist."  This is a discourse that claims the name Viet Cong is a "trigger" and claims, without any substantiation, that the Viet Cong [and not the American imperialists, mind you] were responsible for "atrocities upon civilians during the Vietnam War." What. The. Fuck.

Unfortunately, however, it became clear that the band Viet Cong probably did choose to name itself thus because of some unreflective exoticization.  They did not respond to the critiques by blasting their critics for being pro-imperialist, supporters of the US intervention, or representatives of a comprador driven from Vietnam (like extremely reactionary Miami Cubans who complain about the image of Che).  Instead, proving that they never really thought about the meaning of the name they adopted, they're going to change it.  Of course, it doesn't really help when all of their supporters are arguing that they shouldn't change their name merely because of liberal free speech. (From a member of the Gang of Four, also treated as "offensive" because, you know, they named themselves after a group that, despite its problems, resisted Deng's coup.)

In the end, the author of initial Exclaim article, who fancies herself a progressive despite the fact that she thinks the resistance to US imperialism in Vietnam is "offensive", declaimed: "This has been an annoying task. Johnston, Hay and anyone with an anti-racist understanding will tell you that it's not my job to educate others on racism.  Nor is it the responsibility of any Vietnamese person to explain why the name Viet Cong is racist.  Instead of working on my band's new album, I have been exhausting my time collecting stories and facts for this article. It's hard to focus when your peers and your greater community, whom you'd like to think are progressive, lack the level of empathy and critical thinking you expect."  Ha-fucking-ha: yes, this entire statement is laughable in its reactionary content masquerading as progressive: really, April Aliermo, why don't you join Harper's Conservative Party now and frequent those anti-communist memorials they've been promoting?  Because here's the real take away: anyone with "an anti-racist understanding" are not the ignorant petty-bourgeois shits you've referenced in your article because, when it comes to the Viet Cong, history is clear on the fact that the Viet Cong represented a concrete anti-racist offensive to extremely racist and baby-killing US aggression.  And you're right, no Vietnamese person should have to explain why the name Viet Cong is "racist" because the vast majority of Vietnamese people in Vietnam would think it was racist to malign the Viet Cong.  Good job, though, using an identity politics discourse to abdicate your responsibility for actually investigating history––your "stories and facts" for your article are an imperialist (read racist) joke because if you're attacking the Viet Cong in this way then you're also celebrating US aggression.  (Let's go back to the 1960s for a moment where all of those white supremacist rallies were screaming "bomb Hanoi" and spitting on the Viet Cong.  Are they your friends?)  I'm really sorry that our peers don't understand you, but the fact is that you're the one who is not progressive, and you're the one who lacks any critical thinking or empathy.  Oh, I'm sure you empathize with right wing dissidents, representatives of the compradori, who fled to a capitalist country, but you really don't give a shit for the Vietnamese people who, at the time and as a whole, were the Viet Cong.  Fuck your pseudo-progressive discourse.


  1. One point, however. Viet Cong is a slur. The real name is National Liberation Front.

    1. Take your point re NLF but VC was not complete slur - it was short for Vietnamese Communists. Lal salaam,

  2. “Viet Cong” was used by the US and came from “Việt Nam Cộng sản” or “Việt gian cộng sản” used by Sài Gòn and the anti-Communist South Vietnamese. “Viet Cong” is derogatory and a slur.

    1. Yes, this was already discussed above. Doesn't really change the point of this article, though. The problem that some people had with the band was not that it was using a slur for the NLF but that the NLF was bad in itself.


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