(9/19/15: UPDATE: three days after publishing this piece, the band announced it was changing its name. I can only assume it was because of this writing, haha. For real, though, respect to all of the organizers and advocates who made noise about this)
…they explained that their name came from a moment when their bass player was holding his instrument like a weapon. One of them remarked, “All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.” (source)
You may or may not already know: there’s this band called Viet Cong. And you also may or may not know: that name is offensive to a whole lot of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian people.
They’re about to play First Ave. here in Minneapolis, and here’s the petition asking/demanding: “change your band’s name, and provide more critical thought into whatever it is that you choose.”
I signed it, and I’d encourage you to sign it too. I’ll share a few further thoughts below, but I’d suggest people first check out the text of the petition (“The name is a reminder of a history’s worth of violence and trauma to many Southeast Asian communities…”), and also read these links for some background info and commentary:
- Angry Asian Man: Meet the Four White Dudes Who Call Themselves “Viet Cong”
- Sang Nguyen at Impose Magazine: Dear Viet Cong
- Charles Lam at City Pages: Viet Cong is a Stupid Band Name
- Slant Eye for the Round Eye: When You Name Your Band “Viet Cong” Prepare to Get Banned
- April Aliermo: Not Yours to Play With: Why Viet Cong’s Name Offends
I can hear the questions already. Here are my answers, for what they’re worth:
1. Everyone’s always so angry about things that don’t matter. Why is this an issue?
If this is your first response, the odds are good that you’re someone who doesn’t have any kind of connection to or history with the real-life Viet Cong. And shouldn’t that be enough? Shouldn’t this think-piece just be able to end there? Why do we constantly ask people who are harmed by something to provide a ten-page report with pie graphs and statistics “proving” that their feelings are valid? If thousands of people are offended by something, it’s an issue.
2. Who are you to dictate what is or isn’t offensive?
No one gets to “dictate” what anyone thinks about anything. Literally no one is petitioning the government to force the band to change its name. That would be censorship. I absolutely believe the band should be free to call themselves that. I also absolutely believe that all of us should be free to call them out on their ignorant-ass band name. Organizers putting pressure on the band to choose to change their name is an act of free speech.
3. Shouldn’t art (especially rock) be controversial and push boundaries?
Yes, it should. But let’s not assume that all controversies are equal. If your band were called “Donald Trump’s Head on a Pike,” or “The Chopadickoffs,” those names would be controversial and offensive (to some), but they would also be making some kind of statement. “Viet Cong” is not making a statement. The band has admitted this: “When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about… We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.”
Is that punk rock? What boundary is being pushed here? What greater truth is this controversial name pushing us toward?
When asked about Viet Cong, Gang of Four’s Andy Gill said “as soon as you get into… taking it upon yourself to decide what’s ok and what is not, you are acting in an illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive way.” This fails to acknowledge that our silence is also a form of “deciding what’s ok and what is not,” especially when that silence is weaponized and aimed at a population that has been made all but invisible in North American popular culture and politics. What is “illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive” is telling a group of marginalized people to shut up because you don’t personally identify with their cause.
4. It’s just a band name. Aren’t there more important things to organize around?
This argument is never constructive. It’s never “hey you’re all talking about this but I’m working on this project over here and would love your support;” it’s always “hey you’re all talking about this but I don’t care about it so shut up.”
In short, yes, there are more important things to organize around. But this is the wrong question to ask. Because people can care about– and organize around– more than one thing at a time. Because public protests build on one another. Because the people who are loudest about these “little things” are often the same people who are most effective when it comes to the “big things.” Because media-focused protests like this are jumping-on points for young activists interested in building their skills. And finally: because there is a connection between the erasure of Asian and Asian-American stories/histories from the larger conversation and the erasure of Asian and Asian-American voices and bodies from the spaces in which power flows and policy is made.
Small battles are not distractions from big ones. They’re practice.
This is a weirdly personal story for me, in that I’m Asian-American (Japanese + Norwegian + etc.), my in-laws are Vietnamese, I’m an artist with a confusingly appropriative stage name, and I study intersections of art/media and social justice. So I’m trying to stay objective here.
It’s just that whenever a community makes noise about an issue– like the Washington NFL team, racist Halloween costumes, rape jokes, Miss Saigon, and on and on– we hear these same arguments, over and over, and it’s frustrating to see certain people putting so much energy into defending things that are so garbage. None of these controversies are major issues in the same way that, say, racial inequity in education is a major issue. But what so many fail to see is that this fact damns Viet Cong a lot more than it damns the organizers making noise about this. If it’s really “not that big of a deal,” then change the name. We’re only going to get louder.
I will update this post with any new information about the band’s MPLS appearance. Huge shout out to VSA at the U of MN. In the meantime, feel free to leave any thoughts or comments.
- More current events: At this link, 19 writers (including Bao Phi, Franny Choi, and more!) respond to Michael Derrick Hudson’s appropriation of the name “Yi-Fen Chou” and subsequent inclusion in the 2015 Best American Poetry collection.
- 8 Invalid Arguments Regarding Pop Culture
- Responding to Common Arguments About What Is or Isn’t Offensive