Almost 35 years after the end of the Viet Nam War, anti-communist sentiments are still strong and loud in the Vietnamese American community. I’ve written about incidents in which anything that can be interpreted as even vaguely sympathetic of the communist regime in Viet Nam results in someone or some organization accused of being communist. I’ve also written a more detailed chapter of anti-communism among Vietnamese Americans in a book titled Anti-Communist Minorities in the U.S.: Political Activism of Ethnic Refugees, coming out in June 2009.

In a new twist in this ongoing legacy of the Viet Nam War, as reported in the Vietnamese language newspaper Nguoi Viet Tay Bac and reprinted by New America Media, a Vietnamese American accused of being communist has just won a lawsuit against other Vietnamese Americans for slander:

Those outside the Vietnamese community may see the defendants’ accusations of communist sympathies as modern day McCarthyism. But in this case, both the defendants and plaintiffs have fought against actual communists during the Second Indochina War.

All those interviewed invoked a word commonly used among the Vietnamese émigré community to describe the act of accusing someone of communist sympathies: chụp mũ. As this trial brought to light, chụp mũ is a widespread practice among Vietnamese community leaders. However, it is very rare for a person who has been chụp mũ to sue his/her accusers.

“Many people in our community have been chụp mũ, but they don’t dare go to court,” the plaintiff Duc Tan said. “Everyone wants to forget or to make amends instead of going to court. But we couldn’t tolerate it any longer. We had to take a stand, to file a lawsuit.” . . .

Also real are the fears of becoming vulnerable to chụp mũ if one decides to be a leader in the Vietnamese community activities. Duc Tan said one of the reasons he decided to sue was because he saw that “young people were scared to take part in community organizing, weary of the politics around chụp mũ.” . . .

The defense lawyer said that his clients were exercising their freedom of speech. . . . The prosecutor Gregory Rhodes said the defendants “presented their opinions as statement of facts.” “This wasn’t just defamation,” said Rhodes. “These were downright lies and for the defendants to do this was so callous and extremely sad for the whole community.”

As I describe in my chapter mentioned above and as any Vietnamese American can attest to, politics and community activism is a contact sport in the Vietnamese American community. Sentiments, loyalties, and accusations can fly indiscriminately and can turn on a dime. As another example of this ethnic turmoil, San Jose Councilwoman Madison Nguyen recently defeated attempts by a group of Vietnamese American constituents to recall her, many of whom enthusiastically supported her election several years prior.

I find it ironic that, in my academic research and my personal experiences, the Vietnamese American community seems to have both some of the highest levels of ethnic solidarity among all Asian American ethnic groups, but as incidents like these illustrate, some of the deepest and most volatile divisions and differences as well. If nothing else, these divisions among Vietnamese Americans obliterates the stereotype that all Vietnamese Americans, let alone all Asian Americans, are the same.

On this specific issue of individual freedoms, my opinion has always been that Vietnamese Americans certainly have rights to freedom of expression. Their experiences as refugees of a costly and controversial war that ultimately cast out of their homeland are very real, have left many emotional and physical scars, and it is understandable that many have strong emotions associated with communism as a result.

At the same time, there is a limit to such expressions. As the saying goes, “With freedom comes responsibility.” As citizens of the U.S., Vietnamese Americans should remember that verbal criticisms and mass demonstrations are perfectly legitimate expressions of dissent, but threats and acts of violence are not, nor are defamation and slander. The laws of this country are clear and there are no exceptions, regardless of how angry one feels or one’s level of past suffering.

Following up on his recent nomination of Eric Shinseki to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Barack Obama has named another Asian American — Steven Chu — to be his Secretary of Energy. As news outlets report, Professor Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics and is the latest Asian American political trailblazer:

Chu, [director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory], shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics and is a former chairman of the physics department at Stanford University in California and head of the electronics research laboratory at Bell Labs.

The Lawrence Berkeley Web site says Chu was an early advocate for finding scientific solutions to climate change and has guided the laboratory on a new mission to become the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy.

I have to be honest again and admit that I had not heard of Professor Chu before today but nonetheless, as always, I trust Barack Obama’s judgment and based on Professor Chu’s recent accomplishments, I have no doubt that he would be an excellent choice.

More specifically, I am also very pleased to see that President-Elect Obama has chosen an academic for a cabinet position. I have long been an advocate for making academic research and data relevant and accessible to as wide of an audience as possible. This very website and blog is my modest attempt to make good on that promise.

Hopefully this position as Secretary of Energy will be an opportunity for Professor Chu to use his expertise to apply academic knowledge to address real-world issues. In other words, knowledge isn’t much good unless it’s turned into action.

Congratulations to Professor Steven Chu and I wish him the best success.