[QA’s Q&A] #1: Should the money spent on Hanoi’s 1000th anniversary go towards flood victims?

Ấy nghĩ sao về vấn đề Đại Lễ và số tiền nhà nước bỏ ra, và về argument là đáng lẽ ra nên spend số tiền đó vào lũ lụt miền Trung?
Tớ nghe rất nhiều ý kiến phản bác vấn đề Đại Lễ, mà thực sự tớ thấy rất khó chịu. Dù gì thì gì, để tồn tại được suốt 1000 năm thủ đô Hà Nội là một điều đáng tự hào, và dù ít hay nhiều, Việt Nam cũng đang thay đổi theo hướng tốt lên, chẳng lẽ ko đáng để celebrate sao? Chẳng lẽ không được tổ chức? Tổ chức đại lễ là một nét văn hóa, và chả có gì là sai. Việc giữ gìn và phát triển văn hóa là một cách để strengthen state legitimacy, và thiếu đi cái legitimacy đấy thì state làm sao mạnh được (*). Tự nhiên miền Trung có lũ lụt thì thành ra Đại Lễ có tội? Pháo hoa nổ cũng là do lỗi của Đại Lễ? Nói thế ko khác j tội của thằng ăn trộm là do mẹ nó sinh ra một thằng ăn trộm cả?

– Trang

Okay. Here comes the first installment of the QA’s Q&A series. Since the issues asked and discussed are often a pressing concern of the inquirers, I will spare you (most of) the literary garnish and be as succinct as possible.


Dear bạn Trang,

As any fair mind would readily concede, the 1000th anniversary celebration has no causal link whatsoever to the predicament that our flood victims face. That is to assume, of course, that the massive expenditure of the celebration does not in any ways adversely affect the funding for disaster relief (which is, in my humble opinion, a reasonable assumption, given the fact that the anniversary has been planned in advance, and that disaster relief has always had its own allocation.)  Therefore, as cold-hearted as it may sound, we must get this one point clear: halting the celebration does not help the victims.

A critic would barely be able to hold his protest at this point: “It may not affects the victims materially. But emotionally? Wouldn’t they feel abandoned and neglected? And wouldn’t we feel guilty and irresponsible?”

Of course, feelings are real. However, whereas logic is true universally and a priori, public sentiment is socially constructed, and thus able to be reconstructed. (Think about cultures that celebrate instead of grieving the loss of a loved one. That’s an example of how norms and values are constructed, and constructed differently.) Thus, even though it seems utmost natural to feel guilty about having fun while someone suffers, there is no logical authority that compels us to feel so.

Such mistaking socially constructed norms for moral obligation is not rare, and by no means unique to Vietnam. After the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, many vacationers felt uneasy about going on their cruise trip, sipping tequila sunrise, and getting tanned on the beach that is only 2 miles away from dying and starving Haitians. Some considered Dominican Republic instead (which is farther away from the disturbing locale), as if spatial distancing can somehow lift their actions to a moral superiority.

On such irrational reactions, Arthur Applbaum, a Harvard University professor of ethics and public policy, said that while it shows “moral sensitivity to be disturbed by the thought that one is vacationing on the beach when others are suffering nearby … it also shows insufficient moral reflection to think that proximity makes a moral difference.”

“The people of Haiti are suffering whether you take your beach vacation in the Dominican Republic or in Hawaii,” he said, “and it is a failure of the moral imagination not to be equally troubled in Waikiki.”

Just as spatial proximity does not make a moral difference, neither does temporal proximity. Whether you hold celebration before, during, or after the suffering does not change anything. If you had agreed on the desirability of the celebration before, it is only logically consistent to do the same now, regardless of the flooding.

At this point a nuance must be introduced to cure the inkling that all of you must have right now. I did say that public sentiment can be reconstructed – however, such reconstruction is not without cost, indeed, not without tremendous cost. To squarely assert that the flood victims can simply stop feeling abandoned is to overlook such cost. Thus, even though to defy the unyielding logic in favor of the constructable sentiment is never wise, it is necessary to internalize the emotional cost into our calculus. Hence, the best solution for the situation, in my humble opinion, is to go ahead with the celebration, and make some empathetic accommodation towards the victims (e.g. cut back and transfer some of the expenditures.) As far as I know, this is what the Vietnamese government has appropriately done.

After all, being able to shed many tears for the despaired while sticking with rational decision is not a sign of hypocrisy, but a display of cool-headed wisdom. As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”


Methodological Appendix:

To facilitate criticism, I would reiterate here my assumptions and my conclusion.

I conclude that: we should go ahead with the celebration, and make some empathetic accommodation towards the victims (e.g. cut back and transfer some of the expenditures.)
I assume that:
1. The massive expenditure of the celebration does not in any ways adversely affect the funding for disaster relief.
2. The hypothetical critic agreed on the celebration before the flooding. The only source that sparks his current opposition is the flooding (not excessive spending, not extravagant self-display, etc.) That’s a totally different debate.

As can be seen, I consciously refrain from introducing assumptions (the second assumption essentially comes from the critic himself.) Trang’s line of argument has every potential to be a formidable stance, should she has the chance to fully flesh out and defend her claims (which she doesn’t here in the constrained space and format of an email.) May I humbly suggest, however, that in debates where instant fact-check is limited (i.e. forum debate, dinner conversation, etc.), it is still tactically wiser to 1) make as few unnecessary claims as possible (thus there are fewer links in your causal chain to cut), and 2) use the critic’s own evidence and exploit its logical incoherence (thus he can’t deny via factual disagreement, which is hard to test.) A critic may easily contest your claims that “Việt Nam cũng đang thay đổi theo hướng tốt lên” or thatTổ chức đại lễ là một nét văn hóa, và chả có gì là sai.” I’m not saying that he’s right – but he will surely be able to drag the debate out for days on end (which is what always happens on every forum and comment section.)


Got a question? Ask away at anh.le91 @ gmail.com

  1. Minh Trinh said:

    A person’s birthday is always worth celebrate; a person’s 1000th even more so, let alone a city’s. That being said, the biggest problems critics find in Dai Le seem to be related to its scale and grandeur. “At what cost?” – the taxpayer asks, as he understandably has no way to weigh the benefits of such a celebration. The catastrophe came, conveniently yet certainly not fortunately, and presented itself as a benchmark. The government’s response to the catastrophe has a very perceivable ‘benefit”: saving lives, yet the resources allotted to reap this benefit hardly equals part of the Dai le budget (in an article I saw circulating on facebook, whoever in charge was reluctant to send 2 copters to the flood victims’ aid, which disturbingly contrasts with the legions of planes deployed to take part in Dai le).

    When one of the twin kids get little to spend on something he would deeply cherish, while the other get to spend hundreds times more on something else with obscure value, parents will have to question themselves. As citizens, we are similarly justified to question: Is Dai Le really worth (proportionately) hundreds times more than the lives that could have been saved? Either too little has been spent on response and recovery efforts, or too much has been on Dai le. Both would be fitting reason to get seriously angry.

    While I agree with your first assumption, I don’t think the second one stands. The reason disapproval of Dai le has not been raised before the flood was, I believe, the critics’ desire to conform and reluctance to challenge “cac bac’s ” grand scheme. Among residents of other cities like, say, HCMC or Hai Phong (^^), complaints of Dai le have long circulated. But they only surface when at last an unfortunate disaster provides the public with a measurable justification to disapprove.

    Halting or downscaling Dai Le, therefore, makes some political sense. The decision may makes no rational sense, but I think it is a move well made. Also, can’t help pointing out how the phao hoa explosion ended up simplifying things a lot.

    Okay, back to work. Hen anh sau nhe ^^

    • anhqle said:

      If a critic objects dai le based on its scale and grandeur, then I admit (as I clearly pointed out), that this entry does not address such arguments at all. I’m only addressing the people who did not have any problem with dai le, until the flooding happened. Surely enough, had the flooding not coincided with the celebration, the public outrage would be much more tamed. All I’m saying is that the diverging reactions, before and after the flooding, are not rational and consistent.

      Personally, I looked askance at the massive expenditures of dai le as well. Even though I support the stance that dai le should be downsized, I’m still compelled (as a nerd) to point out the logical incoherence within the argument of the people on my own side: if one agrees with the first assumption, then the unfortunate flooding is irrelevant to whether dai le should be downsized or not.

      That said, there are logical rules, and then there are political rules (about which you graciously remind us). As you pointed out, people in other cities must have been quite annoyed with dai le (for reasons other than the flooding.) But the public sentiment needed a spark – and the flooding comes in handy.

      So I must lay down right now a disclaimer: my presented argument is, obviously, a terrible description of reality, and gives absolute no insight into public behaviors. If you’re seeking those two goals, take Minh’s interpretation of the event. Mine is just a fun exercise of logic.

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