The Sympathizer

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.

So begins The Sympathizer, the confession of a prisoner. Although Nguyen withholds the context of the interrogation until the end of the novel, we quickly learn that the narrator received CIA training as the aide to a general in charge of the South Vietnamese secret police, all the while working as a mole for North Vietnam.

The novel’s plot quickly kicks into high gear as the narrator arranges, sometimes at gunpoint, for the general, his family, and staff to flee Saigon as the North Vietnamese army approached. This access also allows him to secure a seat on the plane for one of his two sworn brothers, Bon, whose fervor in fighting for South Vietnam promises him a future of hard labor. The other, Man, is his handler.

The first stop from Saigon is a camp on Guam and then on to Los Angeles where the refugees try to pick up the pieces in America. Some adjust. The narrator secures work at the school where he studied as an exchange student, builds relationships with women, and even picks up work as a consultant on a blockbuster Hollywood film about the war, based on Apocalypse Now. Others do not. With neither family nor country, Bon descends to alcoholism and the general opens a liquor store that he uses as a front to raise money, plot a return to Vietnam, and eliminate anyone who threatens his cause. Of course, the narrator continues to report on these movements with letters relayed through Man’s aunt in Paris, at least until the General organizes his return to Vietnam.

The Sympathizer is in many ways an inversion of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which similarly explores issues of identity and colonialism. Where Greene’s novel follows the story of Alden Pyle, an American CIA agent working against communism in Vietnam, Nguyen’s narrator works from the opposite direction, while holding an ambiguous position between the two. The illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a French priest, the narrator literally straddles the line between east and west, and he declares as a point of pride that he can pass for American over the phone even as Americans talk down to him. From this heart, the theme radiates from him like an aura, extending to his two blood brothers who are equally balanced to either side and the General’s concern that his oldest daughter is becoming too Americanized with her singing career to find a proper Vietnamese husband.

However, this core theme works by offering several different types of conflict and preventing it from striking just one note. The narrator has both types of expected conflict as a refugee double agent, trying to fit in in the new country while not getting caught, but his sexual relationship with the Japanese-American secretary at Occidental College and a competitive one with a Vietnamese reporter he knew when they studied there introduce issues of representation of Asian Americans and rivalry. Similarly, his parentage offers a recurring conflict because while he is a useful asset he is neither sufficiently dedicated to the cause to be integrated into the Communist society nor a proper-enough Vietnamese man to warrant a good marriage.

I found The Sympathizer a good, but somewhat unspectacular novel for most of its length. There are excellent individual scenes, including the sheer terror of trying to escape Saigon, but, on its own, this close focus on the narrator’s reflection of his own identity struck me as somewhat prone to navel-gazing. Where Nguyen earned all of his plaudits was in the final section of this novel. The final seventy-odd pages of The Sympathizer pull back to reveal the circumstances under which the narrator is writing, which, in turns adds layers of depth and meaning to the 306-page confession of a man without a country.


I have fallen behind on writing about books I’ve finished, in equal parts because of other writing commitments, complacency of summer, and not being inspired enough to write speedy reviews. I have been reading, though, blowing through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay We Should All be Feminists, dragging myself through Rachel Kushner’s The Firestarters, and working through Mark Kurlansky’s Salt at a pace somewhere between those two. I still hope to write about some of my backlog, but given that my guiding principle on this site is to write what and when I am inspired to say something, we’ll see what I actually do.

I am now most of the way through Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos, the first of his Marseille Trilogy.

What does it mean to learn from history?

George Floyd’s murder hit me hard on a number of levels. On a personal level, Minneapolis is my favorite US city, and one where I have both friends and family. On a philosophical one, I am a humanist numb from the colossal disregard for human life in that moment and all that came before. On a political one, the instinct from some circles, including the police and some elected officials, to crush protestors with an iron fist smacks of a turn toward totalitarianism.

My training and background as a historian informs my response on each level. Although my work does not focus on this hemisphere, let alone the past century, I read and teach widely and am always struck both by the historical roots of the systemic problems that surround race-constructs in the United States. This means, among others, the racist roots of policing, the artificial, racist origins of segregated neighborhoods through policies such as redlining, and how the construct of who gets to be white evolved to conscript white-skinned immigrants into the cause of institutional white supremacy.

The first two are obvious, the third is more insidious and leads, in my opinion, to internal contradictions such as many Jews benefitting from White Supremacy and some seeking to reinforce it even while torch-lit marchers chant “Jews will not replace us.”

History is not static, consisting of statues or events frozen in amber with a clear, unambiguous meaning. For one thing, the meaning of both statues and events are contingent, and claims to the contrary are meant to delegitimize challenges to the political status quo. But my assertion that history is not static goes beyond the simple fact that history lives and gets revivified in memory. Rather, history consists of dynamic processes and developments. Named people and events offer concrete case studies that illuminate developments and dates give context, but neither are an end in their own right, whatever the caricatures of history class might suggest.

No class, and certainly no survey class, has time to exhaustively cover every civil rights incident, so teachers choose a few incidents to highlight as representative—the lynching of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Brown vs the Board of Education, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Summer, Selma, the March on Washington, the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., maybe having students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi—before moving on to the next topic.

In my US History courses I also spend time looking at propaganda with students that includes a Soviet cartoon from 1930 with a black man lynched from the Statue of Liberty and a white Jesus figure depicted with what looks like a swastika in his halo, talk about the Tulsa massacre of 1921, and explore COINTELPRO, the FBI program that targeted, among others, Martin Luther King Jr.

We also spend time dealing with the history of immigration to the US, charting how immigrant food became mainstream and reading documents like a NY Times op-ed from Senator David A. Reed defending the implementation of the Johnson-Reed Act that cut off immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the grounds that they needed to defend America for their grandchildren from those non-white people thought to be flooding into the country. Today, of course, the descendants of many of those immigrants are counted as White Americans and have been co-opted into defending that privilege.

Teaching history comes down to political choices, no matter how it is taught. Historical examples drained of their vitality and set on a pedestal can be deployed to defend all sorts of malicious programs, which is one of the insidious problems behind the trope that we need to learn from history so as to not make the mistakes of the past. Even supposedly a-political history is laden with baggage that generally supports comfort and the status quo at the expense of justice.

Take a seemingly innocuous example: The Plessy v. Ferguson supreme court case in 1896 legalized Jim Crow segregation laws and is generally considered a bad decision, but if your story then charts a trajectory of progress that includes Truman desegregating the military in 1948, Brown v Board of Education desegregating schools in 1954, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as accomplished through the non-violent protests of Martin Luther King Jr. and co., never mind that King advocated confrontation and law-breaking, before drifting away until the election of an African-American president, then you offer a falsely triumphalist version of US history without dabbling in explicitly White Supremacist ideas.

Now, the example above is deliberately over-simplified and every version of this course I have seen at least punctuates the narrative with struggle (Rosa Parks), White opposition (Bull Connor; George Wallace), and murder (Emmett Till; King).

At the same time, there often seems to be reassuring triumphalism baked into how we sometimes talk about US history, as though the United States is obviously the greatest country on earth, so we should look to its earliest history for why that has always been true. The rest of its history, warts and all, simply explains how the US became even better, all the while leaving most of these terms undefined, thereby allowing for the doublethink assertion that the US now is the best country to ever exist and that it was better sometime in the past. This is a facile interpretation, but the US is hardly the only state afflicted by its circular logic. Johanna Hanink offers a really interesting discussion of how a similar process took hold in Ancient Athens in her book The Classical Debt.

I am not particularly interested in debating US greatness. In principle I’m onboard, in execution not so much. However, these triumphal versions of American history belie the processes at work such that every decade or two people can be once again shocked by a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Rodney King, Marquette Frye and Emmett Till, only to reach the same conclusions about what should be done before reverting to comfortable complacency and bigotry that puts the responsibility for civil rights on African Americans or blames them for conditions created by a history of racist institutions.

My courses are far from perfect and evolve as I develop as a historian, teacher, and person. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, which I hope will help me develop better vocabulary to express these different types of racism for if or when I am back in the classroom.

I hope this moment results in meaningful change, and certainly there seems like a groundswell of momentum, but when I watch institutions long steeped in both overt and covert racism resist accountability for their actions, corporations offer empty platitudes so that people will continue to buy their baubles often made and transported in exploitative conditions, and people continue to defend White Supremacy under various guises, I see the deep historical roots.

Learning history to avoid making the mistakes of the past is nice and all, but it is an empty sentiment. Hitler is bad and we shouldn’t try that experiment again, but too narrow a focus on Hitler and the death camps obscures centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, the complicity of the German population, how many Americans were outright sympathetic to the Nazi Regime, and how Adolf Hitler actively praised and emulated the Jim Crow regime . I think history is endlessly interesting and teaches skills like how to analyze sources, but, more immediately, learning to think historically means learning to think intersectionally in order to see how these interwoven threads create a larger tapestry.

Lessons from history are not the result of simple equations like [Adolf Hitler] + [wrote Mein Kampf] + [Nazi Party] = [don’t vote for him]. Rather, they force us to look at where and how White Supremacy has entrenched itself because the failure to grapple with and resolve those underlying processes creates the cycle where history appears to be repeating itself.


I am not as well read on Civil Rights as many people, but here are a few books that have particularly informed how I think about these issues. Nancy Isenberg is the only white author on this list, but her thesis about the perpetually unresolved issue of poor and marginalized whites has had tragic consequences for minorities, so I think it is worth considering here as well.

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

David Epstein, Range

My academic research focuses on ancient Greece, but I genuinely enjoy teaching beyond my specialty because my interests are broad an eclectic. I sometimes joke to my partner (who I met in graduate school) that the three areas I considered pursuing for graduate work in history were Ancient Greece, 18th-century naval warfare, and 20th century US diplomatic history. Recently I’ve wandered down rabbit holes into food history and have particularly been enjoying East and South Asian history. The idea of studying just one thing for the rest of my life sounds unbearably tedious and teaching a wide range of classes (or at least varying how I teach World History) is a convenient excuse to read more widely.

I don’t know that my eclectic reading habits or historical interests has particularly improved my scholarship, but it has certainly improved my teaching and writing, and caused the basic tenets of David Epstein’s Range to resonate with me.

Epstein opens with the comparison of Tiger and Roger, two accomplished athletes, one of whom was laser focused from infancy on his sport, the other who played everything except his sport for most of his childhood. Both excelled, but Epstein asks which success was more probable. Despite the intuitive expectation that the person who specialized his entire life (let’s call him Tiger) followed the “better” path, Epstein argues, Roger is a better model to follow. Where Tigers are very good at solving problems within a narrow field with predictable parameters, Rogers can catch up quickly and are are frequently more creative when adjusting to new environments or when facing fields without clearly defined rules.

In short, Epstein makes the case that in a world where an increasing number of well-defined tasks are automated and economic and social pressures push people toward specialization, we should actually be encouraging generalization.

I picked up range after listening to an interview with Epstein where he mostly talked about the value of cross-training, but while there are lessons there, I was a surprised how little discussion of sports there was in the book. Rather, Range is a broad manifesto that talks about everything from scientists and musicians to charity CEOs and game designers. As with many books of its ilk, Range uses concrete examples to offer concrete advice on leadership—promoting diversity, emphasizing communication over hierarchy, empowering employees—as well as useful life advice that taking the time to find your fit rather than locking in early produces better results all around.

In my opinion, though, both the strongest and weakest aspects of the book came down to what it said about education. Granted, as someone in the education field, everything starts to look that way. In addition to several explicit sections on teaching itself, Epstein swipes obliquely supposed outcomes of the education system throughout the book, taking aim at the suggestion that graduates need to specialize early and highlighting the perils of teaching to the test. I agreed in principle with everything Epstein highlights: test performance does not equal learning, efficiency is not a universal good, there is value in struggling to learn something. There are absolutely valuable lessons in terms of how we teach, but I nevertheless came away extremely frustrated with the presentation of education.

For instance, Epstein uses a personal anecdote from his MA thesis at Columbia where he says “I had committed statistical malpractice” because “I had a big database and hit a computer button to run a common statistical malpractice, never having been taught to think deeply (or at all) about how that statistical analysis even worked.” He follows up by quoting a statistician who says that the rush to produce research prohibits metacognition. In short, the specialization and speed interferes with the quality of the work, despite metacognition gaining increased traction in education circles. Similarly, he offers another anecdote about a primary school teacher asking students leading questions when they struggled to come up with the answers. Both of these anecdotes, and another about a professor critical of colleagues who only care about the interesting facts learned from years of increasingly narrow study (albeit while talking about Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx, and Nietzsche, which shows a certain…range), offer insight into the education system, but, to my mind, not quite what Epstein is going for.

The focus of Epstein’s critique is on the practitioners, rather than on the bad practices encouraged by the culture of credentialism and testing. When the a system requires teachers to prepare students for a standardized test or to publish in academic journals and funnel students into career tracks from early on in college, then the system creates the exact problem that Epstein rightly identifies. Moreover, Epstein makes the case that generalization is good for everyone, but it has the greatest utility for young people because it helps foster creativity, critical thinking, and allows them to find fields that fit their skills.

For as much as aspects of the presentation bothered me, Range is a compelling read. Epstein isn’t against specialization, but makes an important critique of dominant cultural trends that prioritize efficiency and specialization over taking the time to think and reflect across different fields.


I had hoped to finish Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer this weekend, but that was before protests against police violence and institutional racism erupted across the United States and then predictably escalated, often as the result of police action. I spent most of the weekend following local news from across the country.