Agent Orange, Apathy, and Meritocracy

During the Vietnam War, the US military used a mixture of herbicides–Agent Orange being the most infamous one–to thin out forests that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were possibly hiding in, as well as destroying crops that would sustain them. Otherwise known as Operation Ranch Hand, this event impacted Vietnam ecologically and socioeconomically, as well as inflicted major health effects on Vietnamese citizens and American veterans who were exposed to the herbicides. Symptoms ranged from miscarriages and birth defects to cancer and congenital malformation, all of which are still seen in new generations 50 years after the spraying. (Britannica, 2020)

Because of the repercussions, Vietnamese and American victims asked in multiple court cases for funds to help cover treatment costs and to fix the environmental impact left on Vietnam. In the New York Times article “The Forgotten Victims of Agent Orange,” Nguyen and Hughes explore the “disparities in funding” between the aid given to Americans ($13.3 billion) and what the Vietnamese received ($12 million). They establish that it is not a financial issue nor a lack of scientific evidence on the herbicides’ effects that are to blame for the United State’s reluctance. Instead, it is “the distance between American policymakers and the Vietnamese people,” with the Vietnamese being “too far removed from the American public, and too reminiscent of an unpopular war.” The distance is the apathy that lets the US government avoid taking full ownership of their participation in the Vietnam War despite its impact on people’s lives 50 years later.

Similarly, it is not that we lack the ability and resources to make our communities more accessible for people with disabilities or to take action against ableism: we simply choose not to out of apathy and in avoidance of guilt for our compliance. It is the meritocracy within our political system and overall cultural world that fosters this indifference towards the disabled community, and it is a concept that I would like to explore in this project.

In their article “The Mantra of Meritocracy,” Goodman and Kaplan establish Meritocracy as the “belief that our economy rewards the most talented and innovative, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status.” The core of the United States is built on this belief as seen with the iconic ‘American Dream’: if you work hard enough, then the sky is your only limit. Idealistically, it is meant to motivate the US citizens and provide a chance for them to transcend societal limitations that block them from prosperity.

Behind meritocracy’s facade, however, hides many pitfalls.

It insists that success depends on an individual’s actions, leading others to believe that it is the individual’s fault and no one else’s if the individual faces failure. This line of reasoning fails to take into consideration factors like home insecurity and “the subconscious operation of bias” (Goodman and Kaplan) that lock the underprivileged in tight situations and bar them from the resources that we have made mandatory for success. Concerning disabilities studies, the normative community often forgets that our society is built to only cater to non-disabled members, which creates obstacles for people with disabilities to maneuver around and makes it more difficult for them to ‘transcend’ societal boundaries. What is disabling is not the disability itself, but the world that the person with disabilities lives in, and meritocracy will never take count of that. Instead, the normative community blames it on them for not ‘trying hard enough’, adopting an indifferent attitude towards the struggles of the disabled community. A distance similar to the one between Vietnamese herbicide victims and American policymakers is created between the able-bodied and the disabled. It eradicates any urgency (out of guilt or compassion) to combat the ableism in our society or to promote accessibility that would provide more opportunities for people with disabilities.

Meritocracy also supports the problematic idea that one’s worth is equated to their productivity, which also creates the definition of what it means to have a disability. In Xu Dishan’s “Spring Peach” Li Mao loses the function of his legs after a war. Before the war, he was the center of attention and gained many opportunities–getting pursued as a potential husband and raising in military ranks–because of his extremely functional shooting skills. After the war, however, he becomes homeless because no places are willing to hire him. Li Mao even attempts suicide because he is unable to support his wife, the breadwinner of the household, making him ‘useless.’ He exists in a meritocratic world that values productivity above all else, and as a person with disabilities living in an unaccommodating environment, his worth is defined as little-to-none. Only when a person with disabilities is beneficial to the normative world are they deserving to succeed or even live with dignity, when it is in fact a human right. No matter if you eliminate the societal barriers that chain down the underprivileged, there will always be an inherent issue with how meritocracy endorses productivity as the definition of one’s worth.

Just as disabilities study is intersectional, so are the effects of meritocracy within the discourse of racial injustice. One way that the US has been able to ignore the struggles of people of color (especially Black and Indigenous communities) is through endorsing the model minority myth. It points to Asian Americans–mainly east Asians–as the ‘role model’ for other POC to follow since they have found stability and prosperity, fueling the stereotype of Asians being docile, hardworking, and valuing higher education because of their cultural background. They are the living proof of the rags-to-riches story and that the American Dream indeed exists. In comparison, stereotypes of other POC groups such as the Black and Indigenous communities are made to justify the difference in success rates among different races, depicting them as lazy, overly-aggressive, and/or uneducated. The US government and the more privileged population, in return, lack the urgency to address the inherent racism within the system. They believe that the real issue is rooted in people of color and that POCs just need to ‘sort it out and work harder’ to reap any benefits. However, the model minority myth is made with cherry-picked, positive instances and invalidates the struggles that Asian Americans (including west and south Asians) face such as poverty or colorism. Other minority groups are barred from success because of the systemic racism that pervades the country, such as the education system and law enforcement. Meritocracy and the model myth minority allow the US to avert their attention from the daily acts of racism faced by minority groups, letting it thrive.

From the government providing little aid for the Vietnamese herbicide victims to making the environment inaccessible for people with disabilities, it is clear that meritocracy is nothing but an illusion. The belief encourages apathy towards marginalized communities as well as their violent, systemic oppression. It is important, then, that we not only address meritocracy’s illusions and pitfalls but also that we find methods to counterbalance the conditions that make our society unaccommodating, such as inherent racial bias and ableism. At an even grander level, we must also consider dismantling the system and starting anew as meritocracy is deeply interwoven in our political and cultural worlds.

Works Cited

Xu, Dishan. “Spring Peach.” Chinese Short Stories of the Twentieth Century: an Anthology in English, by Zhihua Fang, Garland Pub., 1995, pp. 58–84.