Reviews > Culture

Academic icon exposed

Culture | But the academy rushes to her defense

Issue: "Unholy matrimony," Feb. 13, 1999

When manufacturers of automobiles, medicine, toys, or canned meat make a mistake, they immediately recall the defective product. Too bad no one is recalling books or college courses. Or the Nobel Prize-even though, it now turns out, a 1992 Nobel winner is a fake. Here's the story. Rigoberta Menchú, an Indian activist from Guatemala, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, published in 1983, has become a fixture in the new multicultural curriculum of America's universities. Her book details the oppression of the poor in Latin America, telling about her suffering at the hands of rich landowners and right-wing death squads. Reading the account of her people's sufferings, one finds it hard not to sympathize with her decision to join the cause of the Marxist guerrillas. Universities, anxious to be "more inclusive" of women, minorities, and "marginalized cultures," have kicked out dead white European males to make room for her book on required reading lists. It has joined the canon, raising students' consciousness and heightening their sensitivity about the plight of women and indigenous people at the hands of American-backed neocolonialist capitalism. But it has now been discovered that what she says in her book isn't true. David Stoll, a Stanford graduate student in anthropology, was working on his dissertation in Guatemala when he passed the site where Ms. Menchú's brother was supposedly tortured and burned to death. He mentioned it to a villager, who told him that no one had ever been burned to death there. He started checking out the rest of her story. It turns out her father was not an oppressed poverty-stricken peasant, but a landowner who held title to 6,800 acres. She was not an illiterate child denied the opportunity to go to school because she was female; she went to an elite Catholic boarding school. She writes about how as a little girl she had to work under horrible conditions on the plantations; but she never set foot on the plantations. The key struggle in her book, between her father and the light-skinned landowner, turned out to have really been an argument between her father and his in-laws. And far from seeing the Marxist guerrillas as liberators, the villagers were actually terrified of them. Mr. Stoll wrote a book on his findings, I, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999), and his information has been confirmed by an investigative reporter for The New York Times. This should settle matters, right? Wrong. The discredited Ms. Menchú remains a heroine and Mr. Stoll is coming under heavy fire. In today's intellectual climate, the person who reveals the truth-like Ken Starr-receives the blame, while the one whose lies are revealed becomes more popular than ever. "Whether her book is true or not, I don't care," says Wellesley Spanish Professor Marjorie Agosin, quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education. "We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it." But if her book isn't true, what is the basis of assuming that what it says about the military and the United States are true? The revelations about Ms. Menchú, says Ms. Agosin, are being "used by the right to negate the very important space that multiculturalism is providing in academia." Just as we have the White House tactic of vilifying the truth-teller, we have the Hillary Clinton defense: It is all a vast right-wing conspiracy. Other academics are using the multicultural defense: Ms. Menchú's culture does not follow the Western standards of objective truth-telling. Her book is a Mayan narrative, similar to a myth or legend, designed to express the truths of a community. To impose our views of truth on her expression of communal solidarity is another act of Western ethnocentrism. In other words, it depends on what the definition of is is. Mr. Stoll, now a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, is bewildered at the hostility he is encountering and the way his findings are being dismissed as irrelevant. "I'm a lefty myself," he wrote. "When I began to talk about my findings, some of my colleagues regarded them as sacrilegious. I had put myself beyond the pale of decency." To cast doubt on an academic icon is indeed sacrilegious. The religion that it violates is postmodernism. According to its dogmas, truth is not objective, but something we construct according to our political or personal agendas. Rigoberta Menchú was constructing a story to advance her Marxist ideology. This is perfectly legitimate, according to postmodernist academics. This is what we do in our classrooms, they might add. This is what their students learn to do after they graduate. Since we can never know absolute truth, all we can do is construct fictions, interpretations, rhetorical models that can persuade others to do as we want. With this worldview, academics, politicians, and the American public can all say, in complete sincerity, "I believe it, even if it isn't true." Or, "I believe in that person, no matter how often I am lied to." Rigoberta Menchú, meet Bill Clinton.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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