The left's attraction to the obviously false is nothing new. For well nigh a century, in fact, the world's intellectual elite has been crafting and enabling fraud on a wide range of critical subjects and, when the mood strikes, awarding intellectual deceit with Nobel Peace Prizes.
When the Nobel Peace Prize committee met to award its 1992 prize, the choices were many and good. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall two years prior, committee members might have chosen any of the architects of that empire's demise-Ronald Reagan, for instance, or Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II or the Soviet dissidents. They did not and never would. The committee passed as well on the heroes of Tiananmen Square.
No, this being 1992, the five-hundredth anniversary of Colombus's "discovery" of the Americas, the committee members took the opportunity to rub its thumb in America's eye. They awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1992 to a Guatemalan woman, an "indigena" by the name of Rigoberta Menchu.
Her autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, had already become well known and well established in academe. The Chronicle of Higher Education accurately described the book "as a cornerstone of the multicultural canon." Does one sense a pattern developing? Menchu received fourteen honorary doctorates after winning the Nobel and received some 7,000 international speaking invitations.
At this same time, a young Stanford scholar named David Stoll was researching the anthropology of civil war in the Latin American context for his Ph.D. dissertation. He had read Menchu's book and was unapologetically sympathetic with her people and her cause. It was hard not to be.
Menchu describes in heartbreaking detail how the light-skinned, Europeanized ladino ruling class used the government to steal the land of her father and other native peoples. And when the indigenas protested, that same ruling class called in the army to suppress even peaceful dissent with unspeakable brutality. Persecuted beyond endurance, Rigoberta's heroic father goes underground in 1977 and helps form the "legendary" Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), which allies itself with the guerilla movement. Now about eighteen, Rigoberta gets involved in the struggle. Among other tasks, she teaches villagers how to make Molotov cocktails, dig stake pits, and capture vulnerable soldiers to defend themselves from army attacks.
In the book's most dramatic scene, the army hauls a crew of suspected dissidents to the square of the Maya town of Chajul in the western highlands of Guatemala. Among the twenty-three beaten and tortured prisoners is Rigoberta's sixteen year-old brother, Petrocinio.
There, the army forces the townspeople to watch in horror as the soldiers pour gasoline on each of the prisoners and set them ablaze one by one. While the prisoners burn, the soldiers laugh and celebrate. Outraged by this ghastly spectacle, the townspeople, Rigoberta among them, rush at the soldiers, but they draw back for fear of being massacred. "I didn't think I might die," remembers Rigoberta, "I just wanted to do something, even kill a soldier. At that moment I wanted to show my aggression."
The following year, in January 1980, her father is among those protestors who occupy the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City to call attention to their increasingly desperate cause. In defiance of protocol and international law, riot police storm the embassy, and thirty-six people die in the fire that ensues, Vicente Menchu among them.
Soon after, the army kidnaps her mother, raping her and torturing her to death. Now about twenty-one, the unschooled Rigoberta becomes a community organizer with the CUC. "My job was to organize people," she recalls. "I had to learn Spanish and to read and write." As her leadership role grows, the authorities zero in on her, and she flees the country. In 1982, while in Paris, she tells her story to feminist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, the ex-wife of international revolutionary and friend of Che Guevara, Regis Debray-the Bill Ayers of France. The pattern develops.
When Stoll first came to Rigoberta's region in 1987 to interview peasants about the cycle of violence, he learned that they feared the guerillas nearly as much as the army. They wished that both would go away. In 1989, he found himself in the infamous town of Chajul. He was interviewing an elderly gentleman named Domingo, when one of his questions left Domingo puzzled. "The army burned prisoners alive?" Domingo asked Stoll rhetorically. "Not here." Intrigued, Stoll interviewed six more townspeople, and they all told him the same thing. There had been no burning of prisoners in the town, and the public burning of a whole parcel of people is something they might have remembered. This was the first of many discrepancies that Stoll discovered.
In 1993, Stoll published a book based on his dissertation, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala. Stoll's "peers in the overlapping solidarity movement" did not take kindly to the book. They objected to the notion that the peasants were wary of the guerillas. Besides, as more than one person told him, "That's not what we read in I, Rigoberta Menchu."
Then too, the postmodern, post-colonialist era was in full flower. A white, North American male judged a native woman's "narrative" at his own risk. For the very act of judging, any number of academics stood ready to denounce such a person for cultural imperialism, if not racism. Knowing this, Stoll was careful in choosing whom he talked to about Menchu and what he told them. At small academic gatherings as early as 1990 and 1991, he had begun to share his findings, and the response was, as he expected, often hostile.
Says Stoll, "We have an unfortunate tendency to idolize native voices that serve our own political and moral needs, as opposed to others that do not." By constructing what Stoll calls "mythologies of purity," academics were able to isolate themselves from the reality of a situation often at the expense of the people they were mythologizing. And this is exactly what he thought was happening in Guatemala and why, despite the risks, Stoll felt the moral imperative to "deconstruct" Rigoberta's story.
It was not all that hard to do. Other than her age, twenty-three at the time of the narrative, just about every other contention in the book is conspicuously false. The most problematic deceit involved her father. "My father fought for twenty-two years," recalls Rigoberta, "waging a heroic struggle against the landowners who wanted to take our land and our neighbors land." The reality was a bit different. In fact, Vicente Menchu was an army veteran and a relatively prosperous landowner, who shared in a community grant of about ten square miles of property. The rapacious ladino plantation owners were not his problem. His own in-laws were. For years, much to his wife's consternation, Vicente and her relatives carried on a kind of Hatfield-McCoy dispute that occasionally spilled into violence and often spilled into court.
Stoll then raises the indelicate question of what the army was doing in this remote village in the first place. What he discovers is that a radical group called the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP in Spanish) showed up in the Ixil region in the spring of 1979. Few among them were indigenous. Most of the guerillas, in fact, spoke only Spanish and waved the heroic image of Che Guevara on their flag. They then proceeded to raise holy hell, beginning with vandalism and sabotage and ending with the harassment of missionaries and the murder of certain large landowners.
Understandably outraged by the murders, the families of these landowners cooperated with the army in hunting down suspects. To be sure, the army responded harshly and murdered Rigoberta's brother. One explanation Stoll heard is that the Menchus' feuding in-laws fingered Rigoberta's brother as a terrorist. His kidnapping helped spur her father to join the group that occupied the Spanish embassy. The lethal fire was likely started by a Molotov cocktail misthrown by one of the protestors. The reign of terror from both sides had been swift. Vicente Menchu died in that fire only nine months after the EGP first showed up in his region.
I, Rigoberta Menchu Stoll argues, "protected revolutionary sympathizers from the knowledge that the revolutionary movement was a bloody failure." In fact, Stoll believes that the book firmed up international support for the insurgency and helped keep the revolution alive after it had lost most of its internal political support.
Appealing as it was to feminists, Marxists, multiculturalists, and supporters of indigenous rights -- in other words, just about everyone in academia -- I, Rigoberta Menchu had quickly become a sacred text. "Rigoberta's story of oppression is analogous to a preacher reminding listeners that they are sinners," observes Stoll. "Then her story of joining the left and learning that not all outsiders are evil makes it possible for the audience to be on her side, providing a sense of absolution."
The book and subsequent articles whipped up a firestorm in the academic community. That community's Bible, The Chronicle of Higher Education, interviewed numerous academics across the country and came to a bizarrely predictable conclusion about most of those who teach the book: "They say it doesn't matter if the facts in the book are wrong, because they believe Ms. Menchu's story speaks to a greater truth about the oppression of poor people in Central America."
The Nobel Prize committee was not about to reconsider either. "All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent," Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, told the New York Times.
It would seem that our president is in good company.