Until reminded by Mona Charen, I had forgotten (or repressed the memory) that Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel Prize in 1992 for her fraudulent autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchu. As evidence of their privileging (don’t you hate it when people make verbs out of nouns?) “hope” over “change,” perhaps the Nobels awarded the prize to “I, Barack” for much the same reason — to honor his promise more than his performance. Just as they honored the “inner truth” of what she had written and said more than the external, literal, factual accuracy of her pronouncements.
The similarities between these two icons of the multicultural left are enhanced, of course, by the recent revival, summarized ably here and here by Ron Radosh, of suggestions that Obama may not have been the actual, literal author of his own autobiography.
For those of you who’ve forgotten (or are too young to remember), I, Rigoberta Menchu purported to be the autobiography of a poor Guatemalan who overcame extreme poverty (a younger brother starved to death, etc.) and violent oppression at the hands of Guatemala’s brutal right-wing oligarchs (who, she wrote, burned another brother to death before her very own young eyes). Her book, composed from tapes recorded by E. Burgos-Debray, an ethnologist and the wife of French Marxist theorist and revolutionary (he was in Bolivia with Che Guevara) Regis Debray, told its gripping story in moving and telling details and quickly elevated her to iconic status among European intellectuals and American academics.
Alas, it was a good story, but only a story; many of the most dramatic details she recounted never actually happened. In the course of his own research in Guatemala, David Stoll, a Middlebury College anthropologist, was in the town where one of the most brutal massacres reported by Rigoberta had occurred. Make that allegedly occurred. As reported (January 15, 1999; requires subscription) by the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article about the controversy over the “multicultural icon”:
Mr. Stoll happened upon the town plaza of Chajul, which is near Ms. Menchu’s village of Chimel. In passing, he mentioned a key passage in Ms. Menchu’s autobiography to a villager. Wasn’t this plaza the place where the army burned prisoners, including Ms. Menchu’s brother, asked Mr. Stoll. The elderly villager looked puzzled, recalls Mr. Stoll, and told him that the army had never burned prisoners alive in the plaza. Six other townsmen told Mr. Stoll the same thing, yet Ms. Menchu’s book claimed she was an eyewitness to the torture and burning of her younger brother, Petrocinio, in that very place.
Prof. Stoll investigated further and found that indeed most of the famed Nobel-winning “autobiography” was not fact but fiction. His results were published in 1999 as I, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Westview Press, 1999).
Stoll’s book, and a long confirmation of his findings in the New York Times, created something of a bombshell, leading to a small dose of anthropological introspection about facts, truth, politics, etc. But for the most part Menchu’s defenders did not miss a beat in defending her work. Her facts might be all wrong, they admitted, but her truth remained. Daniel Levine, a political science professor at Michigan, pointed out that “people don’t want to discuss this because Rigoberta Menchu is an icon.” But precisely because Menchu had become such an icon, many of her followers did in fact want to discuss her, so many that the Chronicle of Higher Education published a long “Colloquy” with their comments (alas, no longer online).