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).
A common theme among them was that what Menchu “represented,” what she “symbolized,” what in fact she embodied was a truth that could not be sullied by the falsity of her expression of it. A few examples (I had quoted them here, back in 2004, in discussing “I, Dan” Rather and what the New York Times reported in a headline as his “fake but accurate” documents):
- Prof. John Peeler, Bucknell political scientist: The Latin American tradition of the testimonial has never been bound by the strict rules of veracity that we take for granted in autobiography.
- Pro. Karen Jaimie, NYU: Does it really matter that some of these events did not occur to her but have occurred to someone else? Not really. We need to globalize our perspective and not try to minimize the relevancy of the book regardless of some fabrications that may or may not exist. The experiences related were all within the realm of the possible.
- Magdalena Garcia Pinto, director of women’s studies, Univ. of Missouri: What Rigoberta Menchu is representing is not mendacity. Rather, it is a narrative about how large communities in the region are/have been oppressed. … It is fictional truth, if you will, that speaks eloquently about a reality that smacks at our faces.
- Francois Lapelerie, university librarian, Universite de la Mediterranee, Faculte de Luminy Marseille, France: Her book has a very high symbolic value; she, herself, is a living symbol of the fight of all oppressed people not only in Central America, but all over the world. Everybody knows that. So when we read Menchu, we don’t care about what really happened.
Leave it to the French, and also apparently to the Nobel committee, to be uninterested in “what really happened.” It’s the symbol, the “hope,” what “everybody knows” that’s important. As Geir Lundestad, then director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute and permanent secretary of the Norwegian Nobel committee, said to the New York Times regarding the Menchu fabrications:
He was aware of the Stoll manuscript and had no reason to doubt its veracity. Nevertheless, he said, “there is no question of revoking the prize” to Ms. Menchu. “All autobiographies embellish to a greater or lesser extent.”
No doubt Mr. Ludestad, or someone just like him, and others on the Nobel committee today believe that “I, Barack” deserves honor for his soliloquies on the world stage today, not for anything he has actually accomplished as an actor. Europeans (and their reflections in American academia and the media) are funny that way.
In accepting the prize in the Rose Garden Friday morning, President Obama said he does not view the award “as a recognition of my own accomplishments” and that “I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize.” Given the paucity of his accomplishments to date, however, he does seem to many of us to deserve very much being in the company of fellow multicultural icon, Rigoberta Menchu.