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Bruce S. Thornton - Contributor

Bruce Thornton is a professor of Classics at Cal State Fresno and co-author of Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing the Classics in an Impoverished Age and author of Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization (Encounter Books). His most recent book is Searching for Joaquin: Myth, Murieta, and History in California (Encounter Books). [go to Thornton index]

Nobel Lies
Truth doesn't matter: a California campus spreads open arms for leftist mythmaking...
[Bruce S. Thornton] 10/18/03

Like Rasputin, the left has had remarkable staying power, surviving numerous exposures of its various illusions and myths. Martyrs to anti-communist hysteria like Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs turn out to be traitorous spies, revolutionary heroes like Fidel or the Sandinistas are nothing more than dictatorial thugs, communist and socialist ideologies are exposed as bloody failures and murderous frauds, yet the left marches on with a studied myopia reminiscent of that medieval churchman who refused to look in Galileo's telescope. Who are you going to believe, Chomsky or your own eyes?

I was reminded recently of how the left manages this feat of escaping accountability for its lies and mistakes when my campus of the California State University announced this season's University Lecture Series. Next month our guest speaker will be Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan Mayan Indian whose 1983 autobiography, I . . . Rigoberta Menchú became a perennial campus bestseller and multiculturalist prayer-book, leading a decade later to a Nobel Peace Prize for its author.

Menchú's story, dictated to international leftist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, is a gripping tale of how a simple Indian family of plantation laborers was systematically destroyed by the Guatemalan army in support of rich ladinos (European or mixed-race people) trying to steal the peasants' land. Rigoberta's brother is brutally tortured and burned to death before her eyes, her father incinerated by the police while leading an occupation of the Spanish embassy to protest the army's depredations, and her mother is raped and murdered, all because they supported the guerillas who tried to defend them from the rapacious rich landowners. The simple, uneducated Rigoberta Menchú, her consciousness raised by this oppression, finally escaped to Mexico, where she became the spokesman for a coalition of political groups working in support of the guerillas' attempts to start a revolution in Guatemala.

It's not hard to see why such a story would enthrall the left, gratifying as the tale is to all its cherished prejudices and received ideas. First of all, who could be a better hero than a female Indian, what would be called a "twofer" in Affirmative Action parlance? Women everywhere are victims of capitalist patriarchy, and Third World indigenous peoples have been the darlings of the left ever since European proletariats failed to play their appointed role in the Marxist revolutionary opera. Now that role is to be played by the non-white victims of European colonialism and imperialism--once, of course, Europeans raise indigenous consciousness to the truth of leftist ideology and its utopian boons. In addition, such peoples gratify the Western appetite for those noble-savage exotic folks living lives more vibrant and authentic than the dull existence of uptight Western bourgeoisie with their soul-killing technology and banal affluence.

Most important, though, Menchú's story gratified the left's conception of its ideology as the historical agent of peace, equality, and justice. Once Third World oppressed peoples become aware that leftist politics and economics are the answer to their suffering, they will, like Rigoberta and her family, spontaneously organize into guerilla armies and political fronts advancing the cause of revolution. Rigoberta Menchú, in short, embodied the left's melodrama of a dysfunctional, greedy Western capitalism tyrannizing indigenous peoples "of color," who understandably turn to armed resistance in order to free themselves and usher in a socialist paradise like Fidel's or the Sandinistas' in Nicaragua.

There's only one problem. In 1999 anthropologist David Stoll published a meticulously researched refutation of the bulk of Menchú's story. Her father wasn't a poor plantation worker, but a landowner himself. His quarrel wasn't with the ladino rich, but with his Mayan in-laws over disputed acreage. The guerillas did not arise from the oppression of the people, but came from without and murdered two small plantation owners with whom the Menchú family had no quarrel. The army did not enter the region to help the rich steal land; the soldiers came in response to the murders and proceeded to kidnap, torture, and slaughter those suspected of collaborating with the guerillas. Rigoberta wasn't unschooled, barely able to speak Spanish; she had received several years of education in private boarding schools operated by the Catholic Church. Nor did she witness the events she claimed to, or spend eight months a year as a plantation worker, since she was away at school. Finally, her revolutionary consciousness did not evolve slowly from her experience of oppression; it came rather late, after she flew to Mexico escorted by an activist nun and encountered the various leftist organizations hoping to duplicate in Guatemala the "success" of the Sandinistas and Fidel.

Stoll's revelations of the truth behind the myth were greeted with a "kill the messenger" anger and calumny once reserved for those in the forties and fifties who questioned the perfection of the Soviet paradise or wondered about Stalin's gulags and mountains of corpses. All sorts of rationalizations were advanced to excuse Rigoberta's lies. Stoll was attacked as a racist trying to protect Western anthropologists, who prey on indigenous peoples and so must keep them silent. Postmodern fashion was invoked as well: notions of factual truth supported by individual experience, we were scolded, should not be imposed on non-Westerners, whose truth is a "construct" representing the whole community's experience-- a patronizing argument that implies a non-Westerner, like a child, can't know or communicate the truth of her own experiences, or distinguish between what happens to herself and what happens to others.

Most apologies, however, were crude variations of an "end justifies the means" argument: "Whether her book is true or not," a Spanish professor at Wellesley huffed, "I don't care. We should teach our students about the brutality of the Guatemalan military and the U.S. financing of it." In other words, the leftist creed of anti-imperialism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-Americanism does not require a fidelity to the truth.

None of these rationalizations hold up in the end. The impact of Rigoberta's story resulted from our belief that all the horrible things she narrates happened to her-- she was a martyr in the literal sense of the word, an eyewitness of those events. As one American put it after hearing her speak, "She spoke less like an ideologue and more like an eye witness." Thus we have to believe in her reliability, in the truth of what she tells us. As soon as we know she has lied, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, she tells us is true. And if that is the case, how can we act, if the basis of our action is in question?

The greater danger in this casual attitude to the truth, however, is that in the end it can justify anything. Once we endorse sacrificing truth to politics, then those holding beliefs we abhor will play the same game, ignoring the facts in order to promote a higher "truth" that justifies the lies. This is a tactic of totalitarian regimes, who as Orwell taught us view truth in precisely the same way: as a fiction justified by its advancement of a utopian ideal, when in actual fact it is merely a rationalization of the rulers' exclusive power and privilege.

More important, the presumed "higher" truth that justifies Rigoberta's lies is nothing of the sort. It is really a variation on the old leftist melodrama, a simplification and reduction of the facts in order to fit into a self-serving myth. Indeed, the facts Stoll uncovered in his research bring us closer to the complex truth of human conflict and violence. The most important truth Stoll found is that a guerilla movement that attempts to instigate armed revolution among a population not ready for it will merely bring disaster. The murder of two middling landowners in the Menchú's neighborhood instigated a brutal slaughter by the army, a slaughter from which the guerillas could not defend the Indians. Rather than improving the lives of those for whom the guerillas supposedly fought, they left them in shambles.

But this dismal, complex truth about the failure of revolutionary violence cannot overcome the attractions of a mythic narrative that expresses the leftist's righteousness and superior sensitivity to suffering and injustice, not to mention his millennial faith that he is on the side of historical progress. That attractive power explains why repeated exposure of leftist delusions and crimes doesn't weaken its hold on the minds of many Westerners, for whom leftist ideology is a pseudo-religion as immune to the facts as any faith-based creed. But whereas religious believers frankly admit that their beliefs are justified by faith, the leftist proclaims his to be, like science, the fruits of evidence and reason--a dangerous deception in a culture that attributes to science a privileged access to rational truth.

Such disregard for the truth is bad enough anywhere, but it is fatal in the university, which is a privileged and protected space precisely because it is supposed to search out those complex and difficult truths that counter the received ideas and satisfying myths circulating in the larger society. Rigoberta Menchú's appearance on my campus suggests that some academics do not or cannot recognize this important function of the university. By giving a prestigious venue to the propagation of politically inspired mythmaking, the academy has sacrificed truth to ideology and compromised its own integrity.

copyright 2003 Bruce S. Thornton

Searching for Joaquin
by Bruce S. Thornton

Greek Ways
by Bruce S. Thornton

Bonfire of the Humanities
by Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, Bruce S. Thornton

Plagues of the Mind
by Bruce S. Thornton

Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality

by Bruce S. Thornton





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