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Why Dinesh D'Souza has it in for Rigoberta Menchu.

The 1992 Nobel Prize for Peace went to Rigoberta Menchu, the thirty-three year old Guatemalan Indian activist. The award is well-deserved on collective, historical, and personal grounds. Clearly timed to coincide with the Columbus quincentennial, the prize is perhaps the first such instance of a major deliberative body, with almost universal prestige, officially granting recognition to the legitimate aspirations of the Native American peoples. More specifically, the Nobel Committee has acknowledged the courageous and tragic political struggles of Rigoberta and her kin, as told by the young woman in her oral autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1983).

The book is a highly poetic evocation of the way of life of the Quiche-Mayan Indians, a very moving recollection of their battles against rich white landowners and the brutal military, and a horrifying eyewitness account of the murderous repression that the Guatemalan army has inflicted on the mostly peaceful resistance of Rigoberta and her fellow activists. A kind of "underground classic," it is a compelling political autobiography in the tradition of those of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X, and I recommend it to all MR readers.

Rigoberta's Nobel may make possible an opening, let us hope, for the struggles in her country, as did actually happen in the case of Bishop Tutu and South Africa. Conditions in the two nations have in fact been comparable. The award also furnishes Rigoberta some means of protection against her local enemies, namely the Guatemalan generals who, on the day the prize was announced last October, attempted to defame her publicly by calling her a "terrorist," attributing "thousands of deaths" to her, and accusing her of staying in "five-star hotels." The Peace Prize, moreover, helps counteract another, long-standing defamatory campaign of Rigoberta's most vocal and obsessive U.S. foe, the conservative publicist Dinesh D'Souza.

On October 3, 1991, D'Souza gave two lectures at Williams College, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, for a fee of $5,000. He began each talk by holding up and waving a copy of I Rigoberta Menchu (shades of Joe McCarthy at Wheeling, West Virginia), and then proceeded to trash the book, citing it as an instance of the politically motivated low-grade reading being done in "multi-culturalist" ourses. Oozing sarcasm, he intoned a mock-litany roughly based on this passage from his national best- seller, Illiberal Education: "Rigoberta is a 'person of color,' and thus a victim of racism. She is a woman, and thus a victim of sexism. She lives in South America, which is a victim of European and North American imperialism. If this were not enough, she is an Indian, victimized by latino culture within Latin America." (1) For the new right, of course, "victim" has become a quickie term of contempt, so long as one refers to the victims of Western expansion. On the other hand, D'Souza and his coreligionists love to pose as suffering victims of campus leftism.

Throughout D'Souza's two talks he struck a tone that pervades Illiberal Education--the reasonable, rational centrist, concerned with holding the fort against extremists of every kind. Neither from his lecture nor his book would one guess that he had been editor-in-chief of the scurrilous Dartmouth Review, or that his first published volume, grandiosely titled Falwell: Before the Millennium, is a fulsomely flattering biography of the notorious right-wing televangelist. (A sample quotation: "Listening to Falwell speak, one gets a sense that something is right about America." In a curious twist, Falwell's liberal and leftist opponents are made to come off as fanatics, the preacher himself as moderate and enlightened; similarly, in D'Souza's recounting of the Scopes Trial of 1929, the secularists are portrayed as unsavory villains and the fundamentalists as victims.(3) Indeed, about the only time D'Souza bared his fangs at Williams was in animadverting to the Guatemalan. Later in his chat, for instance, when mentioning Menchu's attendance at a political conference in France, D'Souza described it with a look of glee on his face as "Rigoberta vacationing in Paris." (Those "five-star hotels" again.)

The third chapter of Illiberal Education bears the breezy title "Travels with Rigoberta." The three pages actually focusing on Menchu constitute an enormously nasty attack on her life story and also a formidable compendium of distortion and falsehood. A close look at those passages will help account for the extraordinary bloodlust that this earnest, poverty-stricken, yet much-admired Guatemalan Indian woman seems to bring out in that upper-class, professionally smooth, financially successful Indian of Portuguese descent from a onetime overseas outpost of Europe.

These distortions begin when D'Souza cannot even get the most elementary, neutral facts about Rigoberta's book straight. Says D'Souza: "Rigoberta does not write: rather her views are transcribed and translated by the French feminist writer Elisabeth Burgos-Debray." (p. 71) Why "translated?" The original interviews, after all, were conducted in Spanish, whereas the subsequent translation into English is by Ann Wright. Moreover, the transcriber, Ms. Burgos-Debray, is not French but Venezuelan, albeit she is married to the socialist activist and government functionary Regis Debray, whom D'Souza in his talk casually referred to as "the French communist."

A bit further down, D'Souza coyly notes: "Burgos-Debray met Rigoberta in Paris, where presumably very few of the Third World's poor travel." (p. 72) If D'Souza had bothered to read Burgos- Debray's own Introduction, he would have found out the following: "Early in January 1982, Rigoberta Menchu was invited to Europe by a number of solidarity groups as a representative of the 31 January Popular Front" (p. xiv).(3) An invitation to such an event usually means that one's travel expenses are fully paid, as were D'Souza's to Williams College. D'Souza's innuendo that Rigoberta's poverty might be fraudulent is truly a cheap shot. In fact there are hundreds of thousands of poor immigrants from the Third World in Paris, many of them political refugees--as Rigoberta indeed was at the rime and still is.

Getting into the text itself, D'Souza's initial comments are, "Much of the book simply details the mundane: 'Rigoberta's Tenth Birthday,' 'Rigoberta Decides to Learn Spanish,' and 'Rigoberta Talks About Her Father' are typical chapter titles." (p. 71) In reality the first two, as D'Souza cites them, are just half of those rifles, subtitles even. In full, they read, "Life in the Altiplano. Rigoberta's Tenth Birthday," and "Farewell to the Community: Rigoberta Decides to Learn Spanish." Hence the complete chapter rifles indicate that an entire way of life, and Rigoberta's relationship thereto, are being jointly presented. Similarly, those "Rigoberta Talks About Her Father" pages are a kind of post-mortem eulogy immediately following a chapter in which Mr. Menchu is murdered by the armed forces. There is nothing "mundane," let it be said, about either a farewell or the death of a parent.

D'Souza complains, "It is not always easy to follow this narrative because it is lavishly sprinkled with Latino and Indian phrases." (p. 71) A casual inspection of the text shows at most a couple of those foreign words (not "phrases") per page. Some are familiar culinary items (tortillas); most are used repeatedly in sufficiently clear contexts (companeros); others denote local crops, artifacts, or concepts that have no equivalents in English, and so the translator, Ms. Wright, retains the original words--a routine ethnographic practice. To help the non-Guatemalan reader, there is a four-page glossary in the back of the book, which a bewildered D'Souza was free to consult during his researches. And then there is that adjective "Latino", which D'Souza brandishes once again, saying, "She rebels against Europeanized Latino culture." (p. 71) Actually the term "Latino" never once appears in the book. The term employed by Menchu and by Guatemalans generally is ladino, with a "d." Had a more diligent D'Souza turned to the Glossary, he would have found this definition:

Any Guatemalan--whatever his economic position--who rejects, either individually or through his cultural heritage, Indian values of Mayan origin. It also implies mixed blood. (p. 249)

Hence, while D'Souza seems to think that Rigoberta's ladinos are Europeans, they are, more precisely, Guatemalan mixed-breeds who dislike everything Indian and who also "wannabe" white.

As far as "Europeanized... culture" is concerned, it is not even an issue in Rigoberta's narrative. Hers is a very local revolt against the arbitrary power of the rural landowners and the urban rich who mistreat her and her family. Moreover, she and her cohorts are avowed Christians, which is about as "Europeanized"as one can get! And though she often speaks with understandable suspicion of Guatemala's ladinos, toward the end of the book she is admitting to the existence of good ladinos who will side with native people's struggles--much as Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, and other African- American activists have granted that there are politically dependable whites. I, Rigoberta Menchu is not an ethnic separatist's tract.

These distortions appear within a mere dozen or so lines of D'Souza's text. They are just the beginning, however. His second paragraph on Rigoberta states, "her parents are killed for unspecified reasons in a bloody massacre reportedly carried out by the Guatemalan army." (p. 71) Once again D'Souza gets his facts wrong. Rigoberta's father and mother die in two totally separate incidents rather than in a single "bloody massacre." Her father is not killed for unspecified reasons but (as a glance at Chapter 25 would show) for his active involvement in the peasants' occupation of the Spanish Embassy in 1980; the Guatemalan authorities' response is to burn the building to the ground, and everyone inside is charred to death, including Mr. Menchu. As D'Souza presents it, the action is "reportedly carried out" by the military, but the adverb is false: at the time of the episode the whole world knew that the Guatemalan authorities were responsible. As for Rigoberta's mother, she is kidnapped by government troops, who, after torturing and raping her, tie her to a tree and stand guard as she dies of exposure, then leaving her body to be devoured by wild animals.

In a passage reviewers like quoting, D'Souza says of Rigoberta, "She becomes first a feminist, then a socialist, then a Marxist." (p. 71 ) All these characterizations are wide of the mark. Throughout her book Rigoberta finds much to defend in certain traditional women's roles in Mayan culture (having lots of children, for example). And though she criticizes machismo, and suggests ways of combating "this sickness [that is] part of society," she rejects the idea of a separate organization for women, which she finds a "paternalistic" solution that "would be feeding machismo." (p. 222) Nowhere in the text will readers find the word "feminist"; modern-day, Western gender concepts are scarcely present in Menchu's reflections.

D'Souza notes further that "there is even a chapter titled 'Rigoberta Renounces Marriage and Motherhood."' D'Souza's flippant tone suggests blitheness and bravado on Menchu's part. The truth is that the pages where she ponders this decision are a melancholy and even agonizing chapter, in which she praises family life, expresses a yearning for conjugal companionship and children, and wistfully recalls a young man she had once loved. Rigoberta is painfully aware of the bleak realities in her country, however, and she puts with simple eloquence her reasons for remaining celibate: "became I don't want to be a widow, or a tortured mother." (p. 225)

Regarding Rigoberta's becoming a "socialist" and "a Marxist," she never once defines herself as such. In reality she is a Christian activist who describes the mission of her religious brethren as "creating] the kingdom of God on Earth among our brothers." Long passages tell of her community's study of The Bible, a book she characterizes as "our main weapon." (p. 134) Moreover, in her very last chapter, Rigoberta mentions a debate she has had with "a Marxist companera who criticized her for being Christian, to which Menchu replies that "the whole truth [is not found] in Marxism." Speaking in the name of spiritual values, Rigoberta declares, "no one can take my Christian faith away from me." (p. 246) Despite this evidence to the contrary, D'Souza latches onto Rigoberta's "discoursing on 'bourgeois youths'" as proof of her Marxism. He seems not to know that the word "bourgeois," like other cognates from the Romance languages (burgues in Spanish, borghese in Italian) simply denotes the "middle classes," the existence of which is a social fact independent of the speaker's ideology. In his same earlier sentence with that innuendo about Rigoberta's jet-setting to Paris, D'Souza remarks, "Nor does [her] Marxist vocabulary sound typical of a Guatemalan peasant." How many has he met? As I observed in MR a decade ago, Marxist idiom is fairly commonplace throughout Latin America, where it thrives as a kind of "counterculture," even among non-Marxists.(4) Latin American journalists, teachers, writers, community activists, and religious people routinely make use of Marxian concepts in their analyses and public statements. In this respect, then, Rigoberta's "Marxist vocabulary" is a norm and not the exception among political commentators south of Texas. D'Souza apparently cannot conceive that a Guatemalan peasant woman might routinely use Marxist terms.

The larger question raised by D'Souza and his defenders, however, is a set of "unresolved doubts about the place being given [to Rigoberta's book] in the new multicultural canon," as C. Vann Woodward puts it.(5) (D'Souza's statements in this regard are too vicious and mean-spirited to quote.) The issue as commonly posed is not as simple as it seems. First, no educator of any repute' has called for chucking Plato, Shakespeare, or Marx for Menchu--this is a fantasy of the new right. Rigoberta's story is, rather, an instance of the subgenre of political testimony, of which the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Malcolm X are prime examples from the United States.

In Latin America, not surprisingly, such testimonials exist in the thousands. Among them Menchu's is one of the best, and happens to be readily accessible to U.S. students. D'Souza all but claims that I, Rigoberta Menchu is a bad book, a judgment he makes on exclusively ideological, not literary or cultural grounds. Other, more established testimonial works include the conservatively correct Hunger or Memory by Richard Rodriguez, Orwell's non-fictional writings (his essay "Shooting an Elephant," his memoirs The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia), or, from more distant eras, Walt Whitman's Civil War prose, the many religious confessions from St. Augustine on, and in some measure the prophetic books of The Bible.(6) These titles appear on many college reading lists yet elicit no snarls from officialdom's self-appointed watchdogs.

But getting back to my own question: Why does D'Souza have it in for Menchu? Why does he join the Guatemalan generals in hitting her with every weapon he's got? Part of the answer, I venture to infer from his own statements, is that, at the time D'Souza wrote Illiberal Education, he had never bothered reading, had scarcely even sampled, I, Rigoberta Menchu. (Perhaps he has since.) There is no other way to account for his astounding errors concerning the simplest data in the book. And so, not having reconnoitered the territory, he resorts instead to carpet bombing. Summing up his non-analysis of Rigoberta's memoir, D'Souza asks: "Whom does she represent?" He answers that "...she embodies a projection of Marxist and Leninist views onto South American culture." (p. 72) Well, there is indeed a projection, but of a different sort. Given D'Souza's utter ignorance of a text he nonetheless savages, we can turn his conclusions around and assert that his view of Rigoberta is itself a projection of the new right's wildest, stupidest fantasies onto a person of which they know nothing but who embodies everything they love to hate. And D'Souza's intimations of academic fraud around the matter of Rigoberta's book are a projection of his own intellectual fraud--the projection of a projection, so to speak.

One wonders: If D'Souza can be so irresponsible, so utterly wrong about a work that he singles out for attack, then how reliable is he on the hundreds of items he cites in the forty-four pages of fine-print endnotes in Illiberal Education? D'Souza as in his mid-to-late twenties when he was "researching" and writing this opus; short of being a genius (which, his virtuoso glibness aside, D'Souza assuredly is not), how many twenty-seven-year-olds have had the background and the time to read and digest so much material? How much is his charlatanism in treating I, Rigoberta Menchu the rule and not the exception? We do know that the shoddy scholarship in Illiberal Education is more than textual. Jon Wiener has done some fact-checking and found out that D'Souza simply invents entire interviews, fiercely distorts others, and blows way out of proportion an ambiguous and relatively minor racial controversy that involved a professor, three black students, and two deans at Harvard.(7) Similarly, the D'Souza version of recent curricular changes at Stanford "turns out to be seriously innacurate," as C. Vann Woodward notes.(8) Illiberal Education is a large compendium of big lies in fancy academic dress.

And yet this mock-scholarly scam became a best-seller, received high initial praise from outstanding liberals like Woodward and whilom Marxists like Eugene Genovese, and made its slippery scribe rich and famous. It stands as a perfect symbol of "intellectual" life under Reaganism, the spectacle of this scantily researched screed, built on unread books and outright untruths, enjoying a triumph of the right-wing will and thrusting its false problems into the cultural arena.

NOTES

1. Dinesh D'Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Random House, 1991), p. 72.

2. Dinesh D'Souza, Falwell: Berate the Millennium, A Critical Biography (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984), p. 205.

3. Rigoberta Menchu, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray, and trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1983).

4. Gene H. Bell-Villada, "Two Americas, Two World Views, and a Widening Gap," Monthly Review 34, no. 5 (October 1982):37-43.

5. C. Vann Woodward, "Letter to the Editor," The New York Review of Books, 26 September 1991, p. 76.

6. On the matter of the autobiographical and confessional mode in literature, see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1968), pp. 307-308.

7. Jon Wiener, "What Happened at Harvard," in Patricia Aufderheide, ed., Beyond PC: Toward a Politics of Understanding (Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1992), p. 97-106.

8. C. Vann Woodward, "Freedom and Universities," in Aufderhide, Beyond PC, p. 34.

The paradox of education is precisely this--that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself; to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and even to learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that sort of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, it is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it--no matter at what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

--James Baldwin, "A Talk to Teachers," reprinted in Rick Simonson and Scott Walker, The Graywolf Annual Five: Multi-Cultural Literacy (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 1988).

Gene H. Bell-Villada, Professor of Romance Languages at Williams College, is the author of Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, and The Carlos Chadwick Mystery, a novel about official U.S. thinking and the media.
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Title Annotation:conservative publicist, Guatemalan Indian activist
Author:Bell-Villada, Gene H.
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:3291
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