The myth weavers

Three leading leftist figures have been exposed this year as having lied about their backgrounds. Has the failure of their ideology forced them to fictionalize?

By David Horowitz
September 27, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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It's been a bad year for prevaricators of the political left. First Nobel laureate and Guatemalan terrorist Rigoberta Menchu was unveiled by fellow leftist David Stoll as a self-fabricating poseur. Then feminist icon and self-proclaimed suburban housewife Betty Friedan was unmasked (again by a political comrade) as a longtime propagandist for the Stalinist left and a political fibber.

Now it's Modern Language Association president and PLO apologist Edward Said's turn to have his inventions uncovered, exposing him as a cunning purveyor of biographical fiction.


These creative dissemblers did not idly conceive their deceptive constructions of self, in which case they would have been mere literary curiosities. Instead, each of them lied to serve a radical cause. They thus form part of an intellectual continuum with what Leon Trotsky once termed the "Stalin school of falsification," in which historical data are rearranged in the interests of a politically useful "truth."

Rigoberta Menchu presented herself as a poor, uneducated Mayan peasant, whose family had been deprived of its land by a Ladino ruling class descended from the European conquerors of her people. Rigoberta's story told how her family was destroyed by their oppressors for peacefully attempting to regain their land from the Ladinos.

According to Rigoberta, hers was not an individual story but "the story of all poor Guatemalans." In her telling, her autobiography became a political parable with the power to persuade any morally decent reader of the justice of the cause of the urban terrorist movement whose spokesperson she had become, and whose strategy was to foment violent confrontations in the Guatemalan countryside.


Every salient element of Rigoberta's parable, however, was based on a lie. She was not poor and not uneducated. Her family was not dispossessed by a Ladino ruling class (its land dispute was with other Mayans, in fact, members of the Menchu clan itself) and the violence they suffered was not unprovoked, but was the direct consequence of the violent confrontations initiated by the terrorists whose pawn she had become.

Betty Friedan presented herself in "The Feminine Mystique" as a suburban housewife who had never given a thought to "the woman question" until she attended a Smith College reunion which revealed the dissatisfaction felt by her well-educated female classmates, who found themselves unable to balance traditional roles with modern careers.

There were many views Friedan could have taken of the data she subsequently collected. In America, an unparalleled technological revolution was unfolding, among whose consequences were the liberation of women from household chores, from dangerous diseases associated with childbirth and sex, and from the tyranny of their reproductive cycles. All this provided them with options for entry into workplaces and professions where few women had previously ventured.


The sheer suddenness of this transformation would have provoked anxiety and dysfunction in any group. But Friedan chose to view the malaise she witnessed in political terms -- not as the ambiguities of an epic transition, but as the effects of a male conspiracy to oppress females and confine them to their traditional roles.

In Friedan's radical melodrama, middle-class marriage became a "comfortable concentration camp," and men's protective attitudes toward women became the oppressive stance of a master race.


Now it has been revealed that Betty Friedan was not very candid about the facts of her own life and the sources of her radical perspective. She was hardly a naive suburban housewife when she wrote those words, but a 25-year veteran of professional journalism in the communist left, where she had been thoroughly indoctrinated in the politics of "the woman question" and specifically the idea that women were "oppressed."

The reality of Friedan's life - that she was a professional ideologue, that her husband supported her, that she had a maid, lived in a Hudson River mansion and performed few household duties - were inconsistent with the image and theory she was determined to promote. So she hid them.

Like Rigoberta Menchu and Betty Friedan, Edward Said is a postmodern Marxist uninterested in the concrete realities of individual lives and what they actually imply. For 30 years, he has presented himself as a Palestinian Everyman, in autobiographical writings and published interviews, and even in a film for the BBC. In all of these he has shaped his personal story as a holograph of the criminal dispossession that he claimed Jews had committed against his people.


To be sure, Said was a wealthy Everyman, a member of the moneyed Palestinian and cultural elite. But that very fact served to emphasize the dispossessions of home and homeland that the poorest Palestinians felt. Thus, reviewing one of Said's many books on this subject, the novelist Salman Rushdie observed that by writing about his "internal struggle: the anguish of living with displacement, with exile," Said "enables us to feel the pain of his people."

According to the official biography Said constructed and then retailed for 30 years (until his recent unmasking), he was born in 1935 in Jerusalem and grew up in a house located at 10 Brenner Street in the Talbiyeh district until he and his family were "dispossessed" by the city's Jewish occupiers when Israel became a state in 1948. "I was born in Jerusalem and spent most of my formative years there and, after 1948, when my entire family became refugees, in Egypt," Said wrote.

Said's political uses of the memories surrounding the house at 10 Brenner Street are further reflected in a speech he gave last year at Birzeit University on the West Bank: "The house from which my family departed in 1948 - was displaced - was also the house in which the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber lived for a while, and Buber of course was a great apostle of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, but he didn't mind living in an Arab house whose inhabitants had been displaced."


In other words, even Martin Buber - the most prominent Jewish critic of a specifically "Jewish" state, who had proposed instead a bi-national solution to create a Palestinian state that was both Jewish and Arab, didn't mind benefiting from the dispossession of the Arabs. Such hypocrites, these Jews.

Except that it was Said's aunt and uncle -- who actually owned the 10 Brenner Street house -- who evicted Buber, not the other way around. The eviction took place in 1942. Buber had been living there as a refugee from Nazi Germany, which he had left with his wife and two teenage granddaughters in 1938.

These salient facts, among others, were retrieved from Said's false memory by a Jewish scholar and lawyer named Justus Weiner, who spent three years researching the historical record. What he discovered speaks tomes about the veracity of Edward Said and his respect for historical truth.

In 1917, the Balfour Declaration allowed the possibility of a Jewish "national home" in the British Mandate in Palestine. It is an event that in Said's telling marks the beginning of the criminal dispossession of his family and people. In that year, however, the Saids were not residents of Palestine, but were living halfway across the world, in Boston, where they had landed in 1911 and where his father had become an American citizen.


This was not untypical of the Palestinian elite itself, which, by most historical accounts, had no strong sense of national identity, let alone nationalist grievance until 30 years later, after the establishment of the Jewish state. In fact, the Palestine Liberation Organization was not created until 1964, 16 years after the birth of Israel.

Indeed, when the Saids left America in 1926, it was not to emigrate to a "homeland" in Palestine but to Cairo, where they established a prosperous business. Not once in the ensuing 20 years before the establishment of Israel did the Saids think to resettle in the land called Palestine. Egypt was their home.

The myth Said has so artfully fabricated may play well on liberal guilt strings, but it plays havoc with the historical facts. The United Nations partitioned Palestine in 1947, leaving well-defined sectors for both Arabs and Jews. But the Palestinian Arabs rejected the partition and led a coalition of the surrounding Arab states in an attack on the Jews to drive them into the sea.

Edward Said is a die-hard revanchist who opposes the current Oslo peace process and final status negotiations. Politically, he is further to the left of Arafat than Benjamin Netanyahu is to the right of Peres and Barak. What his fabrications of self seek to accomplish is the presentation of Palestinian extremism as moderation -- in effect, a simple reflex of humanitarian conscience.


Having now been caught in his fictional web, Said has taken steps to revise his newly published autobiography, "Out of Place," to make it accord more closely with the newly revealed facts. But "Out of Place" is itself a form of deception since the text does not even mention the false version he has promoted for the last 30 years, or attempt to reconcile one with the other.

Far from conceding that an apology is in order, Said has retained the pose of self-righteous victim. When Weiner's article exposing him appeared, Said replied with a shrill attack in the Arab press under the headline: "Defamation, Zionist Style." From its opening sentence, Said's reply reflects the wretchedly low standards of its author's polemical style:

Given the approach of the final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it seems worthwhile to record here the lengths to which right-wing Zionists will go to further their claims on all of Palestine against those of the country's native Palestinian inhabitants who were dispossessed as an entire nation in 1948.

The argument could hardly be more disingenuous since Said opposes the current peace negotiations (which he regards as a "sellout"), while Weiner does not even mention them. Said's reference to dispossession typically could not be more loaded, forgetting as it does that the Palestinians were the aggressors, that their agenda was truly to achieve an ethnic cleansing (as the Jews' was not), and that the terrible consequences of their aggression were felt on both sides.


For while it is true that hundreds of thousands of native Palestinians were driven into Arab lands, it is also true that hundreds of thousands of Jews were driven out of Arab countries, out of eastern Jerusalem, out of the Old City - the holiest place on earth for Jews - and out of the West Bank. Reasonable people might conclude that this fateful episode encompassed two national tragedies. But not Edward Said.

Nor is he contrite about the personal details he has falsified. Taking the same tack as Rigoberta Menchu, who claimed that her fabrications were a Mayan cultural tradition (conflating many people's biographies with her own), Said tries to hide behind the Arab understanding of "family" as an extended clan. [Weiner] does not realize ... that the family house was in fact a family house in the Arab sense, which meant our families were one in ownership ... I have never claimed to have been made a refugee, but rather that my extended family, all of it -- uncles, cousins, aunts, grandparents -- in fact was. By the spring of 1948, not a single relative of mine was left in Palestine, ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces."

This, too, is simply false. The names of Said's parents were not on the deed to the "family house" at 10 Brenner Street. Moreover, just last March, in an interview with an Arab paper, Said lamented: "I feel even more depressed when I remember my beautiful old house surrounded by pine and orange trees in Al-Talbiyeh in east [actually western] Jerusalem which has been turned into a 'Christian embassy.'" No cultural ambiguity here. Of course, as an American and a linguist, Said would know very well the meaning his audience would attribute to the words he has used in 30 years of constructing his political lie.

We are presented, then, with three major figures of 20th century left-wing movements caught in the fabrication not only of their personal histories but of history itself. Are their attempted constructions of reality mere coincidence, or is there a deeper lesson to be learned from these episodes? Over and over again, the world vision of the left has failed in this century not because the ideas behind it weren't noble or seductive, but because in practice they did not work.

The vision of the left is by nature a romance of good and evil, of liberators and oppressors. Is the requirement of sustaining such a Manichaean vision the flattening of a reality that is so much more complex, and the reshaping of its narrative truth? Is the vision itself so at odds with what is that it necessitates this lying and the creation of myth to sustain its romance? More practical and prosaic minds will conclude that it does.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

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