Monday, March 12, 2007

Frank Rich should know better

Let it be known straight away that I am a big fan of Frank Rich’s weekly column in the New York Times—Rich almost always either has a fresh perspective on the week’s events, or just says what we’ve all been thinking, but in a succinct and elegant manner.

I certainly can heap similar praise upon yesterday’s OpEd, Why Libby’s Pardon is a Slam Dunk, but I do so this time with a wag of the finger. In the penultimate paragraph, Rich makes the surprising mistake of perpetuating a generation-old falsehood:

As is often noted, any parallels between Iraq and Vietnam do not extend to America's treatment of its troops. No one spits at those serving in Iraq. But our "support" for the troops has often been as hypocritical as that of an administration that still fails to provide them with sufficient armor. Health care indignities, among other betrayals of returning veterans, have been reported by countless news organizations since the war began, not just this year. Many in Congress did nothing, and we as a people have often looked the other way, supporting the troops with car decals and donated phone cards while the same history repeats itself again and again.

(emph. added)

Frank Rich is hardly the only member of the establishment press to make this error. Indeed, the last two-dozen years of journalistic and dramatic retellings of the Vietnam era are filled with stories—or, rather, the story—of returning Viet vets, fresh from fighting the Vietcong, having to wage war against the flying saliva of anti-war protestors.

The problem is, it never happened.

Or likely never happened. Let’s just say this: yes, it’s hard to prove a negative, but as Jack Shafer wrote in Slate back in 2000, there is no documented proof of this spitting having ever happened.

Shafer tells of work by sociologist Jerry Lembcke, who, in his 1998 book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, looked at hundreds of newspaper accounts of protestors spitting on soldiers and found that none of them withstood scrutiny—none of them. All the stories seem to spring from one archetype—unsubstantiated and uncorroborated. In short, the story of war protestors spitting on Vietnam veterans is an urban myth.

(In fact, Lembcke finds several documented stories of war protestors being spat upon by counter-protestors—a point that seems to confirm that if spitting had been going on in the other direction, it would have been reported and would thus show up in Nexis searches of that period.)

While I am always outraged by the lazy repetition of unsubstantiated stories by the establishment media, I am not always surprised. But what gets me writing here is indeed surprise, because I usually don’t count Frank Rich among the usual sloths of the fourth estate. I would have thought Rich would have known already that the spitting story is a myth, but, at the minimum, I would think the longtime journalist/skeptic would have known not to just accept and repeat the trope without giving it a cursory google.

I would have thought that Frank Rich would have known better.


Anonymous K.Bowman said...

You cannot cite Lembcke with confidence. Have you read Jack Shafer's columns lately? He is not so hot on Lembcke's thesis anyome.

4:40 PM  
Blogger guy2k said...

Thank you for the comment.

Yes, interestingly, Shafer did write just last week ( about finding one Viet vet, featured in a 1971 CBS News piece, that can still recount (although with great discrepancies) a spitting incident that happened to him (and not some friend of a friend, or the like).

I do not doubt for a minute that there were Vietnam War protestors that behaved badly. A lot of people opposed that war by the time this spit story is said to take place, I'm sure some of them were jerks. But that's not really the point.

The point of Lembcke's book and Shafer’s many columns is to trace the origins of a story that has now become accepted not as an isolated incident, but as the typical response of the left to soldiers returning from war.

Reading all of Shafer's article from 3/7 will show you that he still believes that spitting was not even close to the norm it is now reported to have been.

And I don't think finding this one story undermines Lembcke's work. Lembcke traces how an undocumented story becomes universally accepted as "true." It is about the creation of an urban legend. Indeed, even this one soldier's retelling of his experience shows many of the telltale signs of mythmaking. Again, I'm not saying the story isn't true--just observe how it has "evolved."

8:01 AM  
Anonymous K.Bowman said...

Arguing about how widepread an offensive activity was, is, of course, pointless. No serious person seriously believes that any more than a very small fraction of a percentage of Vietnam vets faced actual spitting. The event, I am certain, is understood as an extreme example of the peculiarly hostile and ungrateful state that the nation was in and which vets faced when they returned home. Recorded incidents of spitting on police by demonstrators at the time are much more common, but I would, again, not hesitate to say that such incidents were comparatively rare as a percentage among either policemen or demonstrators. I imagine that the same is probably true of spitting on civil rights activists, although we know it happened. I would not discredit the first-hand account of a freedom rider or SCLC or NAACP member who said it happened to them. The significance of the activity is not, however, necessarily tied to its frequency. It is not that unusual, although not perhaps always fair, that movements may be judged by their most extreme manifestations.

As Jack Shafer recognized, however, finding prominent examples of contemporary reporting of spitting on vets DOES substantially undermine Lembcke's work. Certainly, Lembcke's primary thesis that the spitting meme began as a Thermidorian reaction to counterculture in the 1980's is in tatters. As early as 1971 it is documented as a very widespread story among vets, and was reported as such in a Congressional Subcommitte Report of that year. Here:
Delmar Pickett's story is just one instance. The fact that Lembcke missed this evidence (and there is much more) shows that his attempt to "trace how an undocumented story becomes true" is a failure. If there is an "urban legend" it began in Vietnam before 1971, not later as Lembcke argued. Besides, it is not undocumented; it is not untrue; and Lembcke does not provide a credible "trace" of the meme historically. I expect that more people saw the 1971 CBS newscast of Delmar Pickett than saw Rambo "First Blood." Besides, Lembcke even misses out on earlier appearances of the meme in popular culture. Check out the 1979 Lou Grant Episode "Vet."

Pickett told his story on CBS news shortly after he arrived home. It did not evolve then. Indeed, how and why would it evolve to conform to an urban legend that Lembcke said did not even originate until a decade later? Pickett is a war vet of extraordinary bravery and accomplishment. As a non-combatant (a medic) he received five purple hearts, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the basic air medal with 25 clusters, air medal with V device, and two Vietnamese Crosses of Galantry, as well as being fired at over 1,000 times. I would feel ashamed to suggest that he was engaged in "myth-making."

Indeed, the story that has been substantially undermined here is Lembcke's. His was a thesis whose proof consisted of a supposed absence of evidence from the time that incidents of spitting occurred. He was fact-checked, and it turned out there was no absense. His thesis is now an empty shell. His work has been cited and relied upon enormously over the last eight years. As a matter of academic and historical study, he has done extraordinary harm. See Jim Lindgren's analysis at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Jack Shafer, on the other hand, has shown good faith in reporting what he has been sent and in following up on it. I do think, however, that he has shown more reluctance than he might have in abandoning Lembcke and a position that he has tied himself to for the last six years.

6:49 PM  

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