Joel Brinkley eats his words (and they don't taste good)

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An Indochinese tiger, Mi, plays with her cubs at the Hanoi Zoo. Had Joel Brinkley, a professor of Journalism at Stanford University and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, been truly interested in the illegal wildlife trade in Vietnam, he could have gone to any number of illicit restaurants that have been identified by this newspaper and written about animal consumption that actually threatens the region's ecology rather than grosses out tourists.

When Joel Brinkley came to Vietnam in December, he heard no birds.

He saw no dogs out for walks.

"Where'd they all go?" he asked his reader, at the beginning of the month, in one of his weekly columns for the Tribune News Service. "You might be surprised to know: most have been eaten."

Who is Joel Brinkley?

You might be surprised to know that he's a 23-year veteran of The New York Times, a professor of Journalism at Stanford University and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Brinkley's column, "Despite Increasing Prosperity, Vietnam's Appetites Remain Unique" used a recent WWF report about the country's dire wildlife epidemic as a springboard to diagnose its people as singularly aggressive. Prof. Brinkley concluded that this aggression had been brought on by centuries of eating weird meats.

He cites the unnamed work of anonymous "anthropologists and historians" as the basis of his argument.

"Pshaw," wrote Christoph Giebel, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington who has written extensively on Vietnam. "Who would those be?"

Who, indeed?

Giebel's confounded response to Brinkley's writing was just one of many that I received after emailing the piece to several of Brinkley's peers and posting it onto the Vietnam Scholar Group list serve.

The replies to both my emails and requests for comment varied. At least two scholars, who asked not to be named, categorized Brinkley's work as racist, while two Southeast Asia specialists from Stanford's East Asian Studies Department seemed to regard it as grounds for legitimate inquiry.

Meanwhile, a growing pool of incredulous locals, expatriates and journalists have emailed me demanding to know why the piece was published or even written.

"If I had not known that Professor Brinkley is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, I would not have taken this article seriously," wrote Hong Kong Nguyen, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism who now works as a reporter for a private agency in Hanoi.

Nguyen said she was "enraged" by certain passages in the piece.

She was not alone.

"Brinkley's piece claims Vietnamese people are to a significant extent scavengers, eating whatever rats and stray dogs they find," wrote Erica J. Peters, a food historian who has written extensively on Vietnam's food ways and colonial history.

"Leaving aside periods of actual famine and starvation, that is completely unfounded. Furthermore, citizens of the United States have no standing to accuse the Vietnamese of military aggression. Consider how many overseas wars we fought against smaller countries in the twentieth century alone, compared to Vietnam's wars over a thousand years with an imperialistic China."

Professor Michael Lestz of the History Department at Trinity College found Brinkley's history rather retrograde.

"During the Vietnam War era and after, the Vietnamese were sometimes referred to as 'the Prussians of Southeast Asia," he wrote via email. "This nomenclature overlooked the fact that many of the wars of Vietnamese history were defensive ones, whether against the Chinese, Mongols, Cham, or, for that matter, the French and Americans. Relating protein need and the wider patterns of national defense is tenuous at best."

Brinkley himself seemed confused. In an article published by the SF Gate a week before, he described Vietnam as having been invaded by China 17 times. In the subsequent piece, he cites Vietnam's defense against invasion as evidence of Vietnam's aggression.

He also asserted that the people of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia have mostly spent the last few centuries sitting around passively eating rice.

Professor David Chandler, one of the foremost scholars on Cambodia and the region, characterized Brinkley's column "amazingly shallow."

He pointed out that Thailand launched far more incursions into Cambodia than Vietnam, and that one could hardly describe Khmer people as more passive than Vietnamese people.

"To say Cambodians are "˜passive' sounds odd, given the record of the Khmer Rouge or the violence of Cambodia's civil wars or the centuries when they dominated much of Southeast Asia," he added. "They get ample protein from fish. This has had nothing to do as far as I can determine with either their warlike or passive qualities."

Brinkley's column includes just one actual Vietnamese person"”the unnamed woman selling "rats" in Da Nang. The picture appeared in the SF Gate and the Chicago Tribune.

When I reached Brinkley, by telephone two weeks ago, he sounded exhausted and annoyed. 

When asked about the cross-border slaughters of Vietnamese civilians in the Mekong Delta that ultimately moved the nation to go to war with the Khmer Rouge, Brinkley snapped: "You know I've written a book about this."

When pressed, he characterized the slaughters as "minor" or, possibly, things that never happened at all.

"Nobody knew what was going on then," he said-a rather remarkable claim.

When asked how many civilians have to die before a war is considered "defensive" rather than "aggressive," he said he didn't know.

"That's an unanswerable question."

The interview proved as mind-bending as his column. What was Brinkley thinking? What was his point?

When asked if he really believed Cambodians were "passive," he seemed to say that they have never been able to afford meat but, due to an innate cultural virtue, have not deigned to eat wildlife-a claim Brinkley seemed unwilling or uninterested in supporting with citations, quotes or evidence.

He repeatedly insisted upon his extensive experience and authority on the subject. But the only person he quoted in his piece was an anonymous Western blogger who declared that he could "not imagine anything more gruesome" than someone eating a dog for dinner.

"I could not agree more," Brinkley wrote.

 
Joel Brinkley, a professor of Journalism at Stanford University and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize

When I asked him if he actually couldn't imagine anything more gruesome than someone eating a dog, he scoffed.

"Well isn't that a silly question?" he asked.

It was, I admitted.

But was it anywhere near as silly as writing an editorial describing a nation that had spent its entire existence defending itself from invasions as singularly aggressive and then attributing that aggression to its diet?

Brinkley responded that we would have to agree to disagree on that point.

"Look man," I finally said. "You covered a genocide. Is the idea of eating a dog even in the upper registers of gruesome things that you can imagine?"

"No," he said. "It isn't."

That was about as much as any of us have been able to get Brinkley to admit.

After a flood of outraged comments posted on the Tribune website, Brinkley posted a defense of his piece on Jim Romenesko's media blog. His response was written to a weak defense of Vietnam offered by ex-New York Times writer Paul Von Zielbauer. "Vietnamese people despite the taste among some for certain kinds of food that we may find offensive are lovely people to a remarkable degree," Zielbauer wrote.

After owning that his dietary argument "was perhaps not as well phrased as it could have been," Brinkley dug even deeper into his claims and posted a picture of the Da Nang woman cleaning rodents.

I can tell you, as an American, that Brinkley and Von Zielbauer wouldn't dare to pontificate on the dietary habits of a particular race of people at home, much less hold a public debate on whether that groups is "aggressive" or "lovely"¦ to a remarkable degree."

Vietnamese people are people. They love. They fight. They eat different things. Some of them are jerks. Some of them are nice. Some of them are all of these things and more, depending on the day that you meet them.

But Brinkley proved himself almost as poor a historian and ethnographer as a journalist.

Had he been truly interested in the illegal wildlife trade, he could have gone to any number of illicit restaurants that have been identified by this newspaper and written about animal consumption that actually threatens the region's ecology rather than grosses out tourists.

He could have gone to Nghe An, where village posses have literally murdered dog thieves or he could have taken a walk, anywhere, and met plenty of rats and cats and dogs that no one has any interest in eating.

For god's sake, he might have even sat down and eaten a field mouse or a dog to get some sense of why people actually do it and who they are.

Instead, he snapped a few photos of domestically raised animals he found disgusting and then dashed off a snide opinion piece couched as a piece of analysis.

The worst part is that Brinkley hasn't come to terms with what he did.  And no one has forced him to do so.

The Tribune Media Services has posted this rather incoherent notice at the end of the piece:

"Tribune Media Services (TMS) recently moved an opinion column by Joel Brinkley about his observations from a trip to Vietnam that did not meet our journalistic standards," the statement read.  

"TMS has a rigorous editing process for its content, and in the case of Brinkley's column that moved January 29, all the required steps did not occur. We regret that this happened, and we will be vigilant in ensuring that our editing process works in the future."

If that weren't embarrassing enough for Brinkley the Chicago Tribune felt the need to issue its own retraction:

On February 2, Standards Editor Margaret Holt posted a brief statement noting that Brinkley's column had "offended many people, including those of Asian American descent."

Holt thanked everyone for their comments which, she said, "have generally been thoughtful and added to the public understanding of the controversy."

The thing is, by Tuesday night, neither the paper nor the service actually took the piece down"”they just removed all the outraged comments.

In the meantime, Jason Nguyen of Chicago established an online petition demanding that Brinkley resign from his post at Stanford University. Nguyen had gathered 50 signatures by Tuesday night, at which point, Brinkley issued a response.
He asked everyone to remember that his opinions are his own and not those of Stanford University's. 

Then he apologized. Sort of.

"For those of you who have signed the petition, and others who are upset, please accept my regret," he wrote. "I will keep your point of view in mind when I write about Vietnam again."

No one appears to be particularly excited for when that next time will come.

The petition for Brinkley's resignation has since soared to 1,500 signatures and the Asian American Journalists and the Stanford Vietnamese Students' Associations both published pieces further condemning Brinkley's piece.

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