The New York Times Obscures the Leftism of the 43 Missing Mexican Students

The New York Times‘s recent story on the 43 missing Mexican students carefully obscures the extent and nature of their militant radical politics. In profiling the students, who are now presumed to be the ones found burned and dismembered in a mass grave, NYT writer Randal Archibold begins as follows:

They were farm boys who did well in school and took one of the few options available beyond the backbreaking work in the corn and bean fields of southern Mexico: enrolling in a local teachers college with a history of radicalism but the promise of a stable classroom job.

The framing here is well-crafted, and noteworthy for how clearly it comports with a Timesian worldview. The students are portrayed sympathetically, as hard workers trying to escape their social conditions. But note how they are distanced from radicalism. Their college has politics (at least historically), sure, but the students themselves are simply good honest boys committed to climbing the ladder of the education profession. It is almost as if Archibold feels the need to make an excuse for them. Yes, there was leftism about, but it was the only route to a teaching post!

Yet this picture of otherwise-apolitical students forced by circumstance to attend a radical school is at odds with other reports. A far more in-depth investigation from VICE portrays a student body unified in its commitment to social action. “We are a school in the struggle,” VICE quotes a student as saying. Depictions of Lenin and Che adorn the college walls, and the students in this “cradle of social consciousness” are anticapitalists known to nonviolently seize the cargo of Coca-Cola trucks because of resource shortages.

This is crucial, and one does not get anywhere near the full sense of it from the Times’s coverage. The paper’s initial report of the students’ disappearing did not even mention the politics involved (nor did the one on the discovery of the bodies). In Archibold’s lengthier piece, he does touch on this context at one point well into the article. But even there he does not discuss the actual substantive grounds of the students’ actions, and more critically, he doesn’t quote any of the teachers’ college students or their spokesman. Instead, he merely gives the odious suggestion that some students may have previously “provoked violence” and “did again this time.” One might think this contradicts the opening passage, but remember that the liberal worldview has room for two kinds of young leftists: do-gooder sober-minded Volunteers and misguided hotheaded Agitators. Archibold also use familiar patronizing tones in his wording, describing the “hodgepodge” of human rights groups (never a collection, always a hodgepodge), and the presence of “slogans” like “protest is a right, repression is a crime” (that’s not actually a slogan, it’s a fact.) At no point do we get an actual explanation of what the issues that motivated them were. It’s just a horrible tale of corruption in Mexico, of the slaughter of 43 innocent lambs in a bloody, gang-ridden country.

The Times’s approach to covering the students’ politics is wrong for two reasons. First, from the mere perspective of trying to understand what happened, the threat posed to locals in power by the students’ radical anticapitalism may explain the murderous backlash they seem to have encountered. Second, failing to detail the students’ politics, and treating them as if they were mere starry-eyed Teach for America volunteers, does a grave injustice to their life’s work. These students died because they dared to challenge those in power, and to portray them as simple victims doesn’t give their struggle its due. A liberal worldview such as the Times’s doesn’t contemplate the idea of the sensible radical; one is either sensible and taken seriously or radical and dismissed. But the Mexican students cannot be pigeonholed this way. From the evidence, they appear to have been intelligent, committed leftists who both hijacked food trucks in the name of anticapitalism and were good hardworking people who aspired to teaching. To appreciate the truth requires being able to see how these facts do not contradict one another.

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