By Neel Thakkar
Two weeks after a column on Vietnamese dietary habits written by professor of communication Joel Brinkley prompted controversy and criticism nationally and in Vietnam, Brinkley has continued to defend the column’s substance amid a proliferation of petitions calling for an apology or even his resignation.
In the column, published on Jan. 29 in the Chicago Tribune, Brinkley attributed the lack of domesticated animals in Vietnam, as well as the Vietnamese people’s “aggressive tendencies,” to the country’s meat-eating tendencies.
“Animal trafficking explains the dearth of tigers, elephants and other big beasts. But what about birds and rats?” Brinkley wrote. “Yes, people eat those, too, like almost every animal that lives there.”
Within days, two petitions—one calling on Brinkley to immediately resign and the other requesting that he “publicly apologize, and in a highly-visible way”—sprang up on the website Change.org, and the column began attracting media coverage in the United States and Vietnam. The first petition has over 4,000 signees, and the second has over 1,600.
On Feb. 1, Tribune Media Services issued an apology, saying that the column “did not meet our journalistic standards” and that it had “provoked a highly critical response from our readers.”
Though Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times for almost 25 years, said the column’s reception had been “unexpected and quite surprising,” he defended the substance of the piece.
“What I wrote is what I observed and what I learned in quite a number of interviews,” said Brinkley, who conducted reporting during a 10-day trip to Vietnam in late December and early January.
Brinkley said he has been to Vietnam “four or five times” and recently published a book on neighboring Cambodia.
“There’s only one part of [the column] that I did not phrase as well as I should have, and that was the link between food and aggression,” Brinkley said.
Having spent months in Laos and Cambodia, where people primarily eat rice, Brinkley commented that “the Vietnamese seemed a lot more robust.”
“It’s perfectly logical,” he said. “If you don’t eat protein, you’re not going to have a lot of energy.”
Critics—both national and on-campus—of Brinkley’s column argued that the piece presented negative stereotypes about Vietnamese culture. In an op-ed published in The Daily, the Stanford Vietnamese Students’ Association (SVSA) complained that the article lacked factual rigor.
“His offensive statements, such as the assertion that the Vietnamese have consumed almost all of their wild/domesticated animals, are inaccurate and sensationalist,” SVSA wrote.
Katherine Vu ’13, one of SVSA’s core members, said that the op-ed was not intended to be “an offensive or defensive attack.” Kimberly Vu ’13, another core member, said that most members of the group did not agree with outside calls for Brinkley’s resignation.
“It would be so much better if this had a positive outcome in which we had a really good discussion and we could bring to light that these things [that the column describes] happen, but these are the true, real facts about what they are,” Katherine said. “We definitely want to talk to him, and I think it would be great if he came to our Culture Night or something.”
Cindy Ng, the director of the Asian American Activities Center, echoed that sentiment, crediting the “thoughtful, constructive, respectful discussion” that emerged on campus in response to the column.
Kimberly and Katherine said that the group recently decided to email Brinkley to discuss the issues raised by the column but that they had yet to reach out.
Brinkley said that there had been no communication between him and the SVSA since the column’s publication, but that he would be open to talking with them.
“Sure,” he said. “I spoke with a group of Cambodian students last week. I speak to groups here all the time. If they want to speak to me, I’d be happy to speak with them.”