Letting Loose of Liberalism: Some Thoughts on Cultural Work and the Limits of Polite Discourse

Letting Loose of Liberalism: Some Thoughts on Cultural Work and the Limits of Polite Discourse

By David E. Whisnant

Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 1-11

IN Walker Percy’s story “The Last Donahue Show,” the topic of the day is “sexual preference.” Midway through, the show is interrupted by three intruders: a black-cloaked Calvin-like spokesman for the old culture of Puritan New England, handsome Col. John Pelham, a paragon of the gallantry and chivalry of the Old South, and a Cosmic Stranger from another planet. Calvin finds the concept of “sexual preference” completely incomprehensible, and Pelham considers the discussion unnecessary because “a gentleman knows how to treat women.”

Looking for all the world like Harry Truman, the Cosmic Stranger sees the self-indulgent maunderings of Donahue’s guests and audience as a symptom of a profound cultural disorder. Earthlings, he says, are “D.D.s” (dingalings, deathdealers, and deathlovers) who face an imminent apocalypse–explicitly atomic but implicitly historical and cultural. He confides that the only place of refuge is a cave in Lost Cove, Tennessee, which is stocked with corn, grits, collard greens, and sausage. The story ends with a question (“If you heard this Donahue Show, would you head for Lost Cove?”)

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and a box to check yes or no.

This story may seem an odd point of departure for thinking about the arts and humanities in the public sector. But to me it seems usefully provocative in this second (Bush-Quayle) phase of an era characterized on the one hand by Reagan’s narcolepsy, William Bennett’s meanspiritedness, the Valdez, fading ozone, and 82nd Airborne democracy, and on the other hand by Walesa, Mandela, Havel and falling walls everywhere. A bit less cosmically than the Cosmic Stranger, I read the story partly as a parable about vital small-scale vs. alienated mass culture–about soul food and straight talk vs. lean cuisine and Donahue drivel. In any case, you should know that the voice you are hearing comes to you as much from Lost Cove as from anywhere else.

I was raised, after all, not on what is usually called “good literature” and “good music,” but on the Reader’s Digest, late-night country music shows from WLS, WCKY, and WWVA, and the gospel music of the Southern Baptist church. Later, scouting the margins of elite culture, I spent years singing German lieder and Italian art songs in a thousand voice lessons, Monteverdi in madrigal groups, and Bach and Mozart and Brahms in oratorio societies. Still later, in my first timorous return to Lost Cove, it was Carter Family and Blue Sky Boys songs in a string band, and more recently it has been romantic and political songs from Latin America. I count myself fortunate to have realized in a few blessed moments of clarity that I can love it all, that I do not have to choose.

MY most transcendent cultural experiences have ranged across many boundaries: one was standing as a Georgia Tech freshman in an illfitting rented tuxedo in the top balcony of the Fox Theater in Atlanta and hearing the humming chorus from Madame Butterfly during the annual spring visit of the Metropolitan Opera to the Sahara of the Bozarts; another was hearing Cajun music for the first time as the Balfa brothers and Nathan Abshire sailed into “Pine Grove Blues” at the University of Illinois where I was a seared new assistant professor; another was hearing six aged black men from Port Deposit, Maryland, sing “I Don’t Care Where They Bury My Body” on the thirty-fifth anniversary of their performing together as the Little Wonders gospel

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quartet; still another one was watching my daughter and a Peabody Conservatory classmate perform the Bach double violin concerto on two violins I had built; another was feeling myself almost literally lifted from my seat when I heard “Dove song” from The Marriage of Figaro at the Staatsoper in Vienna; and–having grown up as monolingually as one possibly could–I was moved beyond words in any language when at the age of forty-eight I was finally able to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Cien anos de soledad in Spanish.

Thus whatever I have come to think about the politics of culture or about cultural programs and policy is grounded in my sense that all of this is good, that all of it is evidence of the magnificent creativity of the human spirit, and that if we are to keep our bearings, we have to read both Garcia Marquez and Faulkner, and to listen to both Mozart and Merle Haggard–not the “Okie From Muskogee” Merle who fascinated Nixon, but the Merle of “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” who beneath the jingoism knows the cultural score.

My own work during the years I was stumbling through to learning these things has focused on the social and cultural history of the southern Appalachian region, on the music and culture of marginalized people, and upon the politics of culture, first in Appalachia and more recently in Nicaragua. In the public sector I have worked with folklife festivals and museums, state humanities commissions and national endowments, Foxfire and Highlander, film makers and record producers.

Through it all, my own evolving cultural politics have drawn from the most disparate of sources: from a San Francisco carpenter and shipwright; from a powerful Appalachian composer-singer who learned about Percy’s D.D. culture by watching family members being killed in coal mines and her sister becoming a prostitute on the streets of Baltimore, and who wrote songs about both; from Shaker cabinetmakers and Cremona violin makers; from a Sardinian who worked out much of his politics in a Fascist jail cell; from a North African psychiatrist, a Nicaraguan poet, a Uruguayan novelist, and a Quiche woman from the Guatemalan highlands. That is to say, I have learned in the first instance from those who have scribed indelibly the line between good work and poor work, but beyond that from those who have engaged with the

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politics of their circumstances, faced the contradictions, defiantly asserted their otherness, risked speaking their outrage, and crafted beauty and made sense out of their pain.

So how do things look to me in this arts and humanities sector of the public policy arena? Whose lips are really worth reading, whose tunes worth dancing to?

Obviously it is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that the past twenty-five years have witnessed a long-delayed but on the whole healthy legitimation of the arts and humanities in the making of public policy in the United States. That process has paralleled a global resurgence of culturally energized political movements of both a progressive and a reactionary character: in the middle east, in the Baltic republics, in northern Ireland, in eastern Europe, in Tibet, in Latin America, in Africa, in the United States. Those movements have resonated to the rhythms of rockabilly, of Tex-Mex and nueva cancion, of rap and reggae, and more recently of long-forbidden national anthems.

All of that is good. But if you will permit me, I will focus–like the Cosmic Stranger–more on the bad than on the good news, for that is where the most vexing problems and demanding challenges lie, both conceptually and programatically.

One has to say at the outset that the social, political, and economic climate is not especially hospitable for our work, and that in some important respects it grows less so daily. At the same time that the data show increasing social and economic inequality, distress and dislocation, we find ourselves in the second Reagan-Bush decade of dramatic reductions in public expenditures for social programs of whatever character. The entire social infrastructure has been decimated. Sliding SAT scores, rising infant mortality, ugly racial incidents, a slew of toxic waste dump controversies, and new brands of cigarettes aimed at vulnerable young women and the Third World poor remind us that many of the promises of the sixties–relative to education, civil rights, the environment and women–have been deferred or reversed. Here in North Carolina, a university system that has no money to buy library books or xerox paper can afford a six-figure buyout for an arrogant, sleazy basketball coach, and a nation that can’t afford a few billion to feed or house the homeless can afford to buy out savings and loan sharks to the tune of hundreds of billions. In U.S. foreign policy we see a resurgence of culturally based jingoism, bellicosity, self-deception and simple-mindedness (in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama), of arrant cynicism (in China), of penuriousness (in eastern Europe), of timidity and temporizing (in South Africa and Lithuania).

In the cultural arena, public funds are drying up. Changes in the tax laws (as in the Tax Reform Act of 1986) are reducing private donations at the same time that the fact (and necessity) of increased dependence upon such donations threatens to make cultural institutions responsive primarily to well-heeled constituencies and corporate donors.1 Most public cultural programs are operating on bakesale budgets, and finding their work increasingly complicated by rising Helms-style censorship and intimidation, as was evident in the recent National Council for the Arts board meeting in Winston-Salem. An era in which the reactionary wife of the reactionary Secretary of Defense is head of the National Endowment for the Humanities is an era of serious threat to the work we are trying to do.

So what can and should we do in these hard times? I suggest that as a first step we admit that the liberal analysis and strategies we have long used to guide and shape our work are unequal to the tasks we face. What do I mean by “liberal analysis and strategies”? What are their limitations, and why are those limitations unacceptable?

At the risk of caricaturing rather than characterizing fairly, I will try to put it briefly: Within the usual liberal paradigm, cultural policy amounts principally to obtaining, allocating and monitoring direct public subsidies for established cultural institutions, which in turn build public collections, mount public exhibits and produce public

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programs. Characteristically, culture is thought of as a more or less self-contained sector, or as a superstructure. “Culture” means “the arts” (or more restrictedly, the “fine” arts), which are produced by “artists” and consumed by a listening/viewing/reading public. This public needs to be given information about, have “access” to, and “learn to appreciate,” the arts. Providing that information and “access” and engendering that “appreciation” is assumed to have a soothing, enlightening and together bringing effect–producing a unified public sensitive to and unthreatened by its own “rich cultural diversity.” Tacking on “the humanities” alters the paradigm only slightly, especially if by the humanities one means anything close to the National Endowment’s bland Shakespeare-Columbus-and-the-Constitution, great- works-and-great-men version of them.

It is no wonder that except for the Jesse Helms fringe, legislators don’t worry themselves unduly about the culture crowd. We can be thrown a sop; we can be tricked into scrambling for a few scraps; we can be depended upon not to challenge or upset the status quo in any serious way. Meanwhile, our low-budget exhibits and programs cast a comforting and legitimizing glow over business as usual.

So I suggest that the bland, essentially credulous liberal paradigm is pitifully unequal to the task if one conceives of the task in even moderately broad and sophisticated terms. Much tougher-minded analysis is called for if we are to get beyond these limits–even within our customary theaters of operation, to say nothing of within some larger and quite unfamiliar strategic arenas into which events are thrusting us.

So how do we get beyond these limits? What clarifications are possible?

In the first place, I submit that the arts (or fine arts) and humanities conception of culture has long since outlived its usefulness as an oasis for policy formulation, if indeed it ever had much. Culture is how people hold their babies, plant a garden, cook their food, answer the telephone, sing and dance. A little less palpably but even more importantly, it is how people love and raise their kids, and what they think is worth explaining to them. But most importantly, culture is also the basic orientation people have with respect to fundamental questions, the terms they use to make sense

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of things–like, for example, what they think it means to be male or female. Even more problematically, it is how people recognize and name what they love and hate and fear. It is how they decide who is us and who is them.

So why does this matter to us? It matters because if this is what culture is, it is therefore as productive of conflict as of harmony, as likely to divide and engender conflict across borders as to unite within them. We must therefore subject to serious scrutiny our habitual liberal confidence in the various forms of polite discourse–our touching confidence that multiethnic festivals and roundtable discussions and got-together “community dialogues” will be very serviceable. We must question our naive liberal expectation that when people come together to discuss their differences they will discover that they really don’t have very many, or that the ones they have aren’t very important, or that there are some low-cost solutions to them. Music may in some vague way be a “universal language,” but Pinochet killed Victor Jara for singing his songs nevertheless.

What I am saying–to take an example closer to our political and social realities here in the Southeast–is that the world of textile managers and their superiors in the boardrooms of the multinationals is not the same world as that of textile workers; the world of Alaska fishermen is not that of big-oil CEOs who build single-hull tankers because they are cheaper. And neither is their culture. The world of Bill Bennett and Jesse Helms is not our world, and we are not going to dialogue it out–not in a weekend seminar, and not in a thousand years.

Hence given the choice between arranging a “public dialogue” between any group of haves and any group of have-nots, or figuring out some way to help the have-nots understand the structural (and therefore inescapably cultural) relationships between the two, I would always choose the latter. There is no way of avoiding, it seems to me, the possibility that serious cultural work will sometimes lead to divisiveness, tension, and conflict. And the probability of conflict is directly proportional to the seriousness of the work.

Part of what this means, in turn, is that the familiar and reassuring walls between cultural and “noncultural” policy sectors must come down, and we must recognize that nearly all policy is cultural policy at some level: because it increases or decreases the life chances of some sector of the population, reinforces and affirms some and destabilizes and shames others, privileges and empowers some and marginalizes and disempowers others. Hence we must make ourselves cognizant of every area of policy, concern ourselves with it, and bring a culturally informed perspective and analysis to bear upon it. We must therefore conceive of our work as consisting at least as much in monitoring the cultural implications and impacts of policy in the noncultural sectors as it does in operating programs in the explicitly cultural sector itself.

Conversely, we must bear in mind that any analysis of or policymaking about culture has inescapable structural implications, and therefore must be consciously conceived in structural terms. A decision to fund a certain cultural form, practice, or sector is an inescapably social and political decision. If one funds elite culture, one inevitably legitimizes and solidifies the social position, values and selfunderstanding of the elites who mainly patronize it. If one funds a black performance or Hispanic folk arts exhibit, one inevitably affects public understanding (or misunderstanding) of structural inequality and marginalization.

Thus we must for example entertain the possibility that the time-honored practice of busing kids to symphony concerts or exhibits of oil on canvas may have shaming, alienating and disempowering–as well as affirming and liberating–effects. In the same way, we must think about the extent to which folklife festivals or exhibits of exotic and idiosyncratic folk art–if they present a simplistic and sanitized version of traditional culture–may confuse and mislead a naive public about the intensely conflicted and inescapably political dynamics of cultural survival and change.

A corollary to what I have just argued is that we must resist and subject to serious public scrutiny the increasingly prevalent argument that public funding for the arts and humanities may (or must) be justified in economic terms. It is common to argue these days that when one funds culture there are desirable “economic multiplier” effects–that for example museums and symphony orchestras make an attractive climate for new industries. Never mind that many of those industries are runaway ones looking for low wage, nonunion, female labor in the right-to-work sunbelt.

The economic justification argument for arts funding is dangerous and insidious. It concedes the legitimacy of the established economic and political order and turns culture into its uncritical handmaiden. It ratifies the facile assumption that economic considerations are primary and central, and culture superordinate and peripheral. It predisposes us to define culture in the terms preferred by managerial elites. Worst of all, it coopts and frustrates the transformative power of culture. It denies that the most vital culture

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is always critical, and more often than not insurgent and subversive–that it is precisely what scares the Bill Bennetts and Allan Blooms of the world to death.

I would go on to argue, moreover, that at the very center of the cultural policy and programming agenda must be the larger agenda of social critique and reconstruction. The time for quaint or pretty diddling around has passed. We are in a serious game, and the sooner we face that fact, the better. The primary question is not whether this or that exhibit is going to be mounted, concert held, play staged, or genteel “dialogue” arranged, but whether we can prove the Cosmic Intruder wrong.

We know in our guts that nation states as we have conceived of them are anachronisms–that they are not necessarily some universally and transhistorically functional mechanisms. We know in our guts that war is not a useful or acceptable instrument of policy, and that the environmental vector points toward disaster. We know in our guts that present gender definitions are not serviceable (for women or for men). What we may have less of a gut sense of–but which is profoundly true–is that all of these assumptions, forms, and issues are at their deepest level cultural. To the extent that that becomes clearer to us, our thinking and strategizing about cultural policy will get more sophisticated and our programming more effective.

It seems to me to follow, then, that in order to commit ourselves seriously and effectively to such an agenda of critique and reconstruction, we must think strategically and globally even as we plan and act tactically and locally. The days of fortress America are past; the myth of American exceptionalism has lost all credibility. After so many years of living mostly outside it, history has finally thrust itself upon us. Hence our work is not to “bring the arts and humanities” to people–or vice versa–but to help people shape and sharpen the analytical tools that will assist them in understanding their own historical and cultural circumstances.

Our work, I am suggesting, is about a kind of enlightenment that is neither conceptually nor practically separable from empowerment. Our work should be much less to provide essentially rarified aesthetic experiences for a small elite than to help the great majority of people come to an awareness of their own insight and knowledge, and of the links between knowledge and power.

Consequently our work is not mainly to “provide access”–as in the old liberal paradigm–but to push toward cultural equity and democracy in a period of intensifying social/political/economic conflict and the increasing consolidation of power. It is to demystify in a period in which obfuscation and public mystification have become such central functions of government that Dan Quayle signs a Jesse Helms fundraising letter one week and goes the next as an envoy for democracy to a Latin America already wracked by years of CIA-style democracy.

Finally, we must focus policy and programming increasingly upon cultural production rather than consumption, upon cultural action rather than passive “appreciation” or exhibition. This is necessary because for the culturally marginalized, actively making and doing culture are empowering, while passively appreciating is likely to have at least the secondary effect of rationalizing, legitimizing and solidifying the culturally marked boundaries of established power.

And so if we do all of this–or even some bits of it–will it be dangerous? Yes. Inescapably. If they begin to think that what we are doing will really change things very much, they will stop funding us. Period. It is that simple, for they may be meanspirited, but they are not stupid.

If they do stop funding us, there will be some real losses. But there would be gains, too, so that it is not at all clear to me that absent the public dollars the situation would necessarily be hopeless. Our own structural position as well as that of marginalized cultural groups would at least become clearer. The discourse might

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become sharper, more honest and sophisticated, and less bland, genteel and polite. Some limits would be recognized, and some more apt analytical paradigms might be discovered and employed. The inescapable politics of the cultural enterprise would be on the table for discussion, and we might get through to some further clarity about the operation of power in the cultural arena. We might even create some autonomous structures less subject to reactionary political pressure.

As we contemplate the risks, we should also bear in mind that public funds are by no means the only resources available to us. In the first place we have our own experience and knowledge–the knowledge we have gained from having conceived and put together scores of institutions and programs, as well as the negative but useful gut knowledge that makes us from time to time look up from writing yet another grant proposal and say (to no one more than to ourselves) “this is crazy.” The latter sort of knowledge tends to be mostly inchoate, but we have it nevertheless, and we can attach it to some energies that are also trying to move within us and amongst us.

There is also some extraordinarily pertinent analysis out there, bunches of books to be read that will tell us more that we need to know than shelves full of NEA and NEH annual reports or shamelessly elitist and ethnocentric tracts like Cultural Literacy and The Closing of the American Mind. The most useful analysis has been advanced, at least in my estimation, not by the too frequently alienated and elitist “theory” crowd, but by grounded, passionate, frequently self-educated intellectuals: by Paolo Freire and Frantz Fanon, by Rigoberta Menchu and Domitila Barrios, by Roland Bartes and Raymond Williams, by Carlos Fuentes and Eduardo Galeano, by Maxine Hong Kingston and Gloria Anzaldua, by Will Campbell and Vine Deloria.

We also have available to us the clarifying experience of marginalized subject peoples all over the world who are showing us how to use culture for purposes of challenge and liberation: Lithuanians and Estonians, the mothers of la Plaza de Mayo, blacks and Chicanos and Native Americans in the United States, Chinese students and smalltown working people in Michigan. We may end up grantless and on our own, but so are they. And they are teaching themselves to form organizations of their own, to stop dancing to the tourist industry’s tune, to talk straight to their opponents, to substitute lawsuits and injunctions for tediously polite discourse.

If we begin to do even part of what I have suggested, we will above all need a lot of historical and political perspective and considerable wit. Fortunately, there is a lot of it out there. One of my favorite country singers has the unlikely name of Kinky Friedman. Kinky is the son of a University of Texas psychology professor, and his shortlived band was called The Texas Jewboys (after the legendary Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys). Kinky spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps in Borneo just after college, and when he came back, he said that “Everybody needs to go to Borneo, wherever it is for them. A lot of wiggy things happened to me in that jungle, it anchored my mind to the past.” 2

During his short stay in country music, Friedman wrote some marvelous songs like “Wild Man From Borneo,” “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Any More,” “Top Ten Commandments,” and the incomparable “Ride ’em Jewboy,” which synthesizes the historical agony of cowboys, the American West, and the United States itself, as well as the Jewish diaspora and the Holocaust. All of it is viewed–refreshingly wiggily–from Borneo:

Now the smoke from camps a-risin’
See the helpless creatures on their way.
Hey, old pal, ain’t it surprisin”
How far you can go before you stay….
While ponies all your dreams were broken,
Rounded up and made to move along.
The loneliness which can’t be spoken
Just swings a rope and rides inside a song.

My own Borneos have been the mountains of the Appalachian South and Nicaragua–the former of which I was born in but had to learn my way through almost as if it were some Borneo. Nicaragua I wandered into after having begun to learn the language beyond the age of forty-five, and I came to recognize its cultural history as more Appalachian than I ever would have believed. So I close with a little cultural parable about my two Borneos, written belatedly from Lost Cove.

Like many of us who are from the upland southeast, I grew up about as monoculturally as one could. In those tranquil preintegration days, the relatively few blacks who lived in that most un-Faulknerian part of North Carolina stayed docilely in Asheville’s small black ghetto and attended the all- black high school. Most of the city’s substantial Jewish population lived in Biltmore Forest and other upscale neighborhoods we had no occasion to go to.

I heard and spoke only English, of course, as did all of my white Protestant fundamentalist neighbors, and none of us had lived or traveled abroad. The only other cultural group we knew were the Dutch who had come over in 1929 to build and operate the rayon plant where my father worked: the Vanderhoovens, Schilthuises, and Vanderkaadens, who lived in the bigger houses of the mill village where we lived, sent their kids to private and parochial schools, and hired us to mow their lawns. I remember a vague sense of fascination with the way they talked and the things they had in their houses that we didn’t have, but mostly what I felt was confusion and inferiority.

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Not all the Dutch people in the village belonged to the elite, however. The Schoonderwoerds lived next door to us, and he was a mechanic in the mill. While certain theories might predict that our family would have felt some class solidarity with our working class neighbor–and indeed my parents were friends with Mr. and Mrs. Schoonderwoerd–culture appears in retrospect to have been a decisive (though completely unconscious) factor among us children in the streets. Their son Pete, who was our playmate, was Dutch, different, and the conflict between him and us was relentless. Hence our habit of making lightning guerrilla raids to bombard the fish pond and fountain his father had built in their front yard–a touch which I now recognize was for them an expression of their northern European habit of meticulous and artful custodianship of one’s own tiny bit of landscape, but which for us rowdies of the neighborhood was an alien object and thus an irresistibly magnetic focus for our resentment.

Since the white Protestant fundamentalist bubble in which we were encapsulated kept us apart from all other cultural systems except those safely remote African countries to which we vaguely referred when in Wednesday night prayer meetings we prayed that the Lord would “bless all the missionaries at home and overseas,” and about whose eternal salvation we solemnly strategized in the Baptist Training Union, I recall no other serious contact with or awareness of another cultural group throughout my school years.

My first adult encounter with a culturally distinct group was with the Hispanics who lived in my freshman dorm at Georgia Tech–Cubans whose wealthy pre-Castro fathers had sent them there to study. I didn’t know a single one personally, and recall feeling no desire to. We called them “spics,” and virtually all we knew about them was that they shouted to each other down the halls of the dorm in a language we didn’t understand. We eyed them from behind the cultural ramparts of the Baptist Student Union and the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, where ushers with a special color of carnation in their lapels were stationed as lookouts for any black worshippers who might try to force their way in in those tense days of the earliest bus boycotts and sitins. Hence although I spent five years in one of the biggest and fastest growing cities in the southeast, the cultural system in which I found myself was still about as parochial as might be imagined.

It was in fact nearly twenty-five years later, after many changes in my life, ideas and politics before I began studying Spanish, which turned out to be one of the most culturally useful and clarifying things I have ever done. Why did I start? At some deep level, I think, my passion to

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do so came out of the same threatened and anxious sense of cultural inferiority and encapsulation that had made me such a willing participant in our little hillbilly blitzkrieg raids on the fishpond. It seemed to me, I guess, that becoming bilingual might be an appropriate next step in what had by then become for me a multifaceted effort to deconstruct my own cultural world and break through to others of which I had previously known absolutely nothing.

In any case, I did start to study Spanish in the fall of 1984, and a little more than three years later I found myself in Nicaragua on a Fulbright, working on a book on the politics of culture there. During these past half-dozen years, I have immersed myself as much as I could manage in Latin American language, history and culture. It has been the most compelling, totally involving and joyful process of learning and change I have ever known, including the prior one that paralleled my Appalachian work.

More to the point here, it also has had a great deal to do with how I now think about working with culture in the public sector. Looking at things from this new angle has brought me to some poignantly ironic realizations. I will content myself with mentioning only one.

In 1851 Cornelius Vanderbilt secured an effective monopoly on the Nicaraguan canal route, turning himself into a power to be reckoned with in the national economic and political arena in Nicaragua and helping to shape the first major phase of U.S. intervention into Nicaragua’s affairs. About forty years later, his grandson George W. Vanderbilt came to western North Carolina, and in a similarly grand and imperial spirit bought 125,000 acres of mountain land and built a 300-room French chateau which he appointed with the finest European furniture, tapestries and paintings. His guests approached the estate through a half-timber and tile English village he built, named “Biltmore,” and outfitted with his own Episcopal

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chapel and curate.

Shortly after the Vanderbilt mansion opened in 1895, my grandfather and his brother left their small farm in Rutherford County and went up the mountain to Asheville looking for work. They found it driving streetcars–work my grandfather continued to do for the next fifty years, never returning to the house he had built with his own hands on the farm and had always meant to go back to live in some day. Many mornings when he arrived at the “car barn” at 3:30 a.m., he set out to make the Biltmore run.

About the time my grandfather died, my high school classmates and I were taken on a “field trip” to see the cultural wonders of the Biltmore House-to “expose” us to “great art,” of which we in our culturally benighted hillbilly ignorance presumably knew nothing. All I remember is feeling dwarfed by the scale of the place, and ashamed of my clothing and my ignorance. Whether that prepared me in any specific way to comprehend the concept and the realities of cultural imperialism years later in Nicaragua–to resonate with them in my gut–I do not know, but I have a feeling that it did.

When I was seventeen, however, my awareness of the Vanderbilt link between Asheville and Nicaragua, and of its significance in some larger political and social schemes–still lay years in the future. Standing in the carved walnut, multi-tiered library of the Biltmore House at that moment, I couldn’t have pointed out Nicaragua on the elegantly mounted globe if my life had depended on it, nor had I ever heard of the New York and Boston banks and corporations which had one firmly controlling hand on Nicaragua and were dabbling with the other in real estate and timber in the part of the mountains I could see out the window of my house. I didn’t even know the name of John Hill Wheeler, the North Carolinian whom President Pierce appointed minister to Nicaragua, who presided approvingly over the outrageous William Walker filibustering episode, and who declared that “the race of Central Americans have conclusively proved to all observant minds that they are incapable of self-government.”

I am embarrassed to admit that I began to make these connections only after spending a dozen years writing about the Appalachian region, exploring and mapping like a fascinated traveler in Borneo, and coming to understand it as something of an internal colony whose patterns of development were after all not that different from the Nicaraguas of the world. One of my most poignant moments of clarification occurred when I read that the vessel that carried U.S. troops from the Canal Zone and landed them on Nicaragua’s east coast to move against the rebel general Sandino in April 1931 was named the U.S.S. Ashville.3

Why have I reminisced about my wanderings through this personal-political landscape? To try to suggest that the dramatic political and cultural changes of the past little while in Latin America, in eastern Europe, in South Africa, are presenting us with yet another opportunity to make the politically and culturally clarifying connections C. Vann Woodward told us thirty years ago are there and have to be comprehended: connections between ourselves as southerners and the majority of the world’s people, who have also known poverty, exploitation, defeat, occupation, submission, humiliation, and cultural stigmatization. If we can admit and comprehend them, these connections offer us a splendid if psychically threatening opportunity for reconsideration, for clarity, and for realignment.

Until we get through to that, however, bland liberal strategies will continue to confuse us, confuse the public, and waste precious time and energy. Polite discourse with those in whose interest it is not to be persuaded (and within whose world views our reasons and our values do not compute) will continue to be at best ineffectual, and at worst obfuscating and depoliticizing. Unmonitored “noncultural” policy will continue to wreak its cultural havoc. Such status as our concerns and activities are grudgingly accorded, they will acquire by virtue of their perceived usefullness to whatever tawdry local versions of Trump-like boosters and “developers” happen to be on the scene. And most troublesome of all, the overarchingly important matter of social critique and reconstruction will remain outside our orbit of concern and work.

I submit, however, that such a scenario is not unavoidable. We know some things and have some skills and have developed some networks amongst ourselves that can help prevent it. We do have to question many of our fundamental assumptions and accustomed paradigms. We do have to seek new working alliances, thinking systemically and globally. We do have to accept some risks, and trust our resourcefulness. And we must continually re-ground ourselves in the lives of those whose labor and pliant acquiescence have heretofore been purchased far too cheaply by others who understand all too well the sector of culture in every equation of power. To the extent that we ourselves can remain clear about that, we will encounter a whole array of strategic and tactical possibilities we heretofore thought closed to us.

David E. Whisnant is on the faculty of the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has published widely on traditional culture, the politics of culture, and the history of the Appalachian region. Currently he is working on a book on the politics of culture in Nicaragua. This essay was prepared for the southeastern regional meeting of the state humanities councils, May 19, 1990.


1. See for example, Grace Glueck, “Gifts to Museums Fall Sharply After Changes in the Tax Code,” New York Times, May 7, 1989, pp. 1, 17; and William H. Honan, “Arts Dollars: Pinched As Never Before,” New York Times, May 28, 1989, pp. 1, 28.

2. Larry Sloman, “Kinky and the Money Changers,” Crawdaddy, April 1975, p. 31. I am grateful to Molly P. Rozum for calling this article to my attention.

3. Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (1967; Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), 193-97.