Recapturing the Language: The South and Right-Wing Tactics of Mystification
By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 14, No. 1, 1992, pp. 1-10
“God Almighty created women.” Mother Jones said, “and the “Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.” reminding us of who they are, what they are up to, and how they make up words to construct the realities they want us to believe we live in. Manipulating language has always been a central tactic of the best-dressed bands of thieves and liars, and as the years have passed and communications technology has improved. they have gotten better and better at it. and more and more shameless about doing it. Of late, in the semantic and semiotic twilight zone of the Reagan-Bush years, they have shown themselves to be limitlessly cynical manipulators of language, confident that if the war of words can be won, the rest will fall far more easily.
Nor is the twisting of language the only game they play. During the past quarter-century we have seen social service agencies gutted, scandal after financial scandal, public money and resources squandered, friendly dictators bought and sold, regulations ignored and regulators fired. We have been offered silly excuse after insulting explanation, convenient failure of memory
after pile of shredded documents, and one patently incompetent but politically loyal nominee after another. We have been offered James Watt as environmentalist, Ollie North as patriot, Ed Meese as head of the Justice Department. Lynn Cheney as head humanist, John Sununu as an indispensable public official, and selectively forgetful Robert Gates as chief spook. No matter what strategies and tactics are employed, however, running though and tying it all together is the twisted thread of language.
Two things are critical for us at this juncture, it seems to me: one is to realize that these tactics are as old as politics itself, and that they are therefore not beyond comprehension and effective response. Twenty years ago, in the wake of the War on Poverty and in the midst of the Vietnam war, Murray Edelman published an elegant analysis of what he called “the systematic… dissemination of illusion and ambiguity through the language of government.” 1 Others have commented on the political manipulation of language in many other times and places.
The other critical point is that despite the ubiquity and essential predictability of the phenomenon, we must be clear about how and to what extent our particular historical circumstances give it a special character. We have to ask ourselves how the old tactics are being used in our epoch, our corner of the world.
While it is true that at least a comfortable voting majority of the entire population have been suckered into this high-stakes word game. I sometimes think we have been especially vulnerable to it here in the South. We have turned out to be a bit too much like the stuttering limousine-driver Sugar Boy in Robert Penn Warrens All the King’s Men, who serves the Southern-born and bred demagogue Willy Stark with such puppy-like affection because Willy talks so good.
But whether we have been especially vulnerable or not, the right-wing linguistic spin-doctors have found the South a field white unto harvest. The first step in the picking–begun long ago–was to mock and burlesque our language, and so to deny the realities it expressed. One early twentieth century commentator on the speech of coastal South Carolina blacks called it
Such judgments–and there have been innumerable ones–are by themselves more than sufficient warrant for us to take a long overdue close look at their language to see what it might have to do with where we find ourselves at present.
Where we are, I reluctantly observe, is in a dangerously quiescent state, enchanted and confused as if by the very sound of their words, being played like Fiddlin’ John Carson and Clayton McMichen played their fiddles: with consummate skill. The difference is that this time the effect is tragic rather than comic. We are dancing to an old and deadly tune from a devil’s box, and what we are dancing around are the ever more obvious results of their shabby political project: increasingly bought-off legislatures, starved and decaying schools and business-captured universities, crack babies and toxic waste dumps. a right-to-work, minimum-wage workforce, furloughed public employees, sorry health care and astronomical health-care costs, and all the rest of it.
So what is it they are doing to language, and how are they doing it? These questions are crucial, because what we are ultimately talking about is not merely the manipulation of language, but rather the formation of consciousness, and the relative usefulness of certain modes of consciousness for digging ourselves out of this historical and political mess.
What words are they using? Where do they get them? And how are they using them to keep the right-wing roller-coaster on track? For the past while I have tried to listen carefully, to take note of how language is being used in the currently dominant political discourse. As I have listened, I have been making a little word list, and the longer my list gets, the clearer it becomes that there is something sinister going on here. These folks are talking about a world very different from the world I think I live in.
To start with, here are some words they use approvingly: bipartisan, bottom line, competitiveness, conservative, democracy, deregulation, economic growth, education, the family, founding fathers, free elections, free enterprise, freedom fighters, freedom-loving nations, free market, free world, individualism, liberation, law and order, market economy, morality, national security, new world order, patriotism, private sector, right to life, values, voluntarism, and (at every possible juncture) war.
And here are the names they assign to some things they profess not to like: bureaucracy, communism, crime, the “democrat” party, dictatorships, drugs, government, guerrillas, liberalism, political correctness, politics, quotas, red tape, regulation, revolution, socialism, special interest groups, taxes, terrorism, unions, welfare.
Since out of these and a few other terms could be constructed much of the dominant political discourse of at least the past couple of decades, it behooves us to try to comprehend the lexicon.
In the first place, my little right-wing dictionary suggests that their use of words is brazenly instrumental, almost completely ahistorical, and indeed very nearly scholastic. Why scholastic? Because so many of the words are used purely self-referentially within a closed discourse that bears little relation to the objective historical realities that most of us live in. Indeed since the privileged and protected elite who control the discourse have little interest in or grounded awareness of any realities at all except their own rarified ones, the lack of congruence between their words and the realities of the rest of us is of little import to them.
Perhaps more usefully than anything else, their education and life experience have taught them that to have or take the power to name things–to mark boundaries through language and style–gives one in turn the power to say who is inside and deserves to be, who isn’t and doesn’t, what is and isn’t worth considering or paying for.
Inventing, Stealing, and Twisting Words
One of my other favorite hell-raisers besides Mother Jones is Raymond Williams, who was wordier than she was but a kindred spirit nevertheless. “A distinctive… feature of any dominant social order,” Williams said, is its capacity to “[reach] into [our] whole range of practices and experiences in an attempt at incorporation.” To sucker us in and steal us blind, Mother Jones would have said, and to use what they steal to make themselves look good. Not surprisingly, it turns out that both of my lists of words–the ones they like and the ones they don’t–are made up of some they concocted themselves, but of many more they have stolen from more humane and honorable discourses and redefined to suit their purposes.
Among their “good” words, the implications for us of the ones they have invented are painful indeed. Among the most grotesque are of course those blandly Orwellian terms used to mask realities which if called by their proper names would provoke moral outrage. Such terms issue most prolifically from the Pentagon: “collateral casualties” or “carpet bombing” instead of dead babies and wanton destruction, for example. The less immediately offensive words are only too familiar: “economic growth” is used as if equitable distribution were not an issue, and as if trickle-down had ever been observed to work as they perennially assure us it will; “free market” means the
freedom of publicly-subsidized and protected corporations to do as they please; “the bottom line” is the point at which profit takes precedence over all other considerations whatsoever; “freedom fighters” means Ollie North’s mercenaries who killed teachers and burned clinics; “right to life” means the right to be born, and then to shift for oneself as best one can; any constraint whatever on business as usual is “red tape”; “bureaucracy” means any governmental unit serving other than elite, corporate or military purposes; “political correctness” dismisses the political concerns of anyone whose politics they don’t share, while implying that they themselves are above politics; “new world order” means a new contraption wired together from the parts of the old world order that served them best, plus some others that they think might be even more to their advantage.
Thinking over the list, then, it appeals to me that although they make up some words to suit their purposes, their major tactic is to capture and contort, and thus to coopt the already established positive or negative resonances of words to serve ends opposite to those of the original discourse. So what about the words they have stolen? How have they redefined them to suit their purposes?
A favorite a few months ago was “liberation.” But to them “liberation” means not the struggle of poor third world countries out from tinder the yoke of old or new colonialism, but rather deploying a half-million U.S. troops to reinstall the Kuwaiti patriarchs in their gold and marble bathrooms. Similarly with other words: “bipartisan” foreign policy means bipartisan agreement not to raise the issues that most need to be raised; “the family” means a small, alienated, patriarchal, hegemonically pacified consumer unit: “education” means training (preferably on the cheap) in corporate-designed, system-serving behavior; “free elections” means elections–rigged or not–that turn out the way they want them to; “free markets” are in fact markets they subsidize and control; and “democracy” therefore means (as Tony Bennett phrased it a decade ago) “a system of government by elites … in which the majority retain [s] the right to determine, periodically, which elite should govern.”3
Some of the worst wizardry, however, is performed on the words they steal from their political opponents and turn into categorical negatives. Thus “dictatorship” refers not to those friendly dictators upon whom we have lavished so much money, but the heads of governments who reject our ideology and refuse to do our bidding. Any concern for the commonweal, or commitment to humane government is dismissed as soft-headed, indulgent, impractical “liberalism.” “Socialism” of whatever variety is conflated with Evil Empire gulag communism. “Revolutions” are nothing more than diabolical insurgencies against “established order,” fomented by a “hard core” of deluded. self-seeking, “self-styled” “guerrillas” paid, armed and directed by the Evil Empire. “Government” is a temporary evil on the way to the new corporate world order. “Welfare” emphatically does not mean small public subsidies to the most needy and vulnerable, but “handouts” to the lazy and undeserving; it never refers to massive gifts of public funds to the corporate oligarchs. “Multi-culturalism” refers to any threat to their hermetically sealed monoculture. And they use “politics” to refer to any opposition to their own intensely political agenda.
Clearly some major contortions of meaning are occurring. But how do they do such contorting? How do they make it happen? One of the simplest tactics is to mystify by calling something by a name that connotes the exact opposite of what it is: calling U.S. puppet governments of El Salvador or Guatemala “democratic,” for example. Similarly effective is their habit of restricting to a preferred arena a term which otherwise would refer to a much larger class of phenomena whose existence must be denied. Thus violent opposition to our state-corporate interests is called terrorism; analogous behaviors engaged in by those corporations themselves, or by the state (as in Ludlow or Harlan County or Gastonia, in the Palmer raids, or against the Wobblies or the Black Panthers) is not terrorism.
Another tactic is to decontextualize a word, disassociating it from necessarily and complicating current issues and realities. Thus “taxes” refers to the simple, unjust and unjustified expropriation by a wasteful government of the purely private earnings of otherwise wholly (and happily) self-sufficient individuals. Such a semantic transformation also encourages those, individuals to view themselves not as interdependent and mutually responsible citizens, but as isolated, victimized and resentful “taxpayers.” Moreover, such “taxpayers” are far more likely to demand merely that there be “no new taxes,” rather than that tax policy be opened to thorough discussion, or that taxes be levied fairly and used equitably for humane purposes.
A similar abstracting proceeds from the habit of dehistoricizing key words. There was much talk during the Ollie North Iran-gate hearings, for example, about the United States’ commitment to “democracy” in Nicaragua, but not a word about our involvement there from 1849 onward, during which time we consistently demonstrated a virtually complete lack of concern for whether there was any democracy there or not. Similarly, there is no mention that one historical product of “competitiveness” was the robber barrons, or that the “founding fathers” wrote the founding women and mother’s out of the process.
What I’ve said so far has to do, however, with how they use the words they do use–wherever they come from, however they are invented, or however torturously they are twisted. Equally important is the complete exclusion of certain other words. It turns out, of course, that the ones excluded–such as class, gender, power, control, capitalism, systemic, or structural–are some of those most essential to clarifying, grounding and historicizing the discourse. Excluding the words denies the realities, and certain realities must be denied if currently dominant politics are to remain dominant.
Their Words and Our Realities
If these are at least some of the ways the discourse works, the danger could not be clearer: to use language as the current discourse demands that it be used, entails the tacit admission that the world is as we in fact know it not to be. But it is especially urgent that we admit no such thing, not only because it is untrue, but also because we face a special sort of historical paradox: the increasingly tense complexity of the national and international situation in turn increases the necessity for historically grounded, politically and ethically nuanced discourse, but it also increases the anxiety, anger, and sense of threat that most people feel most of the time. Such a state of mind
decreases people’s tolerance for the grounded-nuanced discourse that is called for, however, and increases their demand for bumper-stickerable slogans (“Support Our Troops’; “Sportsmen for Helms”).
Public demand for simpleminded slogans in turn raises the electoral chances of reactionary ideologues, while lowering those of anyone capable of or willing to try to tell all of the complex, uncongenial, system-challenging truth. The nub of that truth, unfortunately, is that whatever way we as a nation ever did most of whatever it was we did (which by the way isn’t the way they’ve always told us It was done) wasn’t fair in the first place and in any case won’t work any more.
Thus unless we expose and challenge the currently dominant discourse, recapture the language and produce a new discourse, we have little chance of seeing our most urgent social and political problems addressed as they must be addressed. We have allowed ourselves to become mired to the axles in their linguistic muck, and until we figure out how to haul ourselves out of it, we ain’t got a prayer.
Our Words, Our History
What special character, if any, will this truly national task have here in the South? What history do we have with language, and how has it formed and predisposed us? Why do the current crop of linguistic spin-doctors find us such a particularly attractive mark?
Whatever else it may have to do with, it must be related to our formative history with words, with the rhetorical culture of the South. It must have some connection with long-distance resonances from those oleaginous planter-legislators who talked us into an unholy war with slogans like “states’ rights” and “peculiar institutions” and “our way of life” and “Southern womanhood.” It must have to do with the yankee ladies who fawned over what they fancied was the “Elizabethan” speech of mountain young ‘tins while the Peabody and Ford and Rockefeller agents fast-talked their daddies out of their coal land for nothing; with the Gastonia preachers who preached down unionizing textile workers while gun thugs gunned down Ella Mae Wiggins; with the boot-licking and bootstrap-pulling Clarence Thomases who have a genius for knowing which words will sound right to the powers that be; with the legion of snarling Faubuses, Wallaces, Helmses and Gingriches.
Having spent so many hours of my own young life squirming on a hard Baptist pew, I still have to remind myself not to be so swept away by a speaker’s metaphors, images, and rhythms that I forget to test what is actually being said against the realities I know most intimately. It has taken me a lifetime to learn how to read critically rather than simply to look for proof-texts like we used to do with our red-letter Bibles in Daily Vacation Bible School sword drills. How to move beyond aphorisms and to penetrate the nuances of metaphors. How to think in terms of nuanced continuums instead of Manichaean dualisms. What the difference is between a concrete historical reality and a social construct. I still too easily assume that if the words are there, the corresponding realities must be.
Fortunately, our rhetorical history here in the South is a mixed bag, full not only of bad news, but of some good news as well. Clearly we have rhetorical styles and traditions that have served us well and others that have served us badly. We’ve had not only Wallace but also Fulbright, not only Booker T. Washington but also Martin Luther King, not only David Duke but also Lillian Smith, not only the Klan but also the STFU. For every sleazy white TV evangelist, we’ve had a host of black preachers, for every Jim Walter homes salesman who lies for money a tall tale teller who knows that the only good reason to lie is for art, for the many Jimmy Swaggarts a few Will Campells, and for the all too numerous Tammy Wynettes standing by
their good old boys, an occasional Hazel Dickens who knows when to call him what he is and throw him out.
Thus the task of turning the discourse around will have more to do with careful selection than with recovering some “Southern rhetorical tradition” wholesale. We have to figure out how to recover and revitalize the best language we have been able to generate–the language of those Southerners who have spoken most clearly–can be used to speak of our own realities, how it can guide us in a daunting project of linguistic correction and recovery. However we choose, the most serviceable Southern voices are likely to sound more like an Old Testament prophet than like an aspiring, double-talking Supreme Court justice, however black.
We need most especially to drop back historically and try to understand how the dominant rhetorical-cultural tradition in the South has primed us for exactly what we are experiencing now. A decade ago T. H. Breen told a remarkable story of how some of the setting up took place as early as the seventeenth century in the Virginia tidewater.4 In general the colonists hauled there by the Virginia Company were products of the English reformation–pious, hard-working, middle-class Puritans. Butthey were not. Breen reminds us, a random sample. Instead they were “a distinct sub-culture” lured by the promise of great (and easy) wealth–“extraordinarily individualistic, fiercely competitive and highly materialistic.” During the first ten years, those values proved disastrously dysfunctional, producing more factionalism and violence than anything else.
But then in 1617 the colonists shipped their first load of tobacco to England, and the race to strike it rich shoved every thing else into the background. Would-be entrepreneurs rushed up the James and York rivers to stake their claims to tobacco-growing land. Within two years, forty-four plantations were patented. Needful of hands to work, the Virginia Company concocted some flowery rhetoric to beguile more young people from England to join the enterprise. Far from encountering what Breen calls “small, self-contained communit[ies] held together by… shared, positive beliefs,” those who came found a strife- and inequality-ridden system overseen by profit-driven owners and run on the energies of indentured servants and slaves.
There were fabulous sums to be made, but those physically isolated plantation nuclei were also easy targets for Indian attack. In a coordinated, region-wide attack of 1622, 347 colonists were killed. Clearly, the logic of events called for a new cooperative policy of mutual protection, and for short time after the massacre, public ceremonies of commemoration and a rhetoric of caution suggested that such a policy might be forthcoming. But the planter-leaders of the colony–unwilling to deviate from their privatistic, profit-oriented agenda, and eager to return to business as usual–decided to turn over defense policy to hired mercenary troops organized by enterprising, eye-on-the-main-chance leaders such as the legendary Capt. John Smith.
Beginning what proved to be a long tradition, the hired military planners proceeded to demonstrate their greed and incompetence. One constructed an oyster-shell fort that was under water at high tide. Demanding up-front payments and cost-plus contracts, and forced to devise schemes to protect private plantations strung out for miles along rivers, the Virginia Company’s private-sector defense contractors produced virtually no reliable protection, and drained the public purse in the process.
Meanwhile, public policy consisted almost solely of stabilizing the inequitable social order upon which the fragile profit-extracting system rested. At the perilous moment when the Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624, concern that exploited servants and slaves would revolt led to the proclamation that
Working class colonists came to believe–usually rightly–that the authorities were using their offices for personal gain, and that there was therefore no point in ordinary citizens trying to work for the public good. In particular, public education went by the board.
All this no doubt sounds as eerily familiar to you as it does to me, sitting here in a southland dotted with military bases, mobile-home parking lots, the mansions of six-figure CEOs, and shabby schools.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that we are the very linear beneficiaries of the Virginia Company’s shaping of public policy and public consciousness. “Long after the 1620s,” Breen observes,
Those laws, those habitual acts, those traditions were passed on from generation to generation: “In the course of a century of cultural development,” Breen says, “Virginians transformed an extreme form of individualism, a value system suited to soldiers and adventurers, into a set
of regional virtues, a love of independence, an insistence upon personal liberty, a cult of manhood, and an uncompromising loyalty to family.”
And in the next century, we know, that culture traveled tip the rivers, across the mountains, down the south-running valleys, across the deltas, and westward across the south and southwest until it collided with another culture in Mexico, defeated it, stole it blind, and pushed on to the Pacific.
And so here we sit in the historical and cultural backwash, trying to see what–so ungodly long after the fact–we can do with those laws, those habitual acts, those traditions, and with the language in which the whole has over the years been, and continues to be, encoded.
Myths, Metaphors and Mystification
Some of the highest-stakes codes are those that Stuart Hall has called “naturalized codes–those whose roots run so deep in the culture, whose use is so habitual and universal that they appear not to be codes at all.5 Their use, Hall cautions, has “the ideological effect of concealing the practices of coding which are present.” Whatever else the Reagan-Bush right understands, they understand what naturalized codes are, how they operate, and for what purposes they are useful.
Some of their most fully naturalized codes take the form of the metaphors and myths which again Edelman reminds us are a perennially central feature of political rhetoric. Their usefulness resides in their power to
What reactionary politicians in every age have known is that cultural formation is so powerful, so intractable, so reliable, and so enmeshed with language. We know that, too, but we need to bring it to consciousness in new, politicized ways. We must understand how language is being tised to set people against each other, make them as confused, anxious and angry as possible, and manipulate their anxiety through mystifying metaphors and myths that promise simple answers and a gratifying order to be benevolently administered by those currently in power.
What kind of metaphors are they using these days besides their phallic favorite, “standing tall”? Especially insidious are those one might call reductionist metaphors and organic metaphors of inevitability. One of their most preferred reductionist metaphors is that of a ball game, which they use to explicate every conceivable instance of political, social, economic and cultural competition or conflict. That metaphor encourages us to believe that we live in a binary, ball-game world of absolutely opposed teams, a single set of rules for everyone, a level field and identical equipment, disinterested and fair referees, absolute winners and losers, and tidy statistics that tell the whole story. I submit that here in the ball game-crazed Southland, littered with sports corruption and scandal, such a metaphor is far from politically benign.
Organic metaphors of inevitability such as “growth,” “development,” and “decay” (as of “the rust belt”) imply that whatever has happened, happened in a perfectly
natural way, and could not have happened otherwise. Such metaphors imply that what happened had nothing to do with a policy decision on anyone’s part, with anyone’s power or interests, with anyone’s design for the future.
Words from Other Lives and Histories
The linguistic-cultural-political challenge we face is a painfully self-critical and meticulous process of selection, reconstruction, and deployment, fighting every step of the way. As we search, it is crucial that we not only survey our own history and experience, but also that we consider language and strategies available from other lives and histories. For example, it is true that from the beginning we Southerners have been burdened by reactionary religion, but the Wobblies knew how to take those old Moody-Sankey songs and turn them into hymns of liberation that reached across every line of race, gender and culture. “Would you be free from your burden of sin” became “Would you be free from wage slavery,” and “Take it to the Lord in prayer” found new life as “Dump the bosses off your backs.”
Southern blacks have long since understood and used their hymns in similar ways, but whites have grasped the possibilities only sporadically, such as in the labor songs Sarah Ogan Gunning and Aunt Molly Jackson built around hymn tunes in the eastern Kentucky coalfields in the 1930s. In any case, the doubly paradoxical lesson is that even the most hegemonic of forms have their counterhegemonic uses, and that as they are put to those new uses, they carry forward some of the moving resonances of their former lives.
One more potentially useful analogy, and I will rest my case. As you know, one of the most promising political-cultural developments in Latin America since the early 1960s has been the emergence of liberation theology out of a basically reactionary and authoritarian Catholic church historically allied with the oligarchies and the military. Drawing upon the deepest strands of Latin American culture, liberation theology has moved masses of people to reground their search for social and economic justice in the language, metaphors and parables of the Bible. For several years I have puzzled about whether such a thing could conceivably happen in the Bible Belt South, and recently I heard of an example.
Ivanhoe is a town of a thousand people on the banks of the New River, ten miles west of the I-77 / I-81 interchange in southwest Virginia.7 For a hundred years, its people have stoked iron furnaces, worked in the local lead and zinc mines, and filed in and out of the carbide plant that opened there at the close of World War I. But the last plant closed in 1983, leaving Ivanhoe nearly a ghost town. Desperate for jobs, people started casting around for somebody–anybody at all–who would open a plant or start a business.
Fortunately, the Glenmary order sent two imaginative and politically clear women to Ivanhoe to talk with people about a more local, community-based approach to the problem, and especially about the spiritual aspects of the community’s dilemma. Glenmary sister Mary Ann Hinsdale started Bible study sessions, and Highlander Center’s Helen Lewis organized some community-wide discussions about economic alternatives. True to local tradition, it was mostly women who went to the former, and men to the latter. But gradually the two groups and enterprises fused, their originally separate discussions merging, informing each other, and producing a Valley of Virginia version of liberation theology.8
Progress on the economic front was slow. Major foundations proved reluctant to give “economic development” money, because what was happening in Ivanhoe didn’t fit their notion of corporate-based development, but local people pushed ahead nevertheless. Out of their effort to understand local economic history came a two-volume history of the town. People organized the Ivanhoe Civic League and turned some abandoned Union Carbide land into Jubilee Park, now the site of local festivals that feature a parade of gigantic puppet figures celebrating local heroes such as a black midwife. The old company store has been turned into an educational center, and young people are starting a radio station.
But my point here is not to talk about economic development; it is to think about language. And in Ivanhoe, the regrounding of intimately familiar Biblical language in concrete, local realities provided a vital center for a self-critical, regenerative process of community change. A few of the preachers don’t like it, but it goes forward nevertheless. The community development group has become similar to the Christian base communities that have anchored the liberation theology movement in Latin America. Women especially are using Biblical language and parables to reassess their identities and roles. Not surprisingly, when some Nicaraguan women were brought for a visit to Ivanhoe, there was a shock of recognition on both sides.
What happened in Ivanhoe that has any suggestive use for us? To use some terms suggested by Raymond Williams, some old cultural and linguistic formations–the still-controlling residues of past circumstances–were opened for reflection and discussion, and some emergent ones were brought to light and given new names.9
I suggest that we could do worse than take Ivanhoe as an archetype of our present condition. In these waning years of the twentieth century and of industrial capitalism, we are all being Ivanhoed–bled dry and left to shift for ourselves west of the interstate. Worse yet, we are being
encouraged to believe that what has happened is inevitable, and that henceforth what is left to us is to plaintively petit ion the captains of the new world order.
But if we are to do other than play our roles in their scripts, we have to look backward, like Ivanhoe, to the formative tidewaters of our individual and collective experience, and we have to write our own books in our own language. We have to look outward for analogies, but especially forward, imagining and re-imagining. We have to get clearer about what we want, about which costs are acceptable, and to whom. And most especially, we have to learn how to name a new world, because some of the realities that now present themselves to us we don’t yet have words for. In some cases, all we know is that the old words don’t correspond any more–neither ours nor the Reagan-Bush crowd’s, though for different reasons.
In the first lines of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins to describe another little town–the magical-real village of Macondo,
“The world was so new,” the narrator says [el mundo era tan reciente], “that many things had no names” [que muchas cosas carecian de nombre]. In order to speak of those things, he says, “one had to point to them with a finger” [para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo].
I leave you with that image, which is a powerful reminder of how eternally new and fragile (like prehistoric eggs) the world appears to eyes that are clear, of the necessity to keep pointing to the objects, and of the enormously important political task of naming things and then keeping clear about the names. “West Virginia!” thundered Mother Jones, “When I get to heaven I will tell God Almighty about West Virginia!” I’m sure she did, and equally sure she didn’t use their words to do it.
David Whisnant teaches cultural studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has both worked extensively with cultural programs and published widely on the politics of culture. This talk was given at the SRC Annual Meeting in Atlanta on November 9, 1991.