Sandinistas and Mountaineers: Cultural Politics in Appalachia and Nicaragua
By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 14, No. 4, 1992, pp. 4-15
The story I begin with will be familiar to you: the government needed both revenue and a way to exert tighter control over a population it considered morally lax and not entirely loyal, so it levied a tax on home-brewed liquor, authorized a few monopolistic entrepreneurs to brew most of it, and hunted down moonshiners and destroyed their small stills. As one historian of the episode notes, such tactics “drove the small dealers … out of business … raised the price of a drink, … [and deprived] many of their incomes. The [small dealers] protested government interference in their business and pleasure. Popular wrath over the … monopoly led to rebellion and the violent deaths of at least two [of the monopolistic entrepreneurs], who were also political figures.”1
This little drama did not happen in Appalachia in the 1790s or 1920s, however, but in Nicaragua in the 1840s, when President Fruto Chamorro imposed the aguardiente laws upon rural people, and a few sugar plantation owners made a killing as a result.
Sometimes when people ask me how I made such an abrupt move from writing about Appalachia to trying to learn about Nicaragua, I tell them it just meant moving from one Third World country to another. Now and then I even amuse myself by playing with parallels between the two. I imagine the rebellious Appalachian coal miners’ encampment at Blair Mountain in the 1920s, for example, as Gen. Sandino’s hideout at El Chipote a half-dozen years later. With no trouble at all coal operators become coffee planters, and the National Guard that served the operators’ interests becomes la Guardia Nacional that served
those of the Somoza regime. Thomas Wolfe even looks a lot like the Protean, prolific, hard-loving and dipsomaniacal Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío—neither of whom could ever really leave or go home again, and so wandered forever in that ultimate diaspora of the mind. Appalachian studies pioneer Cratis Williams becomes the bearded and puckish Pablo Antonio Cuadra, both of them diminutive, witty and fascinated by what it really means to be a mountaineer or a Nicaraguan. The People’s Appalachian Research Collective of the late 1960s reminds me uncannily of the contemporaneous ventana group of radical students at Nicaragua’s national university. Had courageous Mountain Eagle publisher Tom Gish ever met La Prensa‘s dauntless Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, they would have had a lot to talk about, as would Appalshop film makers with the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. Highlander Center’s Myles Horton—whom I saw for the last time at the regular Thursday morning protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Managua—reminds me strongly of the patriarchal and always provocative octogenarian Nicaraguan writer José Coronel Urtecho.2
These fanciful associations are intriguing, but sometimes the actual historical connections between Nicaragua and Appalachia are both startling and sobering. To tell you about just one of them, I will borrow from a piece I wrote two years ago.3
In 1851—when thousands of men were in a hurry to get to the California gold fields—Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt secured a monopoly on the Nicaraguan transit route and made himself a tidy new pile of money. Some of it he used to buy a 270-foot steam-powered yacht. He panelled its salons with satinwood, furnished them with hand-carved and velvet-“American taste and skill.”4
Some of the rest of his money Vanderbilt passed along to his sons and grandsons. Grandson George W. Vanderbilt came to Asheville in the 1890s and in a grand and imperial spirit similar to his grandfather’s built a three hundred-room French chateau which be appointed with the finest European furniture, tapestries, and paintings. His guests approached the estate through a picturesque half-timber and tile English village named “Biltmore” and provided with an Episcopal chapel and loyal curate.
Shortly after the Vanderbilt mansion opened in 1895, my grandfather and his brother left their small farm in the Rutherford County foothills 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. He never returned to the house he had built with his own hands on the farm and always meant to go back to to live in some day. Many mornings when he arrived at the Asheville Street Railroad Company’s “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. Thus one of my most poignant moments of clarification during my Nicaraguan work occurred when I read that the ship that carried U.S. troops to Nicaragua’s east coast to move against the rebel general Sandino in April 1931 was named the USS Asheville.
So my moving from Appalachia to Nicaragua wasn’t all that difficult, and in some ways it wasn’t much of a move at all, because I was so frequently reminded of connections. In other ways it was difficult, though, and still feels that way: threatening, disquieting, at times bewildering. But also at least predictable, and perhaps even inevitable. In a little piece I wrote a dozen years ago, I said that for me working in and on Appalachia has always made more sense as process than as position or condition.5 So it has remained, and the process eventually carried me to a small, poor, Catholic, Spanish-speaking, wracked and tortured country.
Although I haven’t written much about Appalachia in nearly ten years, the region has never been off my mind. It has never been absent as a frame of reference, a ground to come back to in my thinking, a critical test-case for any elegant theory I encounter. It was in the mountains, after all, that I first began to learn about corporate capitalism and colonialism; about metropoles and peripheries; about intervention and cultural stereotypes; about the old-time music and rowdy banjo pickers the “good music” people were afraid to like; about the local color stories, dulcimer pluckers, and flaxen-haired ballad singers they did like, and why; about poor people’s movements and why they (too often) fail; about some everyday forms of resistance; and about the political and psychological necessities of revisionism—and a few of its perils as well.
No analogy is perfect, and all analogies are dangerous, but there are certainly worse places to go to Nicaragua from than Appalachia.
At least I went knowing that with a lot of help from my friends I had already managed to teach myself something about one corner of the world, and I figured maybe I could manage the process again. All of that has served me well as I have labored to learn a new language and to understand new things—most of which I had never even heard of that day when at the age of forty-six I registered as an undergraduate student in Spanish, walked into a classroom with a bunch of nineteen year-olds, and said my first hesitant buenos días.
So for the past six years, instead of thinking and reading about Kentucky coal baron John C.C. Mayo and settlement school founder Katherine Pettit, local color stories and Morris dancers, broadform deeds and pneumoconiosis, growth centers and hinterlands, it has been caciques and encomenderos, León Liberals and Granada Conservatives, filibusters and financieros, Carlos Fonseca and Ricardo Morales Avilís, the vanguardistas and the exterioristas, and of course the Somocistas and Sandinistas.6
Both the language and the materials are different, then, but many of the questions are those that have long intrigued me: What is the role of culture in processes of social and political reconstruction? Within such processes, what is the dialectic between elite and vernacular culture? What is the nature of tradition, and what contradictions lurk within it? How has tradition been used for purposes of political legitimation? What are the political functions of cultural institutions, and the cultural functions of political ones? What about the politics of the many ways of representing culture? And most intriguing of all to me these days, what does one do about the most recalcitrant and politically reactionary cultural formations? I will try to outline several of the things I am currently thinking about as I work on some of these questions in another part of the world that with eerie frequency reminds me of home.
Since the 1520s, when the conquering Spaniards first got serious about Nicaragua, culture has never ceased to be an arena of conflict. During the three hundred years between conquest and independence, that conflict took innumerable forms. Within less than a half-century, a genocidal assault reduced maybe a million original inhabitants to around 10,000 or so. Forced Christianization and hispanicization displaced habits and beliefs, foods and clothing, houses and communities, crops and animals, language and lifeways, even the very names of things. Two centuries of forced labor, disease and racial mixing took further heavy tolls. During the mid-nineteenth century, hordes of gold-seekers and adventurers boarded Commodore Vanderbilt’s steamers and poured through the short-cut across Nicaragua on their way to California, leaving ramshackle hotels, inflation, prostitutes, shabby business deals, and empty rum bottles and liniment jars in their wake. Less than a decade later, the demented filibusterer William Walker—the Ollie North of the period—had visions of turning Nicaragua into another Venice by forcing people to speak English, re-establishing slavery and deeding the land to enterprising white folks.
After the Walker war, ambitious coffee planters shoved indigenous people off the land and into the wage-labor market. And “economic development” schemes calculated to Europeanize language, thought, architecture, education and public policy led to sporadic but frequently bloody rebellions by mountain-dwelling Indians who got tired of it all.
In the twentieth century, cultural conflict in Nicaragua has taken more forms than I have time even to name: it came with the US Marines, who virtually ran the country from 1912 to 1933, and it was central to the struggle of Sandino’s “crazy little army” (1927-33) to dislodge them. It was evident in the cultural sycophancy of the three Somozas, and in the post-war rise of Miami as Nicaragua’s cultural metropole. In time, traditional culture became a critical weapon in the FSLN struggle against the Somozas. Following the fall of the last Somoza, the Sandinistas made a serious if flawed effort to integrate cultural programs and policies into the overall reconstruction of the country, and when the Sandinistas themselves lost the election a decade later, the new government—bought and paid for with U.S. dollars—moved swiftly to reverse
A couple of specific episodes in this long-running drama put me in mind of the ongoing cultural-political process here in the mountains. The first one has to do with the political uses of what Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital.
The Political Uses of Cultural Capital
From the 1830s onward, foreign entrepreneurs were trying to buy and sell Nicaragua, and the native oligarchy were scheming to convert it into a coffee plantation and use the profits to Europeanize themselves, their cities, and their low-wage workers. At the same time, newly established archaeological and ethnological museums in London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Washington, and elsewhere were beginning to scour the whole world for cultural treasures in order to build their collections. Racing each other to wherever such things were to be found—Egypt, Latin America, Asia, the Pacific Northwest—they either dug them up themselves or bought them from whoever had dug them up first.7
Most vulnerable in this process were small, weak, colonial or quasi-colonial states which needed cash and lacked museums of their own. They had few if any laws to prevent the removal of their antiquities, and they were mesmerized by European culture rather than their own anyway. Although Nicaragua had none of the fabulous cultural riches then being discovered in Mexico, Guatemala, or Peru, it had enough to command attention: massive carved stone monoliths, pre-conquest pottery urns and burial jars, and gold and jade ornaments.
And so archaeologists, graverobbers, dealers’ agents, and curiosity seekers plundered Nicaragua for such cultural valuables. To find them, they smooth-talked local leaders in indigenous communities, bribed informers, prevailed upon local priests, lobbied government functionaries, and blundered about on their own, led by hunch, rumor and the published accounts of those who had preceded them. Renting small boats to get to offshore islands, hacking their way through underbrush, paying local men with a few coins and a lot of liquor to do the physical labor, they excavated the mounds, piled what they found in bongos and carts, hauled it to the nearest port and shipped it to dealers and museums.
Such artifacts—or at least the ones that didn’t end up decorating Victorian parlors and drawing rooms—provided data for researchers vying to establish the emerging disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology. They helped justify the lucky museums’ claims upon public funds, and enhanced their standing among competitors. In turn, having such museums boosted the cultural legitimacy of the growing nation-states of western Europe and North America. And viewing such collections helped their citizens to rank themselves above the “sav-
age,” “primitive,” and “barbaric” peoples who inhabited the colonial corners of the world from which the raw materials and surplus labor required for empire-building were being extracted. Taken as a whole, it was a process that—however useful scientifically—expropriated the movable cultural capital of poor and vulnerable countries, transported it to wealthier countries, and used it to rationalize, buttress, legitimize, and extend domination.
As with my little moonshiner anecdote at the beginning, I suspect that much of this process has a familiar ring. Although Appalachia has no pre-conquest statuary or burial mounds laden with gold and jade, much of its marketable cultural capital has been collected and shipped out, nevertheless: ginseng, galax, and ghost stories; ballads, baskets and bawdy lore; jokes and Jack tales; fiddle and banjo tunes, quilts and pots and chairs.
Over the years, as we all know, such cultural capital has been peddled by middle-class magazines, record producers, film makers, and Park Service trinket shops.8 It has boosted the fortunes of political candidates, political parties from the Republicans to the Communists, and Protestant missions all over. It has drawn audiences for radio preachers and television evangelists, and helped to sell Crazy Water Crystals and Peruna, JFG coffee and Martha White flour, baby chicks and insurance, song books and even autographed pictures of Jesus Christ. It has been grist for the mills of serious (if chauvinistic) ballad collectors like Cecil Sharp, Jack Tale-telling or ballad warbling charlatans like Richard Chase and John Jacob Niles, New York concert singers like Josephine McGill, racist ideologues like the White Top Folk Festival’s John Powell, and elite composers like Aaron Copeland. And of course it has swelled the catalog of many a museum and archive.
Fortunately, unlike Nicaraguan stone monuments or burial urns, at least some of our cultural capital—songs and stories, jokes and language—perennially renews itself. We have also created some of our own museums and archives for local people to study and learn from, and some film and recording companies are representing Appalachian culture in thoughtful and honest ways.
These developments are encouraging, but some of the complexities of using cultural capital for political purposes nevertheless continue to perplex us. When we are analyzing how others use it for reactionary political purposes, we do pretty well; stereotypes we understand. But when we try to marshall our cultural capital for progressive purposes, we do less well. Too often we find ourselves making rather palpably romantic arguments, generalizing somewhat recklessly, and excusing things not easily excusable.
Why is this the case? I think the difference has to do with some of the intractable structural perils of historical and cultural revisionism. In this regard, some aspects of the recently deposed Sandinista government’s cultural policies are as suggestive as the aggressive digging and hauling of cultural artifacts in the nineteenth century.
The Perils of Cultural Revisionism
During their turbulent decade in power, the Sandinistas labored to comprehend Nicaragua’s cultural history, assess the cultural impact of a century of North American cultural intervention, design a new cultural strategy, build new cultural institutions, and integrate the whole project with the larger process of national reconstruction.9
I lack the space here to even sketch the barest outline of the process, but were I to do so, a lot of it would seem very familiar to you. I would talk about the role of mainstream culture in maintaining quiescence and domination; the criticism of cultural stereotypes; the revitalization of local cultural resources; the documentation of oral traditions; the creation of new museums and archives; the publication of new magazines, newspapers and journals; the staging of cultural competitions and festivals; the production of films, phonograph records, and radio and television programs; and new modes of expression in
poetry, fiction, dance and drama.
Not everything the Sandinistas did was as historically and culturally grounded as it should have been; not everyone who was involved performed as well as they should have performed. There were losses and obfuscations as well as gains and clarifications. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t; some of it was brilliant and some of it was ill-considered. Some of it was politically clear and honest, and some of it was confused and dishonest. But when all was said and done, the country was at least slightly more culturally self-conscious, self-confident, and self-directing than it had been before. Although impeded early in its course by the budgetary pressures and social chaos of the contra war, and finally terminated by the US-financed installation of the current reactionary government, that decade-long process stimulated much positive ferment in Nicaraguan cultural and political life.10
For the moment, however, I want to think about a few of the structural problems of this enterprise, rather than any of its specific gains or losses. To those of us who worry ourselves over the Appalachian region, those problems are suggestive. I will call them (hang in, and I will eventually explain these admittedly somewhat cumbersome terms) the limits of counterpositions, the instrumentalization of the cultural past, and the recalcitrance of deep cultural structures.11 One at a time, now.
The limits of counterpositions: If the values one espouses are humane, there is something inherently clarifying, energizing, and empowering about taking a counterposition—about saying , it was not that way, but this way, and it is going to be another way in the future. Eastern Kentucky widow Ollie Combs didn’t speak Spanish, but she knew as well how to say ¡no pasarán! (They shall not pass) with her body in front of coal company bulldozers as Nicaraguan men and women did with their homemade weapons in front of Somoza’s tanks, and as they did later against Reagan’s contras.12 Such counterpositions are both noble and ennobling, wherever they are taken.
And yet as I watched and listened in Nicaragua, I kept being reminded of old arguments I used to make at meetings in the mountains. More than once I had made myself unpopular by arguing that explanations of oppression which locate causes solely outside are more seductively attractive than those which locate at least some of them inside. For all the very real pain of being a victim, there is something subliminally delicious and self-justifying about feeling oneself to be one, and the bonding among sufferers that arises out of such feelings has its costs as well as its benefits. If victimizing and blaming the victim are perennial dangers, so are collaboration and self-victimization. Such are the dangers of counterpositions. “Nosotros nicaragüenses,” my Managua taxi driver cautioned me over and over, “somos mentirosos” (We Nicaraguans are liars). He was, I slowly discovered, neither wholly correct nor (alas) wholly incorrect
Instrumentalizing the cultural past: Whatever the risks of counterpositions, the Sandinistas faced not only a Herculean task of physical and economic reconstruction, but also a psychological and cultural one. For that, history had to be recovered, reinterpreted, and mobilized. After more than a hundred years of systematic cultural intervention from North America and Europe, and nearly a half-century of the supine cultural sycophancy of the Somoza regime, it was imperative to recover the best of Nicaragua’s own cultural past and to marshall it in the larger process of reconstruction. That is, to instrumentalize it. And therein lay both the central challenge and the greatest danger.
There is nothing inherently wrong with instrumentalizing the past; ethical and political issues arise only with respect to the ends for which the instrumentalizing is being done. In any case, it is almost inevitable that a past recovered will be a past instrumentalized, and one might even argue that there is no other equally compelling reason to recover it. In the worst cases, the past is recovered (hence instrumentalized) to fabricate, erase, mislead, confuse, and dominate. In the best cases, we recover it to delight, to admonish, to
remind, to instruct, to guide. But even then there are costs and dangers of doing so, and they arise because it is so much easier—at least in the short run—to instrumentalize a neat, essentialized and romanticized past than to instrumentalize a messy and contradictory one. And to the extent that we allow ourselves to be guided by a romanticized past we will find ourselves misguided.
Thus, to take a single example, the moment of the cultural-political past which most fascinated the Sandinistas was the late 1920s. At that moment, they argued, a unitedly anti-imperialistic Nicaragua, galvanized by General Sandino and relying upon moral superiority, native cunning and homemade weapons, defeated the technologically superior, air-borne, blue-eyed Marine Corps devils from the North.
Much of this counter-narrative was true: Sandino and his “crazy little army” lived and fought valiantly, and evidence of yankee devilment was easy enough to come by. But it was also pretty clearly not true that Sandino was either the Marxist revolutionary or the complete moral paragon the Sandinistas held him up to be.13
Nor was he the hero of all the downtrodden of Nicaragua. Indeed on the Atlantic Coast—a part of their country about which most of the latter-day Sandinistas knew next to nothing—Sandino was more likely to be either unknown or blamed for the economic collapse of the early 1930s.
For this reason and others, the latter-day Sandinistas—at least early in the post-Somoza era—experienced endless culturally-based political difficulty with the Miskito coast. Worse yet, some aspects of their political-cultural-historical paradigm frustrated and delayed their understanding of what the problem was. Meanwhile, the limitlessly cynical Reaganistas—as ideological heirs of the reactionary U.S. officials who had dismissed Sandino as a mere “bandit” in the 1920s—mercilessly manipulated the Sandinistas’ befuddlement as the contra war escalated.14
Like the Sandinistas, we in Appalachia have spent a number of years now recovering and re-instrumentalizing a cultural past that had been used so many times before, by so many, for so many purposes. So far, so good. But like the Sandinistas, we have romanticized as well. And to the extent that that is true, we complicate the work that still lies ahead.
Why? Perhaps most of all because it dulls our awareness of what I’ll call the recalcitrance of deep cultural structures. Maybe another little Sandinista analogy will help explain what I mean.
Cultural recalcitrance: The Sandinista revolution was the darling of the global left—not without reason—and its revitalized culture was certainly one of the most marketable things it had going for it. Clad in white cotona and black beret, Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal jetted over the world talking of a new culture that would be revolutionary, national, anti-imperialistic, and popular. He enchanted people with the primitive paintings of Solentiname and the poetry of the poetry workshops.15 The brothers Mejía-Godoy took their dynamic musical groups everywhere, and their rendition of the hauntingly simple melody “Nicaragua, Nicaragüita” became the unofficial national anthem. In post-Somoza Nicaragua, cultural energy literally poured out in song, in dance, in film, in museums, and in lucid, powerful, and passionate poetry. For a while it looked as if the wave of political-cultural transformation and renewal would make anything possible.
As they say in Spanish, hubiera sido tan agradable (it would have been so nice). But policy has its limits, and sometimes those limits are severe. However hidden by the majestically breaking waves of change, those limits—like long-wave undercurrents—were thrust to the surface by some treacherous reefs and shoals of cultural history and structure. Some of them, surviving from the particularities of the Spanish colonial period, have no counterparts in the southern mountains. But others are worth looking out for. I will chart but one of several that come easily to mind. It is the problem of gender.
However much men stood to gain by a real revolution in Nicaragua, women stood to gain more because their oppression was more severe. And so women threw themselves into the revolutionary process with astounding dedication, courage, and effect.
Some stayed behind and kept the kids clean and fed, as women customarily had done. Some capitalized on traditional stereotypes to work underground as runners of supplies, messages, and arms. But vast numbers took up arms themselves, fighting valiantly beside the men. Eventually women constituted about a third of the entire fighting force, and some rose to command units before their twentieth birthdays.16
All along, urged forward by emerging women’s organizations, the Sandinistas proclaimed total gender equality as official policy. The new post-macho man was to be a key to the new society.
A whole string of laws were passed to implement the new policy on women.17 Gender issues became a focus of special attention in the writing of the new constitution.18 A few things actually changed, but much did not. And some of it, the women said, got worse—such as physical violence and the sexual double standard.
What was happening was that revolutionary resolve and official policy were colliding with centuries-deep layers of stubbornly recalcitrant machismo which post-revolutionary narratives of the past could not admit. That recalcitrance was easily traceable all the way back to before the conquest, and it had been repeatedly transformed and newly reinforced in every decade since. It was central to the elite patriarchy in nineteenth-century Nicaragua. It is ubiquitous in the twentieth, and remained embarrassingly evident even in Daniel Ortega’s final election campaign against Violeta Chamorro, when some Sandinista women wore “Daniel is my gamecock” T-shirts, and women who supported Chamorro but also unexpectedly favored abortion rights clashed from time to time with Sandinista women who opposed them.19
What does this have to do with Appalachia? It suggests to me, at least that we need to be very cautious in our expectations about cultural change, no matter how auspicious the policy context. It also implies that deep internal cultural contradictions deserve at least as much attention as do structures of external exploitation and domination, real and onerous as they are. For unless those internal structural contradictions are identified, addressed, and dealt with, whatever else we do is likely to have far less impact than it needs to. And there are a God’s plenty of contradictions in Appalachia and throughout our beloved southland.
Despite every political preference I have, every mountain-born-and-bred loyalty in my heart and body, I have
been driven by all I have seen and read and learned these twenty-odd years to consider the terrifying possibility that some of the bedrock features of culture in the mountains are also its most recalcitrantly problematic substructures. My list of such features is short, and shares nothing, I hope, with those justly reviled ones of the local colorists and feud-fascinated journalists, or with those of Jack Weller.20 I beg you to consider it: a profoundly sexist gender system, religious and political fundamentalism, distrust of a broad social contract, and an embarrassingly mainstream entrapment in a free enterprise paradigm.
In sum, then, my argument is that cultural capital is a much-coveted political resource; that counterpositions, while useful and exciting, have their limits; that instrumentalizing the past is necessary but problematic; and that some self-critical introspection about those features of the culture that most stubbornly resist change is long overdue. These facts—if such they are—are critically important because from here on things are going to get much rougher.
And where is it we have yet to go? We each have our own priorities. In closing I will mention a couple of my own.
Beyond Coterie Politics
So much lately has conspired to make me think about how to make what we have learned these last years available and meaningful to ordinary people—to those whose votes were and are so avidly sought not only by the George Bushes and their ilk, but increasingly by the truly psychopathic Helmses, Buchanans and Dukes. We have learned how to talk to each other; the urgent need now is to synthesize a politics that will make sense—for good reasons—to your average insurance salesman, golfer, or computer programmer, and also to my Managua taxi driver who (besides telling me Nicaraguans were liars) kept assuring me that the country had no problems another invasion of the U.S. Marines couldn’t cure.
Whatever else is not clear these days, it seems to me, it is clear that both public political discourse and popular political conthat my politics were about as correct as it was possible for them to get. Shortly after I arrived, I was standing on a Managua street photographing a revolutionary mural someone had painted on a long fence around some ruins from the earthquake. Suddenly I realized that a group of women were shouting at me from across the street that that art was not their art, that it most emphatically did not represent their views, and that above all I should not use the photograph later to show folks at home that all Nicaraguans were united in Sandinista solidarity. Sometimes I think that a lot of our work is like that mural: colorful, dramatic and politically correct, but not persuasive to most people.
Which leads me to my second little incident. On a bitter-cold night this past winter I joined hundreds of students and townspeople jammed into the biggest auditorium on the UNC campus to hear Noam Chomsky say
the New World Order is just the Old World Order only worse. At one level the scene was inspiriting and reassuring; somebody was finally talking sense, calling a spade a spade, tracing critical relationships and sequences, blowing covers that were begging to be blown. The longer I sat there, though, the more I felt that it was too easy. There probably weren’t three dozen people in that audience who hadn’t arrived already sure that Chomsky was right, and there weren’t enough votes there even to carry northern Orange County for decent, black, and by no means radical Harvey Gantt against arch-cretin Jesse Helms.
What I think this means is that the most urgent political necessity that faces us is to transform some of our most cherished political rhetorics and paradigms of political action—to break out from the already committed coteries to form some progressive new majority.
Far better than the left, it seems to me, the Reagans, Bushes, Dukes and Buchanans have assessed where masses of people are in their heads, and have opened political and semantic paths leading there. Having done so, they have effectively captured the political discourse, and are speaking to people’s worst fears and most virulent prejudices. They have, in a word, tapped into the most troublesome of the deep structures I have been talking about—fear, anger, suspicion, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia—and have mobilized them in the service of right-wing cynicism, greed, hostility, arrogance and all the rest.
As surely as machismo stalked the Sandinista revolution, the problematic deep structures of culture in Appalachia, in the Piedmont, in the Delta, and across our land will continue to impel our slide into fascist politics if they are not addressed far more effectively than they have been or have been recently.
We simply must address them; we are doing neither ourselves nor anyone a service by pretending they are not there. For far too long, the Democrats tried desperately to use the discourse of the right to convey a message of the (barely) center-left.
It was very late in the most recent electoral game before it dawned on at least a few of them (such as Wofford in Pennsylvania) that that was a hopelessly doomed strategy. And even at their best, Clinton and Gore still insisted upon trying to maneuver their buses along the rotten and creaky one-lane bridge of free enterprise, victim-blaming workfare, “strong defense,” and Norman Rockwell family values.
So how might we address them in the mountains (and elsewhere in the south)? First by shifting some of our analysis away from the incontrovertible historical and present realities of exploitation from outside, and toward the contradictory dialectics of life inside. For instrumental purposes, much of our history is useful and inspiriting, but much of it is not and the sooner we face that, the better.21
If we can negotiate such a shift, we must then make what we perceive and choose to say accessible and persuasive to somebody besides readers of Ms. magazine, The Nation, Radical History Review, the trendiest postmodernist journal, or, for that matter, Southern Changes. The troublesome truth is that there is a vast Miskito coast full of folks out there to whom our political heroes are either unknown or are not heroes at all, to whom the most transparent right-wing lie really does seem like an adequate explanation of the way things are and ought to be, and to whom our accustomed rhetoric therefore neither appeals nor is accessible.
And finally, partly to buttress ourselves against terminal depression in the midst of such psychic and political trials, we must find a language and a political strategy that will locate, excavate and mobilize countervailing resources of decency, integrity, generosity, and a larger sense of the common good.
While we restrategize and steel ourselves for facing some things we’d rather not face, we must figure out how to tap the veins of cultural energy still buried and waiting in people’s heads, how to mobilize the humane cultural stuff still scattered across the landscape, how to marshall the bits of serviceable cultural capital still credited to our account, and even that which has been carried off some where else and posted to somebody else’s account-like so many Jack Tales, fiddle tunes, butter churns or Tom Dooleys.
David Whisnant teaches Latin American and Cultural StudiesStudeis [sic] at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, Beautiful and Pleasant Land: Perspectives on the Politics of Culture in NicaraguaNicaraqua [sic] , is forthcoming from UNC Press.
1. E. Bradford Burns, Patriarch and Folk: The Emergence of Nicaragua, 1798-1858 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 147. This paper was originally prepared as the keynote address to the Appalachian Studies Association, Asheville, North Carolina, March 20-22, 1992.
2. Sandino’s mythical-real hideout at El Chipote—atop a 5,000-foot mountain, was the target of merciless bombing attacks by U.S. Marine Corps planes. See Neill Macaulay, The Sandino Affair (1967; rev. ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 1985), pp. 69, 87-90, 96, 103f. Rubén Darío (1867-1916) was Nicaragua’s best known writer, and a frequent critic of U.S. imperialism. Pablo Antonio Cuadra (b. 1912) is the author of the many times reprinted El Nicaragüense [The Nicaraguan]. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was the fearlessly anti-Somoza editor of La Prensa during the 1970s; his assassination by pro-Somoza partisans in January, 1978 catalyzed the final FSLN drive against the regime. The Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers (ASTC; Asociación Sandinista de Trabajadores Culturales) was an aggregation of poets, musicians, graphic artists, and other artists united to relate cultural production to the larger task of social and political transformation after 1979. José Coronel Urtecho (b. 1906) is the dean of Nicaraguan writers, and has long been pre-occupied with the cultural (especially literary) interaction between Nicaragua and the United States.
3. “Letting Loose of liberalism: Some Thoughts on Cultural Work and the Limits of Polite Discourse,” Southern Changes 12 (August 1990):1-11.
4. David I. Folkman, Jr., The Nicaraguan Route (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1972), pp. 52 and 44.
5. “Developments in the Appalachian Identity Movement: All Is Process,” Appalachian Journal 8 (Autumn 1980):41-47.
6. John C.C. Mayo was an early twentieth century Kentucky coal baron; Katherine Pettit founded the Hindman Settlement School. Caciques were the native leaders of Indian communities in pre-conquest Nicaragua. Encomenderos were those to whom the Spanish crown gave the right to extract labor and tribute from specified groups of Indians. León and Granada, the principal cities on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, are the historical centers of (respectively) the Liberals and the Conservatives. Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), was killed by Somoza’s National Guard in 1976. Poet and political theorist Ricardo Morales Avilés was also murdered by the Somoza regime. Somocistas were supporters of the regime of Anastasio Somoza García and his two sons (1936-1979); members of the FSLN and their supporters in the insurrection against the Somoza regime (1961-1979) were popularly known as Sandinistas.
7. For some of this history, see Douglas Cole, Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985; and Janet Greenfield, The Return of Cultural Treasures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
8. For two studies of the expropriation of cultural capital, see Jean Haskell Speer, “Commodifying Culture: Selling the Stories of Appalachian America” in Hellmut Geissner, On Narratives (Frankfurt: Scriptor, 1987), pp. 56-73 and “Hillbilly Sold Here: Appalachian Folk Culture and Parkway Tourism” in Parkways: Past, Present and Future (Boone: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1989).
9. My preliminary essay, “Sandinista Cultural Policy: Notes Toward an Analysis in Historical Context,” may be found in R. Lee Woodward, Jr. (ed.), Central America: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Crises (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 169-92. I have looked at another piece of the puzzle in “Rubén Darío as Focal Cultural Figure in Nicaragua: The Political Uses of Cultural Capital,” Latin American Research Review 27 (Fall 1992):7-49. My longer study, Beautiful and Pleasant Land: Perspectives on the Politics of Culture in Nicaragua, is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press.
10. For a discussion of the specifically literary aspects of that ferment, see Margaret Randall, Risking a Somersault in the Air: Conversations with Nicaraguan Writers (San Francisco: Solidarity Publications, 1984); Steven White (ed.), Culture and Politics in Nicaragua: Testimonies of Poets and Writers (New York: Lumen Books, 1986); and John Beverley and Marc Zimmermann, Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).
11. I borrow the phrase “the limits of counterpositions” from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987), p. 78.
12. Along with that of Uncle Dan Gibson, the widow Combs’ courageous action led to the founding of the militant Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, and thence to the passage of the first serious anti-stripmining legislation by the Kentucky legislature. See Loyal Jones, “Mrs. Combs and the Bulldozers,” Katallagete, Summer 1966, pp. 18-24 and “Old Time Baptists and Mainline Christianity” in J.W. Williamson (ed.), An Appalachian Symposium (Boone: Appalachian State University Press, 1977), p. 128.
13. The standard history of the Sandino episode is Macaulay, The Sandino Affair, but the most nuanced reading of Sandino’s thought is Donald C. Hodges, Intellectual Foundations of the Nicaraguan Revolution (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986).
14. On these aspects of the Contra war, see Martin Diskin, “The Manipulation of Indigenous Struggles” in Thomas W. Walker (ed.), Reagan Versus the Sandinistas: The Undeclared War on Nicaragua (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 80-96.
15. A useful compendium of the Sandinistas’ ideas about culture and cultural policy—including several of Cardenal’s essays—may be found in Hacia una política cultural de la Revolución Popular Sandinista (Managua: Ministerio de Cultura, 1982). More accessible (in English) is Steven White (ed.), Culture Politics in Nicaragua: Testimony of Poets and Writers (New York: Lumen Books, 1986).
16. For engaging accounts of some of the young women’s experience as combatants and in other supportive roles, see Margaret Randall, Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1981).
17. On women’s organizations, see for example Gary Ruchwarger, “The Liberation of Women: AMNLAE” in People in Power: Forging a Grassroots Democracy in Nicaragua (South Hadley, Mass.: Bergin and Garvey, 1987), pp. 187-217.
18. See Martha I. Morgan, “Founding Mothers: Women’s Voices and Stories in the 1987 Nicaraguan Constitution,” Boston University Law Review 70 (January 1990):1-107.
19. The fullest analysis of the pattern in the nineteenth century is E. Bradford Burns, Patriarch and Folk: The Emergence of Nicaragua, 1798-1858 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991). For an example from among the Sandinistas themselves, see Omar Cabezas, Fire From the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista (New York: New American Library, 1985).
20. Weller’s Yesterday’s People: Life in Contemporary Appalachia (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965) was a classic victim-blaming account of Appalachian experience.
21. I take these to be some of the central lessons of some excellent recent books on Appalachia: Altina Waller’s Feud: Hatfields, McCoys and Social Change in Appalachia, 1860-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), Rodger Cunningham’s Apples on the Flood: The Southern Mountain Experience (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987), and Stephen Foster’s The Past Is Another Country: Representation, Historical Consciousness and Resistance in the Blue Ridge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).