- A Response from the Classroom to Margaret Randall's AFS Address
I first read Sandino's Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle (1981) as a young activist in the era before the crisis of socialism. To say that it inspired me fails to capture the tremendous impact of that project at that time. I did not make it to Nicaragua until February 1990, and by then things had become more complicated. The Sandinistas had been voted out of office by a war-weary populace, and the women's movement was struggling for an identity independent of the party. Yet, Margaret Randall continued to write in ways that contributed powerfully to the struggles she documented. So I was not surprised to discover that her more recent book, When I Look into the Mirror and See You: Women, Terror, and Resistance (2003), having evolved from the chance meeting of two activists who had been arrested and tortured together in Honduras two decades earlier, speaks directly to the issues with which I have been wrestling—the silences provoked by trauma and how reconnecting, retelling, and remembering can and do occur often in serendipitous, seemingly discontinuous moments of opportunity.
In response to today's presentation, I want to embrace Randall's challenge to identify how each of us might safeguard the American tradition of discussion and dissent in our own work. In particular, I will address our work as teachers in the current climate of defensive patriotism. Unsubstantiated belief has been an important aspect of folklore studies since its inception. David Hufford's conference presentation earlier today provides an important reminder that our technologically sophisticated, scientific age does not necessarily herald and has not, in fact, produced a golden age of reason. We remain, as always, in an age of unreason, and as Linda Dégh (2001) points out, advances in modern communication, far from dispelling unsubstantiated beliefs, simply multiply their channels of dissemination. Much of our research as folklorists belies a romantic inclination to validate "marginal" belief systems, to find coherence [End Page 345] and dignity in alternate ways of knowing, or to demonstrate that miracles and visitations of various kinds, rather than constituting delusions or hallucinations, might be reasonable interpretations of exceptional experiences. Three important outcomes of this approach are that we respect the people with whom we work and about whom we write, that we discipline ourselves to withhold judgment about beliefs we may not readily share, and that we turn our reflexive lens on academic beliefs and orthodoxies as well as on popular wisdom (Hufford 1982, 1995a, 1995b).
Increasingly, however, folklorists have been jolted from the role of defending the marginal to the less appetizing task of identifying the negative consequences of certain narratives. Legends, for instance, are not just quaint and picturesque stories, but are potentially dangerous scripts for behavior. Employing the concept of ostension, Dégh points out that the relation between real life events and legend is much more complex than we once imagined, as one realm interacts with and influences the other. But I think a more pressing concern than that posed by the individual criminal who acts out a legend for nefarious purposes is the community hysteria that can follow a real or imagined threat, as Bill Ellis has cogently argued (2001). This danger, or what I like to call the lynching that follows the rape that never happened, constitutes the classic response of a majority to a perceived threat by a minority and is the motivating force behind many contemporary legends. Because contemporary legend requires an immediate response, usually a defense against the evil that it conjures, it becomes an excuse for inexcusable behavior not just in the small community but, as Randall reminds us, on the world stage.
In Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live, Ellis recalls how the elder Bush recycled the Roman legend of baby-sacrificing Christians when he initiated the 1990 Desert Storm campaign: "The act most cited by Bush to justify his rush to war was the story, published in a December 19 Amnesty International report, that when Iraqi soldiers took over a Kuwaiti hospital, they...