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  • "Unsubstantiated Belief":What We Assume as Truth, and How We Use Those Assumptions
  • Margaret Randall, independent writer, photographer, and oral historian (bio)

The word "folklore" is defined in my Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1987) as "a body of widely held but false or unsubstantiated beliefs." The Oxford English Dictionary (1991) gives a slightly different but related definition: "The traditional beliefs, legends, and customs, current among the common people. The study of these." The class bias in the latter is obvious: the beliefs, legends, and customs held or practiced by "the common people" are suspect, somehow—and thus, perhaps, unsubstantiated or false.

As folklorists you are familiar with these definitions, familiar with them in ways—and with nuances—I cannot duplicate. And of course you know what folklore means personally to you. Before going further, I should make it clear that I do not believe you subscribe to these dictionary definitions; later I will get back to the ways in which you yourselves describe the valuable work you are doing.

My comments here will necessarily be those of a layperson. I will not attempt to enter your field or take on the range of issues it embraces. Yet I find connections. In my years of working as an oral historian, I faced some of the problems you face.

As a poet, a writer, thinking about your invitation to speak at this meeting, I started by considering what the term "folklore" has meant to me, someone outside the field. Folklore, or the folkloric—at least to the unspecialized ear—implies something exotic. Not necessarily unsubstantiated, but certainly Other. There is the ever-so-slight aura of that which is legend rather than accurately recorded history, superstition rather than scientific truth, a wisdom not easily quantified, the cultural practices or creativity prevalent among people who are different from ourselves; often dramatically different.

Identification with mainstream society—white, owner class, formally educated, elitist, generally male—builds upon our socially conditioned racism and xenophobia to make sure we see the people who inhabit these categories as central while relegating those of other races, ethnicities, economic status, gender identity, and religious or political beliefs to the category of marginal, that is, Other. Indigenous peoples everywhere seem particularly folkloric to the middle-of-the-road United States American. [End Page 288]

Thus, Judeo-Christian philosophy (or baseball, Fourth of July picnics, an easy-going "Come back and see us, honey!" and the armed forces of the United States) is mainstream, whereas Navajo or Hopi belief systems, drums, spirituals, hip-hop, "Mi casa es su casa," irregular or guerrilla struggle, or not subscribing to a socially acceptable model of success remain outside the mainstream. The free market and Wall Street represent economics as we know and live them, whereas barter or in-kind trade appear folkloric. This tendency to judge other people and their cultures according to how like or unlike us we perceive them to be sets the stage for behavior that may range from fearful and disdaining to immoral and even criminal.

There have been two competing tendencies in U.S. culture, two separate but overlapping folklores, if you will. One is made from the positive traditions of fairness, pride, rugged individualism, independence, democracy, and freedom of speech and dissent for which our nation has become a beacon—real or imagined. The other is the sense of superiority and entitlement that produced such rapacious conquest going back to the nineteenth century and before (e.g., the U.S. takeovers of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, the building and operation of the Panama Canal, all the way up to the power it wields today through its control of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, to name only the major international institutions). This second tendency promotes the idea that we do not need to know about the rest of the world, understand or respect its cultures, or speak its languages. It disparages and sabotages such truly international bodies as the United Nations and World Court.

The Bush administration has built on this long tradition of U.S. Americans perceiving themselves as superior, entitled, and all-powerful and has taken great...


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pp. 288-295
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