The Demonization of Pan-American Nationalism

My title seems to be misplaced, because it makes much more sense to say the demonization of pan-Arab nationalism, a thesis easily supported by overwhelming evidence.* Today almost anybody can get on TV and rant against the so-called violence and irrationalism of Arab people and Islam, without providing any facts or reasoning. And anti-Arab racism is out of control in the U.S. media, where the term “rag heads” has now replaced “niggers,” “spics,” and “gooks” in the official lexicon of white supremacy. In fact, you could say that to be publicly anti-black, anti-Latino, or anti-Asian is impossible today in our current climate of political correctness, in which to be anti-anything is treated as a kind of religious blasphemy -– with the exception of the Arab people.

But this middle-class academic political correctness is a clear case of the chickens coming home to roost, as we saw several years ago at Columbia University, where a huge hysteria was worked up by Zionist groups on campus claiming that a systemic anti-Israel bias was damaging their educations. For two years these pro-Israeli groups completely silenced debate at Columbia on U.S. foreign policy in the Arab world and drove several Arab professors into bad health. Columbia then commissioned a comprehensive study that turned up not a single instance of anti-Israel bias at the university. But the desired effect had been achieved: people stopped debating the U.S.’s disastrous and immoral pro-Israeli policy and instead started debating whether or not you can even have a debate about it.1

My use of the term “demonization of pan-American nationalism” is meant to evoke the current demonization of pan-Arab nationalism. There are analogies here that are obvious: for instance, the labeling of Puerto Rican independentistas as terrorists and the ongoing political assassinations of them by U.S. special forces; the constant lying about Cuba and Fidel Castro; the case of the Cuban Five;2 the U.S.-directed coup attempts against the democratically-elected government of Hugo Chávez, and the vilification of Chávez in the U.S. mainstream media; the long history of U.S. counterinsurgency in Colombia, Haiti and Central America. My argument is that the recent demonization of pan-Arab nationalism was enabled by the prior demonization of pan-American nationalism: that you can’t have the former without the prior existence of the latter. And that moreover the demonization of pan-American nationalism has become so deeply internalized in the U.S. that the American Left has itself become unwittingly complicit in it.

To illustrate what I mean by these claims, I’ll look mainly at the most obvious case: Nicaragua. The American Left has gone from being in solidarity with this strong and liberatory expression of pan-American nationalism to completely eluding it. I came of age during the early 1980s, when support of and identification with the Nicaraguan Revolution was not only the main path into Left politics but also a broad opening of everyone’s intellectual horizons. To be involved in solidarity work with the Sandinistas was to be involved also in three or four other struggles simultaneously: the Palestinian independence movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement, and the anti-racist movement in the U.S., which was then crystallized around the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Today I look back on this period as one of superior historical analogy making. What was so exciting about this period intellectually is that we all became good “patternists,” in the sense given it by Octavia Butler.3 Zionist colonization in Palestine follows the same logic as Anglo-American colonization in North America; Israeli apartheid in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza is no different than British and Dutch racial apartheid in South Africa, as Bishop Desmond Tutu was (and is still) constantly saying, not to mention Ariel Sharon himself.4 And the U.S. war against the Nicaraguan Revolution was simply a continuation of the Monroe Doctrine and consistent with the American colonization of Puerto Rico, the U.S. blockade of Cuba, and its overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala and of Juan Bosh in the Dominican Republic The violent attacks on Father Aristide’s LavaLas movement in Haiti were a repetition of the U.S. Marine occupation of the 1920s and 30s and the subsequent propping up of the brutal Duvalier dictatorships.

In other words, involvement with pan-American nationalism in the 1970s and early ‘80s led students, teachers, and community organizers into the realm of dialectical reason and self-consciousness. Or, to put it another way, into contact with “the new human beings of Latin America,” as former FSLN Interior Minister Tomas Borge stated it eloquently. “Now that we have discovered them,” he said,

we will conquer Europe and the U.S., not in order to colonize them, but in order to liberate them, so that their own mythical ceremonies can be initiated afresh, so that they can arise again from their own solemn and wonderful burial ground. The citizens of those countries must be persuaded that liberty should exist not only in the vicinity of the Prado, on the banks of the Seine or the river of the Moskova, but should be enjoyed by all the peoples of the world.

Borge’s definition of “the new human being,” reintroduced to the world by the Nicaraguan Revolution, is still fresh and iconoclastic: “A creature stripped of fat and arrogance, who believes in the biblical statement that all people are gods; who rejects exploitation, despises superfluous objects and aims at the supreme joy, which is to forget oneself.”5 More to the point, by “we” Borge does not mean a radical group of like-minded people ensconced safely in a cultural studies department, but rather everyone who is involved in the struggle for a better society and whose primary affiliation is with the secular democratic humanist tradition and with the different national class struggles that have a secular democratic society as their goal.

In the 1990s, the social democratic critique of exploitation and oppression, which had hitherto successfully guided the U.S. Left both intellectually and organizationally –- from the laboring-class anticapitalist populist movement of the 1890s down to the 1960s antiwar and civil rights struggles –- was replaced by a new obsession with superfluous objects and a lot of narcissism. This sea change is best embodied by Foucauldianism, or social constructionism, in which the true agents of historical change are said to be “polymorphous techniques of subjugation” (Foucault’s terminology, from his book Power/Knowledge), not people engaged in class struggle. In this great paradigm shift, the emphasis on social class is dismissed as merely another instance of power creating truth, and truth in turn creating power. Macro-powers such as giant capitalist cartels, the U.S. Congress, the Pentagon and the corporate mass media are, under this way of thinking, outcomes of radically diffuse networks of “micro-powers,” such as cyberspace hackers, local anarchist groups, and Internet bloggers.6

Thomas Frank has diagnosed the paradigm shift in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? -– a convincing analysis of how the conservative Right has taken state power over the last two decades. He argues that the genius of the Right is in their setting “a political trap so devastating to the interests of Middle America that even the most diabolical of string-pullers would have had trouble dreaming it up.”

Here, after all, is a rebellion against “the establishment” that has wound up abolishing the tax on inherited estates. Here is a movement whose response to the power structure is to make the rich even richer; whose answer to the inexorable degradation of working-class life is to lash out angrily at labor unions and liberal workplace-safety programs; whose solution to the rise of ignorance in America is to pull the rug out from under public education.7

As Frank shows, the right has achieved these monumental policy successes by simply removing social class from the national discourse and replacing it with “culture” or what’s known as “the culture wars”: the bizarre notion that real political power is located not in the state and the dominant economic policy making institutions but rather at the “micro-levels” of society. As Frank nicely puts it: “The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the backlash ideas. It is impossible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if you don’t take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news.”8 Here, on the fundamental question of where political power comes from, the right-wing Christian movement and the American Foucauldian left are in complete agreement. Control resides, on this view, not in the extraordinarily wealthy business class and its handpicked executive committee (the state), but rather in the multitudes themselves who amazingly enough have gained political power from a position completely outside the state.

For American studies, the consequence has been that the influential pan-Americanist books of the 1970s and ‘80s, such as Roberto Fernández Retamar’s Caliban, Kamau Brathwaite’s Roots, Jan Carew’s Fulcrums of Change, Eduardo Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America, Father Aristide’s In the Parish and the Poor, and Edouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse -– pan-American nationalist works that projected the self outward into the universe of daily class struggle and the politics of national self-determination –- were replaced by works of professional cultural theorists neurotically obsessed with “problematizing,” so as to dismantle completely, the Enlightenment concepts of reason and self-emancipation in which class and economics are politically inseparable. Suddenly it became impossible to find new books on the dynamics of national liberation struggle, because we were now being told that revolutionary nationalism is a bad thing -– centralized, male-centered and Eurocentric: a dangerous “macro-power” that was creating its own (new) repressive truths. Fine scholars such as Margaret Randall and John Beverely continued to make important interventions in understanding the vicissitudes of literary pan-American nationalism -– in Randall’s case brilliant analyses of women’s liberation struggle in the Sandinista movement. But their work did not become authoritative in the U.S. academy, nor did the theoretical work of Brathwaite, Glissant, Retamar, Carew, and Galeano. Instead the French theorists took center stage: Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva. And from here the American Left descended into a micro-politics where the older solidarities and intellectual identifications with pan-American nationalism were replaced by the technicist jargon of an imported French theory –- precisely the kind of thing (ironically) warned against by José Martí more than a century ago when he lampooned the obsession among Latin American writers and artists with everything French.

Whereas causation, interrelations and determinations guided the intellectual work of the 1970s and early ‘80s, now the thing became “spacial mappings” and multiple subject positions –- in a word, the multitudes, which was seen as an advance over the stodgy language of class struggle, social democracy, decolonization, and the fight for national independence. From my vantage-point as a graduate student in early 1990s, it seemed clear that my professional peers were making a self-serving compromise with U.S. imperial power: we won’t talk about U.S. colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean as long as you give us jobs in Latin American and Caribbean literature. The result was that all the interrelations would have to go, specifically those of the national liberation movements of the hemisphere. You could speak favorably of diasporic peoples and exiles but not of nationalist political parties and nationalist writers and artists. “Hybridity” over national culture. Isabel Allende over Gioconda Belli.

Timothy Brennan, in his new book Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, has analyzed perspicaciously the paradigm shift. It’s the historical consequence, he argues, of “a political restoration following the Vietnam era.” He writes:

Trying to overcome their growing irrelevance to the corporate university, theorists understood that competing for the attention of mainstream audiences on terms acceptable to the market could be achieved without abandoning one’s dissident self-image. But to do so, one had to fold self-interest into an urgent call for political renewal… A philosophy of concession was needed to repackage middle-class aspiration as an epistemological break, making the rush to the center appear a bold avant-garde leap.9

My point here is not that there’s anything wrong about books, courses, and dissertations on hybridity and liminality, but rather that this is one of the consequences of the demonization of pan-American nationalism. It’s a radical departure from the work of the 1970s and ‘80s and as such requires an explanation. That is, to treat this major shift as a natural one feeds into U.S. conservative ideology and perpetuates the demonization of pan-American nationalism. In trying to explain this shift, which was not natural, the first thing to notice is what has been lost, which I have already mentioned: the strong sense of political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Latin America and the Caribbean. And again it’s not simply a matter of having lost the sister-city relationships with Managua and Havana and all the backs and forths that used to thrive between U.S. scholars and professors and Latin American and Caribbean ones.

The greatest loss has been of a whole generation of students and scholars in the U.S. academy who could have taken the work of the 1970s and ‘80s to the next level of intellectual investigation. After all, Nicolás Guillén kept writing, the testimonios continued coming, and the poetry revolution in Nicaragua led by Ernesto Cardenal went right on going. Yet there have been no follow-up books, no deepening of the episteme established in the 1970s and ‘80s. There has not been a book on the Sandinista literacy campaign in Nicaragua, for example, and its broad effects in the Americas as a whole, or on the profound influence of women writers such as Belli on a new generation of women artists across the hemisphere. One reason is that we have been told by U.S. cultural theorists and their academic presses that studies of single authors are passé and should be discouraged. To get published, you have to use a lot of French jargon, talk about ten or fifteen writers at the same time, and emphasize that we are now living in a new age where globalism and the “New Economy” has made the old revolutionary nationalisms irrelevant and obsolete.

Another aspect of the explanation is the political restoration of the old North over South colonial relation. In the past twenty years, directly following the successful CIA-supported coup against the Allende government in Chile, Latin America and the Caribbean have suffered massive reversals of the gains made during the revolutionary years of the 1960s and ‘70s. Where there was an Asian boom, there was a Latino bust, caused directly by NAFTA and the Washington Consensus. Gerardo Rénique put it precisely in his introduction to Socialism and Democracy’s important 2001 special issue, The Reawakening of Revolution in Latin America, a collection of scholarly essays that has, almost single-handedly, reasserted the centrality of pan-American nationalism in the hemisphere and the principle of hope it carries. “On the heels of the Chilean coup…Latin America’s developmentalist states were swiftly and thoroughly dismantled through the combined efforts of the World Bank and IMF. The result was an extraordinary deterioration of the material conditions of existence, with 225 million –- 44% of the total Latin American population –- reduced to poverty.”10

The 1980s and ‘90s were two bloody decades of U.S.-sponsored genocide and political terror in Latin America and the Caribbean, leaving wreckage from which the people are still pulling themselves up. It’s not surprising, then, that during the 1990s the U.S. academic agenda jettisoned pan-American nationalism and embraced identity politics and “the multitudes” in its place. To cite one compelling example, in the late 1970s Eduardo Galeano called the Latin American testimonio -– a new kind of writing, typified by Rigoberta Menchú, that came directly from the anticolonial mass movements of the 1950s and ‘60s11 -– the most important contribution to Latin American literature in the twentieth century. Yet in the 1990s, even after Menchú had won the Nobel, the U.S. academy produced only one scholarly book on the subject, and this was a follow-up to a previous work (Marc Zimmerman’s Literature and Resistance in Guatemala, which followed his work with John Beverley called Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions.)

It was not until 2005 that the first book-length study of the testimonio was published in the U.S.: Joanna Bartow’s Subject to Change: The lessons of Latin American Women’s Testimonio for Truth, Fiction, and Theory. What was lacking in the U.S. was not merely books on the testimonio as such, but also any exploration of interrelationships between, say, its African American and Latino variants. This kind of interrelation was the subject of many different works during the 1970s, in particular the work of Martha Cobb, who studied closely the literary links between Haiti and Harlem. But in the U.S. academy during the 1990s these links were dropped like the hot potato they are, for what connects the two traditions is resistance to a common oppressor: the U.S. colonialist ruling class.

It should also be noted that there have been in the U.S. an array of superb journal and book articles on the testimonio. Yet this underscores a different aspect of the problem: the hyper-specialization of knowledge in the U.S. academy. In Latin American and Caribbean literary studies, things are much different. Here you can find at least a dozen excellent book-length studies of the testimonio, many of them published in Havana, Lima, and Buenos Aires. In contrast, the work done in the U.S. academy is highly specialized and limited to academic niche journals and book collections.

If this assessment seems gloomy and pessimistic, then I need to say one last thing. The need to revive the kind of exciting work done in the 1970s and ‘80s is startlingly obvious in the current conjuncture, for the recent electoral triumphs of the Latin American Left cannot be explained as the result of “micro-powers” busy at work changing one consciousness at a time. The new Bolivarians of the Americas come from the same tradition that has given us Cuban socialism, Galeano’s The Open Veins of Latin America and Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, and the Chávez presidency. Moreover, the French fad is already passing into vapor -– or, as Jean Baudrillard put it nicely in a recent interview, French theory will go away without being noticed because it was a gift the Americans never needed in the first place -– it’s like the Statue of Liberty.12 And the academic publishing business is hungry again for real books: case studies of Julia de Burgos, and Cardenal, of the rhetorical genius of Fidel Castro and his intellectual legacy in the entire hemisphere, and monographs about electrifying figures such as the Nicaraguan poet Leonel Rugama, who was gunned down at age 21 by Somoza’s national guardsmen while reciting poetry in their face. What better topic for a doctoral dissertation than a comparative study of Rugama and Etheridge Knight? Or Daisy Zamora and June Jordan? Manlio Argueta and Toni Morrison? Amiri Baraka and Roque Dalton?

This kind of study was common in the 1970s and ‘80s –- take, for instance, Ian Smart’s brilliant study of Nicolás Guillén and Langston Hughes. So it can’t be argued that this is reductionist or that it collapses particularities into some abstract totality. The reduction of diverse peoples and traditions to an undifferentiated sameness is the work of capitalist ruling classes, not the historical Left. The mainstream of the Latin American and Caribbean tradition, from its inception with José Martí more than a century ago, proves this, as it has argued consistently for these kinds of dynamic interrelationship – not only because they are a powerful challenge to the official demonization of pan-American nationalism but also because they make possible a new kind of political thought for everyone.

*This article is adapted from a lecture given at the CUNY Graduate Center on March 17, 2006, as part of the Africana Studies Group international conference “Departures and Definitions: Afro-Latino and Afro-American Identity in the New Millennium.” Special thanks to the conference’s principal organizer, Anamaría Flores, for inviting my contribution.


1. Professor Joseph Massad, the prime target of the 2004 pro-Israeli attempt on campus to purge Columbia University of any faculty critical of Israeli state policy, gave a thorough account of his experience in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram (“Intimidating Columbia University,” November 4-10, 2004).

2. See Leonard Weinglass, “The Railroading of the Cuban Five,” S&D, no. 34 (Summer/Fall 2003).

3. This signature term of Butler, “patternist,” comes from her first novel Patternmaster. For a discussion of what Butler means by it, see my essay on Butler in S&D’s special science fiction issue (no. 42, November 2006), and also my articles “The Genius and Courage of Octavia Butler” (, March 11, 2006), and “Langston Hughes: Patternmaster” (Race & Class, vol. 48, no. 2, Fall 2006).

4. Sharon stated that “the Bantustan model was the most appropriate solution to the conflict.” Norman Finkelstein, “The Ludicrous Attacks on Jimmy Carter’s Book” (, Dec. 31, 2006). Finkelstein’s sources are: Gershom Gorenberg’s research article, “Road Map to Grand Apartheid? Ariel Sharon’s South African inspiration” (American Prospect, July 3, 2003), and Akiva Eldar’s commentary in Haaretz, “Sharon’s Bantustans Are Far from Copenhagen’s Hope” (May 13, 2003).

5. Tomas Borge, “The Reality of Latin America,” Race & Class, vol. 33, no. 3 (1992), p. 98.

6. For a salient example of this kind of Foucauldianism, see Hardt and Negri’s book Empire (2000), which argues that the 1960s student antiwar movement created economic globalization.

7. Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), p. 7.

8. Ibid., p. 128.

9. Wars of Position, p. 9. See this entire opening chapter, entitled “Cultures of Belief: The Turn in Contemporary American Thought.”

10. S&D, no. 39 (November 2005), p. 3.

11. See I, Rigoberta Menchú (London: Verso, 1984).

12. Jean Baudrillard, “Continental Drift,” New York Times Magazine (Nov. 20, 2005), p. 6.

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