In one of the finest specimens of biblical narrative, we are told how David, fleeing from Saul, finds himself at the court of Achish, king of Gath, and how the servants of Achish blow David’s cover by spreading the word of his military success:
And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath. And he changed his behavior before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. Then said Achish unto his servants, Lo ye see the man is mad: wherefore then have ye brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? [1 Samuel 21:12ff.]
“Do I lack madmen?” We can picture poor Achish with perfect vividness: an up-country Palestinian chief trying his best to keep the clan together by giving jobs to his in-laws and jailing his rivals—what most men in comparable circumstances have done in every age. We see him, perhaps, rubbing his temples with his fingertips while dealing with the day’s roster of petty crises bungled by his deadweight subordinates. A drooling and gibbering David is the last thing he wants in his IN tray. With his shaft of wry exasperation King Achish would win the instant sympathy of any administrator—indeed, of anybody with any responsibilities—who has ever had one problem too many walk through his door. Across a chasm of three millennia our hearts go out to him.
Perhaps, then, it is not too harsh a transition to refocus on another minor-league commandant in another region off the main trade routes, former President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Ronald Reagan once called him “a dictator in designer glasses,” but I prefer to see him as an example of something humbler and more likable: a modest and serious man doing what he could to keep afloat the family business, which in this case was the business of riding herd on a Marxist revolution. Not so much a creator of contemporary politics as their product, he hitched his wagon to the Red Star while it was in the ascendant, only to find himself in charge of a country which, like Neutralia in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scott King’s Modern Europe, was “a typical modern state, governed by a single party, acclaiming a dominant Marshal, supporting a vast ill-paid bureaucracy whose work is humanized and tempered by corruption.” And then came the elections of March 1990. . . .
Now that the FSLN has huffed off with an ill grace to squat and pout in the Museum of World Leninism, we can look back with a kind of detachment at the curious fascination which it held for so many earnest Northerners in the past decade. A wide array of enthusiasts, hungry for evidence with which to vindicate their own schemes for a classless state, have wanted to view Nicaragua as the nation on the cutting edge of history, the crucible of politics, the laboratory in which the latest experiments in social engineering were the business not simply of the academy but of a real government with a real police force. Just as in the 30’s most leftist intellectuals looked to the Soviet Union for a preview of the future shape of education or public health, so—half a century later—it was the Sandinistas who were seen to be building the New Jerusalem. Accordingly, it was to Managua and Esteli that the pilgrims trekked, clutching their Nikons and their dissertations, anxious for a cure or an imprimatur. A number of ingenious arguments have been advanced to address the painful question, How could so many have been so wrong? A look at the grasp of reality enjoyed by the votaries themselves will make the answer only too obvious.
It is hardly surprising, for example, that Western feminists should have mounted their own fact-finding tours to assess the progress of the Daughters of the Revolution. In May 1988 Maxine Molyneux published an article in the Feminist Review, “The Politics of Abortion in Nicaragua: Revolutionary Pragmatism—or Feminism in the Realm of Necessity?” Molyneux was grieved to learn that “Nicaragua is an anomaly among socialist states. Its comparatively advanced record on general political issues—pluralism, democracy, abolition of the death penalty—contrasts with a surprisingly conservative position on reproductive rights.”
The chief villain was, of course, the Catholic Church, and particularly its hierarchy, which exercised a kind of mind control even over emancipated Sandinistas which Molyneux was at a loss to account for. But a second factor was the rather embarrassing one that the National Directorate of Nicaragua—though a splendid thing in itself—was overwhelmingly composed of Latino males, with predictable consequences: “The cults of machismo and hombria [manliness] place considerable store on being able to father large numbers of children, biologically if not socially.”
It is interesting that leftists constitutionally averse to negative stereotypes of “ethnic minorities” find their scruples only too vincible when the ethnics in question fail to measure up. Nor is it only Nicaraguan men who are at fault. As Molyneux laments, “in Catholic countries where women’s identification with motherhood is positive and particularly strong,” even the sisters themselves can fall short of full enlightenment. One Nicaraguan feminist told the author:
The losses of war have strengthened rather than diminished the emotional significance of motherhood. There are 11,000 women in Managua alone who are mothers of soldiers who have died in the fighting. Abortion in such a context is associated with more death; for some women it’s unthinkable.
Our researcher does not explicitly draw the conclusion, but we are meant to feel that not the least of the tragedies of war is that it robs a young woman of her normal, wholesome urge for the surgical termination of pregnancy.
Yet true blame for Sandinista recalcitrance in the cause of reproductive rights may have reached even higher. Molyneux does not flinch from the suggestion that, at least in part, the President himself was responsible. She has come upon damaging excerpts from a 1987 speech:
“One way of depleting our youth is to promote the sterilization of women in Nicaragua . . . or to promote a policy of abortion”; “The problem is that the woman is the one who reproduces. The man can’t play that role.” [Ortega] said that some women, “aspiring to be liberated,” decide not to bear children. Such a woman, “negates her own continuity, the continuity of the human species.”
The author is prepared to be somewhat lenient toward the heterodoxy of’ such opinions. She explains, “Ortega is a man who lives the war every day, and his off-the-cuff remarks reflect a pragmatic, political attitude toward what he sees.” At the same time, though,
some have seen a suggestion of moralism in his formulations in the implication that women have been bystanders in the revolutionary process and must now therefore discharge their debt to the nation by having babies . . . What annoyed many women was the fact that Ortega saw fit to use the authority and discourse of the revolution and the war against the contras to attack and demobilize the campaigners and supporters of women’s reproductive choice.
We are, in short, left with the clear impression by Molyneux that, while her idol may wear designer glasses, he has trotters of clay.
There was worse yet in store for Daniel Ortega. Revolutionary Forgiveness: Feminist Reflections on Nicaragua1 is the travel diary of the Amanecida Collective, a group of thirteen persons of advanced ideas from the Harvard Divinity School and the Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The book is principally the account of a one-month visit to Nicaragua made by eleven members of the collective. Even by the standards of the Managua photo-op, they were an imposing group:
[D]iversity looms large in our spiritualities, as we represent different ecclesial backgrounds and foregrounds. Carol is Moravian. Flo is a Unitarian Universalist minister. Margarita and Kirsten belong to the United Church of Christ, and Susan is a United Church of Christ minister. Six of us are Episcopalians: Laura, Anne, Carter, Virginia, Laurie, and Jane; Carter and Jane are Episcopal priests. Pat is a musician in an Episcopal Church. Like several of us, Elaine is a former Roman Catholic. She is now post-christian and also is wrestling with the possibility of joining the Episcopal Church.
Even a Sandinista steeled to the ravages of Claymore mines and fragmentation bombs must have swallowed once or twice at the prospect of hosting the Amanecida Collective for a few weeks. Like missionaries clutching their Bibles in a white-knuckle grip, these troopers came with a robust faith: conventional militant feminism, but with a notably Sapphic twist:
Our commitment to the liberation of lesbians and gay men requires that we confront those people and those policies which proclaim sexual relationships between men and women, heterosexual marriage, and nuclear family constellations as normative for the health of society . . . the problems of heterosexism and homophobia cannot be separated from those of gender, racial, and class oppression. To try to do so is to underestimate the systemic nature of the forces of oppression in the world and to miss altogether the key questions in any adequate analysis of injustice: who controls whom? . . . Our christian/postchristian faith becomes increasingly an advocacy posture for the self-determination of all people who have been objectified and damaged by the imperialistic, racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist, and anti-Semitic deeds done “in the name of Christ.”
Clear, I hope? Less zealous reformers than the Amanecidanas might have noticed that the personal and social enthusiasms expressed in their manifesto did not dovetail especially well with the urgencies of the Sandinista revolution; yet they were not to be put off. The purpose of their trip was not so much to learn as to teach—or, when they would learn, it was only to confirm by example what they had already grasped by Faith (I mean, by their advocacy posture).
Thus, the official justification they were offered for the continued detention of political prisoners did not seem to trouble any of the visitors, yet it was noted by them with approval that in Nicaragua, “advertising that exploits women’s bodies is now illegal.” Certainly they were not about to let conventional barriers to understanding frustrate their plans to inspire and be inspired. One Nicaraguan woman at a rally for Ortega, noticing that the gringas had a tape recorder, asked if she could recite a poem. Our informant readily assented, and tells us, “I could not understand the words but listened to the tone of her voice, which rose and fell in a passionate lament.” Even ignorance of the language is chalked up not to personal unpreparedness but to the wholesale blindness of European civilization:
We regretted that so few of us knew enough Spanish during our visits to be able to converse easily with Nicaraguans. Having a translator inhibited spontaneous communication. It also served as an uneasy reminder . . . of the distance between North and South and of the cultural myopia in which most U.S. citizens of Northern European descent have been raised.
However, it all comes right in the end:
Non-verbal sounds in the night, as well as what we saw, tasted, touched, and smelled, were as important to our meeting Nicaragua and its people as any words we were able to understand.
No 19th-century sahib, no blasé son of the manse, no Church Mission Society zealot was ever so confident as the Amanecida Collective that you can get the Wog to tell you everything you need to know if you handle him properly. The absence of Spanish is regretted, but we come to suspect that this is largely because the good sisters had sermons of their own they were anxious to give. U.S. cultural myopia did not, it seems, impair their vision of the horrors of lingering sexism. The predictable enemies are scored, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and especially the Pope, “whose contempt for both women and the Sandinista regime” was seen as strikingly pernicious. But the “deeply-rooted machismo” is also deplored and it is noticed with pique that there was “a nine-man ruling junta.”
Inevitably, the focus comes around to the sad fact of Nicaraguan homophobia. What seems most to have unsettled the ladies of the divinity schools of Cambridge is that no one much cared about the problem. They asked insistently about gay rights, but were shrugged off. People gave unhelpful answers like, “The revolution is more important than these things.” “Homosexuality doesn’t exist in Nicaragua.” “There are more important things to worry about.” Like the True Believers they are, the Amanecidanas were able at least to find a reassuring explanation: “Confusion over these issues results in a linking of homosexuality with prostitution and coercion, because that was a common male homosexual experience under Somoza’s National Guard.”
The Faith was rattled, then, but still intact. One member of the collective burst into a long and agonized cri du coeur, of which I give not the twentieth part:
I am what I am and I am a North American. . . . I am what I am una lesbiana norte-americana. . . . How do I embrace this brokenness? Is it madness that I feel? Is it passion, the passion of thousands like me who know no other life? How do I convince Fidel? or Daniel? or Toms? Or Ernesto? Why won’t they see our struggles as connected? I am not the enemy. The white man is our enemy. . . . We must find a different God. A God beyond Father, beyond the jealous patriarchal role model we have been subjected to. . . . The white man will never give us power, we must find our own. We must take our power. . . .
A stern moralist might argue that the Amanecida Collective was Daniel Ortega’s just comeuppance for having succumbed in the first place to the temptations of the Left. Politics makes strange bedfellows (to use a spectacularly inappropriate cliché), and the enthusiasms of feminists are after all no more than the stock principles of Marxism extended beyond the bounds of sanity.
All this is admitted. But let’s be fair. Here we had a man operating well within the tradition of the backwoods thane, keeping his brothers employed and his enemies in prison by a combination of wit, bluster, and very dangerous liaisons. Like that of Achish, king of Gath, his average day must have been a nightmare: intrigues, pronunciamentos, jailbreaks, agricultural disasters following upon each other thick as fleas. Think of what a free half-hour in the afternoon must have meant to the man. Think of the relief, the chance for a cigar enjoyed in solitude. And consider then the effect when his door was thrown open, the Amanecida Collective shuffled in for an audience . . . and he had to think of something nice to say. If we can, after lo! these many years, commiserate with Achish, can we not spare a twinge of sympathy for Daniel?
1 Orbis Books (1987).