LIFE IS HARD: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua by Roger N. Lancaster (UC Press: $25; 363 pp.). Roger Lancaster, an anthropologist who came to "really believe in Socialism" after visiting Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, uses some of these pages to invoke the now-familiar leftist defense against conservative charges of "Sandinista corruption and mismanagement." Never giving the Sandinistas a chance to succeed, the U. S.-sponsored war, he writes, "inflicted up to $7 billion in infrastructure and trade losses on an economy whose GNP never much exceeded $3 billion, even in good times." Most of this unorthodox ethnography, however, is concerned with something far more unusual: Serving as a cautionary note to revolutionaries of the sort that Lancaster once was (and may still be), it shows that revolutions won't succeed unless they overturn a nation's culture as well as its politics. While the Sandinistas may have succeeded in uprooting an aristocratic government, Lancaster shows, they left intact an oppressive ethos of machismo and racism.
Part of a burgeoning movement of academics who prefer studying the details of daily life to analyzing sweeping social trends, "Life Is Hard" sometimes evokes the everyday experience of Nicaraguans with the intimacy of good fiction. "To my sweetness," one young man laboring in America writes home. "I burned my neck at work with a hot rod but I'm all right because I use a burn cream But that is not all because of how much I think of you even though you don't believe it but it's true Every day I remember you thinking what you do where you go . . . ."
Most of this book, however, is far more abstract, analyzing the difficulty of changing cultural assumptions that, while oppressive, have been accepted as "the way life is." Lancaster quotes a maxim by philosopher Michel Foucault: "People know what they do; they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does." Nevertheless, he finds in Nicaragua some genuinely hopeful signs of cultural reformation, such as the fotonovela (photographic comic book) in which a little working-class girl, teased for her dark skin, comes home distraught and weeping to her mother, who consoles her: "Black is the color of the soil; black is the color of your mother; black is beautiful."