Volume 5, Number 137
21 November 2005

In this issue
Book Notes

Fortress America

Dear Friends,

As the embassy vehicle speeds through the crowded streets of Lima, I look to the east, towards the dusty foothills of the Andes. The view seems strangely distorted, the buildings and street signs undulating slowly as I move my eyes. What on earth? I reach out and touch the glass of the window, and the realization dawns that each window is fitted with a thick layer of bulletproof glass. The driver confirms that the entire ordinary-looking SUV is armored — not that we expect to be fired upon, but every US embassy in the world has several such vehicles as a matter of routine prudence.

Photo © Brian Phillips

We round a corner, the streets open out, and the campus of the huge US Embassy swims into view. Here is the public face of the United States of America, the face we present to all Peruvians. The extensive campus, with its gardens and flowering trees, is not merely representing the USA, it is actually a part of the USA because the grounds of a foreign embassy — any embassy — are legally considered the sovereign territory of the nation which the embassy represents. And what is the symbolic image presented here?

To put it plainly: Fortress America.

There are no medieval turrets or battlements decorating this fortress, there is no moat and drawbridge, but a hundred little signs reveal that this is no ordinary block of offices. Maybe it is the antennas bristling on the roof, or little video-cameras watching every movement, or the detachment of Peruvian national police outside the building, or the barriers designed to stop truck bombs well short of the walls. The windows are small, and their color hints at more bulletproof glass. As a whole, the massive building conveys a sense of barely concealed robust power, simultaneously an impregnable redoubt in times of trouble and a growling menace to enemies everywhere, real or imagined.

Our vehicle passes its physical inspection at the gate, and I walk up the ramp to the astonishingly tall doors, doors that appear to have been designed to admit superbeings with ease. Not for the first time I wonder at the subtle psychological changes that occur as one enters through that doorway. On the outside, booming bustling Lima, a 24-hour city crisscrossed with passionate fireworks of human activity. On the inside, another world entirely: hushed corridors flowing with air-conditioned coolness, color-coded security badges, compartmentalized knowledge, and quiet well-dressed people whose bearing and speech give little hint of their roles or powers.

Seen from the upper floors, the mountains and capital city of Perú spread out in a broad panorama, but the scene is clouded by the perpetual fogs of Lima and the inevitable bulletproof glass. I wonder, can our embassy personnel really see what is happening down there, on the hyperactive streets of Lima and in the quiet valleys of the Andes? Just how clouded are our perceptions, when the world is viewed through fog and plastic, enshrouded with distorting layers upon layers of security?

The sensation reminds me of a similar feeling that I invariably experience in airports, while clearing customs and immigration and eventually emerging into the native cityscapes of the United States. The view subtly changes, and the changes are not just in my vision. It is as though the entire sensorium shifts, as though reality itself passes through some unknown and mysterious transformation, changed and yet not: the topology of reality seems unaltered, yet the emotional and perceptual ground has changed in ways that are largely unconscious. I have reentered Fortress America.

Bubble World

Have you ever visited one of the Disney theme parks? If so, you may have experienced a kindred transition. No matter how prosperous and well-organized the city environment that encloses a Disney park, the process of entering is a managed symbolic transition into a higher state of order and prosperity. Every street is clean, every vehicle noiseless, every building freshly painted and in good repair. Every animal is mechanical, not messy flesh and blood. There is no despair, no poverty, no illness or death, anywhere to be seen. Of course it is fantasy, but visitors enter willingly, even eagerly, into this managed illusion of perfection.

I last visited Disney World more than twenty years ago, yet I still sometimes awaken with a start, bathed in sweat in the wee hours of the morning with the remnants of a dream fogging my mind. In these fragments I can hear the nightmarish sounds of mechanical children singing, "It's a small world, after all," over and over, as the world around me slowly morphs from a land of fantasy back into comfortable reality.

Perhaps I'm too sensitive, perhaps my mind does not work as it should for a constant traveler. It's a big world, after all, made bigger than most can imagine by the psychological frontiers that must be crossed as one jets about from one land to another, from one nation's fantasyland to another's. The more I travel, the more I seem to become aware of these unconscious and subtle atmospherics. Whether it occurs in an airport or an embassy, to step once again on US sovereign territory — as I did when entering the US Embassy in Perú — is to be transported into the interior of a magic bubble of bulletproof glass, a bubble whose curves and colors subtly distort the view of all who live within the fortress.

In Search of the Real Perú

So where is the "real" Perú, and how can we find it, see it, know it, without the distorted perceptions of Fortress America? Most travelers to Lima see only the booming downtown district, which goes by the beautiful name of Miraflores — "look at the flowers!" — rather than the enormous belt of slums and shantytowns that ring the inner city. Yet this belt radiates with the passions and hopes of the Peruvian Everyman, the invisible people who have left everything behind and migrated to the great City, in urgent hopes of a better life.

Newly transplanted into Lima, suffering from loss of culture and extended family, living in shacks without title to land or home, these modern-day pilgrims to the shrine of urban capitalism have only their native talents to invest. The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto identified their plight in the following eloquent passage.

"Most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make success of capitalism, ... but they hold these resources in defective forms: houses built on land whose ownership rights are not adequately recorded, unincorporated businesses with undefined liability, industries located where financiers and investors cannot see them. Because the rights to these possessions are not adequately documented, these assets cannot readily be turned into capital, cannot be traded outside of narrow local circles where people know and trust each other, cannot be used as collateral for a loan, and cannot be used as a share against investment..." — The Mystery of Capital, by Hernando de Soto, pp. 5–6.

The consequence of defective or missing rights of ownership is an economic system of great inefficiency, failing its eager participants at almost every turn. To explain these failures, contradictory economic mythologies from left and right clash in the public mind. On the far left we find Maoist fantasies, espoused by the Shining Path, and Trotskyite visions of perpetual revolution. On the far right there is a yearning for a return to authoritarian rule. But from the center, from people like Hernando de Soto, comes the revolutionary idea of giving poor people the property rights they need in order to run their own businesses.

Perhaps a Trace of Hubris?

Japan, the United States, and Europe have had a system of property rights for so long, most of their citizens take these rights for granted, seldom if ever understanding how critical these are for innovation and entrepreneurial endeavor.

The same can be said for an independent civil service, in large part insulated from political influence. We have had such a system for so long, we have forgotten how corrupt and ineffective a government can be when all of its employees are subject to political appointment.

Property rights, an independent civil service, a stable currency, and a good education system: these are the ingredients for economic success. Over the last 140 years the economy of the United States has surged from a poor condition, torn apart by civil war and suffering from corrupt government, to a finely tuned race engine, running on high-octane fuel, generating extraordinary wealth and accelerating technological progress. With wealth has come truly extraordinary power, both commercial and military, on a scale never before seen in history.

But I fear there are tragic potentials deriving from all this power. Surely I am not the only one to detect a whiff of hubris drifting up from all of this. How did the Greeks put it? Whom the gods would destroy they first make drunk with power. As the intoxicating rush of riches and power surges through society, our very perceptions of reality are altered. From within the bubble world of Fortress America, I fear our leaders have come to see the entire rest of the world as something merely to be manipulated, and if it does not cooperate then threatened or invaded. Is this not close to the ancient Greek definition of hubris, the wellspring of tragedy in countless myths and legends? I think it is.

Sincerely your friend,

Loren Cobb

Note: Readers of the first draft of this essay may wonder what happened to all the material on myths of freedom and property. It rapidly became apparent that there was not space within the confines of a single TQE essay to treat this topic with the precision that it requires. I have simply deferred it for another day. — Loren


The Quaker Economist announces with pride and pleasure the online publication of A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

Traducimos esta obra en español, abajo del titulo Historia de Riqueza y Probreza. Esperamos la finalización en enero de 2006.

Readers' Comments

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Loren, I envision you sitting on a stone slab at Machu Picchu at sunrise pondering these matters. This is a graphic reflection on Fortress America, Life in the Bubble, and an apt, poetic even, comparison to the mythology, hubris, and the operating assumptions of "those who came before us." As one who travels and is confronted with almost universal perceptions abroad of America as "ignorant, arrogant bully," I keep asking, "How did we let this happen?"

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

The virtue of issue #137 is that it at least tiptoes up to the edge of naming militarism as a major factor shaping the outlook and presence of the US in the world (not to mention its/our economy.) Indeed, I would go further than Loren here, and call it a central force, one with its own momentum and autonomy, that is rapidly becoming dominant, and eclipsing the debates over property rights, environmentalism, etc., which preoccupy economists. (It's what we theological folks call a "principality" or "power.")

This view is, of course, much influenced by my "social location,", up against the belly of the beast here at Ft. Bragg. And my thesis is a debate for another time. But #137 is a good start in the direction of recognizing it.

— Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.

I am not sure what to make of TQE #137. I am certain there is a point in there somewhere, and after more reading, I hope I can be enlightened. Are you going to follow this up with any thoughts on why we have an embassy there? Has our country done anything that we can be proud of? Have we spent any US taxpayer money on projects in Peru?

Further, are any citizens of Peru applying to come to this country? I wonder why, with a "fortress" image why anyone would come here legally, let alone risk their life and those of their family to come here. Lastly, I wonder if a situation in a country went from good to bad, would those thick glass windows come in handy. And would you enter the "fortress" for safety?

I will continue to re-read #1137 and try to come to the place where you were when you wrote it.

Richard S. Parry, Atlanta, Georgia.

Reply: I will attempt to answer as well as I can. It may help if I start with your last question first.

If the embassy were fired upon, then the thick windows and reinforced walls would be extremely handy. And, yes, in an emergency I would be very glad to have such a building to enter for protection. But please note: I used bulletproof glass as a metaphor in this essay. My point is not that the glass is bulletproof. The point is that peering out through this bulletproof glass leads to distorted vision, a distortion that is comparable to the distortions of national perception that come from a state of acute defensiveness and occasional outright paranoia.

A metaphor, by definition, is a comparison that goes unstated — if it were stated explicitly then it would be a simile, not a metaphor. If one doesn't see the metaphor then the entire article makes no sense whatsoever.

Has our country done anything that we can be proud of? Yes, of couse we have. I work for embassies all across Latin America, and I am very proud of most of our efforts (I would not say the same for our policies in Latin America during the Reagan era, but that is another story.) As a long-time subcontractor for the US military, I am extremely proud of our accomplishments in introducing to future government leaders the concepts of long-range strategic planning at the national and regional levels, in training military officers for UN peacekeeping operations, and international humanitarian / disaster relief operations.

Have we spent any US taxpayer money on projects in Peru? Yes, of course we have. US-AID is very active in Peru in the areas of infrastructure, health, education, judicial reform, the environment, and we also have projects with the Peruvian police and armed forces (primarily against narcotrafficking). According to US-AID (click here for details), our assistance came to some $100 million in 2004.

Am I going to follow this up with any thoughts on why we have an embassy there? Frankly, I find this question astonishing. We need to have an embassy in just about every country in the world, except the tiniest statelets. The work of our embassies is absolutely crucial. It's a two-way street: our embassies convey US opinions and ideas to the Peruvian government and people, and they convey their opinions and ideas back to our government. The US ambassador in Peru is the single best voice that the US has in Peru. US business interests in Peru would be fatally crippled without the embassy. — Loren

I too regret our current international alienation and isolation, but your characterization of our embassy in Lima as "simultaneously an impregnable redoubt in times of trouble and a growling menace to enemies everywhere, real or imagined" is not supported by your description, which lists only defensive features.

— Tom Cooper, Lafayette, CA.

Reply: Tom, the offensive capabilities of a US embassy are entirely invisible, but are public knowledge throughout the world (though exaggerated). A typical embassy includes a marine detachment, a military assistance group, a DEA group (counter-narcotics), an FBI agent, several kinds of attachés, a large office of US-AID for economic projects, and of course the CIA. When working as a team, these offices can wield considerable power and influence on the local scene. Perhaps I was wrong to leave them unstated and undescribed? I may have assumed too much. — Loren.

It would seem that the new U.S. Embassy in Lima is as bad or worse than I expected it to be, when it was announced about 16 years ago that a new embassy would be built in an outer suburb of Lima. I worked from 1985 to 1989 for US-AID in Lima from an anonymous building near the U.S. Embassy, which was then on the edge of old downtown Lima on the main street to Miraflores. It was easy to walk or hail a taxi to visit Peruvian ministries and offices, or to have a Peruvian drop by the office, and this made it feasible to work closely with our Peruvian counterparts. I can't imagine how today's US-AID employees can do their jobs when they are stuck way out in the middle of nowhere in a forbidding building. The old embassy was small and run down, so a new embassy building could have been justified, but not the one that was built.

The threat from Shining Path and other terrorists was worse when I was in Lima than it is now, and we had to take some precautions, but Americans were not special targets, so we worried very little about security. The security situation in Lima never justified building what was actually built. Up until the 1980s the U.S. tried to build embassies that would be showplaces of good architecture and a credit to their city. In 1970 I arrived to work in a brand new embassy in Montevideo that was designed by I. Ming Pei. It had been designed with some security features, but was conveniently located, and although perhaps not Ming Pei's finest work was still a handsome building. And I will confess that I did appreciate its security features when US-AID was attacked by the Tupamaro terrorists several months later.

— William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Friends Meeting.

Book Notes

Registered readers of TQE are cordially invited to send us notes on books they have read. Please send us the book's title, the author, the publisher, and a single informative paragraph about the book. All notes will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Send to: [email protected]

Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, by Robert Edgerton. Published by Simon & Schuster, 1992.

The 19th century romantic myth of the noble savage gave way in the 20th century to an even more romantic idealization of indigenous cultures, utterly disregarding their individual miseries and dysfunctions. This book attempts to destroy these idealizations, and to reinterpret all cultures — not just indigenous — in the language and metaphors of sickness and health. Edgerton's message confirms what I have long suspected: that one can speak usefully of the illnesses of societies and institutions, and that cultural relativism is an insidious and destructive doctrine, more a form of blindness and denial than a positive insight. — Contributed by Loren Cobb.

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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting, Editor.
  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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