Relax and take a deep breath.”
“Now, visualize the Earth”
“Imagine an Octopus where the United States is, with tentacles stretching to all corners of the World, see it sucking in resources through its arms”
“Now, imagine a peasant…”
The packed audience in McCosh 10 grew dead silent as each member contemplated this vision of the United States, first as a destructive, exploitive, selfish octopus, and then as a nurturing, healing, family planning octopus. The “visualization” session came at the conclusion of a talk by John Perkins, author of the New York Times Bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Perkins’ previous books include The Stress-Free Habit: Powerful Techniques for Health and Longevity from the Andes, Yucatan, and the Far East; The World is as you Dream it I&II; Spirit of the Shuar: Wisdom from the Last Unconquered People of the Amazon; Shape Shifting; up to the more recent Psychonavigation: Techniques for Travel Beyond Time.
Perkins, a tall, gaunt man with a head of grey hair, a long face, a pronounced slouch, and a faint resemblance to both John Kerry and Jay Leno, came to speak last Tuesday, April 11. He came to speak about his experiences as an “Economic Hit Man”. “Economic Hit Men,” he writes in the preface of his book, “are highly paid professionals who cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex, and murder.”
After a broad outline of the four major political trends of the world since the ‘50s (creation of the first truly global empire, corporate control of said empire, subversion of great American principles in the process, and a greater degree of global interconnectedness), he began talking about his own personal experiences. He gave an account of his time in the Peace Corps and his time working in Central America after college — along with a couple amusing anecdotes from his life in the jungle among the indigenous Shuar people.
Then he delved into his life as an Economic Hit Man (or EHM). Apparently, every newly elected leader of a resource-rich nation is visited by an EHM soon after inauguration. The EHM threatens the leader “very subtly” since the room might be bugged or monitored in some way, claimed Perkins, to go along with the goading of multi-national engineering firms and start major industrial/utility projects that will need large loans from the IMF or World Bank, projects that ultimately fail, locking the nation in eternal servitude to its creditors. In exchange, the leader is promised riches, subtly. Or else the “jackals” will come to kill him.
His “confession” as to the details from his role as Economic Hit Man ran from exactly 7:54 to 7:57. The rest of the talk was given over to an explication of his political views. Luckily, he gave a more detailed account of his actions as an EHM in his book. During his senior year in college, Perkins interviewed for a job with the National Security Agency to avoid going to Vietnam, but ended up joining the Peace Corps instead. While working in Latin America, he met a man who hires him for an engineering firm directly linked to the NSA. Or rather, he *suspects* it has NSA ties. His suspicions are confirmed when a mystery woman of unsurpassable beauty seeks him out at work one day, and “seduces” him to become an EHM, “manipulating” his psychological weaknesses so that he can’t help but cheat on his wife. This is a theme that pops up throughout the book: the government was responsible for his divorce. After she trains him to do EHM work, she disappears and Perkins shockingly discovers that there are no records on her, and that no one except for him remembers seeing her at the firm. Apparently she was just THAT GOOD of an intelligence agent.
After receiving this rigorous “training,” Perkins trots all over the globe for a few decades, wracked with guilt at the nations that he ends up singlehandedly destroying in the course of his work making fraudulent economic reports. On the side he gets to cultivate deep, meaningful friendships with (currently deceased) Latin American leaders and a notable literary figure (also deceased) and sleeps with exotic, beautiful, foreign women who don’t have last names.
In addition to the fantastic and ridiculously self-aggrandizing plot line, there are other elements of this book that may render it suspect to the careful reader. In contrast to most insider accounts, he sheds little light on the nitty-gritty specifics of his work. His descriptions of foreign countries are the kind of thing an interested tourist or backpacker could write. The single most detailed incident of the entire book is a scene where the author studies a sarong falling off a naked young woman as she attempts to bathe in a river.
Much of Confessions is impossible to prove, as the State Department bulletin on the subject points out and as he himself admitted at his talk last week. His publisher also acknowledges difficulties some may have in believing his work, but he but says that he was convinced after working with Perkins in preparing this book over a long period of time. A glance at the back of the book shows that Berrett-Koehler publishes such titles as When Corporations Rule the World, Regime Change Begins at Home, and The Post-Corporate World.
How did this poor excuse of a pulp fiction spy novel, bereft of the quirky detail, realistic complexity, genuine human interaction, and factual statement that make a true memoir interesting rise to ninth on the NYT bestseller list? The answer lies in his narrative form of analysis of US foreign affairs, and in the nature of his target audience.
One of the oldest forms of literature in the world is the oral epic. Stylistic features that define the epic are a type of formulaic diction that makes it easier to compose on the spot, and the recurrence of several types of stock scenes and stock methods of description. Composition of oral epics drew on an established tradition of well known stories and methods of storytelling that would be woven into complete narratives by the Epic singer. As Homer would say “Achilles” and follow it with “swift-footed,” “son of Peleus” or “God-like” according to meter and content, Perkins says “War in the Middle East” and matches it up with the formulaic “Blood for Oil,” “Imperialism,” and “Corporate Interests.” “Assassination in Latin America” goes with “CIA,” “military-industrial complex,” “US conspiracy.” Throughout Confessions we have the recurrence of such stock themes as, “Enron,” “Halliburton,” “the ugly-American-abroad,” “American cultural insensitivity,” “CEO overcompensation,” “Bush’s connections to the House of Saud,” “conservative subversion of patriotic ideals,” “capitalist exploitation” etc., amid a riot of political rhetoric and buzzwords. For traditional oral poets, these formulas allowed them to compose quickly and with a minimum of thought. The same goes for Perkins.
What Perkins offers is an all-encompassing, cohesive narrative of the state of the world today, one that puts the blame for all that is wrong where the self-selected readership wants it — namely, on the US and large corporations. The audience that comes to listen to epic poetry is not looking for something that challenges their worldview, but rather comes to hear the same old tales told again. The storyteller weaves a narrative of well known material that provides a didactic moral designed to comfort and satisfy.
Perkins had a very bad moment last Tuesday during the Q&A session when Professor Paul Sigmund, a member of the Politics department and co-founder of the Latin American Studies program at Princeton, accused Perkins of writing, “a false and fictionalized account” passing as the truth. A few audible gasps escaped from the audience. I met with Professor Sigmund the next day, and he told me that “US Foreign policy is more complex than [what Perkins portrays] and differs from nation to nation, administration to administration, and even within administrations,” pointing me to other reviews of Confessions and legitimate books on the same topics. Despite the claims made by Perkins — that the US has pursued the same insidious policy regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans were in power — the real world is full of arbitrary contradictions and complexities that don’t make for simple, paranoid bedtime story.
Perkins pointed out that he was under-qualified for the position of Chief Economist, holding only an undergraduate degree in business administration. This was indeed a paradox portending that something larger, something more sinister was afoot. At the talk, I realized that Perkins, originally a literature major, possesses certain soft skills that make up for his lack of mathematical savvy. He is a self-promoter who could make up a story out of anything, a gifted communicator, an Epic bull-shitter.