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In My Words: Desert islands are for shipwrecked castaways, not for 21st-century nations

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of English Rosemary Haskell marks the 300th anniversary of the novel "Robinson Crusoe" and compares Crusoe's approach to his isolation and Western civilization with U.S. foreign policy decisions today. The column was published in the Greensboro News & Record. 

By Rosemary Haskell

“I smil’d to myself at the Sight of this Money, O Drug! Said I . . . what art thou good for, I have no Manner of use for thee … One of these knives is worth all this Heap … However, upon second thoughts, I took it away.”

Thus speaks the hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel “The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” as he brings to shore materials from his wrecked ship. Three hundred years old this year, the story of the man cast away alone for decades on a desert island is worth a birthday review.

Crusoe’s wobble about the gold coins he salvaged from the wreck with many other more obviously useful items illuminates his ambivalent relationship with the western civilization from which he has been so suddenly ejected.

It’s difficult to avoid the analogy with the mixed attitudes of the United States toward the rest of the world. They’re on display in President Trump’s alternate wooing and jilting of North Korea’s Kim, in his immigration, border security, and tariff-juggling trade policies. You can see them in his withdrawals from the Paris climate and Iran nuclear treaties.

However, in more outward-facing gestures, Trump has proposed a reconfigured NAFTA, and when in London recently, he tempted lame-duck prime minister Theresa May with a post-Brexit trade deal.

But was he listening as he stood smiling next to the Queen when she praised the international sacrifice of the D-Day generation and the post-war NATO-style cooperative bulwarks against isolationism and war?

The ambivalence expressed on the nation’s behalf about the rest of the world echoes Robinson Crusoe’s hesitation over the gold coins: what is worth salvaging and what should be jettisoned? Here at home, is the U.S. a strange version of Crusoe’s desert island?

Crusoe gradually, with heroic stamina and persistence, reconstructs only the parts of the “civilized world” that meet his needs. After trial and error, like any good Enlightenment thinker, he derives the calendar of growing seasons for crops, maps from observation the sea currents flowing around the island, figures out how to make fireproof pots; and tames, milks and eats wild goats. Frugally, he deploys seeds, hatchets, muskets and gunpowder from the ship’s hold. As the years roll on, he becomes ruler of a tiny animal kingdom.

However, he prudently, not to say obsessively, continues to fortify his encampments against the lurking human attackers he imagines are out there. He weeps for loneliness.

We too may begin to feel the anxiety and the chill of solitude as the United States pulls up global drawbridges, dreams of a completely impermeable southern border, and chokes off most American tourists’ visits to Cuba.

Isolation in the world may intensify American fear and distrust of others, just as it did for Defoe’s hero. Only when strangers — cannibals! — appear on the beach with a captive is Crusoe’s solitude both terrifyingly disturbed, and relieved.

Rescuing the cannibals’ prisoner and killing his captors with a high-tech firearm, Crusoe immediately enslaves him, teaching him the important English word “master,” and weaning him from his un-Christian religion and preferred diet of human flesh. Reconstructing England’s imperialist racist desires, castaway Crusoe now has a subject, who is black, to rule. This subject’s name? “Friday,” for the day he appeared, as Crusoe has meticulously kept count of the days, weeks and months.

This desire to dominate, and the penchant for violent reaction, also have contemporary resonance, closer to home.
More positively, our own national “island” looks like a rich cornucopia. But can we, Crusoe-like, replace all those goods and services that tough tariffs and repellent borders may keep from our shores? Our island also contains human multitudes, with whom each of us must live. Recent and repeated events, including measles outbreaks, mass shootings, asylum seekers arriving from Central America and cyber infiltration scares, all emphasize the challenges of living together with imagination and respect.

Crusoe was the only armed man on his island. We have millions. He didn’t need to worry about infectious diseases, but we do. An unwilling but solo migrant, he was free to reconstruct parts of his old home as he could, and as he wished.

Will we allow our new arrivals the same reassuring leeway? Migrants need the comfort of familiar things, useless and useful, at least for a while.

Defoe’s 18th-century man, Robinson Crusoe, after more “strange and surprising adventures,” does go home, eventually. An island being no longer, the castaway breaks free from his solitary confinement.

The rest of the world was calling him.

Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.