“What a land! . . . The individuality of one nation must then, as always, lead the world. Can there be any doubt who the leader ought to be? Bear in mind, though, that nothing less than the mightiest original non-subordinated SOUL has ever really, gloriously, led, or ever can lead. (This Soul–its other name, in these Vistas, is LITERATURE.)”
Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
In 1978 my wife Anne and I were living in the Jackal Meat Market. This was in Encarnación, a city on the Paraná River in southern Paraguay. We were Peace Corps volunteers and lived in a three-room, shotgun-style building that had been a neighborhood meat market. The sign—Carniceria El Chacal—was still painted on the street-facing wall. I owned a portable typewriter. When I wasn’t at my work site, a village one hundred kilometers away over bad roads, I sat in the room at the front of the house and wrote. It was hot. The work absorbed me. One afternoon I didn’t notice the tarantula near my bare feet until it was in striking distance. The spider didn’t sting me; maybe I shooed it out with a broom.
The work that so engrossed me was writing stories. The protagonists of the stories were Paraguayan: an aging Chaco War veteran, a woman tied by love and circumstance to a ne’er-do-well organizer of horse races. I was dimly aware of my credibility problem. Who was I to put down on paper anything purporting to be about the lives of subsistence farmers in a culture not my own? Not an American in Paraguay, as differently problematic as that might be, but Paraguayans on their home ground. I ignored the anxiety the question induced. I wrote the stories. Stubbornness entered in. A world had opened up to me, as I to it. I was going to write it.
It’s useful to put my stubbornness in context. In 1978 the United States of America had reached the zenith of power and influence it had been accruing since the end of the Second World War. The US was more than holding its own in a self-defined struggle against communism. The long tail of consequences leading from US support for Afghan Mujahideen fighting Soviet military forces to the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, was beyond astute conjecture.
In pretty much any direction a person looked, the US held sway, in some cases near total sway. International and multilateral organizations were shaped and mostly led by Americans. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, inter alia, appeared to be proving the concept and the staying power of Bretton Woods, an American-designed and -driven financial system. President Jimmy Carter was insisting on the relevance of human rights in our relations with other countries, disconcerting autocrats like Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner, whose reliable anti-communism had heretofore ensured US support.
In that lingering zenith moment, President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps was entrenched in its sixteenth year. Few Americans questioned the value of sending mostly young cittzens to work in development projects in the countries of what was then called the Third World. (Not all volunteers were young; among the most effective of our group was Frank Martinez, on his second stint at age 72.) What later became known as soft-power projection wore a halo of altruism. It was linked to the nation’s missionary impulse. Democracy was for spreading.
Peace Corps Paraguay gave us a living allowance that permitted us to rent the meat market, eat, clothe ourselves, and get around the country by bus. Peace Corps Washington was squirreling away a modest sum for each month of our service that would cushion our reentry into the US at the end of our two-year tour. For a person who wanted to write, the situation was ideal. I had enough to live on, just, and an amorphous job description. “Go out to a village called Potrero Yapepó,” the assistant director of the PC office in the capital told me, “and see what you can do.” I fell into a category called, in the bureaucratic lingo of the day, “non-matrix spouse.” Peace Corps wanted Anne’s skills and credentials as an educator. They took me because they had to. I had a sense not of entitlement but of great good fortune.
Riding the crowded bus to Yapepó, listening to people talk—storytelling had not yet been displaced by screens—organizing a group of parents to build an elementary school, I believed in the power of imagination. I must have taken it on faith, lacking the capacity to analyze either the concept or my faith in it. Human experience was not so much universal as porous. Membranes of all sorts—cultural, temperamental, familial, historical—certainly existed around people, rendering them opaque to outside eyes. The way to tap transmissible meaning was not an act of penetrating force but one of imagination, with rigorous attention paid to specifics, details, particularities.
Not Paraguayan cotton farmers, but one man—the guy I’m thinking of was named Sixto—who had no patience for the tedious, back-bending labor of hoeing and harvesting; who enjoyed the sociability of playing cards in a dirt-floored shack at night by the orange glow of a kerosene lamp; who loved and neglected his wife and kids; who was funny when he drank. Half-tanked, he did a better job than I at slitting the neck of the duck we were having for dinner. We were celebrating a horse race we intended to organize. The duck died, but the race never happened.
This was why a person wrote stories. It was not a question of writing what you knew, as some insisted. How did you know what you knew until you wrote it?
The concept of imagination on which I instinctively relied in Paraguay goes back to a mountain climbed by the English Romantics. We still pitch our tents in its shadow. It inheres in the concept of “Negative Capability” that Keats proposes, in an 1817 letter to his brothers, to make some sort of sense of Shakespeare’s prodigious invention. The poet is awash in perception, sensation, experience, and the echoes of all those things. People and things, passions and beliefs. Intimate secret histories and the fossilized tracks of dinosaurs across a universal desert. Grace and idiocy, love and love’s clumping brother flaunting his deformity.
In that constant wash, perception is anything but harmonious. There is no Olympus of calm. Conflicts rage, contradictions bare their claws. But the poet smiles. She doesn’t seek to resolve the unresolvable. What might be bangs up against what is, and that’s just fine. She writes.
Romanticism of the sort with which Keats is identified has regularly, relentlessly been displaced by isms of every description. They come, they’re found to be inadequate, they go. In 1942, with America at war in Europe and in the Pacific, Wallace Stevens wrote in a gnomically compressed piece that, “In the presence of the violent reality of war, consciousness takes the place of the imagination.” We’ve had a surfeit of war in the couple of centuries since Keats wrote his brothers. Just to skim the surface of our shared bloody history: the murder of more than two million Cambodians, by some estimates, in Pol Pot’s Killing Fields; the lynching of two thousand African Americans, by another estimate, during Reconstruction; the murder of as many as ten million Congolese by Belgian colonialists who did such things as chopping off the hands of rubber workers who failed to meet their quota.
Of course those same years have also seen an unending stream of world-changing advances: radical breakthroughs in our understanding of brain function, and the development of medicines that, had they been available, would have prevented Keats’s early death. They have seen rethought relationships between metropolis and periphery, and the development of powerful insights, such as intersectionality, into the articulation of identity. What the years since Keats’s letter have not seen is the displacement of the imagination as motive force in the creation of art in words.
In a way it’s disappointing that we haven’t come up with anything better. In physics we have quarks and string theory and event horizons. In medicine we have organ transplants and genomics and remote diagnoses via the internet. In just about any field to which one turns, there have been revolutions of thought, the accumulation of new knowledge, and the practical accomplishments that they engender.
In word art, by contrast, regardless of our politics, or our critical proclivities, we still wonder what Keats wondered about Shakespeare: how does he do it? Even if Homer is an amalgamated construct, how do they do it? How does Eliot conceive the panoply of character and characters that is Middlemarch? For that matter how does Keats, whose night was not just tender but almost impossibly brief, write those luminescent poems?
It’s not the aggregation of details, although details are precious; they are coin of the fictive realm. It’s not the application of a theory, although neither a valid theory nor a defective one need get in the way of a good story well told. It’s not good intentions, or flawed intentions, or crafty intentions. It’s not nearness to one’s subject, or distance from it. It’s not the angle of approach, or the angle of repose. It’s not the mechanics of writing, although a writer disregards them at her peril. Unfortunately, the via negativa ends in a cul-de-sac.
One way out of the dead end is to understand imagination as an act. The act takes place in a self-replicating, extensible moment of time, in a space of the mind as simultaneous receptor and generator. The act of imagination is neither voluntary nor involuntary but can seem like either, can seem like both. When a person sits to write a story, a poem, a play, it happens. Or it doesn’t. Yeats talks about letting “the will do the work of the imagination.” The caution still holds. As Duke Ellington reminds us, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Something like this is what happened to me as I wrote about Sixto. I had certain objective advantages, as a Peace Corps volunteer in an era of hegemonic American influence. If the tables had been turned, if Sixto had been curious about Americans and hungry to write his way to an understanding, he would not have been able to get a visa, or buy a plane ticket. Had he somehow overcome those obstacles, it would have been tough for him to make his way on America’s mean streets without language training as good as the instruction that Paraguayan teachers hired by the Peace Corps gave me. The advantages I enjoyed complicate but do not invalidate the joyful labor of imagination that wound up as “Sixto in Harvest” and “Little Bird’s Indian.” Nuance prevails.
“‘View’d, to-day,’ Whitman writes, 'the problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature.’ Want a rationale for writing? Look no further. Write, and create democracy’s context. Write, and extend democracy’s dominion. Democratic Vistas is a stirring evocation of a world in which literature nurtures the crystalline individuality that alone will permit people to work in effective combination to solve human problems.”
The Peace Corps experience hooked me. Here was the plan: go out, be in the world, write. Do it some more, then do it again. I could conceive of nothing better. Deliberately I set out to make the life I hoped would make me. Wound up in the US foreign service as a diplomat working in American embassies, and I wrote. I didn’t know it, but I was responding to an exhortation from Walt Whitman. In the late 1860s, coming out of the trauma of the Civil War, Whitman wrote a fine meditative monograph called Democratic Vistas. It’s easy to misapprehend the gargantuan optimism that undergirds what he calls “these Vistas.” Whitman's apparently serene hope can sound overdone, even gaseous, to a twenty-first-century ear. His optimism can seem antique, suspect, possibly even irrelevant; it belongs to a dream we had to leave behind on the road to now. But a careful reading of Vistas discovers how solidly grounded the poet is in the turmoil and disappointments of his political day. He’s all too aware of the tawdry dimensions of American life, which does its malevolent best to crush the optimism out of him. He knows what the democracy-builders of the future are up against. One purpose of his essay is to give them heart, because he knew they would need it.
Whitman’s grounding in the dirt of the real allows us to take the poet’s grand vision seriously. The individual—both men and women, the poet is at pains to emphasize, and one presumes he would have celebrated gender fluidity—is sacred and supreme; being’s endpoint and “kosmic” purpose. Individuality is “the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself—identity, personalism. Whatever the name . . . the principle itself is needed for very life’s sake.” At the same time, America is the world’s exemplar. It must create a society in which highly developed individuals engage with their peers and neighbors in enlightened civic and political work the like of which humankind, stuck in its enduring “feudal” consciousness, has not yet seen. Democracy will happen when a country full of profoundly realized individuals combines their creativity and good will to make the institutions of government work as they should.
How does America get to such a place? Whitman finds the answer in a single word: literature. “View’d, to-day . . . the problem of humanity all over the civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and treated by literature.” Want a rationale for writing? Look no further. Write, and create democracy’s context. Write, and extend democracy’s dominion. Democratic Vistas is a stirring evocation of a world in which literature nurtures the crystalline individuality that alone will permit people to work in effective combination to solve human problems.
Joining the foreign service, I didn’t have quite the oracular take on writing that Whitman does. What I did have was a belief, largely unexamined (too young, too dumb), that a person could be both a citizen—a participant in the work of the world—and a writer. Managing this double identity, balancing conflicting imperatives, wouldn’t be easy. That much I knew, but it did seem possible. For me, at any rate, it was the only goal worth shooting for.
The road was rocky. Along the way, my two identities sometimes collided; sometimes, the collision spilled blood. In 1989, as I was finishing a three-year tour of duty as spokesman at the American embassy in La Paz, I had what I thought was my first break. What was then The Atlantic Monthly bought a story of mine set in Bolivia called “Stone Cowboy on the High Plains.” It’s the story of a burned-out American druggie being released from prison in La Paz after serving a sentence for possession. In a haze of despair Roger says some nasty things about Bolivians. Because they are generally short and dark, and because bitterness overflows him, he refers to them as trolls.
The issue of the Atlantic appeared just as I was leaving Bolivia, assigned to do the same portavoz job in Honduras I had been doing in La Paz. A watchdog group critical of US policy in Latin America, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), launched a blistering communiqué identifying me with Roger’s hostility to Bolivians. I was, COHA alleged, a perfect example of the perfidy of the George H.W. Bush Administration’s policy toward Latin America. The communiqué ran on the news wires across the continent, along with references to the story, which nobody had read or was likely to read. The wire service headline was all anybody cared about: “American diplomat calls Bolivians trolls.”
I just missed the explosion, having departed the country on home leave. There was a march of protest on the embassy. Journalists, every last one of whom I knew and had worked with comfortably, boycotted the traditional July 4th reception hosted by the American ambassador at his residence. The newspapers and airwaves were full of fierce denunciations accusing me of being an anti-Bolivian racist. One reporter went out on the street with a microphone and posed this question: “Mark Jacobs says that Bolivians are trolls. What do you think of that, and what do you think of him?” I think but have no way of confirming that I was burned in effigy. For some reason I held onto the stack of political cartoons depicting me as a monster, which were collected and sent to me by an embassy colleague; still have them. If they were an object lesson, I failed to learn it.
Had I been in country, I would have been declared persona non grata—we called it being PNG’d—and ignominiously booted. As it was, the controversy complicated my entry into the new job in Tegucigalpa. Shortly after I arrived, I made a standard courtesy call on the President’s spokesman. After we met, both of us rehearsing the pleasantries the occasion called for, I was accosted by a phalanx of angry reporters as I came down the broad carpeted stairs of the palacio de gobierno. They demanded to know how I imagined I could do my job, since I hated Latin Americans. How do you answer a question like that? Remain polite. Speak simply. Don’t let the agony or the aggravation show. I did those things, did the job. Kept doing it.
Honduras in the early 1990s was festering, the society breaking down. The spillover effects of the conflict between the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and the Contra were noxious and thoroughgoing. The official American presence was huge, ungainly, and mostly ineffective. US assistance had distorted the economy, which was in pitiful shape. The Honduran government was honeycombed with corruption. Poor people suffered, as they had always suffered. (The Honduran poet Roberto Sosa once told me, with sardonic concision, “A Honduran woman has children, makes tortillas, and then dies.”) There was political violence on downtown streets. For a writer, a surfeit of material. I wrote short stories like crazy, some of them collected in my first book, A Cast of Spaniards (Talisman House).
One of those stories, “The Nature of Fiction,” draws on a Honduran experience directly if problematically. I was friendly with a human rights advocate. Call him Victor. Victor was a huge man, tall and imposing, with a stentorian voice ideal for calling out iniquity. Hard to miss him in a crowd. He had spent the war years denouncing the crimes, atrocities, and variform abuses that were being perpetrated by the Honduran military and their civilian go-alongs. Like a handful of men and women I knew in Latin American in those dark years, he was fearless in opposition. He thrived on the threats, got an adrenaline rush from the publicity, and would not shut up.
I learned through a driver friend in the US embassy, a Honduran with good contacts in the police, that Victor’s constant blustering presence in the media had seriously ticked off someone in power. He was always good for a barbed quote not just for Honduran reporters but also for the foreign correspondents, mostly American, who covered the country. A contract was put out on him. As improbable as it seems, given Victor’s massive size, his unmistakable unique presence, the contractor got the wrong guy. A Honduran citizen died at the hands of an assassin because he was a bigger-than-average man.
Here is where the world of politics and the world of fiction approach one another, veer close, seem to blur, and then crash. Protecting my source, I told Victor what I had learned. Of course he had known nothing of the hit, the screw-up, his near escape. I remember we were driving in a car somewhere in the capital; I recall a sensation of complex complicity, tinged by sadness, as though I were somehow at fault, in a way I was unable to articulate. This was a sobering bit of information, learning that you were alive because another person was dead. As for me, I couldn’t get past any of it: the contract to kill, the mistaken identity, the having to learn what Victor learned. The chain of events that began with an unofficial decision by an official thug to do away with an annoyance and led to the murder of the wrong man was murky. What was real? What was invented? What was discovered, and what was left unknown? How did all of it go together? The only way out, for me, was to write a story about the nature of fiction.
Because of the residue of war that coated Honduran society, seeping into the pores of its people and its institutions, my assignment there as embassy spokesman was particularly intense. And I started poorly, pressured by a fire-breathing chargé d’affaires prematurely to congratulate—with an official public statement—the winner of a presidential election in order to seal the deal for the (avowedly more pro-American) candidate favored by the embassy. Buckling to front-office pressure when I knew better, new as I was to Central America, remains one of my prime professional regrets. But the two years I spent in Honduras were an inexhaustible font of the kind of experience I was after. Time and again I raced toward the blind intersection where politics and the fictive imagination came together.
My experience as a foreign service officer was far from unique. Every FSO will have her own lowlights-that-become-highlights list. Mine includes being surveilled in Tegucigalpa at a time when the embassy had credible intelligence about an imminent threat to mission personnel. It happened, several days running, as I walked to work. I reported what I noticed and never again saw the person who had been observing me.
In Izmir, I had to do interviews with Turkish journalists confirming that yes, in the course of war games being conducted in the Aegean by both navies, the US had mistakenly sunk a Turkish ship, with much loss of life. Özür dileriz . . . in Turkish, we’re sorry.
In Asunción, the night of an attempted coup, I drove across the deserted streets of a city that had been more completely, more quickly shut down than I would have thought possible. The desolation was eerie; you can sense people’s fear even when you don’t see them. Later that night I watched a beleaguered president, hiding out, break down in fear and exhaustion, ready to throw in the towel.
In the coca-growing region of Bolivia known as the Chapare, I rode with anti-drug police on a night raid looking for people transporting sacks of coca paste, later to be refined into base and then into a finished product suitable for peddling in North American cities. The police had broad scope to pull over buses and trucks and cars, oblige travelers to disembark, and search for the coca paste. They seldom made a noteworthy bust, though. The campesino coca farmers, who cultivated a hectare or two of leaf and macerated it in foul-smelling clandestine pits, invariably alerted the traffickers to las autoridades coming their way, using two-way radios provided by those same traffickers. Typically, decomisos by the police were limited to small quantities of paste belonging to individual leaf growers.
Near the top of my list of mordantly absurd moments is this: a helicopter raid, also in the Chapare, with Bolivian anti-drug police accompanied by US DEA agents. The chopper, a UH-1H of Vietnam vintage, set down in the jungle. From the air, a spotter on board had identified a maceration pit. Bolivian and American police, more than adequately armed, tore through the underbrush looking for the owners of the pit. Having been alerted by the pockita pockita sound of the chopper, they of course had disappeared. Although they weren’t arrested it wasn’t a good day for them. They lost their capital outlay: what they spent on chemicals.
US concern about cocaine’s ravages across America had led to a considerable increase in the number of personnel sent to Bolivia. The group on board our helo included agents from New York and New Jersey who were expert at working city streets but out of their element in the Chapare. Among other things, they spoke no Spanish. As I walked through the thick, clingy woods, the air suffocatingly humid, I heard one DEA agent call plaintively to another, “Where the fuck are you? I’m lost.”
I came to the hut where the owners of the maceration pit had been living. There were a few bags of the chemicals used to treat the leaves piled up against a wall, some buckets and basins, and not much else. As I stepped into the clearing in front of the hut, one of the DEA guys was about to torch the thatched roof with a cigarette lighter. I watched the place go up. That was it, the raid’s total tally: a one-room shack, destroyed by low-tech US fire.
In Kinshasa, my infallibly poor sense of direction betrayed me, and I was held at gunpoint by eight men when I inadvertently wandered too close to the presidential residence. It was impossible to tell, from their dress and their armament, whether they were military, police, or just a bunch of guys with guns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they could have been any of those.
One of the longer moments of my life came when I held out my hand asking, in execrable French, for my diplomatic passport to be returned. I waited. I assumed the guy in charge was the squad leader. He was, at any rate, the functional equivalent of a sergeant. He wore a uniform, though not all of the others did. He thought about my request, examined the passport a second time, a third time, thought about it some more. He was calculating odds. What would happen if he continued to hassle me? What could he get? How might he lose? He decided to hand me back the passport, and I decided to use his decision as permission to walk away. I walked. They let me go.
In La Paz, one night I picked up a hitchhiker. It was late, he was drunk. I figured nobody else was going to stop and give him a ride. From the moment he got into the front seat, he began hectoring me about American imperial crimes in Latin America. The lecture went on with great heat and enthusiasm until I let him out in a neighborhood called Calacoto, down below the heart of the high city, which sits at an altitude of almost 12,000 feet. In twenty minutes of verbal abuse I picked up a worldview.
The foregoing may have an antediluvian ring to it. Tales of a life lived, and work performed, under a different geopolitical dispensation. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the Covid pandemic and the degradations of the Trump years, after the digitization of everything and the wages of climate change and the multipronged assault of something for which globalism seems an inadequate name, one risks a kind of quaintness. The aroma of nostalgia has a soporific quality.
What’s clear is that the wave that began with victory in World War Two crashed some time ago. We rode it—now and then with muscular grace, more often wobbling—for decades. Not for the first time, American identity is up for grabs. In the cacophony that doubles as national debate, the idea of reestablishing American global leadership is frequently proclaimed as our most pressing national security objective. In an unfortunate lapse, this thinking goes, we surrendered our rightful place at the head of nations. Now we have to reclaim it. The world needs us, the world wants us in that first-among-equals position. (Has your enthusiasm for promoting democracy flagged? Read Democratic Vistas, think about Whitman succoring the war wounded in overfull hospitals, how he came out of that experience with hope.)
The notion has a certain throwback appeal. Who doesn’t want to be a force for global good? Who doesn’t want to run the show, or show the way forward? But the conditions that existed in the wake of the Second World War are gone. They will stay gone. Power, wealth, and influence will not be so unequally distributed again. That’s a good thing. We learned during the Pax Americana that the imbalance was not healthy or safe, finally, for anyone. It was inherently unstable. Trying to reclaim the American mantle of the 1970s is as potentially deleterious as the more vicious intentions behind “America First” rhetoric, whose poison is so much more obvious.
In the years since I met Sixto and tried to do narrative justice to him, I have written stories set in countries around the world in which I have worked and traveled, from Kazakhstan to the Congo, Turkey to Spain, Honduras to the Côte d’Ivoire. In a work meeting with radio journalists in Dushanbe, in an office building difficult of access, I had the sensation that everything in me that was not essential simply disappeared. I was eye, heart, and something like the anticipation of memory.
All those places and people are of consuming interest to me, but I keep going back to Paraguay. The country, the culture, the people I know there continue to exert a spell on the part of me where the fictive impulse resides.
Of the dozens of Paraguayans I have known, the late artist Carlos Colombino is both emblematic and unique. Carlos was polymorphic, multitalented, an engine of diverse creation. He developed a painting technique called xilopintura that he used through many decades to create art that defies easy expectations. Xilopintura involves etching on the uneven surfaces of wood, and a subtle coloring of the grain. A painting he did for me has hung over my desk for years. It baffled me when he presented it to me; it baffles me today. It is not reducible to the sort of explication that words can make. It insists, as image, not just on its reason to be but its primacy.
Throughout the long, brutal reign of Alfredo Stroessner (1954 to 1989), Carlos stayed in Paraguay while so many other figures of resistance, including his friend the novelist Augusto Roa Bastos, went into exile. Not only did he stay, he put his art to political purposes in xilopintura creations like El Dictador that made his name and kept him permanently on the regime’s enemies list. Enigmatic his art may be, but there is no escaping its political bite.
Carlos was also an architect. After Stroessner fell and a former labor activist became mayor of the capital, the artist took over a project to renovate colonial-era buildings in the heart of downtown Asunción, an initiative supported by the Spanish government. His work, and the vision driving it, rescued for future generations not just history but a way of seeing the city that would otherwise have disintegrated in neglect.
Carlos owned a museum’s worth of pre-Colombian art. In his later years he wanted badly to bequeath his collection to a museum in his home country but, the last time we spoke, he had been unable to find an organization or an individual he trusted enough to take the plunge. He was afraid the collection, whose monetary value was considerable, would be plundered. This was not paranoia on his part; it was a reality-based assessment of the environment in which he lived.
Carlos wrote fiction under the pseudonym Esteban Cabañas. Like everything else he did, his novels and stories have a sting in the tail. As he was in conversation, in his writing he is mordant, acerbic, and funny if you can take the heat.
I borrowed his pseudonym for a character in a recent Paraguay story (“Old School,” published in Evergreen Review). The Cabañas character in my story shares traits and features with Carlos, although he is a sculptor rather than a painter. They have the same political courage. Both are gay. Both write a newspaper column that skewers antidemocratic political actors and elicits death threats.
The terms with which we usually describe the connection between someone real and a character in fiction are inaccurate and misleading. Cabañas is not “based on” Colombino. He is not “inspired by” the man I knew. Those turns of phrase are insipid. A connection obviously exists. Describing how it works takes us back to the idea of the imagination as an act laid out above. Carlos Colombino, man and artist and friend, exists in my memory. The memory is dense, layered, kinetic. In the moment of writing “Old School,” the memory emits a kind of light. The radiance is a form of energy. The energy powers the imagination to conceive the character of Esteban Cabañas. At that point, in that moment, biography pales. Something new, something different, is at stake.
In February of 1978, on our first night as Peace Corps trainees in Asunción, Anne and I were taken to a downtown hotel called La Terraza to meet staff members and get to know the other members of our group of almost forty. The terrace that gave the place its name was outdoors and elevated, with a knock-out view of a neighborhood below called La Chacarita. The Chacarita was and is a barrio of the poor, located on the margin of the capital along the Paraguay River, which periodically floods high enough to cause death, destruction, and discomfort to the people who live there.
We drank beer, marveling at the enormous bottles it came in. We talked and listened, feeling each other out, wondering what came next, guessing which ones might make it as volunteers, and which might not. At one point I left the group and walked to the edge of the terrace and looked out and down over the Chacarita.
With the first glimpse, my world changed. Everything and everyone I saw was so far outside of my ability to imagine that I was, in effect, unmade. Small stacked houses of adobe, or cobbled constructions of wood and sheets of corrugated metal. Plants I had never seen, rising from pots devised from cooking oil tins, from powdered milk containers. A man lying on his back on a roof. His poise at rest. Skinny cats making their way across umber tiles. A girl in a yellow dress drawing water from a communal well. Her feet in the puddle of mud that had formed where water overflowed. Donkey carts on extremely narrow streets. The packages piled on the carts. Dust that was neither brown nor red but partook of both.
It was not the exotic to be romanced, or to be romanced by. It was not the infamous “other.” It was too specific for that, and too demanding. It was its own frame of reference. It was not an idea, or a projection, or a fairy tale for the eye. It did not conform to anything I expected, or anything I wanted. It was the Chacarita. A place, and the people who inhabited the place. Sui generis in the most exacting manner. Imperious.
A great deal lay ahead, including intense work on the language that would allow me to engage with Paraguayans. But the memory of that night at La Terraza, the pulsing impenetrable Chacarita, acquired a permanence to rival the permanence of Carlos Colombino. Only imagination has the power to do any justice to any of it.
It seems to me that similar acts of imagination are called for as we figure out our place in the world in the twenty-first century. Talk of reclaiming our leadership role and making this one another American century misses the point. Those seventy years of worldwide sway that followed V-J Day and V-E Day will not return. That’s a good thing.
It’s a cliché that generals are always gearing up to fight the last war. Diplomats and the foreign policy establishment—including senators on the Committee on Foreign Relations and representatives on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the staff of the National Security Council—may be tempted to do the same thing. But we don’t need a Marshall Plan for this or a Marshall Plan for that. The original worked in the world that was, which is another way of saying the world that is not.
Going forward we want muscular diplomacy. We want it consistently. We want it everywhere. We want diplomacy that understands complex motivation, and history, and the power of coalitions; that counts time by the decade and is patient for results; that sits at the head of the foreign affairs table in government, not off to one side and yielding primacy of place to the military and its ever-ready, heavily funded options.
If the exhortation sounds abstract, go back to that midnight road in the Bolivian Chapare, and make things specific. Go back to the campesino coca growers forced by anti-drug police to debark from a bus in the middle of the night and empty the contents of their bags in the dusty roadway. Some of those bags were strapped to the roof, and the driver or his assistant had to climb up the side of the bus and toss them down to their owners, who waited anxiously hoping that the goods they were transporting—carefully packed eggs, a jar of jelly?—didn’t break.
Those coca farmers were the first link in a long chain that led through cultivation of the leaf, production of paste, production of base, refinement of the product known as cocaine, often in Colombia, and its distribution to sellers and finally users in, say, Peoria.
Back when the US and Bolivia had vigorous, if troubled, bilateral relations, the people in charge of US drug policy went at the problem of cocaine from numerous entry points. Interdiction was primary, and never out of favor. It included those helicopters full of cops. The State Department provided surplus American helicopters to the Bolivian police, along with pilot instruction and a maintenance contract to ensure that the aircraft remained airworthy.
Interdiction also included intelligence collection by more than one government agency (sometimes, but not always, they cooperated, sharing and pooling what they knew), and the prosecution of arrested traffickers.
As was later the case with the national militaries in Iraq and Afghanistan, training was a perpetual hope. If the Bolivians could be trained to a level of efficiency comparable to their US counterparts, the thinking went, the two countries working together would make a significant dent in the traffickers’ networks. The US put serious resources into training the Bolivian organizations and individuals whose work touched the world of drug trafficking in one way or another. The police were relentlessly trained in tactics, interagency coordination, intel collection and exploitation. Judges, and employees of government ministries, and working journalists attended seminars and workshops, hosted American “subject matter experts” in their place of work, and traveled to multilateral conferences funded by the US government.
Interdiction sometimes included the spraying of coca plantations, either from the ground or from the air. This was the most volatile program of all, and the most contentious, especially when it was done from the air. Images of airplanes trailing noxious clouds of herbicide led to loud and sometimes serious resistance. Opponents raised questions of health, and of sovereignty. Sending non-Americans with backpack sprayers to remote rural regions where coca was being grown was less obvious, and therefore less problematic from a public relations point of view. Some newspapers dutifully carried stories and pictures with the equivalent of a body count, the number of hectares destroyed. But more often than not, satellite imagery confirmed that the total number of hectares under cultivation in a given region was not meaningfully affected. The general movement trended up.
Through efforts on the part of the Agency for International Development (USAID), the US also experimented with programs to substitute crops that would provide farmers an alternative to growing coca. Money and expertise were brought to bear on a number of crops. None of the legal alternatives, however, came close to competing with the profit produced by coca.
Raising awareness of the cluster of issues around drug trafficking, including drug abuse by Bolivians, became another focus of the American effort. In fact, Bolivians themselves were being ravaged by the drug as the coca-cocaine trade developed. It was common to see young kids, most of them poor, on the streets of La Paz wasted on a cheap cocaine-based cigarette, adulterated with harmful chemical additives, called a pitillo. I supervised an awareness program that topped out at more than a million dollars and included a Bolivian-run information center, active work with the press, and the production and distribution of informational recordings for use by radio stations around the country. USAID funded a group of businesspeople whose purpose was to raise awareness about drugs and drug-trafficking.
Here’s the point of all the detail: it didn’t work. None of it. Bolivian campesinos continued to grow coca leaves and stomp them into paste. Trafficking organizations continued to thrive, moving the paste and the base, and laundering their money in businesses that competed unfairly with legitimate operations like car dealerships.
One reason it didn’t work was a collective failure, shared by the official Americans and the Bolivian elites allied with them, to know the campesinos. There was a great deal of speculation about their motivation, and how they could be persuaded out of coca. But Bolivia was a highly stratified society, and indigenous campesinos occupied the real estate at the broad bottom. The white descendants of Spaniards who controlled everything in the country had no interest in knowing or understanding them. Their interest was limited to having a source of cheap labor to clean their houses and care for their kids. The Americans of the US Mission to Bolivia had neither the language nor the skills even to begin to know that undisclosed Bolivia. Nor, it seemed to me then and now, did they have the imagination.
The consequences of an insufficient effort of imagination were on painful display as the US withdrew its military from Afghanistan. Critics of the way the withdrawal was conducted demonstrate a willfully infantile attitude about the real world. Did they imagine it was ever going to be easy to leave? The notion of a neat and tidy rupture after twenty years of war is absurd. There is no realistic scenario that doesn’t include chaos and bloodshed and human suffering.
More importantly, critics of the withdrawal miss the real failure, which was a mind-numbing inability—or was it unwillingness?—to understand a complex place and the peoples who live there. The failure goes back not twenty years to the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, but to the 1970s, when arming Afghan warlords to fight their Soviet occupiers with the precursors of the weapons they later used against the American military seemed, to US planners, like a good idea.
As the war in Afghanistan went on, year after year, it became common to lament the short shrift Americans gave to the country’s history. The British and Soviet catastrophes in the “graveyard of empires” were pointed to as evidence of the immense challenge the US failed to grasp. But history is only part of the story. History is a subset of a cluster of interconnected realities for which the word “culture” remains a useful synecdoche.
It’s possible that something less than permanent disaster will take place in Afghanistan, now that US forces have left. Let’s hope so. But think about the stupendous challenges we face today. Climate change, desertification, food scarcity, education shortfalls, viruses, refugees, cyber abuse of all sorts, human trafficking. The list is endless; some days, it overwhelms. Consequential action to address them will be at least as complicated as dealing with coca and cocaine. In just about every instance the genesis, the thickening into knot, and the cutting of the knot involve people about whom we know as little as we knew about the Bolivian women in bowler hats disembarking from a bus at gunpoint in the middle of the night in the Chapare; as little as we knew about tribal societies in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Our ignorance is a sticking point. There is no single solution to the problem it presents. But here is one idea that will get us part of the way there. We want, we need, a new class of cultural officers in our foreign service. Cultural attachés have been around almost as long as embassies have been. During the Cold War, the US maintained an intermittently vigorous cultural presence. Duke Ellington played to Soviet audiences, famously traveling across Russia in a railway car. Willis Conover exposed an eagerly listening world to American jazz over the airwaves on the Voice of America. Dance troupes performed, writers read, musicians of all kinds played on stages everywhere. (I once escorted the rock-pop group Southern Pacific on a tour around Turkey. At a time when resentment of the US was hardening across the Islamic world, the band had Turks dancing in the aisles at every show.)
After the Berlin Wall fell, some politicians in Congress demanded a “peace dividend.” Why should the US keep on shelling out big bucks to promote American values by highlighting our culture? We just won the Cold War, didn’t we? That myopia led to a sustained wave of attacks on the funding for cultural programs. It was a thousand cuts to the body but led to the same result as lopping off the head at a single stroke. The victim died. These days, the cultural presence in American embassies is minimal, the temperature is tepid, which is not to disparage the good work being done by diligent people hampered by limited resources and official indifference.
I’m not arguing for a return to the ways of presenting culture that dominated during the Cold War. This is not about trebling our officially sponsored cultural events, or demonstrating our democratic bona fides with an authentic display of our diversity, although both those things could be important.
Even at the height of our cultural outreach to foreign audiences, cultural attachés (cultural affairs officers, in embassy parlance, or CAOs) played a fairly limited role. One grizzled veteran told me early in my career that “the job of a CAO is getting asses in seats.”
He meant two things. First, a CAO had to master the logistics of putting together what we called “programs,” be it a rock band mini-tour or a conference of sociologists. Having done this work, I can testify that it is not for those who don’t sweat the details, because a thousand and one of them go into the making of a successful event. Blow them off, and you crash. Second, a CAO had to know which asses mattered. In other words, she had to identify and understand the audience the embassy was seeking to attract and influence.
Both those tasks, as understood by a veteran public diplomacy officer doing his best to bring a new guy along in the trade, are important. There is a need to continue that sort of cultural work, to beef up the effort, to allow it to matter in an embassy’s strategic planning in the way that, done well, it can.
But I’m talking about something bigger, and something different. I once worked for an insufferable egotist of an ambassador. He was a political appointee with a consuming need to preen, but he got one thing dead to rights. He had a notion that a cultural affairs officer should deeply understand the country in which she was serving. Not just know the country and its culture(s) but be able to analyze them, providing critical input to senior management’s tactics, strategy, and planning. What that political ambassador was getting at can be illustrated with reference to the United States.
Imagine you are the ambassador of a foreign country assigned to Washington over the past, say, five years. In order to keep the foreign ministry back home up to date on American affairs, you and your staff fully cover the political scene, including Congress and the administration. You cultivate good contacts with reporters and editors in the media. You talk to people in the think tanks, and to business leaders, and to so-called thought leaders. Maybe you’ll invite some members of the clergy of different denominations to a cocktail at your official residence. These are representative of the kinds of outreach activities you carry out regularly in order to analyze what’s going on in America, your country of assignment.
If you had covered all of those bases and more through the past five years, you would have produced some insights useful to the foreign ministry, but you would almost certainly have missed the upheaval that hit American society. Politics and economics only go so far to explain, for example, the insurrection at the Capitol that took place on January 6, 2021. To really get it, you would have had to be, or to rely on, an expert in culture. Even if you missed it, like everybody else, in order to understand it retrospectively, to be able to report on it, you would have needed to grasp how culture moves in a society, sometimes subterraneously, sometimes hiding in plain sight, shaping and changing it.
That’s the kind of cultural affairs officer American embassies want now. This is not to argue for hiring academics with deep knowledge of a specific field. Rather, we want protean individuals who will be at home anywhere, everywhere. They must be people who can talk with anybody, who have interdisciplinary analytical abilities, who know what to read and how to talk about it. Being fluent in the language of the country in which they are serving is a non-negotiable job requirement. Learn a language; know a culture. When we advertise the position, we’ll want to include Keats’s negative capability, that talent not simply for balancing opposing realities but for making something new from their juggling act.
So we need to identify these people. America continues to produce them. We need to recruit them, and incorporate them into a bureaucratic ecosystem whose senior leaders understand and buy into their mission. In the traditional pecking order of the foreign service, officers who covered political affairs have traditionally made themselves comfortable at the top, followed closely and anxiously by those who covered economic issues. In an embassy hierarchy, cultural affairs officers have been perceived as dealing with something less substantial, and therefore less important. Culture was an adornment, a nice thing of which one could make occasional use, but it did not matter the way politics and the economy mattered. Challenging the assumptions and the habits of the hierarchy to the extent of loosing real change is no simple matter.
Diplomacy, like fiction, calls for an act of imagination as rigorous as it is empathic. Like fiction, diplomacy needs skilled practitioners who, keeping a hard eye on what is, can imagine what is not yet. Fiction writers seem to find themselves, usually after considerable struggle. The kind of cultural diplomats I’m talking about may not even know there’s a job waiting for them. It’s in our country's interest, and the world’s, that we go out and find them.
A former foreign service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 170 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Kenyon Review, and The Southern Review. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His story “Dream State” won the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Kafka Prize. His five books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award. His website can be found at www.markjacobsauthor.com. His stories, “Old School”, "Rent Check", "Exceptionalism Redux", and "Korkak" have previously appeared in Evergreen.
War rugs are traditional Persian or Oriental rugs featuring martial images, such as helicopters, tanks, guns, etc. They come from, primarily, Afghanistan and were first woven around 1980, when Soviet forces occupied much of the country. Created by artist Kevin Sudeith, WarRug.com has been curating examples from the region since the mid 1990s.