Fences Entrap Rather than Protect

Robinson Crusoe

We are, it seems, becoming more and more a nation of gated communities. As the income gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else grows ever greater, we see an increased use of fences and gates, whether literal (gates for wealthy mansions and for high-end housing developments) or metaphorical (special preserves, including schools, which only the wealthy can afford) or legal (restrictions designed to keep poor people from voting). The country itself functions as one giant gated community, attempting to bar entrance to the waves of immigrants coming from the south, whether to escape violence or just to find better economic opportunity.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe has cautionary words for those who think that well constructed fences will keep them safe. There is a psychological price paid by those who insist upon absolute borders: the thicker the barrier, the thicker  the fear and paranoia. This helps explain why the hysteria of American nativists is swamping the efforts of moderate Republicans to work with Democrats to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Crusoe engages in incessant labor to build an impregnable fortress for himself—but in an ironic twist that I think shows how walling out the world actually increases feelings of vulnerability, his own security becomes trap.

First of all, we see Crusoe completing what appears to be a perfect enclosure:

I worked excessive hard these three or four months to get my wall done; and the 14th of April I closed it up, contriving to go into it, not by a door but over the wall, by a ladder, that there might be no sign on the outside of my habitation.

April 16.—I finished the ladder; so I went up the ladder to the top, and then pulled it up after me, and let it down in the inside.  This was a complete enclosure to me; for within I had room enough, and nothing could come at me from without, unless it could first mount my wall.

The problem is not from without, however, but from within. Less than 24 hours after he completes his fortress, he is almost buried by it:

The very next day after this wall was finished I had almost had all my labor overthrown at once, and myself killed.  The case was thus: As I was busy in the inside, behind my tent, just at the entrance into my cave, I was terribly frighted with a most dreadful, surprising thing indeed; for all on a sudden I found the earth come crumbling down from the roof of my cave, and from the edge of the hill over my head, and two of the posts I had set up in the cave cracked in a frightful manner. 

Crusoe, who spends much of the book acquiring or constructing possessions, comes to define himself by them and appears almost more worried about losing them than he does about his own personal safety:

I was so much amazed with the thing itself, having never felt the like, nor discoursed with any one that had, that I was like one dead or stupefied; and the motion of the earth made my stomach sick, like one that was tossed at sea; but the noise of the falling of the rock awakened me, as it were, and rousing me from the stupefied condition I was in, filled me with horror; and I thought of nothing then but the hill falling upon my tent and all my household goods, and burying all at once; and this sunk my very soul within me a second time.

The more one has, the more frightened one becomes of losing it. In a further ironic twist, Crusoe discovers that he must cut a hole in his fortification to keep from drowning:

But the rain was so violent that my tent was ready to be beaten down with it; and I was forced to go into my cave, though very much afraid and uneasy, for fear it should fall on my head.  This violent rain forced me to a new work—viz. to cut a hole through my new fortification, like a sink, to let the water go out, which would else have flooded my cave. 

This isn’t the only time in the book when that Crusoe regards that which is supposed to keep him safe as a liability. His feelings of mastery are later undermined and he suffers an acute panic attack when he encounters the footprint. All that he has built now seems useless:

Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear!  It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief.  The first thing I proposed to myself was, to throw down my enclosures, and turn all my tame cattle wild into the woods, lest the enemy should find them, and then frequent the island in prospect of the same or the like booty: then the simple thing of digging up my two corn-fields, lest they should find such a grain there, and still be prompted to frequent the island: then to demolish my bower and tent, that they might not see any vestiges of habitation, and be prompted to look farther, in order to find out the persons inhabiting.

These were the subject of the first night’s cogitations after I was come home again, while the apprehensions which had so overrun my mind were fresh upon me, and my head was full of vapors.  Thus, fear of danger is ten thousand times more terrifying than danger itself, when apparent to the eyes; and we find the burden of anxiety greater, by much, than the evil which we are anxious about…

Even when he is not dealing with a footprint but an actual person, Crusoe continues to construct elaborate defenses. Note how he deals with the newly rescued Friday:

The next day, after I came home to my hutch with him, I began to consider where I should lodge him: and that I might do well for him and yet be perfectly easy myself, I made a little tent for him in the vacant place between my two fortifications, in the inside of the last, and in the outside of the first.  As there was a door or entrance there into my cave, I made a formal framed door-case, and a door to it, of boards, and set it up in the passage, a little within the entrance; and, causing the door to open in the inside, I barred it up in the night, taking in my ladders, too; so that Friday could no way come at me in the inside of my innermost wall, without making so much noise in getting over that it must needs awaken me; for my first wall had now a complete roof over it of long poles, covering all my tent, and leaning up to the side of the hill; which was again laid across with smaller sticks, instead of laths, and then thatched over a great thickness with the rice-straw, which was strong, like reeds; and at the hole or place which was left to go in or out by the ladder I had placed a kind of trap-door, which, if it had been attempted on the outside, would not have opened at all, but would have fallen down and made a great noise—as to weapons, I took them all into my side every night. 

Eventually he learns that his fears are groundless and he has nothing to worry about—which America might conclude as well if it were to stop obsessing over dark-skinned people:

But I needed none of all this precaution; for never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant than Friday was to me: without passions, sullenness, or designs, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were tied to me, like those of a child to a father; and I daresay he would have sacrificed his life to save mine upon any occasion whatsoever—the many testimonies he gave me of this put it out of doubt, and soon convinced me that I needed to use no precautions for my safety on his account.

Okay, so this is paternalistic and I’m not holding it up as a model for white-black friendships. But I do find it interesting how Crusoe periodically has his cultural assumptions upended. At one point he discovers that Europeans—I have in mind the mutineers who find their way to the island—can be no less savage than the cannibals.

The bigger point is that, when we insist on fences, we become defined by our fears, which threaten to bury us like Crusoe’s earthquake. Whereas when we open ourselves up to the Other, we may find a friend. May all Americans be open to this truth as we deal with the latest Latin American immigrants.

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