Mapping our ‘mental geography’

Seldom are the phrases “global criminal organizations” and “intimate terrain of self” uttered by the same speaker on the same topic.

Yet that is what Carolyn Nordstrom, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, managed to do in her talk “Emergent(cies)…” on Wednesday night before a crowd of about 50 people at the Whitney Humanities Center. In her speech, which was the final installment of a three-part lecture series on mental geography, Nordstrom argued that much of the world is being controlled by trillions of dollars illegally circulating and the millions of individuals who direct their flow.

Most of the world has little knowledge of these extensive dealings, she said, because those who profit from them have trained people not to look.

Nordstrom began her talk of harsh real-world realities with an appeal to the psychological.

“We often believe that if something is on the edge of our vision, it must be peripheral, and therefore outside our scope of reference,” she said. “We have to adapt to ‘haptics,’ a form of knowing beyond sight.”

Most of what we see, hear, and read in the news every day, no matter how distant and seemingly obscure, is a part of vast global networks trafficking everything from guns to pharmaceutical drugs, she argued.

“Imagine a child shot in Angola,” she said. “There’s a vast arms circuit supplying the weapon that fired the bullet. Then there’s another circuit of legal and illegal drug companies supplying legal and illegal medicines to that kid. And to get those medicines, he has to sell himself to the cheap labor market, which supplies luxury and necessary goods back to our world.”

Such extensive networks operate around the globe, she said, and have the sophistication to launder their billions of dollars of profits. This causes chaos in the financial markets because it injects unregulated cash flow into legal systems.

One might think such complex networks would receive attention from governments and media. But Nordstrom said that the extralegal cash flow is largely ignored because “elites” prevent attention and prosecution.

She described a recent situation when a high-ranking Los Angeles Customs officer drove her an hour away from the city and told her his men busted a well-known public figure for smuggling. Within hours, the Customs officer said, he received orders from Washington to immediately drop the case, she recalled.

“The elites see this as an avenue to power,” Nordstrom said.

Four audience members said they had encountered extralegal networks in their own lives.

“I work here in New Haven with human trafficking survivors from Mexico,” said Megan Fountain GRD ’07.

Her own work with human trafficking, she added, prove that efforts here affect systems across the globe, as Nordstrom had argued in her talk.

James Phillips DIV ’55, a psychiatrist on the clinical faculty, said that in his efforts to get medicines to rural Peru, he had to run a gambit of logistical problems, often unsure whether the medicines being delivered were those that the sick needed or just counterfeit white powder.

During the talk, Dr. Paul Farmer, a well-known anthropologist and physician, spoke briefly, praising Nordstrom for her investigative work.

He, too, emphasized how important knowledge is to confront the illegal economies.

“Usually it’s not the scholar’s job to make public policy, but here today, the information is so relevant to public policy,” he said. “I hope there are people out there who we can get this information to and who can use it.”

Nordstrom concluded that seeing and knowing that such underground economies existed, though we may not see them, was essential.

“In textbooks, news reports, politics, these networks rarely get mentioned,” she said. “But they are there and we have to be aware of them.”

Nordstrom is the author of two books, “Shadows of War” and “Global Outlaws,” both of which deal with the hidden world of extralegal markets.

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