Tuesday, 12 February 2019

No 78 - A short meditation on Long Walls

"The fate of walls" (c) Dan Wylie, 2019
After I aired my little cartoon about Trump and The Wall a couple of weeks ago (below), a friend challenged me to provide a solution – “O wise one”, he added, with (I suspect) a touch of sarcasm. Ha ha. I make no claim to wisdom, O challenging one, let alone solutions, but – as is my wont – I am led to do a little pondering and research into Long Walls.

Donald Trump – whose own German immigrant grandfather  would surely have been mortified to have been turned back by a wall of real steel and human hostility – recently proclaimed that “they had walls in the Middle Ages – and they worked!”

There are, of course, walls and walls and walls. Walls have, to state the obvious, protected us from wildlife, violent weather, and predatory humans, ever since we graduated from caves and humpies of hide or sticks. They’ve grown bigger and more sophisticated, tangible vectors of pride and fear, in unison with developing technology. One profound effect has been, it seems to me, to cut us off increasingly from the natural world as well as from one another. I am fascinated by the modern trend towards refined sky-piercing spikes of glass – the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, ‘the Shard’ in London – buildings which seem to want to transcend their own ‘wall-ness’, to be both transparent and impenetrable, flaunting their sterilised, pointy pointlessness, fatal to birds and humility alike.  A long (or high) way from the functionality of domestic comfort or protection in war.

Trump was right that there were massive defensive walls in mediaeval Europe (he was presumably thinking only of Europe), but they were very different to what he envisages for the Mexico-US border. Mediaeval Europe was divided largely into tiny principalities, city-states in a more or less constant state of bickering. Walls were built around these city centres, coming periodically under siege from an unfriendly neighbour, or an army sent by some overarching power such as the Holy Roman Empire, or the Papacy. Those broader blocs were only here and there roughly aligned with a self-identifying ethnicity – more EU-like. Of course these conflicts produced refugees, though distances and time was experienced very differently: when Dante was sent into exile from Florence by just such a city-state squabble, he fled scarcely a couple of days’ good walk away. But the problems those walls were designed to overcome were a world away from those of contemporary North America.

Trump was also right to claim that those walls ‘worked’, though they did so only in very limited ways, and for very short periods. Walls had the predictable effect of stimulating more sophisticated technology for breaching them: bigger siege machines, ultimately artillery, beginning with the “Horrible Bombard” that finally broke through the walls of Constantinople in 1453. Or cunning deceptions – think of the walls of Troy and the Trojan Horse. People would always search for ways of escaping or infiltrating walls: climbing over them, tunnelling under them (as in Israel today), or ballooning across them (as with the Berlin Wall). City walls could also have the problematic effect of becoming involuntary prisons, trapping the defenders in their own pit of starvation and disease. In the longer term, deeper societal currents simply made them redundant: they could not contain growing populations, and the formation of larger ethnic or nationalistic ‘states’ – France, Germany, etc – made the ‘city-state’ itself irrelevant. New technologies, networks, even moralities transcended the mediaeval version of the laager: I’ve walked around the walls that mark the limits of mediaeval York, now lost in the urban vastness, crisscrossed by cars, trains and aeroplanes, reduced to the merely picturesque.

Shorter walls are certainly effective in limited ways. The Israelis claim that their 400-km wall along the West Bank border has been effective in curbing suicide bombers, though this seems a narrow if understandable reason for the wall’s massive expense. It doesn’t prevent attacks by means of rockets, kites, seaborne boats, or knifings by Palestinians already living in Israel. This case also exemplifies another by-product of such walls: it intensifies “Othering” – the demeaning and stereotyping of the Outsiders.  Unlike the bluff but friendly neighbours, mutually repairing the wall between them in Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Building a Wall”, government-sponsored walls usually work only to the benefit of one side. The wall becomes as much a seam of invigorated conflict as a comforting divide, and muzzles or defers any collaborative efforts to address the underlying issues.

But what of Long Walls, the thousand kilometre-type monsters of the kind Trump envisages, ranging from coast to coast, over hill and dale? Such are fewer in number historically, though according to David Frye in his recent book, Walls: A history of civilisation in blood and brick, some 70 nations around the world today have built a variety of long-distance border barriers. The key word there is “nation”: these “hard borders” are, unlike most predecessors, associated with the notion of “national sovereignty”, often itself aligned with some or other form of ethnic purity or avowed cohesion. As any student of history will know, such purity is a myth – though no less a psychological force in the world for that. In practice, most of those barriers remain more or less porous – like that between South Africa and Zimbabwe, which some 2 million Zimbabweans have found to be no barrier at all.

This is true of the ancient walls, too. The most famous example, the Great Wall of China, built up and added to over many centuries, ostensibly to keep out nomadic raiders (Mongol or Hsiung-nu “barbarians”), was as much an imperial/nationalist pride-project, along with Ch’in canal and palace projects. It was constructed at appalling cost in human life, and, to judge by the minimal role accorded to it by Harry Gelber in his history of China, The Dragon and the Foreign Devils, it did little to fulfil its original function. Indeed, it became as much a conduit for trade and cultural exchange as anything. Again, the modernisation of the globe has reduced it to decaying ruin in most parts, a romanticised tourist-trap in what’s left. Such walls, in the long run, cost too much to keep up: the $5 billon demanded by Trump for his wall would be only the beginning of endless and disproportionate maintenance costs.

Digging Hadrian's Wall, 1984
The same can be said of the less well-known, 5th-century  “Red Snake” wall of Gorgan, stretching 120 miles east from the Caspian Sea. Hadrian’s Wall, the 80-mile Roman wall across northern England, was also touted by some Roman writers as being responsible for a period of peace in the Roman Empire. However, modern historians – including the archaeologist I briefly “dug” with in the 1980s – argue that the Wall was only very temporarily effective, too low and poorly manned to really keep people out. In any event, many “barbarians” were already inside the imperial bounds: that’s in the very nature of empires, and the city of Rome was already irreversibly cosmopolitan. Indeed, Rome was arguably at its best when it welcomed “others” as resources rather than enemies. And it was still overrun by the Visigoths, walls or no walls.

There seems little reason to doubt that a physical US-Mexico border wall won’t eventually suffer the same fate, whatever short-term satisfaction it might bring some people. It’s unlikely to add much to the already intense network of surveillance (heat-sensitive cameras, drones, motion detectors, dog and helicopter and vehicle patrols, detention centres, and sometimes deliberately cruel and discriminatory legislation) that has already cut actual immigration to a trickle. These modern migrants may not all be angels, but they are not Visigoths or Huns; they are not Al Qaeda or Boko Haram. Nor are they drug-lords: the wall will do nothing to curb the import of drugs so long as Americans keep taking them. The only real solution for these people’s plight is renewed collaborative efforts to elevate the well-being and functionality of the states they come from.

As in the case of Rome, the 'enemy' is already within the gates. White Americans largely seem to forget that those southern border areas were first occupied by Spanish invaders who (in tandem with the eradication of native Americans and the imposition of imported black slave-colonies) were evicted south of the Rio Grande by Anglo-Saxon/imperial force or strong-armed ‘land-purchase’. Despite that, the more recent flourishing of southern states has least in part been built on the labour of Hispanic immigrants; and the rate of criminality among such immigrants – as every government and independent source (barring Trump) attests – is markedly lower than that among American-born inhabitants.  Recall that not a single American has died at the hands of an “immigrant terrorist” since the Twin Towers attack in 2001, whereas a mass shooting (defined as 4 or more shot at one time) by a locally-born American has happened virtually every day in 2018 alone.

"Ozymandias: or, Desert Hubris" (c) Dan Wylie, 2019
So, to answer my Challenging Friend, it’s very, very complex, and I don’t know what “the solution” is, if there is a single one.  We should not be distracted by Trump’s simplistic obsession with The Wall from the real-world complexity of the US response to immigration. In any event, a solution is hardly going to emerge when the problems are inaccurately diagnosed from the get-go, and when those who ought to be treated in the first instance with compassion are met instead with misdirected hostility. “The Wall” seems to me an embodiment of all that is ugly and unfruitful in human relations, doomed to expensive failure. In the best scenario, it will be doomed by the angels of our better nature.


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