Walled Up and Down

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Being a good ex-Catholic, I don’t pay attention to what the Pope says. Still, popes have been known to utter something on occasion that smacks of some sense.

The current Pope was flying on the papal airplane, on his way back to the papal palace after a trip to Morocco, when someone thought to ask him about walls. See, Cueta, a city on the northern tip of Morocco, has been an Iberian colony since 1415, and strictly a Spanish possession since Spain and Portugal made their break-up official in 1668. Since 1993 a fence has separated Cueta from the rest of Africa; Pope Frankie says he cried when a Spanish reporter handed him a strip of barbed wire from the fence. Anyway, someone on the Pope’s plane asked him what he thought about walls and fences, so Frank goes, “Those who build walls will become prisoners of the walls they put up.”

Frank called it “history.” Liz MacDonald, who hosts a show on Fox Business Network, called it “weak” — which makes you wonder what she really thinks about “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

History is indeed crowded with walls. In the Old Testament (which I don’t pay much attention to either), when the Israelites were on the warpath out of Egypt, the first city they came to in Canaan was Jericho. Jericho had a wall, so their desert god told the Israelites to march around the city once a day for six days, and on the seventh day to march around it seven times, then blow rams’ horns and scream really loud, that the wall of Jericho would come tumbling down. And after the wall miraculously fell, their god told them to kill every man, woman and child in Jericho, but to save all the valuables and put them into “the treasury of the Lord” — I guess as payment for all the hassle with the wall.

The ancient city of Troy famously had a wall too, a big one, and tall, supposedly built by the gods Poseidon and Apollo. The Trojans told everybody their wall was impenetrable, and the Greeks spent a good ten years smashing themselves against it. But then Odysseus, ever the man with a plan, thought up his equally famous trick with the big wooden horse, and Troy was burnt to the ground.

Hundreds of years later, after they had sent the Persians packing for good, the Athenians decided to build walls around their city and leading down to the Piraeus, the city’s main port, so they could protect their new overseas empire. The Spartans got nervous and picked a fight with the Athenians, and after twenty-seven years of fighting and starving and butchering, with Athens’ great navy sunk, its friends and money gone, and its people ruled by thirty greedy blood-thirsty assholes, the Spartans forced the Athenians to tear down their walls to the sound of people cheering and girls playing flutes.

In the midst of their war with Sparta, the Athenians, so puffed up with ego, thought they could fend off the Spartans with one hand and go conquer Sicily with the other. They sent a bunch of triremes and hoplites and promptly got their asses whooped. The city of Syracuse, the most powerful on the island, had a wall, and the Athenians built a bunch of walls around the walled city in a desperate attempt to starve the Syracusans out. But the Spartans and Syracusans built their own walls to block the Athenian walls, and for a long while the whole campaign was just a battle of walls. Before the final onslaught, with no hope of winning but trapped by the Syracusan fleet blocking the Great Harbor, General Nicias lined the Athenians up and gave them one last pep talk. “Athenians and allies,” Nicky said, “even in our present position we must still hope on, since men have ere now been saved from worse straits than this.” The speech had more of the usual, but it ended with an important observation: “Men make the city and not walls.” I’m not quite sure what Nicias meant by that, but I agree with it wholeheartedly.

The Romans built a bunch of walls, feeling like they had to after having traded in their relatively peaceful republic for a greedy blood-thirsty empire. Most people have heard of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, built when the Roman Empire was at its height, and meant to secure the northern border of the Empire and protect Britannia from those crazy Picts, ancestors of those crazy Scots. But after three centuries of corruption, mismanagement and growing social divisions (ring a bell?), walls couldn’t stop a barbarian horde from raiding Rome in 410, ending the nightmare that was once a dream.

The so-called Great Wall of China is really a bunch of different walls built at different times in China’s long history. (You can’t actually see it from space either: the wall is way too thin.) Qin, the first emperor of China, was the first to get started on building walls to keep out nomadic tribes threatening from the north. Fifteen hundred years later, the Ming got to work on what we today consider the Great Wall, hoping for a bit of protection from the seemingly unstoppable Mongols. But the Chinese ended up walling themselves in so much that their development stalled just as Europe’s was speeding up. Eventually Portuguese and British ships were having their way with Chinese port cities, and China was forced to sign over Hong Kong to the young Queen Victoria in 1842.

Those same Mongols were the ones who brought the Black Plague, which began in Central Asia, to Europe. Caffa, a trading city founded on the Black Sea by Genoese merchants with the permission of the Golden Horde, built two walls, since the hot-headed Mongols had attacked the city before over beef between the Christians and Muslims living there. When the Mongols came to attack the city again in 1346, they brought the Plague with them. “The dying [Mongols], stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege,” says an Italian who was probably there. “But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside. What seemed like mountains of dead were thrown into the city, and the Christians could not hide or flee or escape from them, although they dumped as many of the bodies as they could in the sea.” No one knew much about diseases and how they spread back then, but as history shows, sometimes the ignorant luck out. With rotting bodies raining from the sky, the people of Caffa rushed to get rid of the bodies and the smell. As soon as they came near those bodies though, it was all over for Caffa, and Europe.

I think we all know what happened with the Berlin Wall, and we have yet to see what good, if any, the walls built through Israel and Northern Ireland will do. Then there’s old Humpty Dumpty, of course, who proudly sat on his wall, fell off, and was never the same.

Walls and fences seem natural to a lot of people, especially those raised on the belief in property and property rights. Some Americans will even tell you that, just a homeowner has a right to a white picket fence, so the United States has the right to build a wall along its southern border. Capitalism isn’t to blame here, only mine-ism. “The first person,” writes Rousseau:

who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows, ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’

Then there’s Proudhon’s take:

The purchaser draws boundaries, fences himself in, and says, ‘This is mine; each one by himself, each one for himself.’ Here, then, is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has a right to step, save the proprietor and his friends; which can benefit nobody, save the proprietor and his servants. Let these sales multiply, and soon the people — who have been neither able nor willing to sell, and who have received none of the proceeds of the sale — will have nowhere to rest, no place of shelter, no ground to till. They will die of hunger at the proprietor’s door, on the edge of that property which was their birthright; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, ‘So perish idlers and vagrants!’

That last line could’ve been said by a Trump Republican.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” says Frost. Tell that to the Mexicans in Tijuana, El Paso, or Matamoros, or to the Catholics in Northern Ireland, or the people in Palestine. Good walls, says history, lead to destruction.

And even if we let the President build his wall along our southern border, it would take too long and cost too much to be of any real use. “A physical structure is part and parcel to border security, but it’s not the panacea,” said the Republican mayor of El Paso, Texas recently. “You cannot build a fence from El Paso to Brownsville, Texas — it is a logistical impossibility because the terrain won’t allow it and most of the land along the border is privately owned.”

There’s that old chestnut about property rights again. Trump tells America he wants to build “a big, beautiful wall,” but America insists, Not in my backyard!


Featured image: Tim Green/Flickr

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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