Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Use of Walls

Living in that particular island, one became accustomed to being bounded. There, to your left, was the Pacific Ocean stretching all the way to Chile. Over the Alps, to your right, the Tasman Sea beat upon those black iron sands. It is true that from the tip of the North Island, island hopping was barely possible (certainly people had made that trip in reverse, but Kupe’s epic voyage from Hawaiiki is beyond the means of most to emulate, even with different destinations in mind). Erewhon is a long way from anywhere.

The water is a wall. A flat, final frontier stretching far beyond the curvature of the earth.

It is a safe, politically stable place. Occasionally, nevertheless, standing on that windswept beach in a cold Southerly and staring at that horizon, the thought might drift across your mind: "If things go wrong, there is no escape." And it's true. Close the airports and suddenly those islands look a whole lot different. Claustrophobic. Isolated. Like a trap.

Given this context, land borders were quite the novelty. To go from one country to another, without getting on a plane and flying over salt water for several hours. Extraordinary. The best efforts of border control notwithstanding, there remained something liberating about those crossings into Canada.

But despite its land borders, the U.S. is (at least in my experience) an insular place. What happens beyond its borders -- and what it does beyond its borders -- is seen as remote and unreal. Peripheral to the main sweep of history, even when the events comprising that history take place in that mysterious and exotic elsewhere. How else can the Vietnam War (Invasion? Occupation?) be understood primarily as an American tragedy?

Possibly it's a size thing: the U.S. has a profusion of States, each with their names, geographical locations and State Capitals to keep tabs on and locate accurately on maps. Small wonder, perhaps, that the colonies, the client states, the occupied terrain, the savage barbarian lands to be subdued don't too get much of a look in. Or perhaps it is simply a hallmark of imperial powers. Was the U.K. similar during those long years when the sun never set on its bloodied-red dominions? Certainly other similarities are evident in the self-portraiture: both imagine themselves as benevolent, democratic, humane, agents of liberation and modernity. Exercisers of a civilising influence. Behold those wondrous railways! Witness those free elections!

But I have digressed.

Whatever the proximate cause, the U.S. is insular and desires to be more so. It aspires to insularity, to the condition of being an island. To that end it builds walls: huge monstrosities of walls complete with watchtowers, floodlights, sensors, ditches, barbed wire and armed vigilantes, linking a myriad legion of smaller walls, equally monstrous in intent, though not in scale. Barbed wire and concrete from sea to shining sea.

Firstly in the South, since fear of the Other is the engine driving this machine. Those folks up North -- despite their many languages and hues -- are for the most part still imagined as white English speakers a la that lovely lady who sang that song about her heart and that ship that sank -- and doesn't she do shows in Vegas now? (Yes, I know. So do you. But it is perception that matters here, for beyond the borders we enter the land of the unreal). Nevertheless, the North is unlikely to prove immune forever. Are there not already rumblings and grumblings about 'back doors' and 'soft laws?' Are not the gates already closing?

Then they shall be an island in truth. Isolated. Impassable. Free from undesirable influx, ingress, influence, incursion, invasion, immigration, innundation, infestation and insinuation. Quarantined. Safe. Secure. Invulnerable. Preserved from the foreign, saved from the alien, they shall be free to focus their attentions on the enemies within.

There's this thing about walls. Like knives, they cut both ways.

Those sensors cunningly placed to detect ingress can as easily detect egress.
It is a very simple matter to direct the floodlights inwards.
From the watchtowers one has 360 degree vision.
That concrete edifice, that extravagantly snarled barbed wire will tear the hands of those seeking exit just as painfully as it does those seeking entrance.
The ditch does not care which way people attempt to traverse it.

Just as it made no difference to that flat and final frontier (stretching all the way to Chile) whether it excluded or incarcerated.

Open the borders.
The world was never meant to be a prison.

3 Comments:

Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

I have to agree that the world was never intended to be a prison, any more than it was ever intended to be the property of a few rich men.

The reality however is that those few rich men disagree, and a prison will definitely be more profitable for them, at least in the short term, and as for the long term, well, as Bush has so aptly pointed out, in the future we will all be dead.

I have lately come to the realization that there is little that one can say about a culture based on devotion to a few rich men who not only consider the world and all of us who live in it to be their property, that the only reason for the existence of other people - even their own countrymen - is to make them richer. The long term is not their concern. These rich men do not even love their own grandchildren!

6/24/2006 7:41 am  
Blogger dove said...

I think most probably they do love their grandchildren, (at least for a given value of 'love' which may be more akin to the way that you or I might 'love' a particular coffee mug (or even a familiar remote) than anything else). I think they are just that supremely confident that they will be able to transmit their level of privilege and insulation to their descendants.

I do find that mass loyalty to a system that benefits so very few odd -- devotion is exactly the right word, I think. I'm reminded of your recent post on celebrity goddesses. There's a sense in which, through this kind of mass loyalty to the Hiltons, Cheney's and Trumps of the world, the devotees are making their own pantheon of gods and goddesses.
The American Dream (though alas it extends beyond the borders) has much to answer for I think. I'm sure that it's a big chunk of why so many are engaged in maintaining that particular Olympus: they hope for elevation themselves, which clearly won't happen if they dismantle it.

And yes, the prison-ness and the property-ness go hand in hand.

Part of what I was trying to do with this post was to make a first cut (for me, anyway) at making some of the connections between freedom of movement and other freedoms -- it was sort of sparked by something Nanette and I agreed about in a discussion we were/are having in the 'On Solidarity' post.

A lot of those who think of themselves as liberal or progressive, but for whatever reason don't think of freedom of movement (in the context of U.S. immigration from Mexico) as 'their' issue are, I suspect, missing the 'dual-function' aspect of walls. (Self-interest is obviously not an adequate basis for solidarity, but I think it is perhaps useful for non-immigrants to have some notion of what might constitute their best interest on this issue.)

6/24/2006 8:42 pm  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

I think you are right about that hope for elevation. And I believe that we are seeing evidence of how easily exploited a phenomenon it is, I keep thinking back on the divisions back before the reframing of slavery in the US, between people who worked in the houses, and those who worked in the fields. It is also applicable to some of the rivalries in South Asia between different "scheduled" castes.

When the issue itself is as simple as the advice given to young girls who become involved with married men, when a wiser friend says to them, "even if he does leave his wife and family to be with you, in the future, what can YOU expect?" ;)

6/26/2006 11:35 am  

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