Of all of the flatulent memes that have been running low on gas since the late 1960s, the most aggravating — against stiff competition — are probably all variations on “Build bridges, not walls.” The bridge I must cross most often in an average year is Westminster Bridge. Since a jihadist plowed a car along the pavements of one side of the Westminster Bridge (killing and wounding dozens of locals and tourists) a couple of years ago, it has been covered in walls. Specifically, it has been covered in metal crash barriers erected to stop replays of that incident. So as I find myself reminded on a weekly basis at least, when it comes to bridges and walls, the world does not have necessarily an either/or choice. Who could have guessed?
Well, a lot of the president’s opponents by the sound of it. There are satisfactory arguments on both sides about the utility of building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. My personal view is that since the president was partly elected on the promise of building this wall, he should probably get a chance to build it and give at least some voters what they asked for.
But it is not the practical but the moral objections to the president’s initiative that are so unutterably tired. For instance, one objection just made by Nancy Pelosi is that building a wall is “an immorality” and “not who we are as a nation.” Walls are also, according to Pelosi, an “old way of thinking.”
In fact, in Europe — among many other places — walls are not an old way of thinking at all. In fact, they are a much newer way of thinking than anything Nancy Pelosi is offering. Since the European migrant crisis was at its height in 2015, countries across central and eastern Europe have begun erecting walls. I have gone to see a number of them, and very smart, modern fence-like things they are, with movement-detectors, drones to fly overhead, and more. When the Hungarian government erected their first wall (having had hundreds of thousands of people pour across their previously un-walled borders in a few months), they received some criticism from their neighbors.
Only weeks later, these critics — including the government of Austria — started to hurriedly build walls of their own. One of my favorite memories of the period is a representative of the Austrian government being asked what made the wall that the Austrians were building so different from the one that they had criticized the Hungarians for building. The answer came after a pause: The Austrian wall was different because it was not a wall but rather “a door with sides.” To the extent that there was any short-term fix to that problem, the swift building of walls was about the best one, and it was provably effective. So while Pelosi’s views have been going stale, walls have gotten a new lease of life.
But other politicians have a similar view to her. Representative Eric Swalwell, for instance, claims that walls themselves — bricks, mortar, the lot — are “medieval.” They are also, he says,“a symbol of ‘us and not us.’ And that is not U.S.”
It is hard to know where to start with guff like this. Clearly all walls are not medieval (see above). But the main problem with Swalwell’s “us and not us” riff is that lots of things are “us and not us.” The fact that Swalwell owns an American passport is a sign of “us and not us.” It allows him to go into a different queue from me and most of the rest of the world when we visit the U.S. Is this not the biggest “us and not us” signal imaginable? One might take it further. How dare Swalwell have the right to live in America and almost all of the rest of the world not? What is this but sheer, bare, shameless, naked “us and not us” behavior? Swalwell should be ashamed of himself and resign his passport immediately because of its “othering” effect on most of the rest of the world.
As I say, there are plenty of decent arguments that could be made against building a wall along the Mexican border. But it is striking that the president’s opponents aren’t focusing on them and instead keep running on memes which ran out of their utility long before walls ran out of theirs.