Number of Google hits for the phrase “walls not bridges”: around 5,000.
Number of Google hits for the phrase “bridges not walls”: around a half-million.
Lordy we do love us our bridges!
In what could be described as the leitmotif of his visit to Morocco, Pope Francis again emphasized the importance of building bridges in today’s world in a wide-ranging 45-minute in-flight press conference on his return flight to Rome.
And Lordy we don’t love us our walls!
Separation barriers by themselves cannot stem the migration impulse, or remove the cause of war; they are fundamentally a way to postpone making larger and more difficult policy decisions.
Sometimes, barriers can even make things worse. When a wall is built and a lasting solution postponed, its builders run the risk that the temporary fix will aggravate the problem it was designed to alleviate. After all, when a barrier becomes an established feature of the geopolitical landscape, it often offers a rallying point for unresolved tensions, becoming a suppurating wound causing perpetual irritation.
There is of course a case for walls and case for bridges. To every thing there is a season. But when the deck is stacked 100 to 1 you have to wonder if the imbalance shows a bias that is out of whack with the seasonality of the thing in question.
Confrontation sometimes works better than detente. War sometimes works better than peace. And we instinctively recognize these things are in real life all too often close run things. The polarities put forth in Ecclesiastes may not always reflect a 50/50 balance but some seasonality is inherent in the idea. It is highly unlikely that bridges are 100 times more likely than walls to be the right answer.
One way to counter the natural tendency to cognitive bias is to ask on which dimension, and in what manner, you are most likely to be wrong. One way to answer that is to question your defaults if they seem out of whack. The wall-bridge thing seems way out of whack to me.
Let’s look at walls and bridges through the lens of three people–two scholars and a poet. The scholars are David Frye, author of the recent book Walls and James Scott, author of the recent book Against the Grain. The poet is, of course, Robert Frost, who wrote the poem “Mending Walls”. Let’s start with Frye.
For the most part Walls is just a history–a history of mankind’s reliance on walls, and on the protection walls have afforded in the development of civilization as against barbarism. As a history the book does not have any huge axe to grind, and is not a brief for walls at all times in all places.
On the other hand the historical record does suggest some underlying lessons to Frye about walls–and bridges, too. Whether in Mesopotamia in 2000 BC or in more modern times walls protected and allowed the flourishing of the things we understand to be civilization.
In the absence of walls all men were required to be warriors. Behind the walls men were invited–or forced– to take on other, non-martial, tasks needed in the development of a civilized state.
Not for nothing that Sparta, proud to be the Greek city-state to go without walls, nonetheless demanded that men adopt what amounted to barbaric ways. All males were obliged to be warriors, all the time. Only in that way could an unwalled city survive. And so while we remember Athens’ contributions to civilization Sparta has left little but a mythology of itself too easily romanticized.
In not requiring that all men be martial all the time the cultures of cities other than Sparta were unavoidably softer. The advantage held by the barbarians outside–they were good at conquering and killing–was countered by the wall.
Sometimes the barbarians conquered and cities were sacked. Sometimes the walls held, and civilization grew. But at no time was the world sufficiently civilized so as to allow all the walls to come down. Steven Pinker is no doubt correct that the world is getting better and safer in modern times. But the role of walls in that equation remains in dispute.
Bridges are generally associated by Frye with aggression. That does not make bridges bad. If you are intent on victory they can come in handy. But their historical value is a little bit at odds with their current reputation, also heavily romanticized as being all about peace and love. Peace and love on our terms . . . sure.
While Frye’s deeper views are mostly under the surface in his historical review the book closes with an epilogue in which he more openly lays out his editorial view. His take-away from history is not exactly pro-wall but can be fairly described as anti-anti-wall. The current catechism about the necessary superiority of bridges does not withstand scrutiny.
Indeed, Frye asserts that in the new millennium, and at the very time that Pinker says things are better than ever! —
the world entered its Second Age of Walls. Few of us even noticed. It all happened quickly, like a Worldwide Barbed Wire Sunday, but drawing less interest from Western observers than the earlier walling of Berlin.
The hand is quicker than the eye. The hand is building the wall but the eye is gazing on bridges. Perhaps, our eyes fixed longingly on the wrong spot, we fail to note the positive contribution of walls to our condition.
Frye wisely reminds us that even if we have blinded ourselves to ongoing realities there remain two sides to the question. The epilogue’s title is “Love thy Neighbor but Don’t Pull Down Your Hedge”. There’s a bridge in that sentiment, somewhere.
He notes that the hedge quip is related to another similar phrase: “good fences make good neighbors.” As you may recall that is a line from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Fences”, a poem that deals with the bridge-wall tension.
Frye points out that that Frost’s line was hardly original. It was, as he somewhat snidely puts it, a “trite cliche” when Frost wrote it in 1914, and was related by descent to numerous similar sentiments expressed over the ages. That’s not surprising since the central conflict in his poem–wall or no wall?–is one that Frost acknowledges as a vestigial one, ossified remains of real conflicts that are at the heart of what it means to be civilized. Frost and his neighbor are not about to go to war–but there they are, mending wall. Why?
Frye not only makes gentle fun of the phrase but the poet as well, dismissing him as “the nation’s bland former poet laureate.” I think that is a little unfair to Frost and the poem. So let’s take a closer look at “Mending Fences” in the in the next post to see if, despite its lack of originality and despite its author’s blandness, it has something of value to say.