December 10, 2023 | Rome, Italy

On walls and bridges

By |2018-03-21T20:03:06+01:00September 21st, 2016|"Foreign Affairs"|
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, built in the 1930s, immediately became a symbol of progress and hope.

rom the beginning of history, human beings have built bridges and walls as symbols of civilization’s two basic needs: communication and protection. Today, these symbols are key components in a strident political debate about immigration. In the West, that debate has been triggered by the seemingly unstoppable flow of dispossessed people streaming into European and North American nations that pride themselves as fundamentally stable, safe and secure.

While a minority welcomes the shift as an antidote to poor economic growth and declining birth rates, an apparently greater number sees it as a hostile act driven by people of non-Christian religions and ethnic backgrounds. The debate turned fiercer than ever in 2015 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to admit tens of thousands of Syrian refugee

Both symbolically and literally, the choice between walls and bridges has acquired political meaning with potentially serious long-term consequences.

Conservatives such as presidential hopeful Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Teresa May want to build actual walls or barriers to keep illegal immigrants out. Progressive tend to take the opposite approach, welcoming new arrivals and continuing to believe in social integration.

Stated simplistically, the naysayers harp on fear: of being swamped by foreign welfare system leeches, of losing more jobs in an already precarious economic environment, of being in the presence of alien peoples whose civil and religious values are markedly different from those in the West.

Progressives respond to such fears by insisting that behaving humanely isn’t a matter of choosing among options. A true democracy should welcome desperate people fleeing crises produced by war, hunger, climate change, or all three. They insist new arrivals be seen in a hopeful context, as a means to enrich culture with improve growth.

They also know Western nations are in dire need of new citizens to compensate for demographic decline. Italy’s indigenous population could drop to around 35 million by 2060, halfway to the country’s disappearance.

But to wall-builders, who see a war in the making, these hypotheses are misguided and weak.

In historical terms, violent political and institutional change has gone hand-in-hand with massive population shifts. The Western Roman Empire, allegedly overrun by barbarians, collapsed mostly because of the way Rome mishandling the many outsiders already in its midst. By the time these “foreigners” were officially recognized the state was already in disarray. The invasion began from within.

In the late 19th century, some 20 million people migrated from Southern Europe and Russia toward North and South America and Australia, numbers similar to the ones mentioned today. Millions more moved from impoverished rural Europe into cities and also from the destitute southern U.S. — the so-called Great Migration — to the industrialized north. Serious political, racial and cultural problems followed, many of which took decades to admit, let alone resolve. In the end, though, nations proved capable of integrating and absorbing newcomers of all stripes.

Three crucial details are essential to giving the problem some perspective. First, massive population shifts are a recurring historical phenomena; second, the idea that there’s ever been complete ethnic and social cohesion and stability is a myth; third, despite all the early turmoil, the new arrivals invariably proved beneficial to Western societies they settled in.

But fear of the unknown is hard to control. On the eve of the Brexit vote, images of African immigrants in Calais attempting to board trucks headed for Channel ferries ignited old school xenophobia. The post-Brexit British government now wants not only to vet ferries and trains but also to build a two-mile-long Calais wall to keep incoming trucks “safe.”

British satirist John Shafthaurer concocted an expert on “bad” walls to make his point. “When a

nation decides to build a bad wall,” wrote Shafthaurer, interviewing fictitious Professor Becky Mortar, “they are making a statement to the world and that statement is “F*ck off, we don’t want any of that thank you very much.

“The Romans pioneered the bad wall with Hadrian’s Wall — a wall that said ‘Oy, you lot. We’ve got our eyes on you and we don’t like it, you horrible stick-chucking kilt beardos.'”

Trump’s pet project to wall off the Mexican border runs counter to historical results. Walls usually fail, and that includes the Great Wall of China, the Maginot Line, and even barbed wire “No trespassing” barriers (that tend to invite the opposite). The Mongol and the Manchurians invaded China and deposed reigning dynasties.

Nazi troops bypassed France’s formidable Maginot Line and Hitler’s impregnable Atlantic Wall proved anything but on D-Day. The much-publicized Berlin Wall was daunting but porous.

Existing walls — the Israeli West Bank barrier and makeshift Eastern Europe walls against the Roma population — are exercises in paranoia focused on real or perceived dangers. They exist now but won’t last.

Walls also lend themselves to satire. On July 4, the New Yorker‘s cover took a cue from a 1970s Monty Python skit about the made-up Ministry of Silly Walks. It shows a British civil servant goose-stepping off a cliff.

As for bridges, there’s one on every euro note. The idea was to suggest linkage and peaceful coexistence by portraying bridges in member states.

Yet even bridges aren’t perfect. In Rome, Emperor Constantine bloodily defeated would-be usurper Maxentius on Ponte Milvio in October of 312. Few bridges were built in the Dark Ages, a time of decline, conflict and poverty. In World War II, bridges across the Rhine were transformed into vicious battlegrounds.

In more modern time, bridges have come to stand for progress and integration. Many are urban landmarks. A heralded bridge now connects Sweden and Denmark.

In symbolic terms, the choice ahead can be framed in terms of one between bridges and walls. Will people be allowed to come across or will they be formally dared to go up and over? Will it be the vertical, social life as lived out in a protective fortress, or the horizontal, a bridge across which people can communicate, and walk?

About the Author:

Vittorio Jucker was the author of the column "The Economist" from its creation in 2012 to mid-2017.