"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Keeping Others Out–The Normality Of Fences And Walls From Neighborhoods To National Borders

Many foreign visitors to America remark on the openness of residential neighborhoods.  The spacious lawns, absence of locked grated doors, and the sense of accommodation and welcome are striking.  On the contrary, homes in San Salvador, Bamako, or Bujumbura are walled, grated, and hidden.  Razor wire or glass shards are placed on the tops of garden walls, and in the wealthier areas guard towers, stanchions, and surveillance cameras are common.   The older, colonial homes of South American cities like their European counterparts are completely walled off; but inside the flowered courtyards, balconies, fountains, tiled arches, walkways, and gardens show off Andalusian and North African Islamic design. 

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Those who are invited are welcome, all others keep out. Admittedly the residences of wealthy Europeans were built in a more lawless age and the dirt and squalor of unpaved roads, the odors of poor sewage and drainage were best kept at a distance; but there was always a historical element to the seclusion – Europe unlike America knew nothing but war, civil strife, and social unrest since its first settlements.  The Hundred Years War, The Polish-Teutonic War, The Georgian-Turkoman War, and the Hussite Wars were just a few of the long battles fought in the 14th century alone.  The combination of war, crime, social unrest, poverty, poor infrastructure, and vast differences in wealth, status, and income made defensive perimeters necessary.

Fortresses from the Atlantic to the Black Sea were built on the highest ground surrounded by high, impenetrable, and unscalable walls.

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In Europe and the Middle East entire portions of cities were walled off to keep out invaders, assassins, and outsiders.

Image result for images walled cities of middle east  Image result for Old Walled City of Shibam Yemen

On closer inspection, American neighborhoods are indeed fenced off and fenced in.   While never as imposing as the closed perimeters in Europe and often disguised with shrubbery or vine-covered wood fences, they are still protected – not from invasion or assault but from prying eyes, and the distraction of other people’s children and animals.  Perhaps most importantly such fencing is the physical expression of the familiar American adage, ‘A man’s home is his castle’.  He has a right to his privacy, his particular individualism, and his right to property, land, and tenure.

Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote:

There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.' Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.'

Yet Frost’s idea of a common humanity, one without walls is no more than a pipe dream.  History if nothing else has shown that human nature is aggressive, self-interested, defensive, and territorial.  There have always been walls, perimeters, fortresses, and barriers.  The instinct to throw up a physical defense is natural and normal even though even the strongest ramparts can be breached and the highest walls scaled.  False security though it may give, the construction of a wall, a fence, or a defended perimeter is satisfying – an expression if nothing else of right.

Fences do not always make good neighbors.  In fact spite fences are so common, that many jurisdictions have passed laws against them.  Wikipedia defines a spite fence this way:

Spite fence is a term used in American property law to refer to an overly tall fence , structure in the nature of a fence, or a row of trees, bushes, or hedges, constructed or planted between adjacent lots by a property owner (with no legitimate purpose), who is annoyed with or wishes to annoy a neighbor, or who wishes to completely obstruct the view between lots. Several U.S. states and local governments have regulations to prohibit spite fences, or related regulations such as those establishing a maximum allowed height for fences.

Even if spite fences are outlawed, the animosity between neighbors, both of whom feel that their home is indeed their castle to be defended at all costs, is unrelenting. 

An older man who lived in a leafy residential neighborhood of a large American city parked his car right up to the property line of his neighbor, forcing the neighbor to parallel park and block his own walkway.  There was plenty of room in front of the man’s house, but he felt he had to align his vehicle exactly on the northwest boundary line.  When the neighbor politely asked the man to please move his car up five feet to give him more room, the man refused, saying that he would then have to park in the fall line of the old tree on his front yard.  The tree had been pruned down to half its original size, and the remaining trunk was thick and solid and far too short to come down anywhere near the curb.

The neighbor’s blood began to boil and began to think up a spiteful response.  When the man was not at home, the neighbor parked his car two feet into the inviolate space.  In return, when the man returned, he jammed the back bumper of his car tight against the neighbor’s front grille.  Each day this spiteful pas de deux continued, and the neighbor found new and ingenious ways to irritate the man.  He blocked his path, parked backwards under the suspect tree, piled leaves under the man’s front wheels so that in the heavy rain the water would back up and puddle by the driver’s door.

These spiteful episodes were the rule and not the exception.

Natalie Angier has written about spite in an article in the New York Times in which she summarizes the latest academic research.  Spite has been given less attention than it should because it flies under the moral radar.   God did not chisel spite into Moses’ tablets along with apostasy, adultery, and disrespect, nor did the early Church include it, along with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony in The Seven Deadly Sins. In fact spite seems petty and silly when compared with covetousness, betrayal, and murder.

What is spite, exactly?  Researchers at Washington State University devised a study to determine how important spite was to college students and came up with a series of illustrative questions:

A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches.”

In short, there is little to be gained by spite – as opposed to adultery with a beautiful, available, and passionate neighbor – and its only reward is to make someone pay for a real or imagined slight and then to gloat over it, even if you yourself are harmed.  Here is the best example of spite from an Eastern European folk tale: “A genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets double the prize; the man says, ‘Put out one of my eyes’.”

Yet spite and spiteful behavior continue.  It is not, as Angier suggests, one of the cardinal sins, but a subsidiary of at least one of them, so must be taken seriously.  Since there seems to be no hope for conciliation, compromise, or harmony, then more serious, structural moves are logical.   Fences serve a purpose.  Had their been a wall between the two neighbors, the incident of the cars might never have happened.

The lyrics of A Boy Like That from West Side Story are telling:

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind…

We may preach love, harmony, social integrity, and compassion; but we are at heart as territorial, possessive, and defensive as our Paleolithic ancestors.  Human society has survived and thrived because of this innate hostility – the need to expand and defend territorial perimeters; and the need to push back against aggressive neighbors.

There are better ways than a border wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.  In a sophisticated modern economy legal, financial, and economic means are readily available.  Some have argued that if the minimum wage were raised to even higher levels and more closely approximated the real value of work, Americans would take jobs currently filled by undocumented workers.  Others have said that employers who higher illegal workers should be assessed punitive fines with the threat of shutdown possible.  Others have proposed a national identity card and the ability of law enforcement to ask for it on demand.  All of these proposals have major flaws and are unlikely; but the point is that a wall is the least promising and certainly the least effective means of dealing with the problem.

Yet it feels good to build a wall.  It is a sign of national integrity, or national purpose and strength.  It says ‘This land is our land’.  Woody Guthrie did not have border walls or national perimeters in mind when he wrote his famous song; but there is an ironic sense to it.  This land belongs to you and me….not to him.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me…

Image result for images woody guthrie

                   New York Times

So, let the wall be built.  No walls last forever.  ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ was prophetic not only regarding the Berlin Wall but for a unified Europe.  There are no longer borders, walls, and fences between countries; but there are likely to be again soon.

Walls and fences are as much a part of the human experience as any; and if they are only symbolic they are no less important.  Mr. Trump, ‘Go ahead and build that wall.’

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