top of page

Great Walls and their Limitations

Beijing, China

One of my favorite musicians, Paul Simon, wrote in a song lyric, “They got a wall in China, about a thousand miles long/ to keep out the foreigners they made it strong.” Always evocative, Paul Simon was also inaccurate. The Great Wall of China is actually more than 5,500 miles long, an almost impossibly grand structure designed to protect from invasion by “barbarian hordes,” the Mongol horsemen who conquered the Asian steppes and threatened to destroy Chinese civilization, or at least the Ming Dynasty. It is arguably the greatest architectural work in the history of humanity.

For about 300 years it even sort-of worked as a defensive barrier. By dedicating as much as a million soldiers at a time to man the spectacular fortifications the Chinese held off the brutal but talented invaders. But the cost and effort of protecting this enormous wall, and the inward Ming Empire turn politically, economically and socially, led to corruption, weakness, peasant revolt and eventual internal collapse. Finally, the Great Wall fell, and the next set of emperors were Manchurians, consdired barbarians by the ethnic Chinese.

The concept of constructing these spectacular works, stretching a distance equivalent to close to a quarter of the earth’s circumference with 25,000(!) watchtowers, was a concession that the Ming Dynasty Chinese weren’t able to deal with the outside world any more. This was true in military terms, but it also was an inward-looking, defensive approach to life that came to define China for that period and contributed to a long, slow decline in Chinese power and influence. The Great Wall is awesome, but it testifies not so much to isolated strength as to its limitations.

We hiked a section of the Great Wall at Jinshanling two days ago, about a six-mile climb up to, and then up and down upon the Great Wall. It was a perfect clear day, pleasant with a light breeze. Until you have hiked arduously for four hours and looked both ways along the wall and seen just how little you have actually covered of the visible sections, you don’t realize how enormous it is, and how many people it would have taken to build it and to man it.

Which made me think about walls and their construction.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers and other best-selling books, has a podcast about the American border with Mexico and the impact of walls. He begins it with Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Walls,” which begins: “Something there is/ that doesn’t love a wall.” Gladwell goes on to explore the career of a great military man, General Leonard Fielding Chapman, Jr., who led the Marine Corps into the integrated era with great distinction, through the struggles of Vietnam, and then chose to become the head of INS, the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1973.

At the time, the INS was a government backwater, a low-prestige agency no one wanted but Chapman. Why did he want it? Because, in a way, Chapman saw the Vietnam War as a failed fight to secure a border, the one between North and South Vietnam, and his Marines had not been in operational control of the overall effort, although they fought and died for that purpose. That border didn’t hold. But perhaps in a new, domestic role he could secure a border.

The truth is that for most of the 20th century the border between the US and Mexico wasn’t much more than a line on a map, and people passed over it frequently and without much difficulty. It was a kind of semi-permeable membrane, a borderlands area in which people came over to work in season and then went home. When Chapman took over, the Border Patrol was a tiny force, and when people were stopped crossing they were sent back over the border, and shortly thereafter tried again. A giant study, the Mexican Migration Project, began in the 1970s and comprehensively documented that most immigration was circular; the goal for migrants was to return home to Mexico. The cost to cross the border in those days was basically zero, and people would cross to sell crops or work for a few days and then go home. The historical Mexican migration pattern was that young men came to America, worked, went home, came back, went home again. From 1965 to 1985, 85% of all undocumented entries were offset by undocumented departures. Net immigration was very small.

When he took over the INS, General Chapman applied his usual energy and talent and after reviewing the border, he made dramatic changes. First, he visited every single INS station. Then he began a public relations campaign to illustrate the porousness of the border. A border was a border and should be solidified. He modernized the decrepit INS, and suddenly it started to become more difficult to cross the border—and more expensive. He lobbied for a much larger budget. He made 250 speeches a year, every year. When he started 15% of Americans thought there was a problem with the Mexican border. Within a few years, 85% of Americans thought there was a problem with the southern border.

And the cost to cross it went up and up. So instead of going home, workers found it better to just stay in America. And they began to bring their families up to join them, to save up the larger and larger amount of money necessary to bring them north, illegally.

The tougher border was supposed to keep migrants out of America. But in effect in kept them in America, and brought their families up, too.

We Jews know a lot about walls and how they work. The Ghetto of Venice became the first walled enclosure of Jews back in 1516, followed rapidly by walled enclosures designed to keep the Jews in and the Christians out. More accurately, they were a kind of social imprisonment for us for which we had to pay our captors; the guards of the ghetto walls were Christians and the Jewish community was charged for the privilege of being locked in at night. One justification was that the walls of the ghetto protected the Jews from mob attack, and there may even have been times when that actually worked. More typically ghetto walls were no protection when the pogroms began.

Historian David Ruderman is an expert on the ghetto, particularly the Ghetto of Venice. He notes that in spite of the walls surrounding the narrow, crowded, unhealthy ghetto Jewish interaction with the surrounding Christian communities was quite common. He is the one who first used the term “semi-permeable membrane” to describe the way the ghetto walls worked. There was often the vibrant exchange of scholarship, culture and ideas, lots of economic activity—Shakespeare didn’t invent that for the Merchant of Venice—and even some social interchange. But these were still very separate, unequal communities that retained their own nature.

Still, the walls did far more harm than good. When Napoleon blasted through Europe in the early 1800s knocking down the walls of the ghetto, and lots of other medieval barriers, he opened up society to dramatic change. Within twenty years modernity was transforming the face of a continent, in no small measure because those walls had finally come down.

“Before I build a wall/ I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out and/ to whom I was like to give offense” Frost continues in his poem. His neighbor, with whom he argues about the need for the wall, always says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

But that’s not really why we build walls. And their impact is not usually what we think it will be. Walls are much better at keeping things in than at keeping them out. And what they keep in tends to stagnate and eventually decay. And then, finally, we have to break down the walls.

Perhaps China would have fallen much earlier to the barbarians and lost its civilization and culture. But perhaps it would have been better served to have invested all those resources in strengthening its own society and military rather than locking its civilization away behind such amazing walls.

Single Post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page