In the Washington Post opinion section, an eloquent articulation of the conventional wisdom that Resistance Is Futile, that In The Long Run We Are All Dead so why even try defending your turf?
Visiting Roman walls amid the chaos of the Brexit debate.
By Erica X Eisen
Erica X Eisen is a freelance writer now based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Writers these days never live anywhere, they are always “based” somewhere. Unlike hitmen, however, they are always “based in” some place, never “based out of” anywhere. I must say Ms. Eisen being “based in” Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is a new one.
… Eclipsed by its southern twin — Hadrian’s Wall, which has the luck of being both better preserved and named for an emperor of greater renown — the Antonine Wall was built during the reign of Antoninus Pius beginning in 142 A.D. to fend off the Caledonian tribes: the Damnonii, the Venicones and the Taexali (whom the Roman legions never succeeded in subduing and whose collective name, by all accounts, means “the hard-footed ones,” a testament to their endurance and resolve).
Of course, Roman wall-building was a complete failure. What did the Romans know about holding territory?
Time has not been kind to these fortifications, built of turf and wood mounded up over a stone base. …
My visit to the wall coincided with the slow yet seemingly inexorable grinding of the gears of Brexit, which amounts to nothing so much as the construction of a great wall.
… To many supporters of the wall that Johnson and his allies wish to build, the people it would keep out are barbarians at the gates, foreigners of unfamiliar custom and religion who amount to an existential threat to the state. At such times as these we would do well to remember the lesson that a visit to ancient walls teaches us: their folly. …
Britain is no stranger to boundaries. From Roman fortifications to medieval civic defenses, it is crisscrossed by layer upon layer of borders that have been erased, abandoned, forgotten as years and empires have moved on. Visiting these structures — typically worn down to knobbles of stray masonry — it is impossible to view them as anything but sad. On a long enough time scale, every defense becomes permeable, every hold can be breached, so that it becomes difficult to understand what borders the walls were consecrating in the first place. …
… The stones of Hadrian’s Wall, for instance, would over the centuries find their way into cowsheds, country churches, grain mills and manor houses. Humans have no greater reverence for delimitations that have lost their meaning than do the elements, merely more expedient means of disposing of them. These partially dismantled structures are testaments to the artificiality of national divisions,
For example, when, a mere 1900 years after Hadrian’s Wall, the United Kingdom’s parliament granted the Scots a chance to vote for independence in 2014, only 45% of them voted to secede. So there!
but also to the perspective that a remove of several centuries grants. At a time when the fires of nationalism are being stoked as a powerful force of separation, we would do well to remember the many boundaries that once seemed natural and absolute to their makers but that have since faded in relevance and crumbled into dust.
So that’s why the history of England, with its natural defenses of sea:
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
is so much more tragic than that of, say, Belarus, which has had the good fortune to have no natural defenses.
Seriously, earlier this year in “Barriers Against Barbarism,” I reviewed historian David Frye’s eye-opening history of 4,000 years of barrier-building, from the Fertile Crescent to the Malibu Colony, Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick.
Throughout Walls, Frye tries to explain the psychology of this bizarre anti-wall belief system.
One famous people that chose to live without walls were the Spartans, who felt that physical security made men decadent. “They opted for a forced, artificial barbarism over high culture.” Frye repeatedly observes that a lack of walls means a lack of diversity within society. In Sparta, as in most barbarian tribes beyond the walls, virtually each male citizen must have no profession other than war.
In contrast, the Athenians built long walls to protect their access to their port, behind which their men diverged into a dazzling variety of jobs, such as philosopher, playwright, sculptor, architect, and historian. As Frye repeatedly documents, walls mean economic diversity and cultural progress. In contrast, a lack of secure borders means merely the war of all against all. …
“One path, beginning with walls, had led to writing, architecture, astronomy, and math. The other, open and unwalled, led only to militarism.”