recent twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
should have been a moment not only of celebration but also of
despair. Germany’s was hardly the last fortified border.
New lines and border outposts in India, Spain, and Iraq, neighbors
separated in Tijuana, Rio, and Baghdad, speak to violence past
and future. Although the United States once hastened the fall
in Berlin, since 1989 it “has emerged as a champion wall
walls are many and ineffective. The walls and fences separating
Israel from Gaza and the West Bank arguably have stemmed the
flow of Palestinian militants to Israel but have done nothing
to prevent outbursts of Israeli war-making. We have also witnessed
a record-breaking number of people trying to enter the European
Union illegally—often at the cost of their lives. Yet
barriers remain attractive to policymakers. Ukraine, though
near default, plans to build a €100 million wall to defend
itself from Russia. Some American politicians, ludicrously,
believe the U.S.-Mexico border must be strengthened in light
of supposed security threats from Ebola, ISIS, and even Ukrainian
the historian Wendy Pullan puts it, “We don’t have
examples of walls solving problems.” This failure should
be conceived in relation to the alienation, prejudice, and violence
that seem to be inherent in the fortification of border walls.
We must turn our attention to those in power who construct these
walls. And we should recognize what the walls do to those inside.
To quote the urban theorist Michael Dear, writing on the U.S.-Mexico
border, we should seek a point where “America’s
national identity is again defined by something more durable
than a strip of steel.”
is, on the one hand, the sturdiness of steel and, on the other,
its flimsiness as a policy.
may seem like an overstatement to assert that the identity of
a nation lies in its borders. But there are instructive parallels
between fortified borders and the tendencies of those nations
that build them.
a material irony. There is, on the one hand, the sturdiness
of steel and, on the other, its flimsiness as a policy, the
stoutness of concrete and its pointlessness in resolving problems.
An irony of the same shape is visible in other policies. Mass
incarceration: attempts to reduce crime in the United States
through inflated charging and sentencing lead to overcrowded
prisons, which must then disgorge inmates. Strengthened security
measures since 9/11 do not stanch the politics of insecurity,
as evidenced by the ebola and ISIS nonsense. Restrictive European
immigration policies that ought to salve nativist tendencies
seem to produce more racism. And the Israeli policy of disproportionate
use of force gives rise over and over to more bloodshed.
light of the failures of ostensibly strong and durable measures,
we find a tendency to continuously strengthen these same measures,
whether they are laws, borders, or walls. Confronted with these
problems of security, imaginary or real, fortified borders and
restrictive policies perpetuate the flawed logic that created
them. They signify a fundamental logic of fear that responds
to every challenge with a call for ever more defensive measures.
this is not the heart of the problem. Political, ideological,
and economic interests support this logic, which makes it more
than a reaction based on fear. It is really a matter of power.
Emblematic in this case are the neoliberal austerity measures
aimed at solving the crisis brought about by neoliberal economic
policies. This is not limited to the West. On the contrary,
it is only in light of the present crisis that the West has
imposed on itself measures it has long demanded beyond its own
borders. Whether we are winners or losers in the present capitalist
society, we are always defined by this logic of power, which
places alternatives beyond imagination. As Slavoj iek
notes, it is easier to imagine climate disaster than to imagine
changing the politics that cause it. The greatest emergency
is that we are no longer capable of questioning the capitalist
framework or, to paraphrase Martin Heidegger in Contributions
to Philosophy (1936), the greatest emergency is the lack
of emergency, a situation in which “self-certainty has
become unsurpassable, where everything is held to be calculable,
and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning,
who we are and what we are supposed to do.”
fortified border of steel defining the identity of the American
nation is a product of a broader and even more fortified limit
that defines the identity of the capitalist West. This is perhaps
why so many Americans oppose President Obama’s restoration
of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba,
despite the failure of more than fifty years of continuous fortification.
This announcement is not simply interpreted as a defeat of American
boundaries (bearing in mind the exchange of spies this announcement
included) but also of American identity, superiority, and exceptionality.
Any effort to redefine rigid borders is met with outrage.
despite this outrage and fear, it is unlikely that the redefinition
of the border with Cuba will challenge the “unsurpassable
self-certainty” of the neoliberal paradigm. With Belén
Fernández, we might argue that the recent change in the
U.S.-Cuba relations is but one more effort to fortify this paradigm.
walls that are supposed to end emergencies not only heighten
our fears—of viruses, terrorists, dissidents, foreigners—but
also limit our capacity to change the status quo, which has
only hardened since the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five
Art Can Save Us
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Defense of Philosophy