Good Luck Putting Up Those Walls

We need to build a wall.

– a million people throughout history

The Sumerians built one to keep out the Amorites, who just made it through or walked around, and after a few years it was useless.

Athens built walls that kept Sparta out on land only to be defeated at sea, and have the wall destroyed then.

More recently, France thought it would stop a German invasion with the Maginot Line, but the Germans went through the Low Countries, ultimately ending in the defeat of France and the evacuation at Dunkirk, that Christopher Nolan movie coming out next year.

Even the Great Wall didn’t keep the Mongols, the Manchus, and the Europeans out of China.

Then of course there is the Berlin Wall, which lasted for decades but crumbled when crowds of East Germans made their way over it and started taking it apart.

We may not be getting a physical wall, but it sure does seem like our globalized world is resisting integration and reverting to islands, from Brexit to Colombia to Eastern Europe to Trump. Build walls to keep the immigrants, the Muslims, the refugees, the guerrillas, etc. out; keep the money and the jobs in. 2016 was a year for populist, nationalist retrenchment.

But history shows it won’t work.

In the 16th century, Spain dug up so much silver out of Latin America that ended up in China that it crashed its economy. In the 18th century, the British Empire’s fate in America was tied to its war in India. The Chinese emperor believed his country had everything it would ever need, and thought he could keep the Europeans out. The isolationism of the 1930s was unsustainable and the resulting war was followed by the biggest march of globalization ever seen.

The point is this: today’s leaders can say whatever they like, but there’s no stopping the movement of people, goods, and money.

We can try to keep jobs from “leaving,” but business doesn’t work that way.

We can try to scare out the immigrants, but we’ll end up with nothing but too few working hands.

We can keep out the refugee, but the refugee, or his neighbor, will foster resentment that will bite us back sooner or later.

We can pretend we’re not on the same planet, but we’ll have rising seas and disastrous weather to prove us wrong.

We can put “us first”–self-interest is healthy, but in a world in which every nation obsesses over being first, everyone is last.

We can try to get away, like I did this summer, but the truth is there is no getting away. Everything is connected and it will always be that way.

This hasn’t been the year for facts, and maybe this fact is the one that’s been most ignored of all: That your “backlash” doesn’t matter–because it will fade, one way or another. Maybe this is where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, but I think the object’s more movable than it looks.

So good luck with the walls.

With that–bring it on, 2017.


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