Fences, Borders, Inequality, by Scott Abbott

Source: https://thegoaliesanxiety.wordpress.com/2016/03/26/fences-borders-inequality/

[notes from a paper given on Wednesday at the UVU Humanities Symposium on Migrants, Refugees, and Borders]

Control is the end promised by 19th-century barbed-wire advertisements; barbed wire is the means. “Why Barb Fencing Is Better Than Any Other,” a hyperbolic paragraph in the 1885 Glidden Barb-Fence Journal, makes this explicit:

It is the cheapest; it is the most indestructible; it is proof against wind; proof against flood; proof against fire; proof against snow drifts; proof against vermin. It casts no shade; it does not exhaust the soil. It is not stolen for fuel. It does not decay; boys cannot crawl through or over it; nor dogs; nor cats; nor any other animal; it watches with argus eyes the inside and outside, up, down and lengthwise; it prevents the “ins” from being “outs;” and the “outs” from being “ins;” watches at day-break, at noontide, at sunset and all night long; it is the lightest to handle; the strongest when erected; the easiest to transport. It saves lumber, nails, labor, vexation, time, patience, profanity and the crops. It answers all requirements of a perfect fence; it is in fact the only perfect fence.

At the heart of this almost poetic declaration is the fencing in of the Same and the fencing out of the Other (or vice versa). The barbs become the all-surveilling eyes of mythological Argus, whose epithet “Panoptes” or “all eyes” has entered contemporary usage through Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon” and Michel Foucault’s analysis of “panopticism.” “Is it surprising,” Foucault asks, “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?” (228). And, we might add, is it surprising that these controlling institutions resemble the agricultural and battlefield spaces dominated physically and psychologically by twisted-wire fences bristling with sharp-eyed barbs?

Reviel Netz’ emphasizes the violence required for effective control: “as iron (and, most important, steel) became increasingly inexpensive and widespread, it was used to control motion and space, on a massive scale, exploiting its capacity for mass production and its power of violence over flesh” (xii). Netz points out that the invention and manufacture of barbed wire for the voracious agricultural market made possible its use in the trenches of World War I and the concentration camps of the Boer War and World War II. All these events, Netz writes, “involved, on a mass scale, control over space, which is tantamount to the prevention of motion, which is tantamount to violence” (Barbed Wire, 233).


Barbed wire played a 19th-century role in violent control of Native Americans, as this incident reveals:

In 1890 John P. McGlinn, United States Indian Agent, sent his “Report of Neah Bay Agency” to Washington D.C. After mentioning an influenza epidemic, a severe winter during which cattle and horses died in large numbers, on the reservation farm, and his experience with the Quillayute Indians, he notes that in 1889 President Cleveland had set aside more than 800 acres as a reservation for the Quillayutes, “provided that this withdrawal shall not affect any existing valid rights of any party.” Unfortunately, the agent continues, the 800 acres had already

been taken up previously by whites under the homestead and preemption laws. Not an acre that is worth anything to them is left. Their village, their homes, and what has been the homes of their fathers for generations, as the immense shell mounds prove, has been homesteaded by a white man, who has erected his dwelling-house in the center of this village.

Shortly after the Quillayute Indians left their village last September, on their annual pilgrimage to the hop-fields of the Puyallup Valley, twenty-six of their houses were destroyed by fire, with all they contained, consisting of whale and fur-sealing outfits, canoes, oil, etc. After the fire Mr. Pullen, the settler, sowed grass-seed on the site of the burned homes, inclosed it with a barbed-wire fence, and not satisfied with doing this, fenced them off from every other available location by five strands of barbed wire. . . . Being fenced off from the hill, they were compelled to erect their new houses on the beach, where they are very much exposed to the fury of the ocean. . . .

I do not care to enter into the rights or wrongs in this case, but I do claim that it would be heartless and cruel to evict those inoffensive Indians from their homes, the resting place of their forefathers, and the dearest place on earth to them. If Mr. Pullen has legal rights, which I presume he has, in justice to these poor, defenseless Indians, this right should be condemned by the Government, and Mr. Pullen paid a fair valuation for it. (223)

Sympathetic to the Indians’ plight, McGlinn reveals the ability of barbed wire—coupled, he says, with homestead and preemption laws—to exclude the Natives from their ancestral homeland. The five-strand fence stands as a marker of property. It enforces the rights given by law. And given what follows in the report, a reader understands that there are several kinds of property rights being asserted here, mental ones as well as physical ones.

McGill continues: “all these coast Indians are as superstitious as the natives of Central Africa. . . . The adult Indian knows comparatively nothing regarding religion or morality.” (223) As a result, McGill writes that he has rescinded previous practice that sent children home from the boarding school for weekends and is keeping under close supervision so they won’t be influenced by the “heathenish and barbarous practices” of their elders. As Brian Evenson’s story “Contagion” puts it: “’There is the physical wire and the spiritual wire.’”

Thinking about these obscene injustices, I turned to Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality, No 2 (1755). His thoughts on the origin of inequality seem apropos:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying “This is mine,” and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. Humanity would have been spared infinite crimes, wars, homicides, murders, if only someone had ripped up the fences or filled in the ditches and said, “Do not listen to this pretender! You are eternally lost if you do not remember that the fruits of the earth are everyone’s property and that the land is no-one’s property!”

About the same time I saw this photo in the New York Times, a massive enclosure built to control the flood of refugees from Syria and other troubled parts of the world to Greece and then through Macedonia to other parts of Europe.


For our barbed-wire book I’ve been reading Thomas Oles’ thoughtful book on walls. Oles thinks about Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and notes that although the poem ends with the famous phrase “Good fences make good neighbors,” it begins with the contrary phrase “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

What kinds of walls don’t I love? I wondered.


Wendy Brown’s fine book Walled States, Waning Sovereignty investigates the paradox that a “globalized world harbors fundamental tensions between opening and barricading. . . . [with] increasingly liberalized borders, on the one hand, and the devotion of unprecedented funds, energies, and technologies to border fortification, on the other.” She points to the wall being built on the U.S.-Mexico border, to the Israeli-built wall snaking through the West Bank, to new walls in South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, and on and on.

In the end, all such walls will be failed walls. They deal with symptoms rather than causes. The causes are all related to inequalities, inequalities of safety or opportunity or economy. Until those inequalities are lessened, until the tension is eased, people will migrate. Unfortunately, when large numbers of people are on the move in response to war or famine or economic disaster, they unsettle the citizens of potential host countries and those citizens inevitably turn to demagogues like Donald Trump.

“I would build a great wall,” Trump says repeatedly, “and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.”

Hours after praying for Mexican migrants who died trying to reach the United States, Pope Francis singled out Donald Trump, telling reporters aboard the papal plane that anybody who wants to build border walls “is not Christian.”

“A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said. “This is not in the Gospel.” Washington Post

It’s not Jewish either. When the Abraham occupied the promised land he lived their like a stranger, like a foreigner.

As occupiers of wealthy lands, we should also live like strangers and foreigners. There is no difference between us and refugees other than the walls we build.


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