HOW WALLS MAKE US LESS SAFE
It’s been a long couple of weeks, so I may have missed my opportunity to take advantage of the obligatory Game of Thrones reference on my blog. To what I think is my credit, the Mad Sociologist Blog hasn’t really been on the GOT bandwagon. Four years ago I wrote a rather critical piece on the cultural response to Sansa Stark’s rape. Aside from that and maybe a meme or two, the MSB has been GOT free.
This shouldn’t be considered a rejection of the show as a cultural phenomenon. As it is with most things, I try to reserve commentary on this space for moments when I feel I have something to add that is not already being elaborated. When it came to the fictional Game of Thrones world, the real world did not lack for coverage. Even the Washington Post kept a graphic tally of deaths in Westeros.
The bottom line is that cultural phenomena like Game of Thrones become what they are because they resonate with the larger culture. Game of Thrones was a complex story-line with rich character development, but it also addressed themes that have resonance in our overall society, the distribution of power, the association of power and corruption, what it means to govern well, the influence of religion. Larger hidden themes have been identified as the threat of climate change and racism. Of course, the most explicit overlap between a central component of Westeros and the United States…
In Westeros, the Wall served a very important function, it turned out. It was, in essence, the barrier between the living and a growing army of undead intent on destroying the living. In the context of the story, however, nobody really knew what The Wall was for. There were some myths and legends, but all the people of Westeros really knew is that they needed to guard it. It had been around for thousands of years and served the function of being the place where inconvenient people (bastards, criminals, traitors) were sent to get them out of the way.
Instead of a barrier between the living and the dead, it became a dividing line between the people of Westeros and the “Free Folk”. The people of Westeros saw the Free Folk as barbarians, as Wildlings. The Free Folk saw the Westerosi as servile, slave minded people conditioned to “bend the knee” to the dominant king. The Wall made it possible to perpetuate this ignorance. After all, in metaphor, walls are recognized as barriers that keep people from getting to know each other.
In the United States, the debate is not about the value of a wall that existed for centuries, but rather building a wall where none ever before existed. The purpose is clear–brown people. Okay, that’s not fair. The expressed purpose is to keep poor people from pouring into the nation, getting on our welfare rolls, selling us drugs, raping our women, spreading disease and taking all of our jobs.
Yeah. Like I said–it’s about brown people.
The closing scene of season seven left us with an undead dragon (actually a Wyvern, but whatever) blasting a giant hole in The Wall, making it useless and allowing a vast horde of walking corpses to pour into Westeros.
By the end of the final season, one of the main characters turned his back on the “civilized” world and walked into the wilderness with his dog and his free-folk friend.¹ The Night’s Watch was now an anachronism. The Wall was nothing more than half a barrier. So what does the future hold for such a world?
There are two options.
First, the hole in The Wall remains. If that’s the case, the Westerosi and the Free Folk will interact. There will be conflict. There will be trade. There will be migration. There will be negotiation. New norms for interaction will have to develop. There will be rules about the miscegenation, rules about migrants joining one culture or another. Negotiations about established boundaries will have to take place. Let’s face it, the Westerosi have a martial culture and will likely see opportunities for conquest north of what I guess we could call The Hole, or The Breach.² This may be especially true as the final scene of the series indicated a fertile future for the Free Folk–a green sprout growing from the once frozen ground. Winter is over.
The other option is to rebuild the wall, or to build some kind of barrier across The Breach. In my mind, the Free Folk have the greater incentive to do just that. However, we can’t rule out the possibility of a new Night King rising north of The Breach and threatening humanity again. After all, the army of the dead had been defeated once before only to rise as a new threat.
So should we expect a “Sparrow” like movement in Westeros of red-hatted sycophants chanting “Rebuild the Wall!” “Rebuild the Wall!” as a rubber-faced demagogue pulls the strings of fear and resentment until they become reins of power?
It shouldn’t surprise us if this becomes a subplot in some spin-off in the future.
The question then becomes, should the Westerosi rebuild the wall? After all, an army of the undead dedicated to the destruction of all living humanity is a pretty significant threat. It’s an even greater threat than, say, desperate families fleeing drug cartels and oppressive poverty–though some might argue otherwise.
The answer in Westeros, as it is in the United States, is an emphatic “NO!” Even if there is an army of the dead, building a wall is not the strategy. To demonstrate this a simple mental experiment using the Game of Thrones world will suffice. The thesis is that the existence of The Wall only acted to make a bad situation worse.
Think about it. Let’s say The Wall had never been built. There is no wall separating The Free Folk from the Westerosi. These two cultures would have interacted more, for better or worse. Perhaps one would have conquered the other. Maybe some kind of agreement would have been satisfied between the two, with some cultural overlap between the Free Folk and the people of The North. The Free Folk would likely have adopted some of the feudalism of the Westerosi. The people of the North would likely have adopted some of the democratic spirit of the Free Folk. Trade would have been established. Norms for group membership and interaction would have developed. Years of warfare may have even resulted in some clear boundaries, maybe some contested territory.
Regardless, there would have been regular contact between the Free Folk and the Westerosi.
Which means that the threat of the White Walkers would have been identified much much sooner than it was behind a wall. It would not have taken long for people to recognize the threat and to develop strategies for dealing with it well before it got out of hand. It’s unlikely that the Night King could have raised such a vast army unnoticed if not for the existence of a seven hundred foot wall giving the Westerosi a false sense of security.
See, walls come with certain inherent weaknesses.
First, they set up barriers between people communicating and interacting with each other. This is the underlying problem of cultural ignorance. And ignorance can be dangerous when facing challenges that are global in scale. In the Game of Thrones world, the global threat was the White Walkers raising a growing army of the dead. In the real world, it’s global climate change, global economic hegemony, nuclear proliferation and a growing refugee crisis. These problems cannot be solved by building walls. Indeed, they can only become worse when national cultures are shut off from each other.
Secondly, walls can be breached. Those truly dedicated to breaching barriers will, over time, find a way. That means, walls can only give those who build them a false or, at best, temporary, security. Indeed, in concert with the ignorance instigated in the first flaw above, the existence of walls and the desire to overcome those walls, can create a power dynamic that becomes even more of a threat than the initial problem. We should remember this as the number of refugees on our border continues to grow, continues to become more desperate. Walls get breached.
Walls are never the answer to the problems faced by any given society. They may provide some temporary satisfaction for those so enclosed, but in allowing ignorance to spread and problems to fester, the ramparts of security can quickly become a prison, and a strategy of defense can become the very weakness causing collapse.
If we are to face the very real challenges of our day, we must do so cooperatively with all of the world. We must find ways of bridging our differences, defining the problems, framing our interests and securing solutions. This cannot be done with walls.
- I am not among those disappointed with the ending of Game of Thrones. I’m perfectly satisfied with Dani turning evil–power corrupts. I’m satisfied with Sansa being the queen of the North. She’s the most competent leader, but didn’t belong in King’s Landing. I’m fine with Bran being the King of the Six Kingdoms–hey, who’s more qualified than the guy who knows everything. I am most satisfied with Jon’s ending. I’ve always been on Team: Jon Tells Everyone to Suck it and Runs off with his Dog and the Free Folk.
- An open letter to George R. R. Martin: Feel free to use any of the ideas above. I don’t mind…oh…wait…you actually have to finish the series first. Never mind. An open letter to whoever is contracted to capitalize on the Game of Thrones Franchise: Feel free to use any of the ideas above. I don’t mind. Just be sure to include a bearded Maester with an acute sociological imagination. I’m aware that he will almost certainly have to be beheaded, but that’s the nature of the discipline.