Friday, January 11, 2019

Literary Corner: Song of the Wall

The remains of the Anastasian Wall west of Istanbul, under forest cover for the past 1,500 years. Photo credit to TheyDivideUs.

Song of the Wall and the Wheel
by Donald J. Trump
They say a wall is medieval,
     well so is a wheel.
The wheel is older than the wall,
     you know that?
There are some things that work.
     You know what? 
A wheel works and a wall works.
     Nothing like a wall.
Personally I think we should put America on wheels. Then we could scoot away from the danger.

"Medieval" is an understatement. The oldest territorial fortification historians know about is the stone wall of the six-acre town, as it then was, of Jericho on the west bank of the Jordan River, which goes back 10,000 years, and was built of undressed stone, five or six feet thick and 12 to 17 feet high, with a 28-foot tower. This is not the same as the wall of the much larger Bronze Age city Jericho said to have been destroyed by the invading Israelites in their first victory against the Canaanites around 1400 B.C.E.,  by walking around it for seven days carrying the Ark of the Covenant, seven times on the seventh day, and then blowing ram's horn trumpets and shouting until the wall fell down of its own accord, according to the account in the Book of Joshua.

The first wheeled vehicles, for the record, are much younger than the first city walls, originating in Mesopotamia (Sumer), the South Caucasus (Kurgan civilization), and Eastern Europe (Cucuteni-Trypillian culture) at the same period around 3500 B.C.E.

The practice of walling off a border or a political unit bigger than a city may have begun in the Western Roman Empire with the building of Hadrian's Wall starting in 122 C.E.,, intended to control the access of marauding Picts to the colony of Britannia (but it's not the border between Scotland and England, which is a good deal farther north), 10 to 20 feet wide and high and dotted with forts, approximately one for each of the walls 70-odd Roman miles. It was probably not intended to prevent invasion, or the migration of tribes either, which was likely welcomed by the authorities, but to centralize the movement and provide convenient focal points for tax collection. Emperor, who planned the building to coincide with his visit to Britannia in 122, may also have intended it as a physical manifestation of the glory of the Empire and, of course, his own.

The Anastasian Wall some 45 miles west of Istanbul was built in the 5th century of stone and turf, 11 feet thick and 16 feet high with a system of towers, gates, forts, and ditches, 35 miles from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea to keep the Huns, Slavs, and Bulgars away from Constantinople. It didn't work very well either, allowing numerous barbarian invasions to cross, because there weren't enough soldiers manning it and hasty, shoddy construction made it vulnerable, and the Empire gave up maintaining it 200 years later. The Great Wall of China started going up at around the same time, in the early Tang dynasty, but went on for more than a millennium, though it too let through innumerable invasions and two complete conquests of the country, by Mongols in 1279 and Manchus in 1644.

I don't think it's been widely enough noticed that Trump's wall has gotten a lot smaller in recent months, as Mercedes Schlapp was pointing out on NPR:
if you hear clearly what Congressman Will Hurd mentioned, he said that they don't want to build a wall from sea to shining sea. The president has not said he's going to build a wall from - or a physical barrier from sea to shining sea. Our goal has been to listen to the needs of the Border Patrol agents. That is why we have identified the $5.6 billion which would ensure operational control of the southern border. That means that it would be about 238 miles that would be with physical barrier that would be built and as well that this takes into account the 10 top priorities that the Customs and Border Patrol agents have identified as a real need where we know we can place physical barrier there and as we know the numbers show that the walls work. And so I think that's the key here - is the fact that no one is saying we're going to build it from sea to shining sea. But as Congressman Hurd said, the wall - these physical barriers do work in...
That's 234 miles, actually, of steel-slat barriers, for $5.7 billion, at $24 million per mile, which Trump has said is "absolutely critical to border security". No indication as to which 234 miles are targeted, but the idea that CPB agents have prioritized much of anything as "a real need" is unsupported. In July, CPB released plans for 33 miles of new barriers in Hidalgo and Starr Counties in the Rio Grande Valley around Brownsville, to considerable protest against the environmental degradation it would cause, and another 12 miles in San Diego, but I don't find any public evidence that they've done more than that, and none certainly that they've done anything to address the concerns of the General Accountability Office when they complained in August that they don't know what they're doing:
by proceeding without key information on cost, acquisition baselines, and the contributions of previous barrier and technology deployments, DHS faces an increased risk that the Border Wall System Program will cost more than projected, take longer than planned, or not fully perform as expected. Without assessing costs when prioritizing locations for future barriers, CBP does not have complete information to determine whether it is using its limited resources in the most cost-effective manner and does not have important cost information that would help it develop future budget requests. 
And anybody claiming that the $5.7 billion figure includes useful spending on technology and additional agents, judges, and beds and medical facilities for detainees, by the way, is lying or stupid, those things are meant to cost hundreds of millions more.

What it looks like to me is a classic Boss From Hell case, where work starts from Trump's more or less arbitrary demands for a particular money figure, which keeps getting higher (Art of the Deal!) each time Congress rejects him, from $1.6 billion to $1.9 billion to $5 billion to $5.3 billion to $5.7 billion now, and then the staff is obliged to figure out what they want to buy from the dollar amount they've been given to spend. They don't have any particular 234 miles in mind at all; all they have is a budget, and the object isn't to protect the border but to protect the Emperor's fragile ego.

If the emergency Trump's been hyping for three years really existed, and if Trump's original $50-billion proposal could have been an effective way of dealing with it, this almost 90% reduction from the original proposal certainly wouldn't. It's pretty much proof that the whole idea isn't serious from the getgo. He's playing games, and the only rule he's interested in following is that he always wins.

Update: Via Steve M, he's upped the ante again, to 315 miles, for which he wants to seize from moneys allocated for Puerto Rican hurricane repair and California wildfire relief projects. So that's rule no. 2: Punish people whenever you get the chance (Puerto Ricans, Californians, and the "they're all Democrats" federal work force).

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