Former Sky News diplomatic editor Marshall (A Flag Worth Dying For: The Power and Politics of National Symbols, 2017, etc.) looks at the human penchant for us-and-them division.
Walls: We either want them torn down or put up. In the author’s vigorous look across centuries and continents, walls can be real or metaphorical, “shorthand for barriers, fences, and divisions in all their variety.” One of the most divisive of these walls is the one that separates the Gaza Strip from Israel in a region that, Marshall writes, is in turn so beset by further subdivisions that coming to any political agreement seems to be a remote possibility at best. Marshall connects the Great Wall of China to another kind of dividing impulse, namely the Chinese hukou system, whereby, for thousands of years, people have been registered by birthplace and, in its most recent application, are eligible for social security and other benefits only in those places, so that a worker who moves to Shanghai for better wages loses medical coverage outside his or her home province. The call by Donald Trump for a new wall along the U.S.–Mexico border is an inevitable topic for a book of this kind, and Marshall obliges with a smart examination of how it is unlikely to succeed even if it were to be built in the face of “politics, budget, state law, federal law, nature, and international treaties.” Even though walls tend not to be very effective at keeping undesired people—or ideas—out, they continue to go up, and sometimes in unexpected places. The author points out the 300-mile-long wall that Botswana put up along the border with Zimbabwe ostensibly to contain hoof-and-mouth disease, “but unless Zimbabwean cows can do the high jump, it’s difficult to see why this wall needs to be so high.”
Marshall is a skilled explainer of the world as it is, and geography buffs will be pleased by his latest.