The Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful
“Now Jericho was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in.”
My upbringing was in an open society. The Midwest of America is home to grid-pattern cities and small towns. Highways and byways meander along rivers and ancient bison traces to connect them all. The streets have sidewalks, I could walk in front of the homes of the poor and affluent. Material wealth or lack-there-of was easily evident from the street. Some homes had fences, usually short and decorative. A high fence aroused suspicion, a compound suggested deviance.
My first contemplative exposure to gates, fences, and cordoned communities was near Atlanta, as a man. I was the guest of a wedding party at a guarded and gated community, home to the local rich and famous as well as a PGA hosting golf-course. With our permission slip we drove into the suspiciously normal looking streets but we were now inside the wall. Further, there was another, secondarily walled neighborhood. The manicured lawns and flowers did little to make me feel welcome.
I have since seen and read about walled and gated communities across America. I find they are a phenomena of the South and the Desert Southwest. My analysis is that the walls are manifestations of fear, mostly perceived of “others.” The “others” of course being fellow American citizens. The South and Desert Southwest have the highest rates of social inequality, that is, the gap between “the haves” and “have nots” in America. I don’t like gated communities. From my Midwestern, Yankee, Union, and Scandinavian background they seem un-America. They exist in opposition to our motto, “E pluribus unum.”
The monuments of Rome tell a fraction of the city’s ancient history. The lavish villas, monuments, and art are the remnants of the most upper levels of society. For the remaining 99% of society their traces are harder to find, even harder to celebrate. The normal residents and citizens of Rome get remembered in their frozen horror at Pompeii but seldom elsewhere.
For all the glories of Rome, Republic and Empire, it was a society founded on inequality. Rome relied on inequality to feed its growth and to build up the wealth of the most powerful of the powerful. Limited franchisement, slavery, colonization, hereditary privilege, normalized violence, and a fetish for “order” combined to make what must have been a rather fearful existence for all persons, free or otherwise encumbered.
I noticed the remnants of that fear in Rome with so many walls and so many hardened entrances. Our first hotel was like a mini-compound. A massive steel door slid open on tracks to allow our driver entrance, four small apartments opened to a courtyard. Louvered shutters and doors of steel covered our openings, locked in I felt like we were impenetrable.
In the city center we stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood. The pattern was narrow streets mixed with apartments and small shops. Barred windows were the norm for the street level apartments. We needed a key to gain entry to the outer door to use a different key for our inner apartment door. The double key was not so strange, its how we live in Norway, but the bars were.
The Vatican has famous walls. For that matter so does Paris, Dresden, Beijing, and countless other cities around the world. Do walls come with time for civilizations? Like a long-lived home that gets decorated, remodeled, and embellished to the hilt, are walls just something we always wanted but couldn’t afford at the time of construction. Is America still that young?
Inside the walls of Rome there are additional gates. A few are monumental and for celebratory use only. Most gates guard an entrance, some with famous guards. The conspicuous Swiss Guard man the gates to the Bishop of Rome. A polished soldier protects the president. Less polished soldiers guard parliament. Armed or not, polished or plain, guards are not welcome mats.
There have always been walls, even in the equitable Midwest, but they took other forms. Most commonly was the form of a detached suburb, the lack of sidewalk or distance from town substituting for the wall. I have to look no further than the greater Hunter’s Ridge et al. developments of north Marion for an example.
I regret that in the last generation, actual gated communities and “private” developments have proliferated in the Midwest. Are they benign indicators of changing tastes or troubling signs of growing inequality?
“And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.”
“When the walls come tumblin’ down
When the walls come crumblin’ crumblin’
When the walls come tumblin’ tumblin’ down
Yeah yeah yeah” (John Mellencamp, “Crumblin’ Down)
Note: all photos filtered through “Instant”
Other forms of Freedom
Whom are more “free”, Norwegians or Americans? Just asking that question is enough to draw the scorn of too many of my countrymen. That’s sad. But what also is sad for an American ego is to at least consider that people in another country may be more free.
It would be too easy to discuss how free Norwegians are in issues already well publicized such as health care, governmental allowances for children, health care, maternity and paternity paid leave, vacation…that’s all been done. I wanted to take this opportunity to think about another angle that by its absence, its invisibility is important.
Yesterday, we traveled via the bus and shanks mare to central Oslo. I had an appointment at a police station for immigrants to get identification cards and tax numbers – the all-access passes. It did not look or feel like a police station, more like a very nice DMV. The two security men I saw where dressed in casual grey uniforms and no visible weapons or other implements.
The center was a diverse place. I heard Russian, a pair of Macedonian women sat next to me. Many men and women wore traditional Islamic garb. Yet, I felt less tension there then waiting for my driver’s license back home. Granted, it was fascinating for me to be people watching, but there was no appreciable spectre of enmity lurking among the many peoples present.
From the police station, we walked to my office located next to the castle. Oslo was lively but not crowded on a Wednesday afternoon. As we walked and gawked, I didn’t see any police. Frankly, I was looking because I was just a little off course – not lost – just off course. As a paranoid American I only wanted to ask an official for assistance. It wasn’t meant to be. Finally, I asked some nice young men manning a cell phone table for directions. And just like that we were on Karl Johans Gate, the most important street (its pedestrian only) in Oslo.
Our walk took us past glamorous shops, swank hotels, the Parliament Building (Storting), the national theater, and the King’s castle.
In all that time, past so many critical landmarks, I only saw the police once. They were mounted officers riding slowly together, from the west to east.
This long setup leads to my question about freedom. Norway spends a lot of tax dollars to reduce inequality. The government, i.e. the people (no, not “We the People”, that’s a different topic) invests strongly in childcare and promoting healthy upbringings, education and workforce training, and general well-being. And perhaps, those monies then obviate the need for a heavy American-style police presence.
What is the opportunity cost in America of a heavy police presence? The police in general have gotten a lot of bad press of late, the bad apples ruining it for all the upstanding officers. If the price of freedom in America is to live in a heavily policed state, then how free can Americans be? I think the Norwegians have gone along way towards achieving Freedom from Fear. They’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but they clearly have done many things right.
Can Americans ever achieve such a social peace? I believe we can, although first we would need to reconsider what freedom means. What if freedom went from meaning, “do anything you want” to living in a community that is free from fear? As I travel this year I hope to be able to come back to this topic with broader perspectives from cities and towns around the land.