- Why Walls Won’t Work. Repairing the U.S.-Mexico Divide by Michael Dear
In the 2016 US presidential electoral primary season, the subject of building a U.S.-Mexico border “mega-wall” emerged as the defining trope of a divisive and incendiary political campaign. But, scholars of the U.S.-Mexico border have seen this before. They understand that, since the formation of our nation’s southern border with Mexico in 1848, and especially over the last quarter century, there have been oscillating cycles of “debordering” and “rebordering.” The former term, “debordering,” refers to relaxing the barrier-like functions of nation-state boundaries in the face of greater economic, cultural and socio-political cross-border integration. Debordering is a response to a world that is increasingly globalized, and where many human activities organically transcend political boundaries. The latter term points to a different reality of world political geography: that, sometimes, for economic, political or security reasons, nations shift back into a “rebordering” mode, and impose the more military, hard-edged, protective qualities of [End Page 160] their national borders. These cycles have defined borderland life for a century and a half. It is the nature of international borders to be partially defined by human frailty; thus, nations either embrace inherent cross-border connections with their neighbors or, when feeling threatened, fall back on their sovereign right to defend those edges.
Though geographer Michael Dear doesn’t dwell upon the theoretical distinction between “debordering” and “rebordering,” he nevertheless makes a grand and impressive entrance into the fray with his timely book Why Walls Won’t Work, a scathing critique of rebordering and a call to arms for debordering. Dear came to the border question more than a decade ago, following his prolific portfolio of post-modern urban scholarship. He was a founding member of the so-called “Los Angeles School,” a group of scholars who, in the last decades of the twentieth century, argued that Southern California’s unique urbanism demanded new paradigms and revised urban theories. Dear’s latest work, in a sense, reflects his (and this reviewer’s) belief that Southern California’s urbanism extends all the way to the Baja California frontier.
This new book is, on many levels, a showcase of the stellar qualities of Michael Dear’s scholarship–his command of theory, his meticulous research, his elegant writing. Though not a Latin Americanist scholar earlier in his career, Dear spent several years roaming the border region as a researcher, and proves himself an agile scholar who can not only tackle a complicated international region, but also unravel its most complex political and regional geographies.
The central argument of the book builds from a postmodern reading of the borderlands–namely that the U.S.-Mexico frontier region is a “Third Nation,” a cross-border cultural zone whose separate identity is grounded in ecological, historical, cultural, and economic elements that politicians should pay greater attention to, and that inevitably should lead to changing national policies that dismantle boundary walls, fences, and the larger apparatus of public and private “security” infrastructure–sometimes called the “Border Industrial Complex” (BIC)–that has built up around the real or imagined walls. The “Third Nation” idea draws its inspiration from Dear’s earlier co-edited book Post-Border City (M. Dear and G. Leclerc, 2013), which explored new cross-border identities through the lens of art, culture, and design.
Dear sketches out his “Third Nation” argument in Chapter 5, pointing to an “in between” socio-cultural region that transcends the geopolitical boundary of nation-states, and, in his words, “creates from them a new identity distinct from the nationalisms of the host countries” (p. 71). I should note that, given the fact that this theme is a thread running through the entire volume, I’m not entirely clear why it was not introduced earlier in the book, or better yet, why the idea wasn’t...