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Walls, Liberty and Trust – A blast from the past from October 2015
When I was a kid in the village, I could tell what the oldest walls around fields or houses were.
You see, in the sixties the new, nice houses being built, would have very short walls. Maybe four feet. Walls more for decoration than for anything else.
This didn’t mean there was no theft, of course. I mean, the smart woman brought in the wash from the line at night, and henhouses and rabbit hutches had as good a locking mechanism as a house’s. Sometimes someone got over the little walls and took all your just-grown lemons, or whatever else. That wasn’t unusual. BUT no one would get over the walls and kill you and your entire family in your sleep, and the stories I heard from my grandmother about second-story men who engaged in home invasion were just that — stories that were safely in the past (to be fair, I think most of them were from her mother’s or grandmother’s time) and not at all scary, because they could never happen to us.
But the REALLY old houses in the village, the ones that probably dated back to the eighteenth century, not only had eight foot walls around them, but the walls were topped with bits of broken bottles so anyone trying to scale them would hurt himself badly.
More interestingly, the old fields (the village had clearly expanded greatly in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, mostly with migrants from the mountains, like my grandmother’s family) which again, I’d estimate had been farmed since about the eighteenth century, not only had the eight or ten foot tall walls topped with broken glass, but also gates at least as high and — importantly — faced with smooth sheets of metal in the front, so you couldn’t get a foothold to climb.
This makes sense in retrospect. In that time it made sense only in light of grandma’s stories of bandits, but I’ve now read a lot about the Napoleonic wars. I didn’t realize how devastating they’d been to people in Portugal. Oh, sure, you heard stories like the boat bridge, which sank under the weight of people escaping Napoleon, and that’s one thing — the kind of tales that exist here about the civil war, say.
But then I read some memoirs of the peninsular war from British soldiers, and hey, well… Stuff like all the cows in the country (even work oxen) being eaten, or stuff like the troops scouring entire regions for anything edible. It appears neither the French nor the British were well provisioned as we think of it in the 21st century. To an extent troops were expected to live off the land. But Portugal was very close to the bone, and … well, I now know why the broken bottles on top of very tall walls. I suspect it was the only thing protecting one’s vineyards or fruit trees, very often. It also explained why most of those were along the old Roman roads, still in use when I was a kid (of course.) Because further in, in fields amid woods or whatever, there would often be no walls at all, or just bits of broken, knee-high wall (and sometimes just boundary stones written in Latin). Apparently further in where invaders or counter invaders (sometimes I understand it was hard to tell the difference for peasants on the ground) didn’t reach, or were afraid to go lest they be ambushed, the local trust amid families that had been there forever, (and most of those family were old local families, at the time) kept the walls low.
Then came the nineteenth century, more prosperous, but still not great, and amid civil war and revolution and counter revolution, the walls were a little lower, and the gates might be wrought iron, and you could climb them. But still, to get to grandma’s back patio where the door was open all day, you had to go past two gates, one of which had a lock (though I never saw it locked.) And even though the big kitchen window gave out on the side patio, past a set of gates, grandma would put a big board into the frame at night, to block off anyone who might break the window and try to get in.
By the time my parents built their house in sixty eight, it had four foot tall walls and gates the same height, more of a symbolic barrier than a real one. Of course all the windows had roll-down shutters of the kind here associated with store fronts.
Then the security measures started increasing. First there was a gate between the garage and the house, locking, and keeping away anyone who might think to surprise us in the back patio. (Which happened a couple of times before that, and could have got ugly if dad hadn’t been able to stop any intruder.)
And then… well, every time I go back, the walls have climbed a bit more, and are now slick marble-panels on the outside, and the gates are smooth and locking. I’m half afraid next time I go back there will be broken glass (or more aesthetic spikes) atop the walls. The last time there were bars in the windows, behind the shutters.
I honestly don’t know if crime is that bad, or if it’s a matter of my parents getting older and less able to defend themselves, plus living in a neighborhood where more people are older and less alert, so the neighbors hearing a disturbance won’t save you. And also, of course, such neighborhoods attract bad elements as they tend to be easy prey.
But I do know that when I first came to the states it utterly blew my mind that people had decorations in their front yard, with not even a symbolic gate to protect them and NO ONE STOLE THEM.
In Portugal someone would steal these things even if they had no use at all for them. By leaving them outside, you’re inviting someone to take them.
This morning we bought pumpkins (at last) to carve, and noted the vast bins of pumpkins outside the store, the trust it implies in people taking them inside to pay.
Someone here said something about Arab countries being full of people who want freedom/the blessings of liberty.
I believe them. Portugal is too. Many people will express disgust with the Shenanigans of governance, with corrupt authorities, with the general anything goes atmosphere, and will make comments about how much better it would be if–
But what you have to understand is that these people don’t know anything more about America than a cat knows of a king. They will admire the results of American can-do and entrepreneurship, then commiserate with me when unemployment leaves us without health insurance, and tell me how much better they have it because the government takes care of them; they will talk about how it would be great to have honest policemen, but will expect to get out of a minor fine with a minor bribe; they will decry nepotism but be quite happy when their godfather gets them a job or a good deal on something.
In Arab countries (and in some regions in Portugal) this would extend to things like “there ought to be a law keeping these shameless women from going around in short skirts/short sleeves/etc.”
It’s easy to want liberty in the abstract, but in societies where individual rights, including the individual right to property are not a gut-level belief, it’s almost impossible to implement it. You need to have citizens who have a minimum of trust among themselves, who view others’ property as sacred, who view others’ rights as inviolable to be able to have people truly govern themselves, without its rapidly devolving to the stuff of nightmares.
As our kids have been taught for the last forty years that the collective is more important, that those willing to hold on to their property or the fruits of their labors are greedy, and that (as Bernie supporters keep saying) one must care for “the people’ in great unwashed collective form, we are at risk of losing the ability to have that mutual trust and respect which is essential to self governance, too.
Cultures change very slowly, and it seems more so when it’s in the direction of liberty and trust.
One of the great flaws in classical SF was the assumption that the whole world could become a sort of extended America without those prerequisites.
It was a beautiful dream, but it’s not how things work.
And when the west welcomes large groups of immigrants who don’t understand the rule of law or the meaning of civic trust, it becomes very hard to keep self-government going.
It is essential immigrants assimilate or leave. Oh, not in things like food and modes of dress. That is not important. But the assimilation of the principles of trust and individual rights? That is essential.
Teach your children well, and explain to those who would be like us what it actually entails.