Walls by Marcello Di Cintio: Constructions of brick and steel which divide people are not only enduring, but thriving

Berlin, Belfast, Nicosia and the West Bank - Marcello Di Cintio's historical tour of tangible divisions across the globe makes for pessimistic reading.

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades
Marcello Di Cintio
Union Books, 288pp, £14.99
 
In Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, there is a small display of Wall fragments. Next to this are panels showing the erection of the “Anti- Fascist Protection Rampart” in 1961. On one of them, at one point, was graffiti across the East/West Berlin border, with “USA” and “Mexico” written on each side. That scribble does not feature in Marcello Di Cintio’s Walls but it may as well have. This travel book is an exploration of the surviving walls that mark borders and bifurcate urban areas all over the world. The Berlin Wall is hardly mentioned because it no longer exists – but it was also, Di Cintio writes, deeply unusual as walls go. Despite its name, it was built to keep people in. Those built to keep people out – of Spain, of the US, of Israel, of the Short Strand – have proven considerably more enduring.
 
Timely as the book is, there are absences. No gated communities are included, although Di Cintio is sharp on the various euphemisms – gates, fences, “peace lines” – used to make walls sound like something other than walls. His book has a wide geographical sweep. Beginning with the walls built by Morocco to control insurgents in the Western Sahara, it takes in the West Bank wall, the fortifi - cations built recently along the border between India and Bangladesh and, in a final and welcome surprise, the barrier in his native Canada that divides the “garden city” of Mount Royal and the working-class district of Parc-Extension in Montreal – erected in the 1950s and still standing.
 
The most penetrating chapters are those either on walls that bisect small areas – such as Belfast or Nicosia in Cyprus – or on those that run through geopolitical fault lines, as in Israel/Palestine, the US/Mexico and Spain/ Morocco, where the first and third worlds rub up against each other.
 
Along with the geographical sweep come all the conventions of travel writing. Like most genres, travel writing is an acquired taste, a peculiarly middle-class genre in which authors describe at length the smells, tastes and picturesque customs of a given area and very seldom bother to explain how they managed to get to the place they’re writing about or how they came to know these eloquent people from all walks of life. As writers in this mode go, Di Cintio is very good – honest, sharp, nuanced and vivid – but it’s hard not to be constantly distracted by apparently irrelevant questions such as: “How do you just go to Western Sahara and hang out with guerrillas in tents in the desert? Do you just turn up? Was it just luck that your two guides in Belfast turned out to be ex-members of the IRA and UDA?” It’s not that I doubt his veracity but that he seems able to teleport between places.
 
This approach has its virtues – the descriptions of landscape and townscape are acute, whether they are his vivid renderings of the deserts in the Western Sahara and Arizona (he keeps his eyes open, because the sand doesn’t scrape your eyes as sharply that way) or his accounts of the baroque streets of Ceuta and Melilla on the Spanish-Moroccan border or the tiny enclaves and exclaves that make up residential Belfast.
 
His sympathies are with the oppressed and he mostly avoids sentimentality. He is angry but unprejudiced in the West Bank; he notes the huge death rates of immigrants trying to walk through the sliver of unwalled land on the US-Mexico border; and he recounts some painful stories told to him by those trying to escape to Spain and hence Europe through Ceuta. The historical asides are unobtrusive and erudite, particularly in reminding us how much the British empire’s careless partitions of Ireland and India have created intractable problems. Yet all of this entails enjoyment of passages such as his description of how, wandering near the Bangladesh-India border in Bengal, he drinks some Assam tea and realises: “I’d never drunk fresh tea before. Compared to this vegetal richness, the tea that emerges from the dry bags I soak in Canada tastes like iron filings.” And how, while rioters in Palestine have grace, those in Belfast are lumpen.
 
All of this is part of the genre. If you want an account of these proliferating new borders and architectures of security, seek out Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Siege and Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, which provide more detail, more context, more analysis and more strategies for fighting the barriers.
 
What is memorable in Walls is its deep pessimism. Whenever a dismantlement appears to be imminent, as in Nicosia, inertia and cynicism invariably win out over the let’s-allhold- hands anti-politics of the UN and the NGOs. In Belfast, Di Cintio notes the removal of the “peace line” that once divided a park in Ardoyne but considers the underground wall that runs between the Catholic and Protestant sections of the Belfast City Cemetery to be “a more relevant symbol than the image of little girls frolicking through a gate that opens every once in a while”. The constructions of brick, concrete and steel that divide people are not only enduring but thriving.
 
Owen Hatherley’s most recent book is “A New Kind of Bleak” (Verso, £12.99)
The Belfast "Peace Wall" which divides Republican and Loyalist neighborhoods in West Belfast. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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