In 2009/10, I took part in a teacher exchange programme run by Fulbright. The Fulbright scheme, for scholars and teachers, was established just after World War II, with the beautiful goal of encouraging countries to work together and promote world peace. Senator J. William Fulbright described it like this:
“The Fulbright Program aims to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”
It certainly worked that way for me. I had a wonderful year — I met brilliant people, and saw a lot of the country. I’ve experienced the visa application process firsthand — complete with all the medical and background checks, but as the programme was run by the State Department, I got to jump the queue at the embassy when I got my visa, and was treated as an honoured guest rather than with suspicion. I got one of those magical surprise upgrades at the airport. It was all sunshine and lollipops.
Look at where we are now. Are strangers welcome in Trump’s America?
Some of the proposed designs for Trump’s wall were published today. The Guardian’s piece, ‘Watchtowers, Drones and a Toxic Moat’, summarises them nicely, in all their ridiculousness, noting that surprisingly few of them seem to be spoof designs. A few of them are anti-wall walls, which is a phrase I never thought I’d type. There are all sorts of designs, from a 2000-mile series of hammocks to a ‘Great Wall of China’-style visitor attraction. The latest independent estimates for the cost of this hubristic nonsense run as high as $38bn. All for Trump to deliver something unnecessary and pointless. There’s already a fence, dude. Would a wall — even a big, manly one that totally isn’t evidence of over-compensation — really be much better?
The Wall in Game of Thrones is 700 feet high and 300 miles long, and held up by magic. And even that’s not foolproof. People can go through it, round it and over it. Does Trump think that he can do better than Bran the Builder?
But, I hear the Trumpites say, the wall’s meant to keep out undocumented Mexicans, not tourists. That sort of xenophobic suspicion surely doesn’t apply to anyone else … I was a guest on a visa, not someone entering the country illegally. Completely different, right? Well …
If by some brilliant turn of events, you have the fortune to arrive in the US at an airport, clutching documents that permit you to travel internationally, you might think that things would be better — but no. Also in the Guardian today was the news that US border agents are doing ‘digital strip searches’ on any devices you might have the audacity to carry with you, and that UK tourists to the US may get asked to hand in passwords or be denied entry. I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that you should never share your passwords. It’s pretty much the first rule of passwords. They are meant to be a secret. If an American citizen were asked to do this without a warrant, he or she would not have to comply. If a citizen from another country - even one of the US’s apparently close allies - does the same, well, they will be sent back.
This isn’t the America I knew. This isn’t the land of free and the home of the brave, that welcomed me with open arms less than a decade ago. There were always some interesting aspects of security — probably best exemplified by the time I went across the bridge at Niagara Falls. At the American end, there were stern, humourless men carrying machine guns. At the Canadian end, there was a silver-haired gentlemen with a beaming grin. Two different approaches to security there — one of welcome, and one of ‘keep out’. But these (sinister) moments were rare.
It’s not like British airports are jolly, happy places. They are tedious and tense places full of endless dead-eyed queues. But they aren’t menacing in the same way that these new security measures seem to be. We put up with a lot for safe air travel, I get it. But we are at a point where the businesses of air travel and border control are becoming mini fascist empires, where the slightest whiff of non-compliance might get you banned, deported, or even beaten up.
Here’s a thought, Donald — perhaps those billions might be better spent building bridges, rather than walls. Perhaps work on developing more productive bonds with other nations. Perhaps show a little hospitality towards paying guests. (I mean, you have actually got some experience in hospitality, so that shouldn’t be too hard.) Perhaps take some advice from Senator Fulbright, and invest in “a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion”.
Otherwise, if you keep going like this, you won’t need a wall. We will all stay well away.