On Walls

Posted on February 11, 2017


You know, as an historian, one can get cynical about the human condition. A short sampling of modern “wall” phrase making might include the following:

Ronald Reagan:    “Tear down this wall!”

Donald Trump:    “Build the wall!”

Robert Frost:        “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

And we could add the more memorable line in Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, “good fences make good neighbors.”

I started meditating on walls of course because President Trump wants to build a wall across our southern border with Mexico.

A few years ago, President Ronald Reagan told the Russians to tear down the Berlin Wall. It was a symbol of the old Cold War and the Russians had clearly lost it, so get rid of the symbol too.

And Robert Frost’s famous line tells us in a homespun kind of fashion that good fences, or walls, tend to keep friendships in good shape.

There are also some larger philosophical questions. Some walls are built to keep people in, like the Berlin Wall. Some are proposed to keep people out, like Mr. Trump’s.

The Emperor Trajan ordered a wall built across northern England to keep the wild Picts and Scots out of Roman England.

The Chinese built their wall across northern China to keep the equally barbarous Manchurians and other barbarians from polluting the heavenly kingdom of China to the south.

Oceans and seas used to be pretty good walls between peoples as well. So we built coastal fortifications to make sure we could keep people we didn’t like out of our cities, and towns and spaces along our coasts.

Walls and fences form lines of division. We have cattle, for example, on one side of the fence, and farmers on the other. It is good to keep these apart.

Walls can also be interpreted by poets and philosophers as metaphorical tools for making divisions and boundaries in our lives. We “build” walls based on religion, ethics, morals, laws and other institutions that govern our behavior and our lives.

These metaphorical or symbolic walls can change over time as well. There once was a “wall” dividing the normal from the abnormal. New ways of thinking have now downgraded those walls to a bit of rubble along the path of life where the LGBTQ community, for example, is considered normal by some, but not all.

Walls and fences may make for good neighbors, but they divide, they do not unite. They serve their purpose.

Walls, in fact and symbolically, tend to compartmentalize certain things, both in relation to us as individuals and as peoples, so we can regulate our lives to make or keep things right in our lives.

Even in our age of aircraft, drones, space ships, wireless communications, social media and other modern phenomena which tend to break down walls, we apparently still need them.

Ergo, Mr. Trump proposed a wall to keep out people, largely from Mexico, but in fact from across all Central America, and even South America, working their way up to the border, and then into the U. S.

I won’t bore you with his detractors or supporters and all their arguments. You can read about it almost on a daily basis online or right here in your newspaper.

Walls also exist in our body. “Good” cells will often “wall off” bad cells and isolate the harm they can do. Bad cells will penetrate the walls of good cells and force them to produce abnormal cells which can then kill the body.

Walls are not evil in and of themselves.

Mr. Trump probably won’t get his ten foot wall (I’m just guessing), topped by barbed wire, gun slots and thousands of border guards peering through at the other tens of thousands slogging through the desert and mountains seeking work and sanctuary in the promised land of America. But he may get some sanity on the issue of who can come into this country.

Some of you may not know, but we haven’t had “open” immigration into this country since sometime back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The idea that everyone—regardless of circumstances, health, education, religion, or ethnic or racial background–was welcome was a 1960s phenomenon. It was an expression of the age of the civil rights movement when blacks, women, and native Americans argued and fought for their rights, and the case was made for immigrants as well.

In a perfect world, perhaps we wouldn’t need walls. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

Published as “In a Perfect World, Walls Wouldn’t be Necessary” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017