I know there is truth in poet Robert Frost’s famous line in “Mending Wall” (quoting the man living next door) that “good fences make good neighbors.” But, in a political context, I can’t help but also believe that the creation of barriers between human beings is a testament to failure, and is often self-destructive at that.
Frost’s own voice in the poem raises the reasonable thought: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out…”
In my college days, I got to hear the Great American Poet read “Mending Wall” — all sensitive and silver-haired and incredibly ancient, it seemed to me — and was impressed by Frost’s calmness and clarity of thought. He came across as a wise, gentle soul.
I was entranced by the grand metaphor with which he was working. Consider: A fence, a wall, can be built to keep something out (the Great Wall of China) or something in (the Berlin Wall). That could be people, or ideas.
On a larger scale, walls and other barriers are designed to protect the status quo and stop change in its tracks. But before we get deeper into that thought, let’s examine just a few fences and walls, and see if and how they work.
THE EXTERNAL WALLS
*The Berlin Wall was designed to keep East Germany’s put-upon residents, chafing under their bleak Communist rule, from fleeing to the lively, prosperous West, and to try to keep Western ideas and practices from penetrating into regimented East Germany society. There were periodic escapes over, around and under the Wall, but, by and large, the barrier worked for nearly three decades: East Germany became a locked-down society in all senses of that term. Eventually, the Wall, which had become a larger-than-life symbol of Cold War repression, was torn down as Communist rule decomposed in the Eastern Bloc.
*Israel has nearly finished its giant Wall of Separation, ostensibly to keep out would-be Palestinian terrorists. It seems to have worked to a large extent in this regard, but is no less controversial. Israel claims that the wall is “temporary,” and easily could be removed if and when peace arrives in the Middle East. In other words, it’s permanent. Rather than bringing peace and quiet, the wall exacerbates anger and resentment. In building it, the Israelis carried out a blatant annexation of Palestinian land that stands as a clear impediment to peace; indeed, it is a gross incitement to continued violence, since major Israeli settlements, on land supposedly reserved for Palestinians, are now placed on the Israel side of the wall.
*The Bush Administration is starting to build parts of a huge barrier fence along the Mexican border to keep out hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S. Whether that wall will be effective is problematic; it’s virtually impossible to seal a several-thousand mile border. (And let us not forget that there is also a fairly porous border to the north of the United States, also several thousand miles long.) As with so many such barriers, the border fences envisioned for the Southwest are designed more for domestic-political reasons — although they do not take into account the power of the agribusiness lobby, which wants cheap, non-unionized labor to harvest America’s crops.
*As a way of tamping down the sectarian violence in Baghdad, the U.S. military has constructed a huge concrete barrier around a Sunni neighborhood, ostensibly to keep Shia death-squads from entering. The local residents claim they are being ghettoized — using the analogy of the Warsaw Ghetto where the Nazis crowded Jews — and thus are more vulnerable with the wall in place since the residents are more tempting targets, massed all in one place. Also, they complain, it’s more difficult for them to escape when the wall is breached by killers — or when those guarding the entry and exit turn out to be their executioners.
In general, these kinds of walls and fences represent unresolved social matters, and remain in place as long as the political conflict remains “hot.” On the Israel/Palestine dispute, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for any movement toward peace because of the wall. The prospects for a peace treaty and negotiations for mutual projects seem woefully out of reach, mainly because each side is effectively ruled by extremists who simply want the other side to disappear and figure violence is the way to make the disappearance happen. Such a policy does little but stimulate a never-ending cycle of vengeance.
When Communism imploded in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, there was no need for a barrier wall in Germany and so it came down virtually overnight. The new political realities ruled rather than prejudice and military fears. That wall had lasted three decades — its existence spanning a full generation of citizens — and then, poof, was no more. In short, walls can be taken down in short order (Belfast’s wall separating Catholics and Protestants is another example) once the political realities shift.
THE INTERNAL WALLS
There is another kind of wall, in some ways much more significant and socially malignant. It’s the wall that separates humankind from accurate information, often because of closed religious minds.
The two major colliding forces in today’s world have walled themselves into ignorance and Dark Ages-type thinking. Extremist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity both believe they are doing “God’s work” in opposing “infidels,” those refusing to recognize the “one true God”; those “non-believers” need to be crushed because they represent the most nefarious kind of “evil.”
Osama bin Laden and his like-minded supporters would be happiest if society returned to the theology and societal organization of the Muslim caliphate from the 7th to 11th centuries. George W. Bush and his neo-con and fundamentalist supporters would be happier in an old-fashioned colonialist world, where a “Pax Americana” would reign supreme. Each side believes that if you’re not on their side, you’re ipso facto an enemy and should suffer the consequences. Neither side is amenable to compromise and negotiation, which explosive situation leads inexorably to the deaths of untold numbers of innocents who just happen to be in the way (“collateral damage”).
Extremist Islam wants nothing to do with modernity and commerce, which bring with them all sorts of contemporary “depravities” and “immoralities.” Fundamentalist Christianity, with Bush as a key representative of that movement, wants nothing to do with the proven facts of modern science and with facts delivered to him by the professional intelligence agencies. There is no room on either side for the concepts of toleration and power-sharing. It’s “victory” or nothing — a “crusade” for “righteousness and purity,” based on a foundation of problematic beliefs and self-righteous religious faith.
There are plenty of folks in the middle, but the violence-griddle is kept so hot by the extremists that a massive attack is usually enough to frighten the timid middle into at least a tacit alliance with those who promise to protect them from the dastardly “Other.”
CHANGE AS A FRIGHT AGENT
Earlier, above, I suggested that walls are generally built to support the status quo and delay the possibility of significant societal change. Extremist, rigid religious thought cannot abide that kind of change; to them, change is “blasphemous,” “heretical,” and ultimately terrifying. Thus, they attempt to stop the world by building strong, permanent barriers (actual and ideological) to keep out the scary thoughts, the scary people.
Let me be clear: There definitely are terrorist types worth being scared of and defended against. But the rush to erect walls and barriers against entire masses of people is what lazy, ignorant people do. It takes too much creative mental work to come up with alternative ways of incorporating change, compromise, tolerance, into their lives. To deal creatively with change, you actually have to open your mind, and sometimes even your heart, to deal with people and ideas that are different.
Doing so, in an open way, is the beginning of wisdom, and of human progress. You let the light in, and also let the darkness in, and then you fashion a way to incorporate the two at the same time in order to move forward in something approximating harmony and peace. Doing so doesn’t have to mean you love and accept everything that comes your way in this fast-changing world, but it does mean you have to figure out a way of dealing with the new information and the new people. If things are exceptionally tense, you make treaties and remain suspicious, but at least you’ve figured out a way to co-exist together relatively peacefully.
Doing that has got to be better than a Dark Ages-type of smashing “the Others” over the head with clubs because you are pissed off by, and frightened of, them.
SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS
Finally, some personal observations that perhaps may prove useful in meditating on the question of walls and barriers:
I think I went into journalism as a young man (starting in my teens) because I needed to figure out how the world works and how I could maneuver successfully in it. In that regard, the hunt for truth became my friend. If I could open myself to how the world really operated — the good parts, the bad parts, the ugly and scary parts — I could somehow stabilize myself in what seemed like a very chaotic, frightening social system. Truth provided the glue that held it (and a shaky me) together.
As a bone fide reporter, I was encouraged to ask questions, amass information and then attempt to sort it all out in some coherent fashion. Likewise, travel outside the “safe container” of home and homeland yielded more information about different ways of thinking and living; it was journalism in a new sort of way, and I did indeed keep journals of my travels, trying to organize what I had learned by such adventuring around the country and abroad.
Good journalism, of course, constantly gets one in trouble, since the status-quo forces arrayed against truth-telling are legion and powerful. And these days, with an extremist regime in control in Washington, D.C. — one more inclined to avoid reality, even stomp on it when it appears — good journalism is all too rare. Mostly, the institutional, conglomerate-owned media (the owners of which reflect much the same economic goals and worldview as those in government) tend to flatter the rulers and shade and conceal the truth — in effect becoming another “wall” blocking our view of the real world. That’s why the free-wheeling internet is so valuable as a corrective, with numerous bloggers and reporters dedicated to opening windows on what’s really going on behind the ever-present spin barriers.
Those in power who put walls and fences between themselves and the hunt for truth cannot deal effectively with reality and risk societal disaster. Good example: How CheneyBush took America into the catastrophe that is the Iraq War. They are destined for ignominious failure because they long ago slid off the reality tracks, and refuse to acknowledge their mistaken judgment, ideology and policy. They are heading that sliding train straight for the cliff of ultimate failure and don’t seem to care if they take everyone else down with them.
CheneyBush have demonstrated time and again that their personalities are so stunted and insecure that there is no way they would be able to acknowledge the depth of their mistakes, their moral responsibility for failures, and their warped ideologies. This means that those of us desiring to save our country, and save those who are otherwise destined to die and be maimed by their participation in this militarist madness, need to remove our ostensible “leaders” as quickly as possible.
At the very least, there would seem to be sufficient evidence of enough high crimes, misdemeanors and malfeasance to justify the initiation of impeachment hearings ASAP.
There’s too much at stake to just let it ride; even with the Democrats starting to exercise their oppositional muscles, the continuing damage the CheneyBush Administration can do in the next year-and-a-half — including an unprovoked attack on Iran — is too excruciatingly awful to contemplate. It’s impeachment time — let’s get on with it.