We will build a big, beautiful wall.
A great, great wall on our southern border. Big: thirty feet tall, six feet deep. Long: nearly two thousand miles, spanning mountains, canyons, rivers, lakes, floodplains, and desert lands. Strong: built to deter tunneling, prevent scaling, and withstand tampering. Beautiful: on the north side. Free: paid for by Mexico, or not, in the amount of twelve billion dollars, maybe twenty-one, maybe forty. Border secured. No more undocumented immigrants, criminals, or drugs.
The old wall wasn’t good enough.
Some walls built by bad dudes weren’t beautiful. Very sad.
Taller walls work better than shorter walls.
Some walls are very old and very long. Beautiful.
Some walls are made to keep the peace.
Some walls are built to contain bomb blasts in places of forever war.
Walls are material attitudes. They separate people from one another. They are built to protect us from perceived threats—perhaps to our economic wellbeing, our cultural identity, or our national security. They operate on the premise of safety by separation: insiders separated from outsiders, Us versus Them, civilization threatened by barbarians, archetypal Athens fortified by long walls.
In a word, walls are barriers. They seal borders. They close openings. They rigidify and exaggerate differences. They restrain and delegitimize border crossings, both literal and figurative. An outsized wall is the hostile attitude of a constricted perspective. It blocks the flow of humanity.
“No one builds a wall better than me,” boasted presidential candidate Donald Trump. “Build that wall! Build that wall!” his following replied. The wall was nothing more than a political fantasy, his critics retorted. All of this, observes Peter Andreas, reflects the reality that “words matter.” The wall is already there, by which Andreas means that the definition of the word wall is fuzzy enough to leave the President with a lot of wiggle room.
More to the point, Trump broke a taboo by referring to the border barrier as a wall, thus sending an overtly hostile message to Mexico. He took a national security fetish to a new level. Trump’s wall is the latest and most blatant addition to “the border-barrier building frenzy first launched by President Bill Clinton, greatly expanded by George W. Bush and continued by [Barack] Obama,” notes Andreas.
Words matter, especially when they make walls that signify and solidify the human divide. Once the wall is mentally and emotionally built, the fate of the nation is sealed within a narrow disposition of intolerance. The only escape is through rhetorical portals, where they can be found, to a shared sense of humanity. “Because,” allowed Joseph Lintz, a suspected war criminal in Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden, “sometimes all it takes to turn us into devils is the fear of being an outsider.”[i]
The vocation of trickster angels, where myth remakes a broken world, is to discover hidden openings in the dividing walls that bedevil us.
[i] Ian Rankin, The Hanging Garden (New York: Minotaur Books, 1998), 102.