This essay appeared on the Opinion Page of the Springfield News-Leader on February 8, 2019
I seldom stray into politics but it seems clear to me that walls have held a fascination for some recent poets and presidents—or perhaps it was simply the situation in which each found himself that raised an interest in walls. Everyone of a certain age will recall the Berlin Wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Berlin was in what was then East Germany controlled by Russia after WWII. The Russians built the wall to isolate the French, British, and American sectors of West Berlin. The wall made it an island of Western culture and democracy in the midst of Eastern totalitarianism. The allies supplied the citizens of West Berlin through an airlift running around the clock. The Russian purpose in building the wall was to force the allies out of Berlin, but it also stopped the free exchange of ideas and passage between East and West Berlin. In 1987 a Republican President, Ronald Reagan, delivered a speech at the Brandenburg Gate near Checkpoint Charlie in the American Sector; it contained this famous line: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Mr. Reagan, apparently, saw the Berlin wall as highly effective, but ideologically negative. Two years later the citizens of Berlin, both East and West, tore it down. In this case, to quote a line from Robert Frost: “Good Fences did not make good neighbors”—which begs the question do good fences ever make good neighbors?
Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” begins this way:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.*
The poet, at that time, was a farmer in New England and every spring he and his neighbor walked the stone wall separating their properties in order to mend it. Frost doesn’t see a need to have a wall because his neighbor’s land is “all pine” and his is “apple orchard” and he opines “My apple trees will never get across/and eat the cones under his pines,” but his neighbor rather stodgily replies “good fences make good neighbors.” Frost, exasperated, wants to get his neighbor to think about the function of the wall: “Why do [walls] make good neighbors? Isn’t it/Where there are cows? But here there are no cows./Before I built a wall I’d like to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.” But his neighbor woodenly says it again: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Mr. Frost, apparently, regarded his shared wall as unnecessary, while his neighbor regarded it as an ideological necessity.
What about Mr. Trump’s wall? He regards it as absolutely necessary for he finds an immigration crisis on our admittedly porous southern border, which is aggravated by illegal drugs pouring in from Mexican cartels. In his view only a wall can effectively resolve the crisis. There is no denying the problems on our southern border, but closing off the border with Mexico with a wall will send an inflammatory symbolical signal to the world exactly opposite to that of the Statue of Liberty on our eastern shore. The Liberty statue once symbolized new beginnings for white Europeans in the 1800s and later. On its base one finds these words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore…” The signal that Mr. Trump’s southern border wall will project to the world is otherwise, however. It will say: Stay away we don’t want you brown-skinned people here. Over time his wall will come to symbolize intolerance, bigotry, and racism. Eventually it will take its place among some of the darkest moments in the history of our democratic republic: the internment of Japanese-American citizens and Alaska natives during WWII, and the internment of American Indians during the 1800s. Ms. Pelosi may not be far wrong when she calls Mr. Trump’s wall “immoral.” At least it must be admitted that Mr. Trump’s wall does not seem inspired by the better angels of our nature.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Edward C. Latham, ed., The Poetry of Robert Frost (New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1967), 33-34.