The wall has stopped up our government. This is not surprising. Walls prevent things from moving. Trumpians insist on the wall. A majority of Americans don’t want it. And so we have hit a wall, stuck in a dispute that is a symbol of our divided country.
The nature of a wall is to divide things. Symbolic disputes wall us off from one another. For the President’s fans, the wall is a symbol of Trumpian potency and the resolve to make America great. For opponents of the wall, it is a symbol of Trump’s inflated ego and a closed-minded form of Americanism.
The president made the symbolic nature of the wall clear when he tweeted an image of himself with a “Game of Thrones”-style slogan, “The Wall is Coming.” Trump sees himself as the hero in a mythological struggle. This symbolism makes it clear why there is no room for compromise. In “Game of Thrones,” the Machiavellian spirit prevails. Compromise is for the weak. Only the strong survive.
A wall stands for power and strength. Walls are solid and medieval. A wall is built of earth and stone and ice. It is a symbol of hardness and resolve. The word “wall” has Germanic origins. It sounds like wealth, well-being, and war. Walls represent the power of empires. The Romans built walls, as did the Chinese. Castles have walls, towers, ramparts and parapets.
A fence, by contrast, is nimble and light. The word “fence” is related to the word defense. A fence sounds fancy, flighty and effete. A fence can be jumped. But a wall must be scaled. A fence is something you sit on, when you are undecided. A wall is more stubborn. It is something you put your back against in a fight to the death.
Walls are built to impress. The project authority. The power of a wall is not only as a physical barrier. It is also a sign to the barbarians to stay away.
But a wall is only a temporary solution to ongoing enmity. Jericho’s walls eventually came tumbling down. The Great Wall of China was breached. The Maginot Line failed to protect France. And the Siegfried Line (the German “Westwall”) did not protect the Nazis.
The problem of a wall is that provokes envy and animosity. People want access to what’s on the other side. A wall says you can’t have what we have. But since the time of Joshua, people have not heeded this message.
Walls always have two sides. Trump’s wall is intended to keep people out. But the Berlin Wall was used to keep people in and American presidents wanted to tear it down. In Israel, the wall dividing Israelis from Palestinians is clean and calming. On the Palestinian side, the wall is covered with graffiti protesting a symbol of oppression. And so it goes.
In the long run, nature ruins every wall. I’ve walked on the Great Wall of China in places where the roots of trees and vines have pried apart the stones. Earthquakes and storms also do their damage. Walls must not only be built. They must also be rebuilt and maintained.
This is the theme of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.” The poet sees something absurd in the way we keep mending our walls, when nature conspires against them. An old proverb tells us that “fences make good neighbors.” But the poet says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
So a wall does not only stand for one thing. Like all symbols, walls are ambivalent. They unite us and protect us. But they also provoke us and divide us.
From a philosophical point of view, walls are ultimately symbols of hubris and futility. One generation builds a wall. But eventually someone scales the wall and tears it down. And so it goes, from Jericho to Berlin.
Human beings keep banging our heads against the wall of division and animosity. The long-term solution is fewer walls and more bridges. It is bridges that get things moving, while walls get in the way. But so far we are not wise enough to see the writing on the wall.