Close your eyes. Take a moment to visualize an image of The Wall. Examine what appears in your mind’s eye and take note of what you see and how it makes you feel.
What is your vision of this symbolic wall? Do you picture an enormous Game of Thrones structure of ice? Is it a dirty brick barrier just outside your window, reminiscent of Melville’s character, Bartelby the Scrivener’s view from his office on Wall Street? Is it more simplistic, perhaps a pure white wall with symmetrical grid lines that represent each brick carefully laid for the purpose of separation from agony and fear, as seen on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album? Do you picture cinder blocks piled high, spray painted with graffiti and covered in barbed wire, a symbol of violence and oppression? Regardless of your vision of this wall, it likely conjures up strong emotions.
Trump’s manifestation of the Wall is evident in the prototypes that tower 18 to 30 feet high along the southern U.S. border. Christopher Hawthorne, an architectural critic, describes them as “banal and startling, full and empty of meaning.”
Jonah Goldberg of the Tribune Content Agency indicates that the fight over the wall is not really a tangible battle, but a fight about symbolism. He states that “one of the problems with symbolic politics is that it’s hard to compromise, because symbolism enlists notions of honor and identity that leave little room for haggling.” This fight cannot be won, even if Trump’s wall is fully funded and built to his specifications. This war is a societal battle. The walls are solid and well-fortified.
Walls can be symbols of isolation, defense, and barriers. The foundation of Trump’s wall supports an illusion of safety and security coveted by some residents of American society. Many of us have spent our lives tearing down walls we have built around ourselves to protect us from pain and fear. We have dedicated time and effort to open ourselves up to an “other-ness” that allows us to engage with what is outside our comfort zones. We strive to minimize the barriers between “us” and “them”.
Trump’s wall symbolizes much more than a brick and mortar structure built to protect America from enemies to the south. The idea of the wall itself is, to many, a symbolic barrier to diversity. It is a seemingly insurmountable force-field powered by fear and distrust. Mimi Yang describes the divisive wall-mindset as drawing on “an ethno-, culture-, and power-hierarchy.” She asserts that this wall extends “not only on the border between the US and Mexico, but also on the borders between Christians and Muslims, between immigrants of any origin and those who consider themselves more than anyone else, between the white and the African American, between any races and any creeds, between the heterosexual and the homosexual, between women and men, so on and so forth.” Each brick in Trump’s wall represents a chasm that divides us: racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny, classism, poverty, and discrimination.
The Meriam-Webster Dictionary lists some words related to ‘wall’ as deterrent, encumbrance, hindrance, interference, roadblock. These words do not represent my American ideals. America has long proclaimed that its strength lies in freedom, creativity, and innovation.
In the Appalachian region of America, the mountains may have provided us with natural barriers to diversity. People in rural communities, sometimes, pride themselves on isolation from the rest of the country and the world. Yet, the beauty within these walls is tainted by a cultural divide that plays easily into the hands of fear-mongers. I recall conversations between relatives at Thanksgiving dinner tables saturated in fear. “What do you think of that terrible caravan?” asks a 90-year old grandma. “We need that wall to keep those awful people out of our country!” Considering that the distance from West Virginia to the southern border is more than 1500 miles, there is little chance that “those people” will invade our region and steal our slice of the American pie. Mountains that separate us may allow these fears to fester and grow. Natural walls may give people in Appalachia a sense of security to build up more defenses against outsiders.
Since the 1980’s, when I became politically aware, the idea of smashing walls has been a factor in my ideology. I still remember watching Ronald Reagan’s passionate speech from West Berlin imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Reagan might agree that moving beyond divisiveness and scaling the walls that keep us apart is a much better plan than further isolating ourselves from the world and each other.
Lisa Gum, formerly Lisa Brady, grew up in West Virginia. She recently relocated to northeast North Carolina, where she enjoys life in a rural community. She is a speech-language pathologist who works with many different populations, and currently serves children in a school district in Virginia. She is a certified yoga instructor, and loves sharing her passion for yoga with others.