The Wall

  • Posted: September 29, 2016
  • Category: Politics
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In a world grown numb by the reality of Kardashian celebrity, Donald Trump has challenged our polite acceptance of the grotesque. He is the bogeyman come to life, the monster under our bed that we all feared as children. He is a villain out of Marvel Comics stepping out of the lurid comic book, coming to life before our eyes. A figure of fun and fantasy has turned around and become a serious candidate for President of these United States. While we eagerly follow the latest antics of deformed and dysfunctional celebrity personalities, it tests us when they step into our own reality and attempt to project their psychosis outside of Hollywood. Unless of course, they are gay or transgender or animal rights advocates.

Even though The Donald is a billionaire, he comes across as a Caucasian parody of Kanye West rather than Warren Buffett. While he vaunts his supposed business acumen, his actual experience in the business of casinos, resorts and high profile East Coast real estate is a distasteful but necessary blend of swimming in the corruption inherent in big city politics, sycophancy with entrenched union power and hob-nobbing with the Mafia. Perhaps The Donald’s flamboyant blond comb over hides the bald head of Tony Soprano? The eyes of The Donald are full of cool calculation, even when spouting the outrageous, maybe they are really the eyes of Michael Corleone.

In the course of his rambling at the microphone, The Donald has thrown a lot of mud against the wall. Almost everything he says is held to be foolish, impossible or the babbling of one ignorant as to the realities of modern America. But nothing has popped the cork on the political classes self-satisfied pomposity more than The Donald’s talk of a Wall. The Donald has said he will build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep unwanted immigrants out.

The responsible media has exhausted themselves laughing at the idea of his Wall, while at the same time bemoaning the racism of those Deplorables who like the idea. There simply is no sin more terrible among the educated classes than the sin of racism and its close cousin, sexism. The New York Times and the electronic media have preened in the proof that Old White Men and flyover country are incurably and implacably racist. Taking a different angle in attacking the Wall, The Wall Street Journal has added up costs, calculated concrete and declared it impossible.

We, the educated class, are so sure and so smug about what we know to be true about the world we live in. We know that the Wall, proposed by The Donald, is a racist fantasy embraced by bad people, bankrupting the nation if actually implemented. Hillary gave voice to the general feeling among the better sort when she called The Donald’s supporters, The Deplorables. Given the enthusiasm among the creative community for Hillary, one wonders if she wasn’t misquoted. Perhaps she actually called us The Despicables, a riff on the Universal movie.

But even more, we, the educated and responsible, instinctively understand so many things about the Wall. First of all, it would cost too much. Immigration is a good thing for the United States and we should embrace it wholeheartedly. The Wall wouldn’t stop immigration anyway. The Wall would violate human rights. The Wall is just another example of the pervasive discrimination faced by Latinos and other people of color. Etc.

Except. Sometimes history can shed light rather than cast blame, justify favor seeking or simply build self-esteem among those currently favored by the academic community. Trump’s idea of a wall is called an impossible fantasy, prima facie evidence that he is irresponsible and unfit for office. Certainly no serious politician would propose such an idea, obviously both irrational and repugnant. How soon we forget.

berlin-wallThere was a man, Nikita Khrushchev, both a serious and a successful politician. He had a problem in 1961. His political life was based on his promise to his people, and the world, that life in the Soviet Empire was getting better; so good in fact that he had repeatedly boasted that the USSR would soon overtake the United States in its standard of living. This promise of a better future had allowed him to survive and prosper in the snake pit of post-Stalin Soviet politics.

But in Germany, this vision bumped into reality. Across the German nation, East met West along the border between the two Germany’s. Nikita K. said life was good and getting better, but the people in East Germany could see the lie. They knew life was bad and getting worse in the paradise of the People’s Republic. Economic opportunity and political freedom beckoned across the border in West Germany. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Berlin.

By simply stepping across the line, a person could exchange the grey dystopia of the East German police state for the West German Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). In an East German population of 17 million people, over 200,000 people per year were leaving for West Germany in the years before 1961. Then Nikita K. decided to solve his problem and built – a Wall. The movement of people from East Germany into West Germany stopped. By any reasonable standard, the Berlin Wall achieved the aims and goals of the Soviet government. And it was done for a price thought acceptable by those paying the bills.

I expect that most will find this recent example of a wall successfully solving political and economic problems repugnant. At least those of us of a certain age remember the Berlin Wall. There is a certain resonance among us in the running joke about Hillary Clinton – She has the kind face of an East German border guard. We remember photos of those guards shooting people attempting to climb the wall. We remember President Reagan in one of his most unforgettable moments, forcefully saying at the Brandenburg Gate, “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear Down This Wall”. But let us not forget that Nikita K’s Wall solved the problem it was built to solve.

great-wall-of-chinaPerhaps a less emotional example of the positive effects of a wall might be found. The Great Wall of China comes to mind, but China continues to elude Western understanding, at least mine. However, the Great Wall of China exists. It was a project of monumental proportion, far exceeding anything envisioned by The Donald and his supporters, built by a culture much poorer and less capable than our own.


As it happens, our older son got married over the Labor Day weekend past. In the elaborate rituals of pre-wedding preparation, we became acquainted with the bride’s parents. Being from England and knowing my interest in history, they were kind enough to gift me a book on Roman Britain. I do recommend the book, Roman Britain by Guy de la Bedoyere, but the picture on the front echoes Donald Trump. The cover of the book is an evocative photo of Hadrian’s Wall at sunrise.

In a world obsessed by modern notions of color, ethnicity and gender, this photo provides evidence, as if more evidence was necessary, that human beings have always struggled with the “Other”. It is too bad that Hadrian and his time have been forgotten in our children’s’ history classes, shunted aside by the need to duly note the firsts and contributions, no matter how mundane, of every possible gender/ethnic combination. Hadrian was a surprisingly modern figure with a surprisingly modern problem.

Publius Aelius Hadrianus Afer, or Hadrian as his drinking buddies called him, was one of the great Roman Emperors, reigning in the second century, 117-138 AD. He is mentioned in the same breath as Augustus, Vespasion, Diocletian and Constantine. Born in the backwaters of rural Italy, he lost his father at an early age but gained a place in elite circles through competence, the connections of an extended family and luck. Hadrian was charismatic, competent, cosmopolitan and promiscuous. He spent his life in a politically advantageous marriage to a stern and hard woman. They supported each other and respected each other, but love did not appear to be part of the bargain. A doomed love affair with a young boy caused raging notoriety during his reign. Other than the fact that Hadrian was gay, he wasn’t so different from our own Bill Clinton.

But Hadrian, and his culture, faced a problem. Rome reigned supreme. There were other powerful cultures to be sure, but they were far away and absorbed with their own internal problems. They presented no real threat to Rome. The borders of the Roman Empire were not sharply drawn lines, instead being the point at which the legions found it unprofitable to extend. On one side of these ambiguous borderlines was civilization; culture, law and order, food and a measure of security. On the other side was a veritable Eden of sustainable development and artisanal ecologies, tribes with subsistence level organic farming, Earth friendly housing, living the reality of John Lennon’s Imagine’s lyrics.

Surprising to modern Western sensibilities, large numbers of the people living in these Eden’s of sustainable development were moving across those vague borders into the Roman Empire. As you can guess, this created problems. These immigrants brought their ways of life and their culture with them, so different from the Roman model. One imagines that they sought out the cities and towns where they either engaged in crime or unskilled work for very little money. One imagines further that they formed immigrant communities, ghettos or shantytowns, on the outskirts of the civilized cities and towns. From the point of view of the Roman administrators, these immigrants weren’t even worth taking as slaves, as then their owner must feed and care for them.

What to do? The elite class of the time didn’t really see the problem. Living behind the walls of prosperous countryside villas or in well guarded luxurious town houses, attended by highly trained slaves and served by skilled freedmen, this influx of immigrants did not disturb them, unless they wandered into the wrong part of town unescorted. In fact the availability of limitless cheap labor was a great good as it kept the costs of goods and services down. At the same time, the desperation of the immigrants to come into the Empire flattered the egos of the Imperial elites by assuring those elites of their own superiority. What wasn’t to like about the immigrants?

Of course the people in the provinces, otherwise known as flyover country complained, but the provinces always stood in the way of progress anyway. The fashionable thirst for Greek culture and lifestyles, now the rage among the smart set in the important cities of the Empire, drove the provincials into a rage. Even though no self-respecting Roman man would ever be anything other than clean-shaven, Hadrian himself wore a curled beard in the Greek manner! He even had bearded statues of himself erected throughout the Empire. Hadrian’s facial hair was a scandal and a disgrace to the conservative folk in the countryside.

Perhaps it was the Roman Army that was the deciding factor. No Roman Head of State after the time of Gaius Marius ignored the care and feeding of the men in the legions. The man in the legions was a sword carrying man of substance, requiring care and attention. Left idle, common sense and experience taught that trouble came. Traditionally, the legions had kept their men occupied in fighting wars to conquer new territories. But that was in the past. The Roman Empire now fronted on territories of poor and savage peoples. Over the past century, the Roman experience of warfare had been against faceless and scattered warriors in guerilla warfare that had taught hard lessons. Everyone remembered Varus, Herman and the debacle at the Teutoberg Forest. Fighting small groups of hardened warriors in strange places brought no profit to anyone, created no holding of value for the Empire, demoralized and disaffected the troops. Sending legions into Germany, Scotland or the central plains of Europe was a waste of time and money capturing land of no value populated by savages too alien and primitive to recognize the superiority of Rome. These lands beyond the border were an endless morass of rebellion, banditry and terrorism.

It was a complicated problem. Hordes of people with no skills, alien in culture and a sure source of irritation to established populations within the Empire were trying to get into the Empire. The Empire’s borders were porous, impossible to police or control. A large, well trained and influential army existed that had nothing to do except get into trouble, either internally or in meaningless conflict beyond the border.

Sometimes it takes a genius to find the simple answer to a complicated problem. Hadrian had a touch of the genius about him and he came up with a solution, both simple and elegant. The simple answer to Rome’s problem was a wall. And so we have Hadrian’s Wall across the island of Britain. It stopped the immigration of people from the wild Celtic north of the island into the newly prosperous and rapidly Romanizing south. And since the walls were built and garrisoned by the men of the Roman legions, it kept the troops occupied with useful work. As a bonus, the fees and tariffs paid by those legally passing through the walls did much to pay for their construction and maintenance. After 2,000 years, Hadrian’s Wall still stands, a monument to Roman engineering and construction.


Over the years there has always been debate in the academic community as to the purpose and effectiveness of Hadrian’s Wall. The Wall was a massive work but what was it really supposed to do? It was a stone wall eighty miles long, fifteen feet high and thirty feet wide, fronted by a V-shaped ditch nine feet deep. Incorporated into the wall at one mile intervals are guardhouse barracks for 50-60 men. Obviously Hadrian’s Wall presented no serious obstacle to an invading army. An army or organized fighting force of any size would pass through it as easily as a knife through warm butter, but imagine yourself an immigrant family from Scotland seeking a better life in London or York and coming upon the Wall. I think its purpose is plain.

Hadrian’s Wall across Britain was not the only wall. Hadrian built similar walls around much of the Empire, walling off Germany, the Balkans, Northern Africa, wherever the Empire fronted on people wanting in. For nearly three centuries, longer than the United States has been an independent nation, the walls built by Hadrian served to control the borders of the Roman Empire. Again, by any reasonable standard they did what was required at a cost considered reasonable by the people paying the cost.

What is to be said for the walls of Hadrian, of Khrushchev, of The Donald? In a very real but indefinable sense, walls offend us. Perhaps Robert Frost’s well beloved poem captures our feelings best:


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

Yes, we don’t like walls. But the poem goes on to tell us that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Yes, we know from our own experience that good fences do make good neighbors, even though we do not love a wall and want it down.  In a final bit of wisdom about walls, his poem also lets us know that while walls can solve problems, but they can create problems as well:

“Why do they (walls) make good neighbors?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out

And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Particularly as American’s, The Wall, no matter whose wall, offends us. As Americans, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants, whether we came last year or whether it was our remote Siberian ancestors at the end of the last Ice Age. I much prefer the image of America my grandparents saw as they came into New York Harbor.

statue-of-libertyThere is another poem, by Emma Lazarus, on that statue speaking to a different America. It says the things we once believed about ourselves:

Give me your tired your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

History allows us to see the consequences of actions. Nations and empires build walls in many places and in many times, but what are the consequences? The Wall Street Journal and its “free markets, free trade” orientation tirelessly points out the economic benefits from immigration. The New York Times and its “cosmopolitan humanism” orientation both rages at and pokes fun of the racism and ignorance embodied by a wall.

We are too close in time and to the issue to fairly assess Nikita K’s Wall in Berlin. But what about Hadrian’s Wall, what do historian’s say? One of the earliest and best historians, free of modern preoccupations with race and the Brotherhood of Man, Edward Gibbon in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” had this to say about the Roman Empire during the years following the construction of Hadrian’s Wall:

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. (i.e. the time of Hadrian and his three hand picked successors)”

The Wall advocated by The Donald may be a good idea, or it may be a bad idea. It may be genius or it may be stupidity, but it is not the fantasy of the ignorant portrayed by our leaders and those who claim the right to lead us. It is an idea, tested and true. No more, no less. Our leaders increasingly treat us like children, mouthing easy platitudes and calling it wisdom. They spare themselves the ill caused by what they do, growing rich on our pain. Perhaps this is why The Donald and his candidacy continue to surprise our leaders.

2 Responses to “The Wall”

  1. jeffrey Esbenshade says:

    Very Good If your a native NYC bussinesman you act the way Trump acts or you would
    get run over by all of forces you write about.No one talks about NYC mob.

    If you vote for Trump he is not the status quo. Our citzens are tired of one sided
    media the Hollywood guys, Congress that starts raising money for the next election
    after the day they are elected. My old fraternity brothers son
    beat a 10 term Congressman from Tulsa Olk. Jimmy has introduced term limits in house
    twice in 4 years never comes out of committee. This past June Speaker Bohener
    out of office, upset Jimmy beat his drinking buddy from Tulas hand picks
    a man no one in Olka every heard of and gave him a $1million gift both GOP,s
    Jimmy beat him 80% to 20% it was so strong Dems don’t have a man for Nov.
    John Bohener is now on R.J.Renyolds Board $300,000 year I guess all the smokes he needs

    The word is no people from Mexico crossing the border. BUT all central America
    sending their fair share. Some people are coming from China.
    Before Trump builds wall I wonder with all of our computer power he could ask
    all nations to work with us on a system, {no different than Ellis Island}
    IF they dont’ then build the wall

    Obama has moved the nation so far to the left the nation is on the wrong path.

  2. Paul S. says:

    “Other than the fact that Hadrian was gay, he wasn’t so different from our own Bill Clinton.” … wonderful, subtle wit!

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