Walls and Calls

With a barely concealed chortle the man’s ebullient voice burbled on my answering machine.  For a donation right now, he gushed, Republicans would send bricks to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi to show my (non-existent) support for Trump’s wall.  Our government has been shut down for a record period over a temper-tantrum by a man desperate to leave something tangible from his wasted term as president.  Apart from the clean-up of the Trumpian incontinence that has befouled this nation, his legacy as the most incompetent holder of the office is likely all that will be left behind in the swamp.  With two full years of control of both houses of congress and the White House there has been pitifully little to show.  Now the GOP has turned to pranking the citizenry to deflect once again the fact that nothing worthwhile has been done.

Read the wall

Walls, for those who know how to read, don’t work.  Republicans have forgotten how their former darling, Ronald Reagan, both gloried in his purported role in knocking down the Berlin Wall and his hatred of the Russians.  In a matter of three decades a major political party has excelled only in having outdone Watergate and completely reversing its position on everything that used to define it.  Claiming to be the party of Lincoln they nominated and elected a man who publicly supports the klan.  Branding has never smelled so cheap.  And get off my phone—I’m expecting some important calls.

What the GOP doesn’t seem to understand is that the price of a soul is far more than a long distance call.  Building a wall is mere rhetoric reified.  It would be an incredible waste of taxpayer’s money.  I’ve been paying into the system for 42 years now—others have been paying longer—and I’ve not yet met a rank and file Republican who wants a wall.  And yet our government, one of the most powerful in the world, is shut down over it.  The 2016 election itself was stolen by a game called the electoral college.  We’ve sat two years and watched democracy crumbling.  Now that a small check has been introduced we have an unbalanced man insisting on his own way over the will of the nation.   There are more important things to buy, for my money.  With my money.  Acknowledging how government works shouldn’t be a great effort for someone who aspires to be president.  If his party has to resort to sending novelty bricks, the wall has already been built.

Brick in the Wall

Kids. You never know what’ll come out of their mouths. Not bounded by logic or the rules of physics, they come up with some of the most truly creative ideas that grace our species. The growing up process usually includes filters that separate the real from the imaginary. But not always. In a recent statement, Donald Trump said that his proposed wall between Mexico and the United States should be invisible. His concern, according to a Washington Post story by Christopher Ingraham, is that catapults could be used to launch drugs over the wall. Somebody could get hit in the head. (It sounds like somebody has been already.) So the wall should be see-through. This wall, which the majority of Americans don’t want, and which will have to be deconstructed at great expense after his presidency (such as it is), will be a technological marvel. It’ll even have solar panels, added by old king coal himself.

I can’t help but think of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Earth is being destroyed—not by Trump in this scenario, but by aliens looking for whales that we’ve driven extinct (there’s the Trump part). The crew of the Enterprise, in a Klingon warship, have to transport humpback whales from the 1980s into the future. The problem is see-through aluminum does not yet exist. Scottie, posing as a professor from Edinburgh—back in the days when my alma mater bore some cachet—gives the formula to a San Francisco manufacturing firm in return for enough of the metal to make a holding tank for the aquatic mammals. They slingshot around the sun back to the future just in time to save earth from a catastrophe worthy of Trump Enterprises. Problem is, see through aluminum is fiction.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

In my daydreams I often picture this wall. My thoughts inevitably go to Berlin and shortsighted solutions. History (which most American presidents have made a point of studying) teaches that walls don’t work. The technology is ancient. As is the technology of how to get around, under, and over walls. In fact, basic career counseling will often use the wall as an exercise to get you thinking of ways to overcome obstacles in your path. Dealing with walls is one of the most time-honored of human pastimes. You see, walls were originally built to keep us safe especially from non-human threats. We didn’t want toothy big cats or cave bears wandering in during the night and making snacks of us. We built walls. Then we wondered what was going on over on the other side. Just now, it seems, that idea has begun to dawn on a man who might benefit from trying to understand The Voyage Home.

Revisiting Jericho

I don’t get out from the office much. As those who commute to New York City will readily tell you, there is a constant anxiety about getting to and from the city that keeps you in the office (cubicle) as long as possible. Just yesterday my bus broke down on halfway there. I seldom take lunch away from my desk, and even more rarely get out to see what’s actually in Manhattan. Besides work. Earlier this week I wrote a post about the Berlin Wall. Wanting a picture that wasn’t somebody else’s work, I decided to visit the famous slab of the wall in Paley Park. Like many parks in Midtown, this is a mere pocket in the shadow of a high-rise, but a large slab of the Berlin Wall had been there for years, drawing tour guides and history buffs alike. It is only 19 blocks from my office. I’m a fast walker, and I made it all the way catching only three red lights. Since the anniversary of the wall’s Jericho moment had been twenty-five years and a day before, I expected crowds. Instead, no Berlin Wall was to be found. Businessmen smoking away their lives and lunch hours, but no oppressive wall. I double-checked my location. Triple-checked, with GPS. Then I walked 19 blocks back.

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Photo credit: Gaurav1146, WikiMedia Commons

Visiting the comments on one of the wall’s websites, I saw that it had been, perhaps unintentionally symbolically, removed. After standing in this pocket park for nearly a quarter of a century, the slab had been absconded mere weeks before the anniversary when I, and given the number of cameras I saw, not I alone, had gone to see and to reflect. Where does one put the Berlin Wall? There was another piece, I read, at the United Nations gardens. You only had to pay 18 dollars to get in. Although it is close to my old office at Routledge, it is a lengthy walk from where I now find myself. Once I arrived home I searched for answers. The wall had been removed for restoration. A wall that had been sufficient to divide a city, scrawled with graffiti, apparently, required restoration. On the long walk back, I considered my similarly ill-fated trip a couple years back to find the closed Gotham Book Mart. Like the wall, have I become useless history?

My Germanic ancestors came to America nearly two centuries ago, and although I never knew that side of the family well, I suspect it was for economic, not religious reasons. It is sometimes easy to think, given all the rhetoric, that Europeans came here to be part of a Christian free-for-all. No doubt, some did. Many others, however, had more mundane motivation. A strong Protestant work ethic that somehow seems genetic, and a belief that somewhere else is better, will help you get along. So I’m told. So the tale goes in the book of Joshua. Israelites, wanting to cross the water to a new home, blowing their trumpets and raising a shout. Yes, the Berlin Wall did come down. Like the fallen wall of Jericho, it’s nowhere to be seen.

Parable of Jericho

It had been there my entire life. I hadn’t really noticed it, but it was a powerful symbol—not in the way that it was intended to be. Given the Teutonic nature of many of my musings, it probably occasions little surprise that much of my ancestry is German. I first heard about the Berlin Wall in German class in junior high school. It was a wall to ensure inequality. Then, while studying in Edinburgh, my wife and I came across a friend from Germany. He was standing outside a window, staring in at a television showing the Berlin Wall coming down. Younger than me, he couldn’t believe that this obstacle that seemed so permanent was finally, and suddenly gone. The next summer when we visited him in Germany, he took us to the former border between east and west. Bridges eerily stopped half-way across rivers. Sudden changes in affluence and outlook once you drove across an invisible line that separated us from them. It was all so surreal.

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: George Louis, Wikimedia Commons

This week heralds the quarter-century mark on the fall of one of the starkest symbols of the Cold War. People hating people. And as the wall in Berlin came down, walls were about to be erected in other states around the world. Not-so-Great walls intended to keep them from getting to us. We stubbornly refuse to learn from history. Those who have have little patience with those who have not. The borders are all only in our minds. Even as the wealthy elites within our system refuse to admit that crime largely comes from unequal distribution of resources, our own nation looks at others and makes the same tacit refusal to acknowledge the obvious. If wealth is so good, why not share it?

Of course, you can buy a piece of the Berlin Wall. Anything from a fist-sized chunk to several tons. The websites say that the wall is of limited quantity. Buy your piece before it’s all gone. I’m afraid their fears are misplaced. The wall pieces may not come from Berlin, but there will always be pieces available, some day, from the West Bank Barrier, or the Peace Walls of Belfast, or the Green Line in Cyprus, or Operation-Hold-the-Line in the Lone Star State. There are many walls that eventually must tumble. Ironically the prophets of the biblical world declare that every hill will be brought down and every valley lifted up to ease the way back home. Of course, once you arrive at home you naturally lock the door to keep the other out. And now, a quarter century after the embarrassment of Berlin faltered, we continue to erect new follies rather than trying to learn to get along.

Monsters Incorporated

Monsters

Monsters. What’s not to like? With a title so innocuous and limited US marketing, this 2010 British indie film only just came to my attention. I hadn’t even heard anything about it as I sat down to view it. The premise of invading aliens is as old as H. G. Wells, if not earlier, but this is a film without over-the-top CGI and a very human story. Showing far more tension than bloodshed, Andrew and Samantha, their Anglo names very prominent, are caught in alien-infested northern Mexico. Somewhat predictably, Samantha has a rich daddy who happens to be Andrew’s boss, but the couple has to find their way back to the United States as giant insectoid-octopi rampage through the night, destroying just about anything they can get their tentacles on. So far it sounds like standard Saturday-afternoon fare. As Andrew and Samantha reached the Rio Grande, however, overlooking the huge wall the US government built to keep out the aliens, I realized what the film is really about.

During the Bush years, shortly after the Berlin Wall had come down, a new wall was snaking its way along the Mexican border. America had become weary of “Give me your tired, your poor.” This was the land of opportunity, instead, for the chosen few. Never mind that we know that many of the jobs most of us don’t want are gratefully accepted by those who may not be technically legal in this country. Never mind that we deny social justice, in many ways, to those who make our lifestyle possible. Andrew and Samantha face the massive wall that says, “keep out.”

Of course, they make it back to Texas. They discover, however, that the aliens have breeched the walls as well. And they really pose no threat beyond wanting to draw strength from the abundant light-sources of a power-hungry world. The film’s ending is a bit ambiguous, but then again, the plight of the alien generally is. I watched the film with no expectation beyond a bit of sci-fi action to help give me the energy to make it through another week of work. Instead I saw a brash American coming to a deeper sense of humanity while standing in a church where hundreds were mourning their dead. The death of one small girl was as much a tragedy of as the breeching of the borders. Until humanity prevails over artificial borders, there will indeed be monsters. Were that they were only giant insectoid-octopi.

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.

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Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.