Taking Sides and Building Walls: An Essay by David Olney
EDITOR’S NOTE: With the production and release of our summer print journal, which explores a theme we call (Im)migration, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about how music and people move through our world. Evidently, David Olney had similar things on his mind as he created his latest album, This Side or the Other, which comes out Friday. The album has plenty to say about walls and separation and division, but we asked him to share a little more of his thoughts on the subject for our readers. At the end of his essay, be sure to check out his video for the album’s title track, co-written with John Hadley and Anne McCue, who also contributes harmony vocals to this haunting track.
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The Wall is in the news. Trump’s Wall. But for those of us old enough to remember, there was another wall: the infamous Berlin Wall. It came into being in the summer of 1961 and lasted until 1989. Its purpose was to keep the East German people in, and the West Germans (and by extension, the western world) out. Communism versus capitalism. Totalitarianism versus democracy. Nothing symbolized the Cold War more chillingly than the Berlin Wall. We heard countless stories of people being shot trying to breach the wall to escape communist tyranny. No one was ever shot trying to break into East Berlin from the West. John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ends at the Berlin Wall with the deaths of the protagonist, Alec Leamas, and his lover, Liz Gold, shot trying to escape. The film of that book was in black and white, and the actual events of that time and place also seemed to be shot in black and white. Fear and oppression on one side, freedom and hope on the other.
When the Berlin Wall finally came down in November 1989, it was a moment of unadulterated joy on both sides. Most events in history have an ambiguity to them. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, marked a victory for the U.S. government and its people, and a necessary step in ending the horror of slavery. But for all that, the defeat of the Confederacy carried a melancholy that was felt by more than a few. There was no melancholy connected with the demolition of the Berlin Wall, no nostalgia for a golden past, real or imagined. Only joy.
What other walls are there in history? I don’t know why the Great Wall of China was constructed, but it came to symbolize a cultural isolation that certainly did more harm than good. Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England was built by the Romans to keep the wild Picts out of Roman territory. The Picts painted themselves blue and screamed incoherently at the centurions, showing themselves to be unready for the finer points of civilization. The wall speaks well for the army’s corps of engineers. It also speaks convincingly of the irrational and indomitable love of freedom on the part of the Picts.
In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall,” the poet muses on the ineffectiveness of walls to keep one’s apple trees from hurting another’s pines. Two men meet on a spring day to repair the wall that marks their property line. When one of the men voices his doubts about the worth of the wall, the other answers with a meaningless saying he remembers from childhood: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
When humans evolved from hunter-gathering to agriculture, they needed to protect their surpluses of grain and corn and whatever else they had an excess of. Without a wall around their community, these early farmers were at the mercy of wandering barbarians who hadn’t gotten the memo about the switch to agriculture. These walls also had the effect of dividing people into Us and Them. Us were inside. Outside the wall lurked Them, also known as The Other. This is the true forebear of Trump’s Wall. National security is always cited, but the real purpose is the identification of The Other.
In the Middle Ages, cities built walls around Jewish ghettoes. The rationale on the part of the State was that the walls helped protect the Jews. The Holocaust put an end to that particular line of logic.
When a wall protects us from nature, from the elements, it is clearly a good thing. When we are beset with wind, rain, and cold, not to mention wild beasts, animal or human, we are grateful for the presence of the wall. Problems arise, however, when walls are built for political reasons. Then they always entail the perception that those on one side of the wall are intrinsically better than those on the other.
The better angels of our nature admonish us to offer aid to the traveler, the stranger, The Other. On an individual basis, in our odd capitalist way, I think we do just that. Motels, campgrounds, B&Bs abound. They are not free, but they are available. But our notions of hospitality go out the window when on the tribal or nationalist plane. Suddenly doors shut, locks click, and walls spring up like mushrooms. Everything depends on whether one is perceived as one of Us or one of Them. And that perception changes almost daily. African Americans were considered Them. Through nonstop struggle, they are becoming part of Us. Jews have suffered countless falls from favor over the centuries and, on some level, always keep a suitcase packed and ready to go. Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italian, and Germans have done their time as members of the tribe of Others. The Other of choice these days is the Muslim.
On a tribal level, anything becomes acceptable. No self-respecting individual would deny someone truly in need shelter or would dream of separating children from their parents. But as tribe members, we do these things in a heartbeat. The logic seems to be that as individuals we need walls to protect us from nature. As members of the tribe, we need walls to protect us from other humans. Or, at least, we are told that by our tribal leaders. National security.
I don’t know how to solve our immigration situation. Who and how many should be allowed in? What tests should they have to pass before granted citizenship? But I strongly suspect that a wall has a negative effect on our chances of solving our immigration problems. I also strongly suspect that those who advocate for the border wall represent a greater danger to our country than the people they are trying to keep out.