Vail Daily column: Good fences? |

Vail Daily column: Good fences?

Walls have a questionable reputation, for good reason.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” is an adage famous for its appearance in the Robert Frost poem “Mending Wall.” The phrase is often intoned by conservative thought leaders such as Sarah Palin to justify the building of a wall along our southern border. Careful reading of the poem reveals that it means the opposite of what it states. In the poem, two neighbors mend a wall separating their farms. The narrator of the poem expresses doubts about the need for the wall, while his neighbor insists on its necessity. The narrator’s musing on the wall’s constant need for repair suggests even nature conspires against the existence of a wall.

It is often repeated that Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans in 122 AD, was constructed to keep out the barbarians to the north, primarily Picts and Britons. However, Joshua Mark writing for Ancient History Encyclopedia contends, “The suggestion that Hadrian’s Wall … was built to hold back or somehow control the people of the north does not seem as likely as that it was constructed as a show of force.”

The Great Wall in China began as a series of smaller walls dating as far back as the 7th century BC. The surviving wall was built primarily in the 14th through 17th centuries AD, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The Great Wall was somewhat effective at preventing raiding parties, however it did not prevent invaders from entering China. Ultimately the Mongols would breach the wall and conquer the Mings. The wall came to symbolize a barrier between China and the rest of the world.

Regardless of their original intent, Hadrian’s Wall and The Great Wall are indisputably effective as tourist attractions today.

The Cold War metaphor of the “Iron Curtain” was most potently symbolized and physically realized in the construction of the Berlin Wall. The East German government justified the wall as necessary to keep out fascists. The Berlin Wall was never really about keeping anyone out, only keeping people in.

The rock band Pink Floyd released their 11th album in 1979, titled “The Wall.” It is one of the best selling albums in history and depicts the misfortunes endured by Pink — the rock opera’s protagonist. Each of Pink’s calamities becomes “bricks in the wall” as he insulates himself from the world.

The novelist Elif Shafak in her TED talk “The Politics of Fiction” relates the story of her grandmother who was regarded as a healer in their Istanbul neighborhood. People would come to her grandmother for relief from skin conditions such as acne and warts. Her grandmother treated the afflicted skin by uttering a prayer in Arabic, stabbing an apple with rose thorns, and then encircling the wart or blemish with dark ink. Shafak contends she never remembers anyone disappointed or unhealed by her grandmother’s treatment. When she asked her grandmother if it was the prayer that healed, her grandmother agreed that prayer was important but cautioned her granddaughter to “beware the power of circles.” Shafak says this taught her that if you want to destroy something, whether it is a wart or the human spirit, “surround it with thick walls, it will wither and die.”

Which brings me to the proposed border wall with Mexico.

According to the Pew Research Center, the flow of Mexicans into the United States has slowed since 2009. In fact, between 2009 and 2014, approximately 1 million Mexicans departed. Although family was often given for the reason they were returning, economic factors cannot be dismissed. Based on the International Monetary Fund’s projected GDP for 2016, Mexico now ranks 11th in world economies. Mexico is also our third largest trading partner. Avocados notwithstanding, Mexico’s top three exports are vehicles, electronic equipment and machines. Perhaps the most effective strategy for stemming the tide of undocumented workers is more trade, not less.

Besides, walls do not come cheap. CNBC reports that the Republicans’ border wall will cost between $15 billion-$25 billion to construct and $750 million in annual maintenance. Let’s quit indulging in the fantasy that Mexico will pay for it. So where will the money come from? Most of our national budget goes to pay for the military and health care. Killing off small agencies such as the NEA with an annual budget of about $150 million will only get you a few miles of fence.

“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.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Claire Noble can be found online at and Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.

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