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Jeffrey Feldman

Jeffrey Feldman

Posted: April 23, 2007 11:02 AM

Something There is That Doesn't Love a Wall


Before President Bush goes any further with his secret plan to wall off a dozen Baghdad neighborhoods in concrete fences, he should first read a poem by Robert Frost, and a speech or two by Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.

If President Bush had learned any lessons from American history, he would understand that our job is to tear down walls, not to build them.

Mending Wall
For almost 100 years, Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" has been teaching Americans that fences do not make good neighbors and that the purpose of a life of liberty is to tear down walls, not to build them--to question them, not to accept them.   As the speaker of Frost's poem puts it:

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 offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.

There was a time in American education when young students were forced to memorize these lines, although that time is unfortunately behind us.  Certainly, President Bush was never forced to spend a snowy evening frantically preparing to recite "Mending Wall" from memory in front of his high school class.  As a result, he never earned the benefit of such an exercise: America doesn't love a wall.  We see them as the symbols of a loss of freedom, great monuments to the death of liberty.  Walls confine.  Walls divide.  In our collective imagination, Americans do not build walls, we tear them down.

One wonders why President Bush did not, as Frost would have him do, ask that simple question before he built his walls in Baghdad:  What was I walling in or walling out?  If he had asked that simple question, he surely would have seen that the walls in Baghdad will "wall in" far more human spirit in a giant urban prison, than "wall out" potential suicide bombers. 

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall."  And that something is the American public and the residents of Iraq.

Unlike President Bush, it seems that Major Hathem Faek Salman of the Iraqi army has read Robert Frost:

"This is not a good plan," Salman, 40, had said before the meeting. "If my region were closed by these barriers, I would hate the army, because I would feel like I was in a big jail. . . . If you want to make the area secure and safe, it is not with barriers. We have to win the trust of the people."

(full story here)

Who among us would not feel like we were in a big jail if, upon waking up tomorrow morning, we suddenly found our neighborhood surrounded by giant concrete fences?

Tear Down This Wall
What we find in Robert Frost and Major Hathem Faek Salman is the same basic frame of liberty:

[liberty] is [the absence of walls]

Of course, as Frost teaches us so well, fences are good for keeping in cows, but if there are no cows--fences trap us like cattle.

Speaking in West Berlin in 1987, Ronald Reagan channeled Frost in an effort bring Berlin in from the cold:

Behind me stands a wall that encircles the free sectors of this city, part of a vast system of barriers that divides the entire continent of Europe. From the Baltic, south, those barriers cut across Germany in a gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guard towers. Farther south, there may be no visible, no obvious wall. But there remain armed guards and checkpoints all the same--still a restriction on the right to travel, still an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state.

(full speech here) 

I suspect that Reagan been forced to read Frost, as I had been long after him.  "Behind me stands a wall," is a line Frost would have accepted as his own. 

What we see in Reagan's "wall" is a symbol that stands against freedom itself--a "vast system of barriers" that not only divides a continent, but divides human beings from themselves.  It was, for Reagan, a symbol of the will of a totalitarian state--a system that seeks to replace normal healthy human relations with a radical, atomistic form of oppression.  The Berlin wall, on the one hand, prevented  Berliners from fleeing the Soviet State, but on the other hand it divided all Berliners from each other.  The system of watchtowers and police methods built with the wall created a massive system for destroying the social fabric of human society and replacing it with the prying eye of the  authoritarian state.

The solution, as Reagan put it, was not only to ask, 'What I was walling in or walling out,' but to answer it definitively:  freedom itself has been walled out.  And so the wall had to come down:

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

(full speech here)

Some may take strong issue with other aspects of Reagan's worldview, but the logic in his 1987 speech is as American as Frost's poem.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner
Even more than Reagan, however, no American President articulated Frost's idea better than  John F. Kennedy.  No President, living or dead, seemed to understand better the idea that all too often fences make prisons, not neighbors. 

Speaking in Berlin in 1963, Kennedy spoke with Frost's principle flowing in his veins:

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us. I want to say, on behalf of my countrymen, who live many miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, who are far distant from you, that they take the greatest pride that they have been able to share with you, even from a distance, the story of the last 18 years. I know of no town, no city, that has been besieged for 18 years that still lives with the vitality and the force, and the hope and the determination of the city of West Berlin. While the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of. the Communist system, for all the world to see, we take no satisfaction in it, for it is, as your Mayor has said, an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together.

(full text here)

There are far fewer American school children forced to memorize this quote from Kennedy than Frost's "Mending Wall"--but they are the lucky few.

The lesson is the logical conclusion from Frost:  Despite the bad fences that some may build, the good neighbor in us survives.  And even if a fence divides people physically from one another, it can never separate people from the human spirit. 

Kennedy's idea was more powerful than any arms race, more universal than any economic ideology, and more effective than any wall ever built: walls may imprison us,  but in so doing they connect us to those who live their lives by the principle of liberty.  The Soviet wall trapped the residents of Berlin, but in so doing it made all of us Berliners.

The wall, according to Kennedy, was more than an implement for crushing liberty.  It was "the most obvious and vivid demonstration" of the failure of totalitarian Soviet policy. 

Kennedy's phrase is worth repeating in light of Bush's decision to build miles and miles of walls in Baghdad.  Such a policy is "the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures" of the Bush policy in Iraq--the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures.

That Wants It Down
Of course, poetry is not a solution to President Bush's failed policy in Iraq--even a poem as powerful and famous as "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost. 

But as we listen to Frost's poem echoing through through the words of Kennedy and Reagan, we cannot help but see how lost President Bush has become--cannot help but see how much President Bush's occupation of Iraq embodies the very threats to liberty that past Presidents dedicated their lives to dismantling.

The most obvious and vivid demonstration of that contradiction is the act of enclosing vast sections of the Iraqi population in concrete fences.

What is that "something" of Frost's that doesn't love a wall?

That something is Reagan.

That something is Kennedy.

That something is American character itself.

Indeed, if President Bush had learned any lessons in school--lessons that we all, as Americans, learned at one point or another--he should know that his job is to tear down walls in Baghdad, not to build them.   He should know that his job is to remind us, and the world, that America looks for ways to eliminate walls, not to purchase them in bulk from independent contractors. He should know--but he does not.

So it is worth repeating, now:

I am an Iraqi.

Mr. Bush, tear down this wall.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down."

(cross posted from Frameshop)

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