Culture For Good Politics Travel

The Subversive Power of Walls

One of the most magical experiences I’ve had was arriving at the top of the Great Wall of China. The landscape unfolds into the distance in all directions, obscured after a time by the Beijing haze. Stood at the top, it is still possible to imagine what it must have been like for a Chinese soldier peering out beyond the frontier into the vast unknown valleys below.

While much of the Wall that is accessible is newly restored, you only have to walk a few kilometres before you stumble upon the ruined parts. The walkways become uneven and trees break through the stone at odd angles. The crumbling watch towers become a playground for wannabe adventures who, as children, spent too long playing Lara Croft video games.

The Great Wall of China is a reminder of just how powerful walls are. They have shaped history. The leave behind physical and psychological legacies. And they continue to dictate discourse on how we interact as human beings.

Like a city that is broken into and without walls, is a man who has no control over his spirit. — Proverbs 25:28

As a species we are no strangers to walls. We have a powerful compulsion to construct things that signify identity, demarcate and leave a legacy.

The concept of a wall, and how we understand it, is ancient. Most cities developed inside walls. The Bible contains numerous reference to walls, including God’s instruction to Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack.

Hadrian’s Wall separated the Romans from the ‘uncivilised’ Picts. The Great Wall of China protected the Qin Kingdom from nomadic raiders. And the Berlin Wall stood for almost 30 years separating two communities, creating two different histories in the same city.

Beyond the physical practicality of walls, they are powerful symbols. They serve to divide, contain and protect. They become important signifiers of identity and can shape the trajectory of a community or a whole country. They tell stories. They form parts of rituals.

We have a deep psychological attachment to walls as things that protect and preserve. Not only do they serve to demarcate borders but they also delineate between what we understand to be the ‘civilised’ and ‘the other.’

This understanding is so ingrained in our psyche that it is often overlooked. New York’s Wall Street, for instance, is not a harmless name. It is named after the wall that once stood there dividing, and ‘protecting’, the Dutch colonialists from the native american population.

But these division points are selective. What populations perceived as an existential threat is chosen. For instance, there is no wall between the US and Canada. There are no walls or borders between the nations of Europe.

“We are going to build a wall. You’re going to pay for the wall.” ― Donald Trump

The contemporary significance of physical and symbolic walls has become ever more pressing.

A long time after Reagan demanded “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, we have a different US President seeking to exploit the full force of the wall’s divisive potential.

And Trump is far from alone. Hungary’s now notorious right-wing populist regime has heavily fortified its border, aimed at keeping out refugees fleeing poverty and conflict in the Middle East.

While these walls may be more symbolic than effective — with some arguing as a result Trump should just have his wall — they send a very strong message. Walls have become a symbol for right-wing populists and ethno-nationalists. The have become symbols of racial oppression.

In these cases walls are both physical barriers that seek to shut people off from others, and mental walls that they erect around concepts like race and nationality to stop them from engaging meaningfully with other people.

“A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”

— John F. Kennedy

Walls can also have a very different meaning and function.

They are supports. Their purpose in buildings is to hold up roofs, floors and ceilings. The give buildings form. They provide shelter and security. This can be incredibly empowering and provide the supporting infrastructure for a common understanding, a common goal or an overarching belief system.

In Tarot, the symbol of the brick wall means to progress. It is the process of building something — whether it be a reputation, confidence or evolution in our lives.

But most significantly, since ancient times, walls have been used as canvases for expression. The earliest forms of art are primitive paintings on cave walls that tell stories and record major events that hold communities together. In more contemporary times they have been canvases for protest or propaganda.

A visit to Prague helped me to appreciate this subversive role walls can play in undermining the very essence of their purpose to divide and isolate.

“Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
― Joseph Fort Newton

In February I visited Prague with a group of politically minded friends. It was the first time I’d been back in 12 years, since I visited with my mum as a newly graduated student.

We were a little perplexed as to why there is a John Lennon Wall in the city. As far as we were aware The Beatles didn’t have a strong connection with Prague.

The wall, located in a small square opposite the French Embassy, is covered in colourful graffiti. The first image was painted by an unknown artist in 1980 following the assassination of John Lennon. It was a single image of the singer and some of his lyrics.

Since then the imagery has continually changed, and visitors are encouraged to make their mark. It has been a locus for public protest, especially during the Communist era, and it is now full of symbols that represent global ideals like love and peace. President Trump’s call for a border wall has made it on as a caricature of the underlying ideology driving his proclamations.

The John Lennon Wall in Prague subverts the symbol of the wall as a divider and has transformed into an enduring symbol of peace and inclusion. Much like despite its role in dividing the city, the Berlin Wall also provided a canvas for messages of peace and hope.

Prague is an ideal place for this wall, which suffered so much, like much of Europe, under Communist rule. The city’s Museum of Communism chronicles the country’s misfortune post World War II and the culture of oppression that characterised its rule under Klement Gottwald.

Walls have become the arena for a new ideological battleground. Their role as physical and symbolic dividers has been given new life.

Symbols matter and have consequences. They influence the thinking of others and stir debate. It is up to each of us to decide how we use these symbols and how much they matter.

This is why there is so much disagreement in the US over Trump’s border Wall; why the ensuring there is no physical border in Northern Ireland matters so much to the Brexit negotiations; and why the EU has pursued sanctions over Hungary’s breach of its core principles.

I will leave you with this quote from Haruki Murakami:

“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals . . . We are all human beings, individuals, fragile eggs. We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold. To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us — create who we are. It is we who created the system.”

(Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, JERUSALEM POST, Feb. 15, 2009)

This was originally posted on Medium here

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