Mulhall column: A tale of the new stone savage

Mitch Mulhall

The columnist and Luke Lynch in Belgium, probably, shortly after hiring a car for their journey.
Mitch Mulhall |

“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.”

— Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” 1914

The first time I saw a political wall was in 1982. It’s not a long story anymore. Details have passed over time, and too the college roommate with whom I traveled Europe that summer. With no memory check, the retelling of that morning — if not the memory itself — is solely mine, or so it now seems.

Behind schedule from having spent too long in Innsbruck and Kitzbühel, we picked Belvedere Palace for a quick Vienna stop.

A waxing moon had risen over the palace to illuminate the brevity of the remaining day, so we snapped a few photos of the palace framed by the moon and reflection pool before embarking on a few more pre-nightfall kilometers.

As darkening rural landscapes replaced traffic signals and oncoming headlights, freedom from the urbane yielded to the realization that neither of us had a clue where we were, so we pulled off to assess our location by a dome lit Rand McNally. Lacking any discernible landmarks in the darkness, we threw what we could in the rear of our rented Peugeot and reclined the front seat backs for a few hours’ sleep.

At dawn, perhaps as proof there are no wrong turns in life, it quickly became clear we had driven east out of Vienna.

There, some 50 yards beyond the pavement, looking like an overengineered power line, barbed wire mesh connected closely placed, 20-foot-high poles that extended as far as we could see north and south. As if to deter the undaunted, cross bars laced by more barbed wire topped the poles.

Beyond this barrier, another consisting of railroad tie tripods anchoring coiled razor wire created a no man’s land. If that weren’t enough, watchtowers dotted the landscape, too, each straddling a dirt road running parallel to the razor wire barrier, clearly used, I thought, for something other than rendering timely first-aid to the badly bloodied.

The scene left two guys from Glenwood Springs slack-jawed. We looked at each other, then back at the wall. “So, that’s what a socialist republic looks like,” we surmised, taking in what little we could see of Czechoslovakia.

As we drove off, I wondered whether the wall kept people out, in or both. Crossing either direction would ruin your day, but nothing I observed volunteered an answer.

That was a time when a wall separated people by political ideology. Don’t like capitalism? Individual liberty? Free markets? Build a wall.

Seven years later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, and Eastern European Communism began to dissipate. The Czechoslovak Soviet Republic peacefully dissolved its Communist government on Jan. 1, 1993, and split into the Czech and Slovak Republics. I haven’t been back, but I hear the wall is mostly gone.

Political walls are not new. They date back to Hadrian’s Wall (122 AD), erected during the Roman conquest of Britannia to keep barbarians out. Older still is the Great Wall of China (7th century BC), a barrier that over centuries served both to repel and contain.

President Trump’s recent budget includes funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Along the spectrum of wall purposes, this wall falls solidly within the Hadrian’s gradient.

Its purpose proves, in addressing problems of our time, politicians haven’t articulated a more effective solution than a wall, which is a good indication they don’t have one.

A wall is at least a bit more effective than doing nothing and a vast improvement over denial. But it’s a wall, and a wall usually outlives its purpose.

You can learn a lot by listening to those most affected by a wall. Many object to the proposed wall because getting into the U.S. may get harder. Yet theirs is not the loudest carp.

That distinction belongs to Democrat politicians. Mention the wall and they all but lose bowels. Why? For one, a growing underclass enlarges a social justice politician’s voter base. It’s a job security thing.

These days politicians of all stripes love a good wall, provided it’s made of gargantuan government instead of rail ties and razor wire. A government eager to weigh in on every conceivable matter polarizes better than a wall ever could.

In Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” the narrator sees the wall as unnecessary and characterizes his wall mending counterpart as an “old stone savage.”

On physical walls the narrator shares common cotton with many modern politicians. Where he differs, however, is in caring who a wall — however made — marginalizes.

The new stone savage keeps government large and growing. Take health care, for example: Don’t like Obamacare? Have some AHCA — all the government with none of the Democrat support. Add human life. Human death. Guns. Marriage. Religion. Voting. Education. Climate. Transportation. College athletics … The list grows ever larger. Government never gets smaller. The new stone savage is fine with that.

To me, the walls we can’t see are every bit as foreboding as the border of Czechoslovakia back in ’82.

Mitch Mulhall is a longtime valley resident. His column appears on the second Friday of each month.

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