On 'Mending Wall,' in Politics and Otherwise
While reading Robert Frost’s Selected Poems recently, I was once again struck by the spareness, power and apparent approachability of his poetry. I say “apparent” because Frost always rewards a close read and much of his work can be seen as a dialectical dialogue with the colloquial aimed at both revealing and pondering universal themes and questions. So it was with a poem that appeared in an early collection, North of Boston, entitled “Mending Wall.” In that oft-quoted masterpiece, Frost began by suggesting:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.1
Nonetheless, while Nature’s pitiless action and the work of human interventions alike can and do rend physical walls, Frost suggested that, dialectically, he and his neighbor dutifully appeared each spring on an appointed day to repair portions of the rock boundary that divided their properties:
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.2
As I read this poem afresh and reflected on humankind’s propensity to build barriers against others based on a welter of characteristics, including race, tribe, ethnicity, religion, gender and national origin, I was reminded of Donald Trump’s latest rant against a minority population in the United States, this time blaming Jews for a share of the concerns of his Evangelical Christian base who support Israel because they believe doing so is central to a Biblical prophecy. Here is how one journalist reporting Trump’s interview with a prominent Israeli journalist introduced her story concerning it, followed by relevant Trump comments:
Former President Donald Trump made a jaw-dropping series of antisemitic claims about Jewish Americans controlling institutions of government and media in a new interview where he said evangelical Americans ‘love Israel more than the Jews in this country.’ ... ‘It used to be Israel had absolute power over Congress,’ Trump said. ‘And today I think it’s the exact opposite. And I think Obama and Biden did that. And yet in the election, they still get a lot of votes from Jewish people, which tells you that the Jewish people ― and I’ve said this for a long time ― the Jewish people in the United States either don’t like Israel or don’t care about Israel.3
Trump’s statements echoed his 2019 assertion that Jews who vote for Democratic Party candidates are not legitimate Americans. The ex-president recently asserted another age-old antisemitic trope: that Jewish people control global politics and culture against the interests of non-Jews. In a criticism of The New York Times during his interview, Trump opined:
I mean, you look at The New York Times―The New York Times hates Israel. Hates ’em. And they’re Jewish people that run The New York Times. I mean, the Sulzbergers (Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. was the longtime chairman of The New York Times Company; he was succeeded by his son, A.G. Sulzberger. They have Jewish ancestry but, according to the Times of Israel, some descendants were raised Protestant).4
Trump apparently employed this sort of rhetoric to garner the continued backing of Evangelicals while seeking to undercut institutions that might lead those voters to question whether his claims had any basis. In short, the former president sought to create walls of perceived difference, of fear and hatred, on empty shibboleths, even as he sought to attack those whom he alleged were somehow already at fault for broadly cast, undefined, negative and usurping activities. In so doing, the GOP leader painted Jews as both malicious and scheming underminers and not fully American citizens. Trump’s walls consisted of little more than a patchwork of lies and scapegoating that depended for their sustenance on those who might thereafter choose to support and maintain them.
Frost’s poem and its treatment of humanity’s willingness to build and to accept artificial barriers of fear and hatred among their number, reminded me, too, of another recent news story. This one focused on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, who was sentenced in Myanmar to two years in prison in early December based on a long list of charges fabricated by her nation’s ruling junta. Suu Kyi had already been ousted from her governmental post by that military faction in a February 2021 coup. If found guilty of additional allegations she still confronts, the 76-year-old Suu Kyi could easily spend the rest of her life in prison. This scenario follows her willingness to play a role in the government of her country that ensured its military a veto of all public actions, and her despicable decision in 2019 to support those rulers before the International Court of Justice in The Hague by defending their brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in 2017. That army action killed thousands of people and drove more than 700,000 innocent citizens into Bangladesh while destroying hundreds of villages with firebombs to prevent ready repatriation. Many close investigators of the military’s actions have concluded that its operations against a share of the nation’s citizens during that period constituted genocide.5
Suu Kyi’s support for the junta de facto repudiated and undid her long record of advocating for human and civil rights as a leader imprisoned for decades by a previous junta in her nation. In this instance, however, those persecuted were members of a demonized religious (Muslim) minority in the nation and Suu Kyi seemed incapable of seeing past the broad popularity of that religious hatred among Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, her own apparent beliefs and a desire to retain a modicum of power. Whether a Faustian bargain or a manifestation of her genuine views, she has now lost all international credibility and her freedom, has gained little for her country’s population and has undermined the democratic principles for which she had become a revered symbol. In her case, the walls built of religious intolerance, fear and hatred proved sturdy, and while a democratic movement continues to challenge the regime in Myanmar, she is less and less central to those efforts and likely to become more so.
These two examples illustrate, as Frost rightly emphasized, that walls based on othering, derision and rancor require human will to maintain them. Trump vilified a minority group in the United States to curry favor with a key constituency while a vicious junta, publicly backed by Suu Kyi, employed fear and loathing predicated on perceived difference to legitimate a campaign of unrestrained violence against a share of its own citizens. Beyond these observations, and as Frost underlined in his poem, real or metaphorical walls can be subjected to calls to conscience founded on the ethical and moral axioms they violate. The normative claims of democratic principles and freedom can consistently be invoked against humans’ common willingness to other and to hate. Those seeking freedom can appeal to its cognate premises of equality amidst diversity and to self and collective discipline and empathy to contravene fear mongering and odium. In short, these two examples highlight a persistent dialectic between a will to power and aggrandizement accompanied by insecurity, and an equally enduring disposition to freedom and democratic possibility. History teaches that human beings are capable of the most depraved actions vis-a-vis other individuals and groups, even as it also suggests that that same species is willing to sacrifice deeply in the pursuit of equality and justice for all.
Our present governance moment in the United States has found millions of individuals willing to degrade themselves and their nation’s principles as they follow a demagogue preaching and fomenting hatred, but there is no reason a priori to suppose that this challenge cannot be overcome by sustained common action for freedom. Indeed, many citizens—likely, a majority—today are keenly aware of the crisis confronting our body politic and are working diligently to address it. Likewise, there is hope in Myanmar that a de facto government in exile can prevail in the long run against the present military junta. The outcome of the very human dialectic in these two scenarios—between hope, freedom and justice on the one hand, and hatred, fear and bloodlust on the other—is not foreordained. On reflection, what seems ineluctable is the universal existence of that dialectical tension.
I was struck reading “Mending Wall” by Frost’s singular insight on this point. He highlighted the hollowness of his neighbor’s persistent desire to maintain the wall along their property for no reason other than acceptance of a hoary family adage. This is to say that tyranny can be overcome, but it will ever require individual and collective consciousness, will and sacrifice to do so. Tyranny will endure so long as humankind is willing to accept unreflectively the unexamined, the fear-inducing and the ignominy of unbridled self-absorption. Frost underscored this point as he described his neighbor at work building wall to end his poem:
I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go beyond his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’6
I embrace Frost’s ironic twist to end his poem and hope that those willing to pay obeisance to hatred and othering in an unreflective way can be brought to consciousness of the ethical and moral emptiness of their position and to an awareness of its negative implications for their own freedom, and that of others.
1 Frost, Robert. Selected Poems. London: The Folio Society, 2010, p.23.
2 Frost. Selected Poems, p. 23.
3 Boboltz, S. (2021, December 20). "Trump bandies about antisemitic tropes in interview with Israeli reporter." Yahoo! News. Retrieved from https://news.yahoo.com/trump-bandies-anti-semitic-tropes-224031396.html
4 Boboltz, "Trump bandies about antisemitic tropes in interview with Israeli reporter."
5 Wee, S.-lee, & Paddock, R. C. (2021, December 6). Aung San Suu Kyi Falls, but Myanmar's Democratic Hopes Move On. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/06/world/asia/myanmar-aung-san-suu-kyi.html? campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20211207&instance _id=47156&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=40087534&s egment_id=76281&u;
Hansler, J. (2018, December 13). House says Myanmar Crimes against Rohingya are genocide | CNN politics. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/13/politics/ho use-resolution-myanmar-genocide/index.html
6 Frost. Selected Poems, p. 24.
January 10, 2022