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The Wall

A Blog By Carol Jeffers

             Proposals for the wall, yes, that wall, his wall, are in. Some four hundred companies appear to be bidding on the thing, agreeing to meet the specs—minimum 18 feet high, up to 30, cannot be pierced or penetrated by jack-hammers, cannot be tunneled under, could be solid, opaque, or transparent, must be aesthetically-pleasing on the American side—opportunistic enterprises all, hoping to be among the dozen chosen to put up their prototypes in San Diego this June. And what shall we see? Will anything be recognizable? Will New Englanders, for example, recognize the lobster trap-inspired design in a wire mesh installed in the dry Southwest desert?

            Those who have peeked at the proposals can tell us they comprise four categories. Some designs would “perfume the pig,” others act as “bad neighbors,” still others would stand as “fortresses,” and finally, some take a “whimsical approach,” perhaps in protest. One pig-perfumer proposes to paint the American side of the structure with soft colors and embed artifacts and relics into the cement, perhaps in a bid to acknowledge the history and culture of the borderlands. A deep trench filled with nuclear waste rather epitomizes the “bad neighbor” approach, while the “fortress” wall seems best captured by the company CEO—a retired cop—who declared his cement structure could withstand attacks by tanks and grenade-launchers. Whimsical designs include camels and lighthouses and hyperloop transportation with space for animal and human passage underneath.

            Meanwhile, I should note that the San Diego delegation of elected officials and Chamber of Commerce representatives also met with their Tijuana counterparts at the border. Their proposal was to build bridges, to promote a healthy, free flow of goods, services, ideas—people—between the two cities. I daresay other American border towns—Nogales, Brownsville, Laredo—seek to do the same.

            And so, we have the wall-builders and the bridge-builders, two distinct and uncompromising world views deeply wired into our DNA, both directly related to species survival. The need for place, the impulse, instinct to define it, wall it off, declare it safe, secure, a refuge, home base. The need for space is equally strong, an openness, free zone that beckons us to explore, to see what lies beyond, to keep fresh. It is in our nature to need both. Human nature ever prickly, contradictory, fraught.

            Human nature, I said in The Question of Empathy. But with the coming of the wall, my manuscript seemed to beg for a new title, “Empathy, Are You There?” or in my darkest Trumpian moment, “Empathy, Where Are You?” The manuscript, by any name, is still an odyssey, a struggle to find Homo Empathicus, and truth be told, my struggle to accept human nature. The terrible divide between fear and love, suspicion and curiosity, the conservative wall-building mindset and the liberal openness to cross over to meet the other.

            The question is how to reconcile the competing contradictory sides of ourselves? It seems, like the flaming arrows flying from the slitted windows of the Medieval castle, we will shoot Tomahawk missiles over our borders to show how safe we are, and how “empathic” our yellow-headed leader is, avenging the deaths of “babies, beautiful little babies” while denying refugees safe haven.

            Empathy remains a wrenching question, and the struggle goes on.

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