It is now over a century since Robert Frost pointed out in his poem entitled Mending Wall that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Walls can protect or they can isolate, and determining the difference between the two—Oh, the irony!—now separates Americans as never before.
An expectation of privacy and a broad respect for the personal and emotional spaces of others—ideas almost alien to us today—were once basic to our concepts of maintaining good relationships throughout our society, and individuals were more often permitted the latitude to be abundantly individualistic in their actions or beliefs should they choose to do so. Moreover, in the days before our globalized economy and instantaneous cross-border communications began to obscure the importance of national boundaries, a clear sense of the shared burdens inherent in the blessings of American citizenship both defined and circumscribed our interactions with one another.
How very far we have come—and not necessarily in a beneficial way.
It is almost too obvious and hackneyed to rehash the ongoing debates regarding America’s scandalous lack of immigration enforcement— particularly on our Mexican border—as an example of how walls divide us. The debate between those who want to build border walls and those who want to tear them down is inevitably laden with emotion and always drained of reality. Today’s abysmal abandonment of federal immigration laws and willful blindness to its many risks to both Americans and those who enter our country illegally is the worst of all possible responses—and one that is worsening the problem day by day.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with addressing this human crisis (yet has been absent from the border except for one truncated visit), will likely avoid any serious effort to address the many complexities of this issue. This is clearly a wall that she dare not breach for fear of alienating the base of her own party.
Speaking of complex issues, none today seems more vexing than the culture wars swirling around gender and sexuality in our public schools, although matters pertaining to race are far more visible at present. This is a hormonally combustible moment to be a parent, teacher, or student in American classrooms that have now shoved traditional concerns about academics to the back burner of their educational mission—while demanding that the wall that once protected parental rights from undue state influence be demolished altogether.
On one side of this crumbling wall we have advocates who believe that no child should be shamed or embarrassed concerning their feelings, so their teaching of sex-positive attitudes is necessary. On the other side are parents who feel their children are being taught lessons that are morally objectionable and perhaps either confusing or traumatizing to young minds. Given the deeply personal nature of these matters for those on both sides of the divide, we can expect this wall to be a battleground for many years to come. Sex has been a source of strife for all of human history, and no data-heavy PowerPoint presentation or celebrity TikTok is ever going to change that.
Lessons related to gender identification and human sexuality are particular flash points both because what was once very private is now supremely public and schools are now aggressively usurping the the traditional role of parents regarding instruction about these sensitive matters. I have talked to parents who are upset with educators who encourage gender fluidity and teach explicit material concerning sexual activities, but school boards seem increasingly prone to bend to the dictates of gender and sexual activists who deem any degree of circumspection or restraint to be veiled attempts to shame them into silence. Expect each side to unhappily hunker down on their own sides of this particular wall—and the migration from public schools to alternative education venues to continue apace.
Perhaps most importantly, the walls around national economic systems have shattered since the 1970’s, and we now all live in a thoroughly globalized environment where our car may come from Korea, our dishwasher from Turkey, and our clothing from Vietnam. This easy passage of goods around the globe has helped to keep consumer prices down while offering buyers a dizzying array of choices, but it has also disrupted and destroyed many businesses that were unable to compete with manufacturers located where labor is far cheaper and more readily abused.
In addition, as we are today experiencing, worldwide global supply chains can be disrupted, and the resulting problems can both drive up prices and lead to critical interruptions of necessary goods and foodstuffs. Worse yet, all nations are vulnerable to deliberate manipulations that create artificial—and stupendously profitable—shortages that can cripple economies and put national security at risk.
Economic walls managed through tariffs and similar policies tend to backfire, but reckless outsourcing can introduce a potential for international intimidation and instability that can easily escalate into catastrophe while robbing local workers of their livelihoods. Open markets that disregard strategic and societal needs can lead to disaster if not leavened with both common sense and compassion.
Walls can—and should—work to benefit individuals, communities, and nations. However, this will happen only if we show the proper respect for the integrity of our borders, the diversity of our values, and the importance of our nationhood.