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Space the Nation: Let's play Wall

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Jan 15, 2019, 3:00 PM EST

The Headlines:
Trump doubles down on 'impenetrable, physical' wall during immigration speech
Trump promises to build border wall in his first term
Trump loses temper over border wall funding
Government shutdown begins as talks falter over Trump’s border wall
Trump says he is considering using emergency powers to build wall
President Trump Says He Won't Declare a National Emergency to Get His Border Wall
Trump, using ‘Game of Thrones’-style meme, teases border wall.

The Trope:

The internet had a lot of fun with Trump’s appropriation of fandom’s most famously penetrable barrier. Perhaps, as Stephen Colbert theorized, he doesn’t mind that that the GoT wall failed, “[b]ecause the only walkers who got through were white.” The real mystery behind Trump's decision, however, is why he would go with Game of Thrones when genre fiction — indeed, fiction —  has so many Great Walls to choose from.

Where You Can Find It:

There are too many examples to name with any hope of precision. My call for citations elicited this list; the venerable TVTropes wiki has these, and some clever person doing social media for contracting-and-repair service Home Advisor put together this.

If you have read a piece of genre fiction at all, the chances are you have come across a wall — a civilization-defining barrier of some sort. In part, this is because when creators imagine new societies, keeping them physically distinct is helpful for them and the consumer. In part, this is because when we imagine societies in an environment beyond Earth’s, domes and bubbles and such are just part of how we survive. Whether barriers will ever help a society thrive is what animates a lot of these works.

What Can We Learn?

A common critique of Trump’s border wall is that walls are an ancient technology insufficient to the modern problems of international migration and smuggling. Recently, Trump has attempted to turn this criticism on its head, declaring that walls should be trusted because the tech is so old, citing the wheel (incorrectly, it turns out) as an even older form of technology that we still use today: “You know what? A wheel works and a wall works. Nothing like a wall."

Historians have been quick to correct Trump on both his estimates of the introduction of defensive walls (9000 B.C.) and wheels (3500 B.C.) as well as their efficacy. Here’s a thought: if there’s still debate to be had about whether walls “work” after over 10,000 years of field experience, then maybe there’s never going to be a definitive answer?

However well walls function as protection, history is definitive about one way that walls work incredibly well: as symbols.

Much as with the President’s shifting explanations for what exactly his wall will be built out of, symbolic walls have persisted in fiction even as imagined technology has flown right past both concrete and the wheel. If the walls of human history can’t tell us much, what about the walls and wall-substitutes that spring from human imagination?

One thing a brief review of the literature makes clear: even under the best of circumstances, when there is no obvious crisis that leads to the creation of a wall… walls create crises.

You can argue this is a function of narrative demands — who’s going to read a story about a wall that works great and makes everyone happy, right? But even when walls aren’t functioning as overt symbols of division and paranoia — seriously, just think of the first dystopia that comes to mind (Escape from New York? Parable of the Sower? The “hanging wall” in Handmaid’s Tale?) — they’re physical stand-ins for societies knowingly or unknowingly hamstrung by fear and hobbled by lack of imagination. In The Passage, settlements build walls to protect themselves from attacks by “virals” — a good thing! — but their community’s ambitions and spiritual connections whither: The bright lights that shine 24/7 to ward away vampires also prevent them from seeing the stars.

Everyone telling a protagonist that the wall is a good thing and nothing good will come of crossing it/tearing is, in-universe, a sure sign that the wall is actually a device for keeping the population ignorant — this is its own subgenre, really, and includes creations as diverse as The City of Ember, The Village and The Truman Show .

Even noble Wakanda eventually had to shut down the shield that hid it from the world, after what been erected as an act of self-preservation became a deterrent to human progress. As T’Challa puts it to the United Nations, “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe."

If Trump is looking to learn anything from fictional walls, you can’t do much better than that.

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