The Wall and the Swastika

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, on January 4, 2019:

“A wall is an immorality.  It is not who we are as a nation.…  This is not a wall between Mexico and the United States that [President Trump] is creating here; it’s a wall between reality and … [the President’s] supporters. … He does not want them to know how he is hurting them, so he keeps the subject on the wall….  We are not doing a wall … A wall is an immorality between countries.  It’s an old way of thinking.  It isn’t cost effective.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on January 8, 2019:

“As recently as 2015, Sec. Clinton boasted, ‘I voted numerous times to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.’ … Obviously, that was then.  … Today, the new Speaker of the House is trying to argue that a physical barrier is ‘immoral.’  …  Now look, walls and barriers are not immoral.  How silly.  … [B]ack in 2006 … then-Senator Clinton, then-Senator Obama and [Sen. Chuck Schumer] were proud – ‘proud’ – to vote for physical barriers.  The only things that have changed between now and then are the political winds and, of course, the occupant in the White House.  So this is no newfound, principled objection; it’s just political spite – a partisan tantrum being prioritized over the public interest [My emphasis].”

One of the legal areas to which I devoted my career was trademarks.  Among the major tenets of trademark law is the stronger an association members of the public attach to a mark over time, the greater its power.  Occasionally, when speaking to our marketing folks about general trademark law principles, I would refer to the Swastika — perhaps the best example in history of the connotations a mark can gather.  Its design is artistic, symmetrical, and powerful.  It would have been a great mark for a gym shoe.  Over centuries, it enjoyed extensive and positive connotations across Eastern cultures and in this country.  I recall us seeing depictions of it in ancient Native American art during a recent trip to the southwest.

Its pedigree prior to the 1930s doesn’t matter.  While one could argue that any graphic design is just “a design” … the Swastika cannot be viewed as a design.  It was made synonymous with monstrous evil.

I would suggest that at least in the remarks noted above, Rep. Pelosi weaved disappointingly between the moral, political, and practical in trying to explain why she called the Wall an “immorality.”  While there are apparently valid concerns about whether $5 billion to extend the border wall is an effective means to enhance our border security, if the disagreement is framed in practical terms, it’s hard to contend that the government should be shut down over a mere fraction of the federal budget.  Either Ms. Pelosi couldn’t articulate her fundamental rationale (very unlikely) or didn’t want to inject provocative rhetoric into an already fraught situation (most probably).  For his part, Sen. McConnell’s indication that it is “silly” to label a wall “immoral” was, in the current context, possibly oblivious but more probably a politically disingenuous side step.  (I suspect that if one reviewed Sen. McConnell’s early Senate speeches – he was first elected in 1984 – one might well find that at some point, he called the Berlin Wall “immoral.”)

There has to be a higher principle than depriving the President of a political lollipop or the wall’s cost efficiency to require so many of our people within and outside the federal government to deal with the economic hardship they are now facing.  There has to be a purpose worthy of their sacrifice.  I would submit – being acutely aware that this impasse is creating no financial hardship for me – that there is.  The Border Wall shouldn’t be funded because — in the current context – it is no longer a “wall”; it is an immorality.  When Sens. Obama, Clinton, and Schumer were voting during the Republican Bush Administration to fund border construction, they were supporting a structural means for reducing illegal immigration.  When at the beginning of his campaign Mr. Trump declared Mexicans – and by extension, all brown-skinned peoples — crossing the border “murderers and rapists,” and as during the last several years he has repeatedly indicated that he will stop the (nonexistent) “invasion” he claims is occurring at our southern border through a “great, big, beautiful wall,” he transformed a structural means of reducing illegal immigration into a symbol of racial bigotry.

Sen. McConnell was unwittingly right on a couple of points:  2006 was then – when a border wall was just … a wall.  I suspect that under future administrations of either party, a border wall will again be considered merely a means to reduce illegal immigration.  However, while we have – using Mr. McConnell’s words — “the current occupant in the White House,” the wall is a trademark of hate.  Its funding should be rejected.  Hopefully, Democrats are holding fast for the right reason as our people’s financial hardships multiply.

2 thoughts on “The Wall and the Swastika

  1. Hi Jim, I have poked and prodded at your website in my effort to comment on your recent blog post The Wall and the Swastika. Maybe this reply/comment will land in your lap.

    Your post is a very thoughtful and eloquent statement of what is mostly overlooked by even the most serious critics and engaged observers. Bravo! How important this perspective is, … well, we shall see.

    I take the completeness of your excerpted quotes of the Madam Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, at face value. She asserts the essential point simply enough — that she regards the wall (for her vaguely stated reasons) as immoral. She said, “A wall is an immorality….”

    I have to admit that the first time I heard that assertion, I bristled. I Imagined the very reaction exhibited by Mitch McConnell that you have highlighted. And I entertained my own misgivings, the sort that in my way of thinking generally spring from overly broad and limiting assertions.

    Even now, though I tend to follow the political coverage, I have yet to read or hear from Pelosi any thoroughly coherent rationale for her particular opposition to the wall on moral grounds. To me at least, Pelosi is an astonishingly capable politician. I certainly agree with you that she would consciously refrain from unduly “provocative rhetoric.”

    But to my point … your comment explaining that trump’s wall is his swastika is brilliant. It is the very thing that, (assuming such high minded analysis turned voters’ minds) Pelosi (and Schumer) might trot out, to educate the public on this issue and maintain and garner support.

    It takes no deep well of cynicism, however, to believe that Pelosi, while seeming to be intransigent on the wall funding and, unlike trump, wishing to be somewhat consistent in statements to the public and aligned with caucus members, anticipates many Congressional Dems would compromise with at least a token sum to fund a partial structural barrier on the border — despite espousing moral opposition to a wall.

    Compromise. Hope springs eternal for compromise.

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    1. Hey, Dan — thanks for your kind words, and although any previous attempts to comment didn’t get through, this one did. As to the shutdown: a lot of people are going to be hurt over this, including a number of Mr. Trump’s own supporters. I agree that the Speaker may be as intransigent as the President, but I don’t think he thought that she would — for good or ill — be as steadfast as he. May do a post on this point: if Ms. Pelosi monitors public opinion carefully, and stays in the better place than Mr. Trump in the public opinion battle … I don’t see what his off ramp is. Since for the majority of America, he is responsible for the shutdown, most will attribute the pain the shutdown causes to him; but if he declares an emergency, he loses some Republicans worried about misuse of presidential power … and will be crucified in the press if he shifts money from either true defense programs or disaster relief to build his wall. I think he’s paralyzed, so he’s digging in. She — again, for good or ill — may see that holding out is crippling this terribly unfortunate presidency (although I agree that her comments don’t seem to allude to such a higher purpose). We’ll see. Certainly more to come!

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