Taking Sides and Building Walls: An Essay by David Olney

Photo by John Partipilo

EDITOR’S NOTE: With the production and release of our summer print journal, which explores a theme we call (Im)migration, we’ve been thinking a lot lately about how music and people move through our world. Evidently, David Olney had similar things on his mind as he created his latest album, This Side or the Other, which comes out Friday. The album has plenty to say about walls and separation and division, but we asked him to share a little more of his thoughts on the subject for our readers. At the end of his essay, be sure to check out his video for the album’s title track, co-written with John Hadley and Anne McCue, who also contributes harmony vocals to this haunting track.

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The Wall is in the news. Trump's Wall. But for those of us old enough to remember, there was another wall: the infamous Berlin Wall. It came into being in the summer of 1961 and lasted until 1989. Its purpose was to keep the East German people in, and the West Germans (and by extension, the western world) out. Communism versus capitalism. Totalitarianism versus democracy. Nothing symbolized the Cold War more chillingly than the Berlin Wall. We heard countless stories of people being shot trying to breach the wall to escape communist tyranny. No one was ever shot trying to break into East Berlin from the West. John le Carré’s novel The Spy Who Came In from the Cold ends at the Berlin Wall with the deaths of the protagonist, Alec Leamas, and his lover, Liz Gold, shot trying to escape. The film of that book was in black and white, and the actual events of that time and place also seemed to be shot in black and white. Fear and oppression on one side, freedom and hope on the other.

When the Berlin Wall finally came down in November 1989, it was a moment of unadulterated joy on both sides. Most events in history have an ambiguity to them. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia, marked a victory for the U.S. government and its people, and a necessary step in ending the horror of slavery. But for all that, the defeat of the Confederacy carried a melancholy that was felt by more than a few. There was no melancholy connected with the demolition of the Berlin Wall, no nostalgia for a golden past, real or imagined. Only joy.

What other walls are there in history? I don't know why the Great Wall of China was constructed, but it came to symbolize a cultural isolation that certainly did more harm than good. Hadrian's Wall in the north of England was built by the Romans to keep the wild Picts out of Roman territory. The Picts painted themselves blue and screamed incoherently at the centurions, showing themselves to be unready for the finer points of civilization. The wall speaks well for the army's corps of engineers. It also speaks convincingly of the irrational and indomitable love of freedom on the part of the Picts.

In Robert Frost's poem “Mending Wall,” the poet muses on the ineffectiveness of walls to keep one's apple trees from hurting another's pines. Two men meet on a spring day to repair the wall that marks their property line. When one of the men voices his doubts about the worth of the wall, the other answers with a meaningless saying he remembers from childhood: "Good fences make good neighbors."

When humans evolved from hunter-gathering to agriculture, they needed to protect their surpluses of grain and corn and whatever else they had an excess of. Without a wall around their community, these early farmers were at the mercy of wandering barbarians who hadn't gotten the memo about the switch to agriculture. These walls also had the effect of dividing people into Us and Them. Us were inside. Outside the wall lurked Them, also known as The Other. This is the true forebear of Trump's Wall. National security is always cited, but the real purpose is the identification of The Other.

In the Middle Ages, cities built walls around Jewish ghettoes. The rationale on the part of the State was that the walls helped protect the Jews. The Holocaust put an end to that particular line of logic.

When a wall protects us from nature, from the elements, it is clearly a good thing. When we are beset with wind, rain, and cold, not to mention wild beasts, animal or human, we are grateful for the presence of the wall. Problems arise, however, when walls are built for political reasons. Then they always entail the perception that those on one side of the wall are intrinsically better than those on the other.

The better angels of our nature admonish us to offer aid to the traveler, the stranger, The Other. On an individual basis, in our odd capitalist way, I think we do just that. Motels, campgrounds, B&Bs abound. They are not free, but they are available. But our notions of hospitality go out the window when on the tribal or nationalist plane. Suddenly doors shut, locks click, and walls spring up like mushrooms. Everything depends on whether one is perceived as one of Us or one of Them. And that perception changes almost daily. African Americans were considered Them. Through nonstop struggle, they are becoming part of Us. Jews have suffered countless falls from favor over the centuries and, on some level, always keep a suitcase packed and ready to go. Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Italian, and Germans have done their time as members of the tribe of Others. The Other of choice these days is the Muslim.

On a tribal level, anything becomes acceptable. No self-respecting individual would deny someone truly in need shelter or would dream of separating children from their parents. But as tribe members, we do these things in a heartbeat. The logic seems to be that as individuals we need walls to protect us from nature. As members of the tribe, we need walls to protect us from other humans. Or, at least, we are told that by our tribal leaders. National security.

I don't know how to solve our immigration situation. Who and how many should be allowed in? What tests should they have to pass before granted citizenship? But I strongly suspect that a wall has a negative effect on our chances of solving our immigration problems. I also strongly suspect that those who advocate for the border wall represent a greater danger to our country than the people they are trying to keep out.


Artist David Olney

Thank you for this. You may not remember, but we ran into each other in Athens, Georgia in 1972 or so at a Townes show. A couple of years later I booked you to play at at college coffeehouse in West Virginia, not long after I put together a tour of WV colleges for Townes. Hope to see you at AmericanaFest. And that last wall didn't work out so well, did it?


A wonderful, calm, rational thought piece...very nicely written...thank you David.

“No self-respecting individual would deny someone truly in need shelter or would dream of separating children from their parents.”

While I personally agree with Mr. Olney, history hasn’t always shown this to be true.   People have always hated immigrants, especially when they haven’t looked like us or worshiped the way we do.  

But his article also symbolizes one of the big gaps we have in this country.  We think conservatives have an empathy gene like we do.   They clearly do not.  

Immigration also isn’t an issue we can win elections on, especially when 59 percent of “independents” are fine with children being caged indefinitely.   

To win elections and thereby do something for children, we need to talk about the only thing that conservatives and “independents” care about more than keeping people of color down – themselves.   They don’t care about the children of South Americans, the grifter in chief calling African Americans the N word or grabbing p*ssy but they sure do care about their COLA.  We need to keep the focus on the Vichy GOP’s plan to cut Social Security and Medicare to get the majority we need to win.  (An aside – undocumented Immigrants contribute up to 12 BILLION dollars towards Social Security that they will never receive)

In a center-right country, you aren’t going to appeal to them with talk about compassion for “others”   There are a lot of good things about America; the people ain’t one of them.            

I know this is a music site but I am tired of losing elections and bemoaning the outcomes.    I’d rather not have to read or hear songs about our problems.   I’d rather to do something about it and you have to win elections in order to govern.   That’s why I’ve put my focus on encouraging people to register to vote.  So far I am only up to three.   We need a lot more before the October 12th deadline. 

And to put a finer point on it – vote for the Democrat and give us majorities in the House and Senate.   Then we can pass laws and won’t have to rely on self respecting individuals.         

Alright I'll vote... accordingly. To the insults you threw at me. Are you responsible for all sins Democrat? Just another heartless deplorable.

Shouldn't there be a "Sincerely Yours" before "Just another heartless deplorable"?

Thanks David for this thoughtful essay about a controversial issue facing this very troubled nation.

And Rudyjeep, I always love your posted comments whether it's about music or politics. But it's your political posts I find especially insightful. I agree with you completely that you won't win elections in this country by playing to people's sympathy which requires empathy. And like you said, conservatives seem to lack the empathy gene. Instead you must address their own self-interests.

I always keep a journal and add quotes to it from my current reading and I had to add something you said in your comments that I found so obviously true in a country that could elect a Donald Trump and still, after all the madness, support him: "In a center-right country, you aren't going to appeal to (people) with talk about compassion for 'others.' There are a lot of good things about America, the people ain't one of them."

That is a good quote Dennis...Rudyjeep has had a few of those over the's a shame that it's that way, but alas, it seems to be the case...

Thanks for the defense guys.    I always try to get liberals and progessives to understand the stakes (this last election was about the Supreme Court which many are just now figuring out) and how to win (i.e. vote for the Democrat no matter who it is).   I've seen what the winning side does and we need to steal their playbook more than most liberals care to admit.  They are like dogs and have a pack mentaility which makes it easier organize; liberals are like cats and are impossible to herd so we have to try harder and focus more.                   

I try to avoid discussions with conservatives unless it is on my terms because it's pointless and they are so hypocritical.   They back the most insulting public person in the country (who has mocked the disabled, a war hero, called a candidate’s wife ugly and his father an assassin, etc.) and call Liberals “snowflakes” because of OUR alleged touchiness but when the going gets tough, they are like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (“I’m Melting”).   They are so thin skinned facts insult them which is why they embrace a known liar who either thinks they are too stupid to know the truth, as biased and crooked as him so they are willing to go along with the lie and/or intimidated by him that it doesn't matter if they believe him or not.    

And look at the grifter in chief.  He won't even go to a place where he won't be worshiped by the rubes.    He is the epitome of what G.K Chesterton was talking about when he said - “Brave men are all vertebrates.  They have their softness on the surface and their toughness in the middle. But these modern cowards are all crustaceans; their hardness is all on the cover, and their softness is inside.” 

But hey – if anyone does want to insult me, Liberal Elitist Scum will do fine thank you.   I know you like that "BiCoastal Elitist" Jim.               

Liberal Elitist Scum...BiCoastal Elitist...those are both excellent...

I'll not get my Mencken quote out again...well,  yes I will...the Reality Show Con Man fulfilled the promise: 

"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”



Jim, Mencken actually said, "...the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron," which is even more accurate.

I came to No Depression because I love the music. I am reluctantly leaving because I dislike politics

Or you could not read the articles that have a political slant, just like you can turn off the TV or change the channel...and still enjoy the music articles...

I dislike politics too but it rules our lives and running away from it, hiding your head in the sand, just let's politicians do what they want without any criticism or guidance from you.

While I am in agreement with most of what David Olney writes  in this article, I find the maxim quoted by Frost "Good fences make good neighbors"  not to be "meaningless" at all. Fences can sometimes be necessary to keep the peace. In early colonial America, fences were erected to keep "my" cattle or pigs, from eating "your" vegetable garden.  Most New England towns had a "pound" to keep in the livestock who wandered and transgressors were fined (the owners, not the livestock).  And while I am perplexed by the anti-intellectual, anti-facts portion of our electorate, I am not ready to condemn them personally, for we all act in what we perceive as self-interest, but rather I'd teach them the error of their ways by throughly thrashing the Trump party  in upcoming elections and for the foreseeable future. Sensible voters have to vote in elections in sufficient numbers until the ugly Trump phenomenon passes away.  Democracy requires some work on our part. 

Maintianing the Republic definitely requires some work...neither political party does us any favors in terms of choice, particularly at the national level...

I would also agree that I maintain a fence because I believe my neighbors would find my beagle hounds an imposition if I didn't have also marks off space I am responsible for maintaining...conceptually I suppose fences and walls serve similar mentioned "Sensible voters"...I would argue that being "sensible" applies to fences and walls...history has shown that walls have never kept anyone out that wanted in badly enough...I just learned a long time ago that any religious figure or politician who promotes themselves and their agenda by cultivating fear is not someone I am following anywhere or voting for...



Jim, you like to point out how both parties are lacking and although I agree it seems to me there is no comparison between the sins of the Republicans right now in enabling Trump and those shortcomings among the Democrats. Paul Kruger had a very sobering commentary printed in today's Seattle Times in which he says we are on the knife edge in this country of democracy going the way of some European countries where neo-fascist governments are taking over. He points out how all over the country Republicans are working to weaken anything that threatens their power. I for one am scared shitless.