All along the U.S. / Mexico border, government agents and armed vigilantes mobilize to stop the invasion of dirty (diseased), or lazy (go on welfare), or persistent (take our jobs away), or dangerous (bad hombres) “illegal aliens.” But mostly, we build walls to keep out the Other (unless we need him to work in our fields, mow our lawns and wash our dishes).
Donald Trump was hardly the first politician to stir up anti-immigrant hysteria with talk of border walls. The U.S. Border Patrol first began to erect physical barriers in its San Diego sector in 1990, ultimately erecting fourteen miles of fencing. In 2006 G.W. Bush signed the “Secure Fence Act,” and by 2011 DHS had completed some 650 miles of border walls and fences. The government later reported that illegal border-crossers had simply found new routes, that the fences had been breached thousands of times, and that the Secure Fence Act caused at least 2000 additional deaths.
The Republican Party’s 2012 platform called upon the “double-layered fencing” to be built as originally called for in 2006 law. But by 2016 white reactionary anger was seething after eight years of Obama (who, lest we forget, deported more people in each of those years than Trump would in 2017). Trump saw his opening and led the nation into its current round of hysteria over Muslim terrorists, Mexican criminals, DACA, “chain migration,” more border wall construction, and massive increases in the budgets and personnel for Homeland Security and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
As wasteful and harmful as these expenditures have been, we must understand that they are a natural reaction to the fact that American culture, and white male identity in particular, are falling apart. We no longer know who we are, and so we turn to the old reliable (if only brief in its effects) medicine: hatred of the Other.
InPart Six I wrote about the (mostly negative) images that the American paranoid imagination has projected onto Mexicans, and the social price that both nations have paid for our refusal to acknowledge our own fantasies of liberation from the Puritan repression of our indigenous souls. When we see those images instead of actual persons, we are seeing stereotypes.
But when mythologists hear of stereotypes, we take the cue and look deeper, in search of the archetypes. We think of other famous walls built to keep out the barbarians in China, in the West Bank, in Berlin. Some of those walls, of course, were built to prevent the citizenry from escaping. Gaza, for example. We know that when it’s convenient, gatekeepers such as Ronald Reagan will happily stand with the majority (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) for a photo-op. And when it isn’t, they won’t.
And we remember the great walls that were unable to keep Dionysus and his bacchants out of Thebes. Dionysus is the archetypal Other who destroys inappropriate boundaries. Here is his basic rule: the higher and thicker the walls, the greater the repression (or oppression), the more furious and unforgiving his response. Or if you prefer: the brightest lights cast the darkest shadows. Like the mestizos (hybrids of Spain and Native America) coming to reclaim their territory – or like the Palestinians who are indigenous to their land – he penetrates the defenses on his way home, because he is our own self. But Dionysus can destroy the walls – and perhaps the whole city – when he is disrespected.
His half-brother Hermes offers us an alternative to the explosive return of the repressed. He mediates the boundaries (physical, social and mental) rather than destroying them. So Hermes is the patron deity of those who live at or attempt to cross the borders: traders, translators, gamblers, furniture movers, psychotherapists, negotiators, diplomats, bankers, smugglers, thieves and all travellers, including immigrants. Read here for a more detailed discussion.
Hermes is Trickster and Guide of Souls, leading the dead into the underworld. But he is also the awakening angel who leads Persephone and Odysseus back out of the darkness. Trickster offers us the possibility of seeing the world from a new perspective, challenging our rigidities and privileged perceptions. This boundary-crosser can also create new boundaries, borders, symbols, metaphors and forms of community. But, as Lewis Hyde explains, if we close the borders to the healing that Hermes offers, we must face the rage of Dionysus:
There is no way to suppress change, the story says, not even in Heaven; there is only a choice between a way of living that allows constant, if gradual alterations and a way of living that that combines great control and cataclysmic upheavals. Those who panic and bind the trickster choose the latter path.
In certain schools of Native American wisdom it is highly recommended to invite trickster into the tent so that he is pissing outward, rather than keeping him outside the tent and pissing inward. So we recall one more stereotype: “making a run for the border,” both the movie trope and the Taco Bell ad.
Imagine the gatekeepers relaxing their vigilance long enough to acknowledge the truth that both Hermes and Dionysus have been telling us: the Other has so much to offer. Imagine the good citizens happily running into the arms of the Other, moving gladly into liminal space, taking refuge in otherness. There is a graffiti on the Mexican side of the border fence: Turn this wall on its side and make a bridge!
Ultimately, of course, we have to ask, why do we have borders at all? An anarchist would understand them this way: borders serve the national state rather than the individuals who comprise it. Here is another great contradiction in the myth of innocence: the people who have enshrined radical individualism like no other in history have a vast shadow of conformism, crusades against alternative thinking and willing subservience to a highly centralized national state that engages in constant warfare.
The Other stands at the border, and we fear him. “Xenophobia” stems from the Greek word xenos, or “stranger.” But depending on the context in a sentence, xenos can also mean “guest,” while “love of the guest” is philos-xenos. Here is the work of the imagination: One who is actually secure in his/her sense of his/her self has no need to demonize the other. He /she/they would define themselves in positive terms, rather than in terms of what they are not. But this requires listening to both the griefs and the blessing that the Other offers. D. H. Lawrence was willing to listen to the Other:
What is the knocking? What is the knocking at the door in the night? It’s somebody wants to do us harm. No, no, it is the three strange angels. Admit them, admit them.