Of the couple of choice nonfiction numbers I was able to enjoy in print last year on the extremely rare occasions that there was enough space in my train car to hold a book six inches in front of my face without running the risk of breaking somebody’s nose when the medieval brakes inevitably stop short, none intrigued me quite as much as Walls by Eastern Connecticut State University prof David Frye. Subtitled “A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick,” it’s far less sleazy in a Holy shit this just happened like seven months ago contemporary sense than, say, the more colorful tours of President Donald Trump’s closets of barbecued skeletons. It’s the book’s subtlety, however, that drew me in.
While I thoroughly appreciated shocking probes like Russian Roulette by David Corn and Michael Isikoff, Walls is like a background primer on a hundred other crackpots from the boldest empires of their day who were every bit as arrogant, dimwitted, and delusional as Donald. I appreciate that virtually any novel, show, or movie these days with a dangerous spoiled brat antagonist seems like an allegory exploring the horrifying situation at hand, but Frye’s work is miles more satisfying in that he didn’t intend or go out of his way to paint history’s unhinged tyrants with a knee-length hemorrhoid-colored necktie and a merkin combover by Frito-Lay. It just so happened that his subjects are essentially all Trump in some way or another. Here’s Frye writing about the imperfect but iconic Chinese leader who called for the first wall in that region:
Having ruthlessly put down his domestic rivals, the First Emperor (r. 220-210 BC) turned to the problem of the steppe [unsettled frontier]. … It would appear merely that … commanding more workers than soldiers … [he] elected to overwhelm with productivity that which he could not defeat militarily.
Wait, there’s more:
It is said that [the First Emperor] ordered [the Long Wall] constructed after hearing a prophecy that his kingdom would be destroyed by northern barbarians.
Simply swap out “First Emperor” for “Trump,” “a prophecy” for “Hannity,” and “northern barbarians” for “Central Americans,” and you basically have the president’s televised speech from last week. That’s no coincidence; as Frye illustrates with a small pinch of snark in tale upon tale of conquest and destruction, paranoid executives have spent the past several thousand years erecting walls to keep out populations that they feared to varying degrees of rationality. Apparently, that hasn’t changed despite us living in a world where any number of nations, even minor ones, have crafts and computers that can connect directly with our airports, infrastructure, clouds, and routers.
Trump does make an appearance toward the end, as do his his predecessors in office who, as Frye describes, “had built miles of concrete walls, corrugated steel walls, and flat steel walls along the Mexican border,” but unlike the current POTUS were “always careful to refer to all barriers as ‘fences’.” Otherwise, the author doesn’t dwell on doofus too much, other than to comment on how ignorant pols generally are about wall-building elsewhere. “[US] Senators,” Frye notes without any trace of a partisan bone in his entire body, “scoffed authoritatively at the notion that the United States could ever accomplish what Saudi Arabia had done in less than a decade.”
I’m sure Trump, on the other hand, knows all about Saudi’s fortifications, perhaps from communications with his family’s pals in power there. Awful as those royal oil assholes are, if the president is going to rub elbows with them anyway, it would be somewhat reassuring to learn that he finally quit looking to Tom Cruise dramas and Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for relevant history, and instead picked up a couple of books like Walls for a change.
CHRIS FARAONE, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.