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David Bouchier: Walls And Masks

Bebeto Matthews

One of the earliest human discoveries must have been how to build a defensive wall. Archaeologists, looking for traces of ancient human occupation, always look first for signs of stone walls, or wooden palisades, or earthen mounds thrown up to keep those inside safe from those outside. It seems that we were even less neighborly in prehistoric times than we are now.

Walls have always been popular. In Europe in past centuries every city and town had a wall with guarded gates, which were often difficult for a stranger to pass, and were closed at nightfall. When the plague was abroad in medieval Europe the cities threw out all foreigners and shut the gates, because somebody had to be blamed for the infection. The citizens meanwhile locked themselves in their houses and wore cloth masks around their faces. So nothing much has changed in five hundred years.

You can still see the remains of those city walls in many places, as well as impressive fortresses with walls up to forty feet high, calculated to discourage casual visitors. But none of them worked for long. In fact the ruins of walls and forts all over the world are a testimony to the fact that they were ultimately a huge waste of time and effort.

New York had an impressive wall in the 1600s, designed to keep undesirable people out. It failed. The British soon found a way round it. The site is now called Wall Street, which is a symbolic wall made out of money, also designed to keep undesirable people out, and it works better. But America never became a nation of walled cities. On the contrary cities were wide open and, in the suburbs, great sweeps of suburban lawn ran from one home to another without a break, which always impressed European visitors. Americans seemed to accept that the price of community was openness – literal, physical openness. You could say that the lack of walls and fences was a rough measure of civilization, or at least of trust and self-confidence.

Things have changed, obviously. We are building walls and gated communities as fast as we can. And now, in an attempt to deal with the coronavirus disaster, we are reduced to hiding behind masks, which are a personal wall against unwanted viruses. Masks, like walls, have a long and complicated history. Executioners wore masks, as did surgeons. The masked ball encouraged disguise as part of an elaborate sexual game, and masked crusaders like Zorro pretended that a small strip of black cloth would make them invisible

Masks and walls can mean many things. A wall can say: I’m strong, I can defeat you, or I’m scared, I’m hiding. A mask too can send a message of fear or defiance, and it seems that both can be political. Those who like walls don’t like masks, and vice versa. Some see walls as a sign of strength, and masks as a sign of weakness. In this confused world of tribal fears and fantasies what we need above all is steady, rational, nonpartisan leadership. Meanwhile, it might be best to keep hiding behind your mask.

Copyright: David Bouchier 

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.
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