Border Violence

Hadestown Original Broadway Company: Why Do We Build a Wall

Why do we Build a Wall is structured as a dialogue between a figure, to whom we will refer as the Father, and his children. We will unpack the meaning of this song by reading notions from the work of Di Cesare into it.

The dialogue starts with a simple question from the Father: Why do we build a wall, my children, my children? The children answer in unison: why do we build a wall?  We build the wall to keep us free—that’s why we build a wall, we build the wall to keep us free!. Here, already, one finds an interesting opposition that is also identified by di Cesare, namely the opposition of state sovereignty — the power to rule over whatever is within the state’s borders — and human rights (Cesare 2020, p.10). The wall — and therefore also the nation-state inscribed into the wall — is needed in order to guarantee the human rights of its citizens. This perspective, however, establishes those within the walls of the border as subjects a priori worthy of freedom, and as such, establishes those beyond the borders as not worthy of human rights. (Cesare 2020, p.11).

In what follows, the workings of the wall as a guarantee of freedom are slowly unpacked through repeated questioning by the Father. This dialogue reveals that the wall keeps the children free by keeping out the enemy. The enemy, in its turn, is poverty. But then, the dynamics of the dialogue change. The Father no longer poses a question, but rather, takes the stage, and forcefully states:

Because we have, and they have not, my children, my children, Because they want what we have got!

Again in unison, the children respond by reiterating and hence affirming Father’s words. Interestingly enough, the enemy, first identified as the abstract notion of poverty, is reified in the form of a concrete “they” by Father, a threatening they, “a dangerous foreigner” (Cesare 2020, p.12). The conflation of the migrant with poverty essentialises the migrant as the source of poverty. The question of migration, thus, is completely “articulated in the grammar of the possessive”(Cesare 2020, p.13), and as such, the discourse around migration is contraposed from a question of humanity, of equality, of (the legitimacy of) statehood, to a merely economic one.

Father then poses a final question: “what do we have that they should want, my children, my children?” The answer is given starkly:

We have a wall to work upon! We have work, and they have none.

To which the Father adds: “and our work is never done!” The inverted logic of the children becomes blatantly clear: they justify the construction of the wall by posing it as a necessary response to the threat of poverty (embodied by the migrant), while the migrant, and migration as such, is the effect of statehood, of territorialisation (Cesare 2020, p.11), rather than its cause.

As Di Cesare rightfully remarks, the poverty of the migrant is never questioned, nor is their suffering ever fully considered. Yet, the nation-state as we know it today has not arisen merely out of abstract theorising, but rather, has a particular, historical construction heavily dependent on the logic of capitalism and colonialism (Cesare 2020, p.64). Historicising the position of the migrant, thus, flips the roles of victim and perpetrator: it is not the members of the state who are the victims to the threat of the migrant, but rather, it is the migrants who have fallen victim to the exploitation of the state. The Father, speaking in a sinister, authoritative manner, reveals himself not as an equal interlocutor of a dialogue, but rather, as a force of indoctrination. By identifying the enemy as residing outside the borders of the state, the idea that there could be an enemy within of the borders is pre-emptively deflected.

Stephan Loor

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