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Barriers or Bridges?

The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Now we have the 670-mile-long concrete fence between Mexico and the United States, the ever-expanding, 436-mile-long West Bank Barrier intended to protect Israelis from Palestinian terrorists, and the three-mile-long, 12-foot-high concrete barrier dividing neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The theory is that good walls keep bad neighbors apart. Walls are a necessary, temporary measure, the easy solution. But is the construction of walls compatible with diplomatic, economic and legal efforts to create a more unified and peaceful world? The quick solution is often not the best solution, and surely not the long-term solution.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” says the farmer in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” But by the end of the poem, the poet is no longer so sure. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,/ That wants it down.”

Many forces today want walls torn down: Doctors Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders, Teachers, Words, Mothers, Engineers, Sociologists, Basketball and even Clowns (no kidding!) Without Borders. These last offer laughter to relieve the suffering of children in areas of crisis.

Perhaps the Internet, which crosses fences, will help us to recapture the vision of the beautiful blue earth from outer space. Divisions remain, caused by water, mountains and deserts. Supposedly, the only human-created divider visible from space with the naked eye is the Great Wall of China. But that is an urban myth. Even that massive construction is now only a tourist attraction, no longer a wall to keep out or keep in.

An Immodest Proposal

While the Democratic and Republican national conventions are still two months away, the parties’ presidential nominees are clearly established. Senator Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, and Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, provide a striking contrast in age and background. Still, each in his own way has been something of an outsider to the conventional campaign strategies of their parties. Before the presidential campaign begins in earnest, these two unconventional candidates might consider an unconventional proposal: that they meet together to define the agenda for the presidential debates that will take place during the campaign.

Could the candidates agree that the critical issue concerning the war in Iraq is what would constitute victory there and so allow the withdrawal of U.S. troops? In debating the future of U.S. economic policy, could the candidates agree that a principal issue is whether the Bush tax cuts have contributed to our present economic recession or have mitigated the negative effects of the recession? While debating the future course of U.S. foreign policy, could the candidates agree that a central issue is whether the United States has the right balance of military and diplomatic resources for an effective foreign policy?

In the heat of a presidential campaign, the attention of the media and the public can be too easily distracted by stories that may be personally embarrassing to the candidates but have little long-term consequence for the nation. For the candidates to agree on issues of national importance could rescue the forthcoming campaign from such short-term sensationalism.

A Nation of Liars

James Frey is back. The erstwhile bad boy of the memoirist set, who famously declared himself the next Hemingway in 2003, has returned from literary disgrace and an exile banging out screenplays in Hollywood with his first novel—or second, depending on who’s counting. Frey, who sold four million copies of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces, by recounting a harrowing descent into alcoholism and drug addiction and his plucky return to sobriety, was at one point the featured author of Oprah Winfrey’s book club. But as enterprising journalists discovered in 2006, Frey was a better novelist than a writer of memoir: much of Frey’s supposed true-life tale turned out to be fiction. Lawsuits and a public humiliation at the hands of Oprah soon followed, and Frey disappeared from view for two years.

Frey is not the only author to be caught playing the fabulist: everyone from Augusten Burroughs to Truman Capote to David Sedaris has been suspected in recent years of embellishing supposed non-fiction tales. A more recent example is the author of Love and Consequences, who wrote a memoir about growing up in gang-haunted South Central L.A. but was discovered to be a young white woman raised in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. Why the sudden onslaught of falsehoods? Memoirs sell much better than novels because Americans remain intrigued by the possibility a tale might not be too good to be true. That such stories inevitably turn out to be just that perhaps reflects a more disturbing side of our national obsession with telling it all.

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