Emilio DeGrazia

by Emilio DeGrazia, columnist


The sin of a bad stink has something in common with the virtue of a fine fragrance: They’re both hard to lock in, or out.

My mind refuses to go near the odors of a dead rat, and in the woods, I rarely give an ounce of thought to the tons of fresh air trees are making for all of us. 

As a kid I was told that “those” people — a whole stereotype, the individuals from different neighborhoods — smelled worse than I did. I too quietly thought people who said things like that had something rotten inside. Odors were always in the air — factory smoke, car exhaust, the blood soup my neighbors cooked up on Sundays. My nose took them in without much complaint, even those on playgrounds and locker rooms, where those who were supposed to smell different reeked the same way I did.

I understand why perfumes come in fancy glass jars. They have invisible genies in them that escape when the jars are uncorked. Perfume easily sneaks out of paper bags.

Nobody lives in a glass house, corked. If I were an odor I’d emit laughing gas if someone tried to lock me in. An odor puts on airs, most of them invisible and strong. 

The pagan Greeks knew this. The ancient Greek word pneuma means “air,” “breath,” “spirit.” The early Christians loved that old Greek word and made good use of it to describe how their God operates invisibly. 

Except in Hollywood thrillers, most spirits are invisible, even inside booze bottles.

Something there is about an odor that doesn’t love a wall. While fences separate some nations from each other, most borders are invisible except as bold lines on maps like those that outline the phony faces in comic books. Tyrants love to turn map lines into actual walls made of concrete, steel, and stones. After World War II, for example, the Soviets erected an Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall to keep its people locked in. NATO in turn tried to pen Russia in with missile sites. 

A recent U.S. president tried to copycat the Soviets by building a Berlin Wall on our border with Mexico. But something there is that doesn’t love a wall: Odors go over, around and under them. The Great Wall of China kept China locked in as much as it locked others out, until China expanded far beyond its Great Wall. That wall is now mainly a tourist attraction. Millions of American-made guns also have slipped illegally across the Mexican border, and from there into gangster hands further south in nations that exist mainly on maps. 

It’s hard for walls to perform keep-out routines when thousands are so miserable they need to abandon the city or farmhouse they’d prefer to live in if they could. If my hometown were pounded by bombs, my daughters kidnapped by drug lords, and my house ripped apart by a tornado or hurricane, I’d head for the exits too.

Walls are effective in two obvious ways: They keep me from seeing what’s on the other side, and increase my fear of what I can’t see. 

The oppressed, the terrified, and prisoners come to mind.

Big talk about walls is a small-minded way to address the deeply rooted problems we face. Climate change, war, and human misery linked to abuse of common folk by tyrants and gangsters will keep sending endless streams of migrants away from home. Walls will inconvenience but not stem the flow.

A comprehensive immigration policy would be a useful short-time gesture. But even this won’t get finalized, quite deliberately, when there’s political hay to make by keeping the problem alive with loud political noise. 

My nose picks up stenches when it faces facts. We don’t like to do certain kinds of work. So immigrants are terrible when they escape from troubles at home, but OK enough to harvest our beans, clean our barns and work in our meat factories. But when their skin has dark hues they’re not good enough for us, even if they pray to the same God we do. 

How many horrendous dictators have American politicians and businesses endorsed and subsidized? What nation on earth qualifies as the richest consumer market for illicit drugs?  Which financial institutions launder huge profits from those drugs? And what nation over time has spewed the greatest tonnage of carbon emissions obviously linked to environmental disasters that force thousands to flee from their homes?

Walls are distractions, last resort public displays of short-sighted public policy, cultural and moral failures.

We’d do better by talking openly about our diplomacy misconduct, our seamy trade agreements, our contribution to disastrous climate change, and our enabling of the crimes that destroy communities at home and abroad. 

In Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” a smart hard-working farmer says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask who I was walling in or walling out.” Some force of nature, says Frost, doesn’t love walls, keeps tearing them down.