The other day, a colleague and I were talking and the topic of borders came up. Now, this may sound like an odd topic, but we're both sociologists and we're both highly interested in globalization and, let's face it, if globalization (from the top down) is about anything, it's about bulldozing borders. At least, if you're a member of one of the elites, it is. If on the other hand, you're just another poor sap, part of the hoi polloi, then borders and boundaries of all kinds -- between races, genders, ethnicities, classes, and above all perhaps, countries -- are, as they say, carved in stone. "Why is that?" we asked each other. If borders are part of a truly basic reality, then shouldn't they be the same for everybody? They're not.
The way I understand it, humans originally just cruised around (as it were) finding food where it appeared and moving on when the food ran out. Eventually, when it occurred to us that we could plant food and domesticate animals, we could, if we wanted to, stop moving around. And many of us did. Almost immediately, we discovered yet another life-changing reality: surplus. And at that moment, I guess, on some level, the seeds of capitalism were planted along with the crops.
Over time (a good bit of it apparently), laying up stores of surplus made people paranoid. What was to stop someone else who had a bad year maybe or didn't feel like planting from coming around and taking the more successful or industrious farmer's stash? Nothing. So walls went up and moats were dug and dogs were unleashed and clubs came to rest beside doors.
This wasn't an instantaneous evolution. For thousands of years, many of us still cooperated the way we had before domestication and planting began. We worked together to build a shelter or ford a stream. We still hunted in groups and sewed in groups and harvested in groups and depended on large families to survive. Even up to a few hundred years ago, in Europe, despite the rigidity of an unapologetic feudal system, the bulk of the population still lived in tandem, with shared commons for grazing and shared woods for fuel and building purposes. People could move from nation to nation without a whole lot of tension past looking different or maybe offending the locals by not knowing the language. And while there were boundaries drawn and re-drawn for estates and even for nations, they could shift radically and overnight.
In 1885, in one of the most remarkable displays of arbitrary boundary-setting in history, representatives of the European powers sat down in Berlin and quite literally carved up among them Africa, the largest continent in the world, placing "borders" to suit themselves, ignoring the historical and traditional placement of uncountable ethnicities with more than a thousand languages. The result can be seen in almost every nation still existent on that continent today, including most lately in Kenya, but most particularly, for example, in Sudan where the northern and southern regions of that country are populated by peoples so different from each other in virtually every way as to make their successful operation as a national entity untenable from the beginning.
Since 1991, when the U.S.S.R. fell apart, eastern Europe has been a powder keg of confusion and struggle with so many variant interests in play as to make the situation almost completely unfathomable for the average outsider. Tempers run hot, resolutions don't stay resolved, and even national identities seem to change back and forth and back again, taking so-called borders with them.
Many people feel strongly -- very strongly -- about their "motherland." And my concern here is not with how emotionally we attach to a location or a culture, but rather how fluid borders have been throughout the history of the world and how fluid they obviously remain. The U.S., for example, added two states in my lifetime already and has been talking off and on about the possibility of adding Puerto Rico as another for some time, while D.C. remains a complicated aberration by anybody's standards.
What am I getting at with all this? Just this: if national borders are arbitrary in that they can be argued, negotiated, or bulldozed pretty much at will or at least regularly, whose best interrest is it in that we perceive them as inviolate and maintain them with such fervor when it comes to the coming and going of human beings? I mean, if proponents of "free trade" hold that corporations moving across national borders at a moment's notice without restriction is a good thing and all the military might in the world does not really stop millions of people from moving around the planet like so many fish in the ocean or birds in the sky, then what's the deal?
Oh, I know that there are issues of citizenship and benefit and responsibility and all that, but really now, in the end, isn't it all about the benjamins? Rich people don't have any problem moving from place to place -- or maintaining multiple places. Even Michael Jackson with all his problems had no difficulty re-locating when he'd had enough of U.S. cultural restrictions. And any corporation with enough money wants to have a presence in as many locations as it can afford. It's the poor folks who take the hits, being personna non grata sometimes even in their own nation. Their labor is needed, of course, but otherwise, their presence is eschewed.
That's where "immigration" comes in as a concept. Because other than as labor (especially low paid labor), those individuals most likely to wind up being called "immigrants" rather than humans are often less than welcome wherever they emigrate to. They are more likely to be poor. And they are more likely to be of color so they are often visibly recognizable as different in settings where "difference" is tantamount to "undesirable." But understand that all of this is arbitrary and those with the power-to-define are not acting, by and large, in the best interests of the human race, but rather in what they imagine to be their own best interests (read "short-term bottom line").
Those with the power to define our lives want us to believe that "immigrants" (especially certain "immigrants") are to be feared and distrusted and blocked. But since borders keep changing and the rules are so different depending on who they're talking about, we might want to consider why they want us to listen.
I know I'm going at this overly simplistically, but I'm only trying to make a simple point. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If borders are so unimportant that they should be level to the ground for rich people and transnational corporations and old men traveling for the purpose of having sex with twelve-year-olds, then we shouldn't be building fences just for certain people. Because that's not a border. That's a filter. And if we're going to filter certain people to keep them away from us, I would vote to keep out the perverts and the sweatshop owners and let the regular folks on through.
The poster at the beginning of this post can be found at Northland Poster Collective.