Borders, Schmorders

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  immigrant rights now --.jpg 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").

Last summer, I saw a diagram by Carlos Castillo via Black Looks and it struck me as a graphic depiction of just what I've been writing about here.


they and us.jpgThose 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.

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kyledeb said:

One of the most important discussions brought up on Citizen Orange yet, changeseeker. This is the area that I put a lot of the though into: global inequity and how to remedy it.

You come up with the central contradiction of this free trade concept. Goods and services are allowed to roam free while people are caged in. The truth about this contradiction though is that it's the anti-capitalists that are guilty of paradox not the capitalists. Capitalists are some of the strongest allies in the pro-migrant fight, not for their rights (capitalists want an easily exploitable guest worker population) but for the fact that they want free labor as well as free trade.

I generally find it's the left that is guilty of being against free trade but in favor of migrants, and that's a pretty heavy contradiction. It's that contradiction that allows people like Lou Dobbs to find room within the U.S. discourse. For the dobbsian the jump from being against free trade to being anti-migrant is pretty straightforward and simple. That's why I believe we have to get our ideology about the harms of free trade and the benefits of being pro-migrant in order. It's going to be a lot easier with the help of people like yourself.

My view on borders isn't so much that they should be erased, but that they have to lose their role as people's gaurantor of rights. Ever since nations started adopting concepts of "all humans are created equal" they've found ways to exclude people from those rights. In times past people were excluding from that statement by their gender, their race, and their religion, and I believe the greatest exclusion right now occurs with people born in other nations. Borders don't have to be bad, like the borders between U.S. states for example. They just have to stop being used to exclude people from rights in my opinion.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts changeseeker.

Horace said:

So, you would advocate removing borders. Would you erase governments too? Poor governance is the main reason for the establishment and perpetuation of the poor socioeconomic conditions of Latin America. Should a people decide through the democratic process to choose a good government, that subset of the whole whose borders you've dissolved will suffer the consequences of the illiteracy and poverty of the others. For example, should Guatemala continue to generate tens of thousands of poor, should the U.S. suffer by the need to accept the illiterate unskilled produced by their society? Our streets would be filled with tens of thousands of unfortunates begging for work at any wage. No, unless Guatemalans wish to cede their autonomy to the U.S. or change their government and socioeconomic climate, the U.S. has no alternative but to defend itself by maintaining its own sovereignty and defending its citizens from the bad judgment of other nations.

janna said:

Changeseeker, your statement that borders are really just filters is right on the money. Excellent post. Horace, I don't think anyone here is saying that borders should be altogether removed, only that borders tend to be unjust, and serve different purposes for different people. That's what it's all about, that's the problem: injustice.

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

It's funny you mention Guatemala, Horace, the nation that I was born in and spent 18 years of my life in. You think the Guatemalan poor are a product of the Guatemalan government's bad judgment? Get your history straight please. The U.S. overthrew a democratically elected government in Guatemala and supported brutal military dictatorships in the country for years. I'll be the first to acknowledge Guatemala's mistakes, but the U.S. has some responsibility for the suffering in the country as well. I would be happy if the U.S. recognized Guatemala's sovereignty, history and the present, however, show that is not the case.

Changeseeker said:

kyle: I'm glad you liked the post. That borders should "lose their role as people's guarantor of rights." Yes. We're talking about human rights, rights that have been ignored, brushed aside, and even stolen by those with the Power-To-Define inter-nationally as if no one has a right to consideration except corporations and the rich connected to them.

Horace: I advocated removal of borders? You need to re-read my post. Nowhere did I recommend the removal of borders. But you can't have it both ways. And the issue, as kyle points out, is rights. Which also would be my answer to your quip about governments. I am, in fact, opposed to all bad governments, as well. A government that represses its own people, that rules unjustly, that does great harm is a bad government, like a leech on the mass populace, typically maintaining its power by violence of various kinds. I do believe that human rights are inalienable. You, I take it, disagree. As for the history and current situations in Latin America, you probably need to read Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire since it's apparent you haven't a clue what's really been going on. Finally, in case you haven't noticed, the streets of the U.S. are already filled with "tens of thousands of unfortunates" (practically all of them U.S. citizens) since the same brutal masters that are running the government here and trying to build fences are no kinder to the ones to whom they are supposed to be responsible than they are to the "immigrants" by whom you appear to be so horrified. It's okay. It was probably your best effort. But next time you try to bring it, you'll want to learn enough to have something to bring.

janna: Thanks for weighing in and for the kind words.

Ultima said:

Sociology has long been the haven for radicals that would change our way of life so that it would be unrecognizable.

Speaking of inalienable rights out of context surely is an error. It would be more reasonable to say that the writer of those words had in mind those who were already in the body politic at that time. In fact Jefferson cautioned against admitting too many new immigrants. Perhaps he realized the dangers involved in having too many unassimilated newcomers. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Changeseeker said:

Ultima: "Our way of life" seems to best advance the interests of a very particular class of people -- at a cost to the rest of us. Those who have the Power-To-Define that life seem disproportionately committed to money (for the few) being more important than the inalienable rights of the human. The fact that you think inalienable rights has a context tells me where you stand on that process. In spite of what he said, Jefferson was a slave holder and an exploiter of the very people he urged to periodic revolution. You believe in slavery, too?

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This page contains a single entry by Changeseeker published on January 27, 2008 8:51 PM.

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