Saturday, June 23, 2018

Are nations obsolete?

“A nation without borders is not a nation at all.”
— Donald Trump (September 16, 2016)

People who are in favor of building a physical barrier, such as a wall, along the border between Mexico and the United States sometimes echo the claim that without borders there is no nation, and without strictly enforced immigration policies there is no border. The purpose of this posting is to examine both of those claims and then to examine a presupposition on which both of those claims depend.

Can there nations without borders?

The question of whether there can be a nation without any borders can probably be answered in the negative. A nation is, among other things, a clearly demarcated territory with boundaries that differentiate it from a neighboring territory. The more interesting question is whether there can be a nation without strong borders, a strong border being one that keeps people from neighboring nations or territories out. The answer to that question is clearly affirmative. One need look only at the many nations within the European Union, all of which have borders, but none of which have tight restrictions on who may cross those borders. One can bord a train in the Netherlands and travel to France, passing through Belgium, without passing through a checkpoint. I recall taking a train from Leiden, Netherlands to Gent, Belgium, and the only way I knew I had crossed the border was that my cell phone received a text message from my Dutch carrier informing me that I was now in Belgium and that the rates for a mobile telephone call in Belgium were different from the rates for a call in the Netherlands. (I found it a little spooky that my mobile phone was tracking my whereabouts so precisely that it informed me of all this within seconds of the train crossing the border, but that is another matter.) Passing between two countries in the European Union is now easier than passing from the state of New Mexico into the state of Arizona; sometimes, but not always, I have had to stop at a checkpoint in Arizona to insure the authorities that I have no fruit in the car that might carry diseases that could endanger Arizona fruit orchards. Despite the ease with which anyone can pass between one European nation and another, each nation maintains its own distinctive government, passes its own legislation and enforces that legislation with its own agencies. France is still unmistakably France, and Spain is Spain and Belgium is Belgium. Whatever factors go into making them nations are still intact, and strongly defended borders is not one of those factors.

It is not at all obvious that the United States would cease to be a nation if it belonged to an American Union similar to the European Union, a union in which people could freely cross from Canada into the United States or from the United States into Canada, or from either of those countries into Mexico, either for a short visit or to take up residence and take up gainful employment. Indeed, if there were a union including every nation in North America, Central America and South America, a union in which people and goods could cross borders with a minimum of difficulty, it is difficult to make the case that the situation would have any more of a negative impact on any of the American nations than the open-border policies in the European Union has on the nations of Europe.

Can there be borders without strictly enforced immigration policies?

Once gain, the European Union provides a hint as to how this question can be answered. The members of the European Union do have immigration polices, and they are enforced. A key to the successful enforcement of any law or policy is that the law or policy be enforceable. It should be obvious to most lawmakers that the current numbers of immigrants who have entered the United States to live and work illegally proves that the current laws are not enforceable. If millions of people do not follow a law, the law is probably not enforceable.

The most reasonable response to this situation is not to have a “zero tolerance” policy whereby every person who crosses the border is detained, charged with a crime and deported, but rather to have laws that are a better reflection of the social and economic realities behind the migration of peoples from one place to another. Current immigration laws and policies in the United States fail to take into full consideration why people migrate. Most people do not move from one place to another simply because they like to be in motion. Rather, they go to live in another place because life where they have been living has become untenable or unsustainable. Policymakers in the United States would do far better to look into ways that they might help improve the living circumstances of neighboring countries than to look into ways to keep people from neighboring countries out. Trying to keep desperate people out of an an area that has better opportunities for a fulfilling life that the area where they have been living is a task that only a fool would undertake. The task is not only foolish but heartless.

The question to ask is not “Can there be borders without strictly enforced immigration policies?”, but rather “Can there be enforcement of unrealistically strict laws?” and the answer to that question is obviously No. The United States does not need a wall along its borders. What the United States does need is to wake up the the complex economic and social realities that have led to its borders being crossed by millions of people.

Is there really a need for nations any more?

All of this discussion of whether there can be a nation without strong borders presupposes that nations are desirable in the first place. Are they? The answer to that question requires having a clear idea of what a nation is in the first place. An online dictionary defines a nation as “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Given that understanding, one might ask in what sense the United States has ever been a nation. It has never been the case that the inhabitants of the country have had a common descent, history, culture or language, although there have been attempts at various times either to impose a common culture and language on everyone or to marginalize those who do not speak the same language or share cultural values with those who happen to be in power. Given the ease of travel on the planet, and the networks of communication in most parts of the planet, especially where economic power is concentrated, it is increasingly unlikely that there will ever be a place in the modernized world where all the people in that region have a common descent, history, culture or language. The nation, if it ever had a place in the world, certainly no longer has a place or a function. It is at most an abstract fiction. The human race may well have come to the point where it no longer needs to think in terms of people living in nations. It is arguably the time to begin thinking in terms of people simply living in the world, a world without artificial boundaries, a world in which there are thousands of living languages and cultures and particular histories, a world in which anyone can live and work wherever life and work are possible.

Maintaining the fiction of the artificial construct of a nation entails a waste of resources that the planet can ill afford. The defense of borders (against whom, aside from fellow human beings?) has come to involve the maintenance of armies and navies (and in the fantasy world in which some politicians live, even military units designed to dominate outer space) and immigrations and customs enforcement agencies and departments of homeland security and countless other entities that have no clear function other than to maintain an illusion that everyone on one side of an imaginary line has a common culture and history that differentiates them from those living on the other side of that imaginary line. The very idea of a nation has become a costly and wasteful fiction, one that is entirely out of line with the realities of human life on this planet.

I would suggest that rather than laboring under such pointless nationalistic slogans as “Make [plug in the name of an artificial construct here of your choice] Great Again,” we should consider a far more meaningful and easily achieved slogan such as “Make Humanity Nationless Again.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Memories of being alarmed

“The alarm in the morning? Well, I have an old tape of Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in a perfectly transcendent version in Shubert’s seventh symphony. And I’ve rigged it up so that at exactly 7:30 every morning it falls from the ceiling onto my face.” ― Stephen Fry

When I was a child, I was rudely awaked every morning by a device that was aptly named an alarm clock, so-called, I suppose, because it was alarming to be awakened by the raucous sound of a clapper feverishly striking two little bells on top of the clock.

By the time I was an adolescent and unable to go for more than a few minutes at a time without listening to what I, but not my parents, called music, I had a clock radio, which could be set to turn itself off after a given number of minutes at bedtime and then turn back on at a specified time in the morning. The clock radio made it possible to go to sleep listening to music and to wake up listening to music. For those who needed to be alarmed, an obnoxious buzzer could be set to go off a few minutes after the music began to play, just in case the music was insufficiently jarring to bring sleep to an end. For those who were prone to fall back to sleep after the alarm went off, there was a feature called a snooze alarm, which sounded at intervals until the alarm was deactivated. When I was living with my parents and had a bedroom to myself, I relied on my clock radio to help me achieve the transitions between wakefulness and sleep. When I went to college and had to be considerate of roommates, I tried without much success to learn to go to sleep and wake up without external aids; I slept through many morning classes. (Much later, I atoned for that sin by teaching early morning classes that many of my students slept through.)

In early adulthood I completely outgrew my need for alarm clocks, having replaced them with babies who woke up crying just before the sun came up. From that point in my life onwards, I have nearly always awakened at just about the time the sun comes up and have had to set an alarm only on days when circumstances called for getting an early start. As a result of having a fairly reliable internal clock, my relationship with external wake-up mechanisms has deteriorated somewhat. While that is generally true, there have been a few memorable devices along the way that have yanked me out of slumber when the need arose.

When I was living in Japan in the late 1970s I was introduced to a number of electronic gadgets that did not become commonplace in North America until several years later. One of them was a slab of plastic small enough to fit into a shirt pocket that kept track of time and had an alarm that emitted high-pitched beeping noises. When I returned to North America, I bought one for my father, who loved new gadgetry. For a few years he enjoyed being on the cutting edge of chronometric technology, but it was not long before small battery-powered clocks and timers were available everywhere at much lower prices than the cost of a round-trip ticket to Japan.

A few years before I retired from teaching, I was with a student and had occasion to look at my wristwatch to see what the date was; even though wristwatches that showed the date had been around for decades, I still marveled at the clever convenience of a machine that could indicate both time of day and calendrical date. My student, seeing me glance at my timepiece and datepiece, remarked that people of his generation would never settle for a device that did only one thing. I asked him what he consulted when he wanted to know the time, and he pulled out a cellphone—not even a smartphone, but a flip phone of the sort that hardly anyone but old fogeys like me still carry. He demonstrated that his cellphone told the time and date, could be used to make telephone calls, had a calculator and several kinds of timer and alarm clock and a digital agenda book and a few simple games. He then pointed out, unkindly I thought, that his multifunction device cost less than half what my cumbersome two-function wristwatch cost. I realized then and there that I had outlived my usefulness.

Even though I still have a cellphone that is more simple and minimalistic than the mobile telephones that people were carrying ten or fifteen years ago (which, incidentally, I use mostly as a clock, since I hate both making and receiving telephone calls and am much too old to learn how to send or receive SMS), I do now have a multifunction device that fits on my wrist. It serves as a pedometer, heart-rate monitor, clock, calendar and stopwatch. It calculates an estimate of how many kilocalories of energy my body has consumed. If I wear it to bed, it logs an estimate of how many hours of deep sleep I have had, and if I set the alarm, it gently and noiselessly vibrates on my wrist to wake me up (although in performing the task of waking me up, it usually loses a race with my bladder). While I confess to finding it a bit silly to have a device that monitors my life as thoroughly as that wristband, I do find it an improvement on the clanging of the windup alarm clocks that woke me up as a child.