John Buell

Born on the Fourth of July

Lately our political leaders talk a lot about borders. It is an article of faith that we must “secure our borders.” But is the concern for secure borders really a matter of our physical safety, a desire to protect ourselves from violent criminality? Or are we trying to reassert or reclaim the vigor and validity of the nation state itself in an era that makes nationalism increasingly problematic?

Historically many Americans viewed themselves as sharing a set of unique, core values, with cultural and physical borders separating us from a lesser set of others. Today, however, the pace and nature of social change leave many feeling they are a minority in “their own” country and harboring inner doubts about the sanctity of those values.

This is a world of rapid change and cross-border flows of capital, displaced populations, and the proliferation of new religious orientations, family arrangements, eating and cultural styles. Anxieties about our core values are stilled by intensified distrust of ethnic and cultural minorities, construing those who are different as real or possible threats.

Nonetheless we pay a moral and existential price for this security. We can conceal from ourselves the violence in our foundation. The walls we build to protect ourselves from those who only crime is to cross our physical or cultural boundaries hide not only past violence but also the deep residue of past exclusions. And the walls we build often end up limiting our own creative and experimental potential. The Medieval peasant viewed his own identity in terms of the local manor and the universal church. Only with the breakdown of the universal Catholic Church did the nation state take on such importance. Recently an ESPN commentator remarked during a Phils game that the “Nation was born here in Philadelphia in 1776.” The notion of birth carries with it several important implications, that of innocence, a new beginning, an organic coherence that was meant to be.

Philadelphia was a strange site for such a birth. A declaration of independence from England said nothing about how the colonies would collaborate. Conflicts over the morality of slavery would come to haunt the early Republic. And even as late as the Civil War, those conflicts played out within Philadelphia as well as among the several states. Judith Giesberg, a professor of history at Villanova, has commented: Was it possible that Philadelphia — a city that one historian labeled “the most northern of southern cities” — had turned a corner in the wake of Fort Sumter? Not likely. Spontaneous expressions of patriotic anger aside, rebel sympathies continued to run deep in the city of brotherly love.”

The violent and imperfect resolution of these conflicts is swept aside in such rituals of national affirmation as “God Bless America,” which might be labeled Philadelphia’s unofficial national anthem. Though African Americans now enjoy the right to vote, the city remains badly polarized over race. Writing in the American City, Josh Leon comments: “economic, social and geographic segregation is painfully obvious in Philadelphia and in some ways has gotten worse. For instance, the Census Bureau’s estimates indicate that this is another awful decade for white flight.”

`The question of how we police borders may serve as both a manifestation and symbol of our challenge. If nations are born in violence against internal and external others, then efforts to tame and redirect nationalism both within and across national boundaries become appropriate. Border communities are extraordinarily safe places to live, especially when the police focus on violent criminals and enjoy cooperation with the local immigrant communities. In “Democracy and the Foreigner,” Bonnie Honig points out that democracy’s energies and origins have always pointed beyond national boundaries. Today unions can and should work together across borders to change national policies and to establish modes of collaboration that begin to limit capital’s prerogatives. Granting economic rights to the millions of undocumented workers can strengthen their bargaining position and raise the floor under all working class wages.

These coalitions, however, become more likely to the extent that all parties come to appreciate that they might have been something other than they are. History and our continually evolving experience with difference shape and reshape consciousness and identity. Fear of the outsider may often be grounded in or related to fear of divergent and potentially creative impulses within ourselves. Political unity against forms of oppression thus may paradoxically require rejection of cultural uniformity or notions of one set of core beliefs held by all as a possible or desirable goal. It may depend on cultivating within ourselves and our communities more respect and joy in encounters with difference and celebration of a social and natural world that is always evolving and offering new possibilities. Honig commends the emergence of such practices as “sister cities.” Activists in different nations encourage their cities to adopt others as sisters. Honig comments that sister cities mobilize the psychic joys of kinship on behalf of a cross border and cross cultural politics that involve several issues and allow citizens of very different nationalities to learn from and be engaged with each other.

The case for more open and flexible borders thus also lies in the noneconomic benefits immigrants can bring us. The gifts lie in not only cultural difference but also in an extraordinary willingness to participate in politics. Many have taken enormous risks to protest draconian immigration laws and enforcement procedures. Their actions and words may encourage us not only to reflect more on who we are and could become but also the role of politics in this expansive process. They might just be the spark labor and the Left in the US need.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1/15, 2011

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