Unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office, I am not a very active participant on Twitter. (I probably should be, given how much of our foreign and domestic policy changes appear to be communicated via this medium). I did catch this at the top of my timeline. It echoed in my head, not just because I was workshopping a clunky joke about how our new horrible political apocalypse now is due to the collapse of Borders the bookstore chain. Let’s repeat, with less capitalization:

“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country.”

Is this correct? This is, traditionally, the approach to drawing maps. You delineate what’s inside, and what’s not.

(Al Franken, back in his less scandal-plagued heyday). 

There is something familiar and logical about this approach to defining country. It’s an approach shared by both major political parties in the U.S. Sure, there are a handful of renegade philosophers who advocate for open borders, but most people believe that defining what a country is not is essential to defining what it is.

I am, so to speak, on the fence. I think borders form by multiple means: geography less so these days, given technology and transportation. More immediate border signifiers: culture, language, shared values. The proposed border wall is a stupid and mean idea, and will never actually be built, but it doesn’t matter, because the border exists by other means. We are its enforcers.

I have lived for the past five years in a border city. When I first moved to Baltimore, one thing I marveled at was the razor-thin, impermeable lines between “good” and “bad” neighborhoods. Take Bolton Hill, for instance – I lived about a mile and a half from the neighborhood where Freddie Gray bled out, spine shattered, in the back of a police van. That distance might as well have been a hundred miles, for all the things that separated us. I lived in a neighborhood of fountains, delicate perfumed flowers, ornate and carefully preserved carvings. Freddie Gray lived in the Gilmor Homes, which I visited once after his passing: the span of his life unfolded amidst dingy brick squares, wires and weeds springing from cracked concrete, fetid brackish puddles.

One of my favorite books, The City and the City by China Mieville (I talk about this at length on my old scrubbed blog for which I can’t find the backups, a source of great frustration!), describes life in a border city in the most vividly metaphorical way. The plot of the novel is really kind of a basic potboiler detective story, in my opinion; the real draw is the setting – two cities, superimposed. Think East Berlin and West Berlin, if instead of side by side, they were right on top of each other, occupying the same space. Or Israel and the Gaza Strip, without the blockade. The citizens of Ul Qoma and Beszel are responsible for the separation between the cities by a mechanism called “Unseeing” – they’re socialized at birth to “Unsee” buildings, objects, and people displaying the physical characteristics of the other. (Tourism is a logistical nightmare for both cities, an essential plot part of the novel). Enforcement is via some unseen force called “Breach,” but really, 99% of the work is perpetrated by Ul Qomans and Beszlans.

Honestly – I practice “Unseeing” all the time, walking around in this city. Most of us do. It’s alarming and upsetting to See, so we don’t. I fear the border walls we have built up so high in our minds that are more difficult to dismantle than any dumb cheap claptrap thing our current POTUS would seek to erect, through the use of imported materials from China and prison labor, probably.

But I digress; back to the question at hand: what defines a country? Its borders, or something else? I don’t know how I feel about borders, but the gentle optimist in me prefers a world in which things are defined by what they are, not what they aren’t. An emphasis on the positive. “I am proud to be Vietnamese-American,” vs. “I am proud to be not white.”

What does the United States of America mean to me? It’s a complicated meaning with difficult history; it’s a country built on eradicating natives, slavery and 3/5ths compromise. It’s also a country of defiant, stubborn optimism, of restless busybodies forever working to tweak things for the better. It’s a country full of people coming from somewhere else, with their foods and religions and customs. It’s corn casseroles, peanut butter, cheese and sugar in almost every edible thing. Its people are weirdly, bizarrely friendly to strangers (not even distant cousins, just straight up people they don’t know!) It’s a breeding ground for cults, mystics and visionaries with dreams big enough to project across its vast lands.

What does America mean to you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *