Thursday, September 16, 2010

What is the significance of borders?

Cafe Philo in New York City will meet next week on Thursday, September 23, 2010 with a discussion on the topic of "Could we live well without borders?" It is time to explore the nuances of that question.

We have to start by exploring what we even mean by the concept of borders.

First off, there are a lot of kinds of "borders", but I will assume that we are primarily interested in political borders.

There are lots of types of political entities, including towns, boroughs, cities, counties, states, and countries, which all have a lot of common qualities, but I will assume that we are primarily interested in national political entities or countries.

So, when we casually refer to "borders" we are typically referring to the borders between countries.

One nuance is that there is distinction that could be drawn between borders and boundaries. A boundary is more of an imaginary or virtual "line" between adjacent countries, as in the lines drawn on a map, whereas an actual border is the physical manifestation of that imagined boundary in the real world, such as signs, fences, walls, other markers, checkpoints, etc. In some cases there may be no actual border per se, such as a country bounded by an ocean, or where a lake or river separates two countries and the division is only that imagined boundary line.

The border between Iraq and Iran is a great example. In some places there is a very visible border with border crossings under strict control. Then you have the southern portion of the Tigris river to the Persian Gulf (actually referred to as the Shatt al-Arab waterway) where there is no real border per se other than the imagined boundary in the middle of the Tigris waterway. That lack of a clearly discernable border led to the capture of British sailors by Iran who claimed they were in Iranian territory. One report indicates that Iraq and Iran have no formal agreement as to where the boundary line is, so the simple notion of an imaginary line down the middle of the waterway (relative to some agreed tidal conditions) is up in the air in that situation. Recently we have seen the case of the alleged "hikers" in northern Iraq who supposedly "strayed" across the border into Iran without even realizing that they had in fact crossed any "border". In other words, there is no visible border unless you are aware of local custom, even if legally there might be a more formal virtual boundary that may be clearly discernable on maps.

Another nuance is air travel where you hop on a plane "in" one country and then "land" in another country without physically encountering any actual border, just a traversal across that imagined boundary line or maybe even an ocean. In fact, you may "fly over" any number of countries during that flight, but are you ever really "in" any of them? Have you ever really "entered" a country except by passing across a physical border or a surrogate for the border in the form of an immigration station at the airport?

Personally, I would say that I have never been "in" Vietnam, but back in 1987 or so I was on a flight from Singapore to Hong Kong and the pilot announced that we were "over" Da Nang (I think, or one of the other notable cities in Vietnam.) I would not say that I have been "to" Vietnam, but maybe I can semi-legitimately claim that I was "in" Vietnam in the sense of being within its boundaries, at least as a crow flies.

Some borders are heavily fortified or require advance permission (a visa) to cross, or at least some sort of documentation such as a passport or drivers license to cross. Then there are the borders within the European Union which are effectively open, regardless of which member country you are a citizen of.

To me, this discussion topic is less about the physical manifestation of a border than the abstract concept of the imagined boundary. Even further, it is not the actual boundary that matters, but an abstract boundary that for all intents and purposes is just a circle or rectangle that lets us refer simply to "here" and "there" or "us" and "them." So, I think the core subject of the discussion topic is not borders per se, but what I would call abstract national borders.

But even that is still not be specific about the desired concept. My hunch is that ultimately the discussion topic is really about whether dividing the world and people into countries is necessary or necessarily advantageous. In other words, maybe the discussion is about whether world government is viable, or is it beneficial to divide people and places into separate and distinct nations with clear delineations between them. Or maybe we could say that we are interested in discussing the notion of national identity and whether it is needed or not or beneficial or maybe even harmful.

In any case, the four big things that people seem to care the most about relative to borders are laws, culture (including language and customs), communications, and trade. Political borders allow a clear distinction in how law is decided and structured. Culture does not require borders per se and can differ dramatically by regions within  country that are not necessarily political in nature, but is still a major differentiation between countries. Trade certainly occurs regardless of whether there is a political boundary involved, but the terms of the trade, including laws that relate to trade can be affected greatly by political differences between countries. Communications seems to stand out as something that is likely to occur regardless of borders, although regulation of the communications infrastructure within and between separate countries can be impacted by political considerations within and between separate countries.

I'll stop there for now to give myself and others a chance to review and ponder all of that before continuing.

-- Jack Krupansky