Borders: An Apology

André Forget

Borders have, in contemporary discourse, had a rather rough time of it. Perhaps, at the end of a century that saw the partition of India and Pakistan, the ruler-happy imperialist line-drawing in Africa and the Middle East, and the blood-soaked, increasingly microscopic division of the Balkans, it is simply impossible to believe that borders are anything but a sign of failure. After all, even the gentlest uses of the word suggest something to be overcome, something to be crossed, and the images most commonly associated with it – barbed wire fences, armed guards, desperate refugees, watchtowers, customs officers – are steeped in the biometric panopticism of the modern state. Even to the white middle class, perhaps the most privileged of all international travelers, the border is an ambiguous site of anxiety and potential trouble. In the academy, the border has become increasingly fashionable as a site of transgression. “Border Crossing” and “Liminality” are celebrated as ways of resisting the totalizing logic of the centre, and even those who criticize (consider, for example, Roy Miki’s excoriation of those who are drawn to the margin’s “curious exoticism”) do so from the position that the border still names a painful division. It would seem that transgression is all the border is good for in the modern world.

In fact, to be an apologist for borders in Canada today is to speak either the language of right wing demagoguery, full of paranoid references to freeloaders, terrorists, and other such unsavoury malcontents, or the smug discourse of the self-righteous liberals who seek to draw a clear line between the individualistic moral chaos of the United States and the prudent, egalitarian rationalism of Canada. It is no surprise, then, that the most resonant representations of the border are those which draw attention to its absurdity. Consider, for example, the famous scene in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion in which the prisoners of war Lt. Maréchal and Lt. Rosenthal escape from Germany into neutral Switzerland across an empty, snow-covered valley. Maréchal is uncertain that they will be safe once across, commenting that “it all looks the same.” Rosenthal consults his map and assures his friend that they are indeed almost there, saying “you can’t see borders – they’re man made. Nature couldn’t care less.” Sure enough, as a German patrol watches them flee across the valley the commander orders his soldiers to hold their fire; the prisoners have crossed the invisible line into Switzerland and are safe. With burgeoning post-war cynicism towards the nation-state, the trope of the border-as-invisible-line has become the corollary of the heavily-guarded border crossing; the ironic inversion which lays bear the absurdity at its heart. Not for nothing is Thomas King’s playful short story “Borders” one of the most anthologized works of Canadian literature – the seriocomic tale revolves around a Blackfoot woman who refuses to declare her citizenship as “Canadian” when crossing over to the states, instead insisting that she is “Blackfoot” from the “Blackfoot side” of the border. To the enlightened liberal mind, the border is an absurdity, an anachronism from the dark ages of nationalism. Whatever the future holds, the globalized world is almost certainly one in which the border will eventually wither and die.

Like Renoir’s film, however, while King’s story is often upheld as a rejection of borders in favour of a cosmopolitan humanism, it is underscored by a more complex awareness of their ambivalent nature. The mother in King’s story, after all, does not reject citizenship outright; rather, she claims an alternative citizenship as a member of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Likewise, at the heart of Renoir’s film is the recognition that privileged aristocrats of France and Germany have far more in common with each other than either of them do with the working classes of their own nations. It is the borders drawn between members of the same society which are ultimately more important than the invisible lines, and not only are those borders far more fluid and amorphous, they are also infinitely more violent. It is, after all, the machinations of class structure that led to the great bloodletting of the First World War, and it was internal ethnic and ideological differences that caused the wholesale slaughters of Armenians, Roma, Jews, North American Aboriginals, and Kulaks throughout the twentieth century. While liberal humanists tend to emphasize a fundamentally universalist view of the human species, seeing its ultimate telos in union rather than division, such visions fail to take seriously the ways in which unity and harmony are possible precisely because of carefully articulated borders and divisions.

There is an old proverb which states that “good fences make good neighbours.” While my desire to resist this unashamed appeal to private property is still very strong, it is worth remembering that within, for example, the context of Christian history it is precisely the clearly articulated division of the body which make a healthy ecumenism – and therefore a healthy relationship – possible. I can engage the conservative Pentecostal in meaningful dialogue about the Church’s social responsibility precisely because I don’t need to sit next to her in church every Sunday; an Ethiopian farmer and I can both go about our business confident that our governments will speak to us in our native tongues precisely because we do not share the same government. Let me not overstate my case: this is not an appeal to a renewed sense of nationalism or a paen to private property. It is an attempt to examine more carefully one of the most prominent tropes of contemporary progressive dialogue, and to consider the ways in which it too-easily brushes over some of the ways in which borders – better borders, stronger borders – are often precisely what is needed. For the Cree and Naskapi and Anishinaabeg and Innu First Nations of Northern Quebec, perhaps stronger borders would allow for control of natural resources on Native land by Native peoples. For Palestinians living on the West Bank, perhaps clear, internationally-recognized borders would allow for a lasting peace with Israel.

One of Canada’s great strengths has been its commitment to a reasonable balance between unity and difference. Its success in this has been chequered, as the brutal facts of the North-West Rebellion, residential schools, Japanese internment, and anti-semitism attest; and yet, the notion that different provinces and different communities within those provinces should reserve the right to make important decisions for themselves is inscribed in our Constitution, and our very survival as a nation has been – and continues to be – measured by our ability to managed the divisions within our own borders. Rather than importing a flat universalism which can only function myopically within the framework of enlightenment liberalism, perhaps it is time we re-examined the border as the place where we agree to disagree – not a line drawn across an empty valley, but an acceptance that we may share the valley better if we negotiate our differences from a place of guaranteed security in our differences.

André Forget is working on his Master’s Degree in English Literature at Dalhousie University.  He is a co-editor of the Catholic Commons.


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