When walls are falling and ideologues are charging across continents, it’s healthy to take a deep breath and remember that borders can serve good purposes: that Napoleon, Marx, and McLuhan’s wide open villages can be very uncomfortable places to live; and that respecting those little differences between peoples makes for a more interesting, more creative world.
Our time, however, isn’t dominated by heartless rationalists smashing up traditional institutions, scorning national memories and old prejudices, and erasing charming national borders. It’s ironic that the New York Times, a stubborn symbol of America’s liberal inclusiveness, would publish cartographer Frank Jacobs' “In Praise of borders”:
“They’re invisible obstacles, a bit like glass ceilings, but vertical and spatial rather than horizontal and hierarchical. People in Neeritter and Opitter speak the same language, but they have slightly different accents. Neighbors on either side of the borderline are oriented towards their respective national capitals, have different holidays, read their own newspapers, even build their houses differently. They are less likely to intermarry, and consequently have significantly fewer grandmothers to visit across the border.”
“Tolkien might have done without borders on his map, but ours are richer for it. Tracing them across the globe, we find enclaves and exclaves, disputed and neutral zones, improbably straight and impossibly jagged borders, deadly borders born in war and old ones almost faded into irrelevance. Borders reflect humanity’s need for obstacles, for a line in the sand between Them and Us. And even if they coincide with rivers or mountain ranges, they remain entirely human constructs. They are there because we expect them to be, because the map says that they are. They can be as wondrous, frightening and magical as anything in Middle-earth – as we will see in the following episodes.”
We are not richer for having glass above or between us.
Our world isn’t made more magical by capitalizing “us” and “them.” History doesn’t need to be repeated to be interesting, by putting miles of tangled metal, drones, and bored public servants along lines on maps.
Unfortunately, many borders are necessary—for now. Today, however, many stand without reason and none ever come down casually. It takes no courage and little sense for Jacobs to say that he has suffered “Phantom Border Sadness (P.B.S.): a slight pang of grief caused by the conviction that a world with one fewer border is also a bit less special." Freedom to unmake what others have made—not habit—is what makes humans special.
For fun, let’s imagine that freedom was given a level chance against all those sentiments that keep our borders in such good repair. Imagine treating our borders as free collective decisions that could be renewed or terminated by each generation.