Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

The Future of Economic, Political, Socio-cultural, and Ethical Interconnections: What if All Borders Were Abolished? (Part 1)

Last night I watched a very interesting fake or imaginary documentary on the Franco-German TV station ARTE, which examined the question: What if all international borders were abolished by the United Nations? The program was titled Une planète sans frontières or A planet without borders and it presented a strange mix between reality and fiction as it examined many contemporary and potential economic, political, and socio-cultural issues (think the Radiobroadcast War of the Worlds meets philosophical questioning over immigration ).

The “Show”: A Planet Without Borders

The “show” opened with two journalists. These were real journalists whose normal job it was to be journalists reporting on actual events. They were presenting in German and French in live the discussion surrounding the UN vote to eliminate all international borders. We see clips from the U.N. debate leading up to the vote. On-site journalists talk with different leaders and politicians. There’s even a speech by former Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan in all its political, idealistic and “general” emptiness.

There was even something comic from time to time as political figures and countries took on very typical (we might say stereotypical) roles and made decisions that seemed eerily true or, at least, possibly true. The importance was to examine the possible truth in order to better understand both what we are doing (and should be doing) and what we will be do (and should be aiming to do). For example, certain countries like Venezuela or China would in theory vote in favor of a world without borders while others, we could realistically imagine, like the United States, Taiwan, or Sweden would vote against this proposition. (One funny part was the imagined or stolen-and-recontextualized quote from Chavez which said that Venezuela would be voting in favor just like “Bolivar would have wanted it.”)

These imagined answers were so seemingly true that sometimes I, as a spectator, feel into the illusionary trap and believed the magic. Lewis Carroll, like Plato or any other visionary, had much to tell us about going through the rabbit hole. Cultural meanings and ethical conclusions can be draw through our cultural and historical imagination and fictive illusions. In the same way, this imaginary documentary simply resituated many of our contemporary issues in a new context in order to better understand.

Throughout the live journalistic report, there was a count-down to the vote. In anticipation of this revolutionary event, many of the peoples of the world were already anticipating what they would do when the vote came in. For example, in Morocco people from all over Africa were migrating closer to Europe in order to take the first boats abroad. A kind of hysteria takes over these refugee camps as thousands and thousands compete and submit applications. The chilling truth is that thousands upon thousands (maybe even millions upon millions) would jump at the chance to come work in the industrialized world. If their home countries were industrialized and with enough jobs available, then they wouldn’t already be trying to migrate illegally.

Special reports are shown from across the world about what certain countries do about immigration. It’s here that reality and fiction meet in important and complex ways. For example, one report talks about volunteer programs aimed at properly integrating culturally and socially immigrants in Canada. Canadians volunteer to be a host to a newly immigrated family. These Canadians meet twice a week with the new immigrants, help them through administrative tasks, and overall adjust to their new country while at the same time attempting to “meet” (rencontre) and speak with the Other. While geographic borders can be crossed in a few hours or days by planes, boats, etc, cultural frontiers can only be traversed much more slowly, because socio-cultural and mythical frontiers can be created in dialogical understanding and not simply in quantitative or statistical information. In the same way, this Canadian program is about constructing bridges in-between worlds in order to create a politic of integrative immigration. This is a true story about a real program that exists in Canada. While a fake Canadian government official comments about increasing funding in anticipation of this increased immigration, this is a type of program that already exists in Canada to bridge geographic and economic displacements with cultural, dialogical interconnections.

In another example of a re-contextualized real event, one journalist reports from a rally in Arizona about protecting the Mexican-American border against illegal immigrants. These are already people that feel as though the border is disappearing or not properly being protected. These all-Caucasian, religious Americans are carrying guns and waving American flags. These are nationalists defending a line of property. They’re protecting something: their identity, their culture, something or anything that they can claim as theirs. These are people who are justifying their protection of a cultural identity. They don’t understand the other, nor do they want to know the other. They make the other an enemy. They hate the other in order to love passionately and violently what’s theirs. They don’t really understand economics or ethics in the contemporary globalized and supposedly dialogical world. They believe in what they know. And what they know are their fundamental, God-given, biblically written principals. If the Canadian system proposes a transgressive immigration policy, these redneck Americans are cultural eunuchs. They see the world only through their cultural bias. What do you do with people that see the world other through their tiny slice of the whole or collective perspective? How do you show them a different shade of yellow? How do you make them see that for which they are so cultural blind?

Throughout the program, these on-site reports are interspersed with commentary from French and German sociologists, economic experts, and intellectuals. Their commentary on an imagined event literally speaks to the ability of an intellectual to speak about anything. But this doesn’t mean their commentary is worthless, because, as I said before, these experts present real answers to a real possibility. In any case, these “experts” fully tie together the illusion.

As the clock finally winds down to the anticipated vote, the curtain is pulled back, the pseudo-illusion is debunked, and the magician loses her cover. Pieced-together, “live” images are separated on green screens. The faked-up commentators are shown laughing in a series of blooper clips. The gig is up.

The journalists quit playing the game and are suddenly, after a brief change of scene showing the technical apparatuses of this rabbit-hole in the background, are interviewing the director of the “show.” He explains what was real and what wasn’t as he comments on the ironic parallels between fact and fiction in this story. He was particularly surprised by the American border minuteman who fully believed that the borders were being eliminated and responded dans le vrai, truthfully. This wasn’t fiction so much as a re-contextualized reality. Just because you are down the rabbit hole doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth.

If this “show” presented a possible future, let’s try to imagine what would happen if this did happen and, equally troubling, why it doesn’t or shouldn’t happen. Ultimately the question that ties all of these questions together is not, if the borders were abolished, what would we do but in a world of borders or without borders what should we be doing. These imaginary conditionals are only interesting if contextualized ethically. We have a moral and political responsibility towards all our actions—be it the actions of the past, the present or even the future. In the same, we need an ethics of the present and an ethical judgment (and sometimes punishment) of the past, we equally must imagine an ethics of the future.

(If you want to keep reading, check out Part 2.)