Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?  

The Echoes of Nazism in Today’s America: History or Hype?

Is anyone else heartbroken and equally fascinated by what’s happening in America right now? The removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 13 August sparked demonstrations which culminated in the tragic death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

But had it not been for Trump’s subsequent statement, then perhaps Heather’s death and these demonstrations could have been recorded as a local (though tragic) event. Heather may have been seen as “just one more casualty” in a long violent history between right-wing nationalists nostalgic about the old South, and everyone else that enthusiastically excludes themselves from that label.

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President Trump threw fuel on the metaphorical fire by saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

But then President Donald Trump condemned the violence at a white supremacist rally “on many sides.”

“On many sides”……? Huh?

It’s been remarkable to watch the visceral uproar following Trump’s trivializing remarks. Scheduled “Free Speech” demonstrations in Boston last weekend were overwhelmed with counter demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. At the base of Trump Tower in NYC another 1,000 protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while various sand-filled white dump trucks were positioned as a barricade. And comedian Tina Fey devoured an entire sheet cake:

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Tina Fey reminded white supremacists that: “It’s not our country–we stole it. We stole it from the Native Americans. And when they have a peaceful protest at Standing Rock, we shoot at them with rubber bullets. But we let you chinless turds march through the streets with semi-automatic weapons.”

Even other world leaders unequivocally condemned the white supremacists. In Germany, where any Nazi salutes, gatherings or symbols are illegal (even arresting tourists who flout the law), politicians have tweeted their dismay.

Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, tweeted: “One must denounce Nazis definitively. What Trump is doing is inflammatory. Whoever trivializes violence & hate betrays western values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events in Charlottesvile “absolutely repulsive.” And former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, tweeted: “In Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism there are never two equal sides — only one side is evil. Period.”

And some of the strongest voices of all are those of Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. These brave people are standing up against any revival of the same racist intolerance they experienced in 1930s Germany.

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Marianne Rubin’s granddaughter, Lena Schnall, captured a photo of her grandmother at a rally in NYC after Charlottesville. Rubin was a Jewish child in 1930s Germany and managed to escape with her parents first to Italy, France and then the US.

But are today’s racial clashes in the US actually echoing the same sentiments of Nazi Germany? Is Trump the new Hitler? Are Muslims and refugees the new Jews? Is World War III around the corner? Or is this all just a bunch of short-lived hype that will shortly disappear? 

Professor Richard J. Evans (my favourite historian and eminent Cambridge scholar) was interviewed by Slate magazine shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Well before the events of Charlottesville, Prof. Evans suggested that some parallels can be drawn between Trump and Hitler’s early days in power. I will now elaborate on three points my biggest intellectual crush raised:

1. The stigmatization of minorities.

Hitler despised those he deemed non-German. Although Hitler was a notorious anti-Semite, his prejudice towards Jews also extended to Bolshevists and progressive liberals who endorsed the Weimar Republic. Importantly, a strong right-wing community supported Hitler, which blamed Germany’s defeat in WWI upon the socialists, communists and Jews that had back-stabbed them on the homefront.  Anti-Semitic newspapers and anti-Jewish clubs were commonplace in prewar Germany.

And, once you combine this common hatred with a socially-acceptable belief in “scientifically-measurable” progression and eugenics (which was studied in numerous universities since Darwin coined the idea of “evolution”), then it’s not difficult to see how even the most civilized of societies – which Germany was in the 20th century – could believe that one race was superior to another. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws solidified the legal persecution of Jews on the basis of “race” and by 1939, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in public, moved into ghettos and eventually exterminated in concentration camps. Notably, this stigmatization was also experienced by other minorities, such as the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents, criminals, Roma/Gypsies, black people, religious groups…

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A class studies the Bertillon method of criminal identification, based on measuring body parts in Paris between 1910-1915. Eugenics was practised throughout the world and was considered to be ground-breaking field of scientific research which would improve society as a whole.

Today’s America is obviously a far cry from outright genocide, but stigmatization of minorities still exists. For example, Trump’s travel ban imposed against people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as all refugees caused huge controversy last February. Trump claimed he was protecting American borders from Muslim extremists, despite the fact that only three refugees in American history (Cubans in the 1970s) were ever convicted of terrorism.

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Muslims pray in protest of Trump’s travel ban in Dallas earlier in 2017. Although  judges have overturned the order, aspects of the ban were implemented and will be reviewed by the US Supreme Court in October.

Trump’s attempts to reverse Obamacare could also be perceived as a stigmatizing the poorer segments of American society who cannot afford private healthcare. The ongoing struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter black-community against state violence and discrimination is still speaking out against various Trump policies (although the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin which sparked the movement occurred before Trump took office).  Also, the Trump administration announced last month that transgendered individuals would be banned from serving in the US military. Even some of the most conservative Republicans and retired military generals have denounced the policy.

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In August 2017, civil rights groups have announced their intent to file suit against Trump for the intended ban against transgendered people serving in the military.

2. Not adhering to conventions of normal political life.

Although the Nazi party won 37% of the vote through an entirely democratic and legitimate political process, Hitler’s almost immediately changed German laws to create a one-party state. Although historians cannot agree over who exactly burnt down the Reichstag –  Germany’s parliament – afterwards Hitler enacted emergency measures which allowed him to suspend German citizens’ rights, including habeas corpusfreedom of expressionfreedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Hitler never reinstated these rights during the Third Reich. This was, again, in the name of protecting German citizens from domestic terrorism.  In June 1934, Hitler also violently eliminated about 100 rivals in a violent purge called “Night of the Long Knives.” Then, after President Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the presidency with the chancellorship. Incredibly, Hitler consolidated his power and created a violent dictatorship in less than two years.

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President Paul von Hindenburg and newly-elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a parade in Berlin in 1933. By consolidating the roles of presidency and chancellorship shortly after Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler was able to create a secure dictatorship.

What about Trump’s adherence to normal political life? Trump’s administration has passed more Executive Orders than any other president since Roosevelt, but many of these orders are politically insignificant (such as designating buildings or naming people to certain positions). However, the controversies surrounding Trump, especially with regard to Russia hacking the US elections and the dramatic resignation (dismissal?) of FBI Director James Comey, throw doubt on Trump’s ability to “adhere to normal political life.”  What about Trump barring certain journalists from the White House press room? Or the appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump, and husband, Jared Kushner, as “special advisors” and even representing the US government at the latest international G20 conference? Or the fact that less than a year into the job, some seven high ranking officials were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration?

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After White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer‘s resignation, he said what has been claimed as the most Sean Spicer thing ever: “You can keep taking your selfies.” Huh?!

3. Spurning international agreements.

A month after Hitler came to power, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He argued that the Disarmament Conference did not allow it military parity with the Western nations (meaning that Hitler wanted to rearm and the Allies wouldn’t let him).  Hitler obviously would not agree to any international policy that would limit Germany’s autonomy. He continued to flout international laws by annexing Austria and invading the Sudetenland without any hassle from the French, British or Soviets. Well, not until he invaded Poland.

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Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in Geneva in February 1932 with the League of Nations. Shortly after, Germany would withdraw from the League.

Trump’s isolationist policies (if we can call them that) echo the goal of many historic politicians (Hitler included) who wished to put the needs of the nation before any obligations towards the international community. “America First” is Trump’s slogan which seeks to revive the exhausted American coffers by tightening federal budgets with more domestic investment (for example, by slashing diplomacy and development funding by a 32%). Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement which nearly 200 countries signed in December 2015 in an effort to combat global warming and help poorer countries adapt to an already-changed planet. Similarly, however, Britain has left the European Union so perhaps isolationism is a growing economic model in an increasingly globalized world. But by spurning such international agreements, Trump appears as an antithesis to the incredible global action by the US in the last 3 years: stopping the Ebola epidemic, rallying more than 65 partners to fight ISIS, and leading those same 200 countries to forge this historic climate change agreement in the first place! Barack is probably on a beach somewhere, shaking his head…

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World leaders were visibly upset that Trump would not concede on an international policy for climate change.

So what?

Although the words of caution from Holocaust survivors are obviously crucial warnings during such social upheaval, I’m not convinced that Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America are synonymous. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Prof. Evans claimed there is one big difference between Hitler and Trump: while Hitler’s speeches and policies were exceptionally well-practiced, focused and deliberate, Trump’s tweets and policies are spontaneous, erratic and unguarded. This implies that Trump is not single-mindedly achieving some ultimate vision, but leisurely and arrogantly deciding grand policies without much foresight. As comedian Frankie Boyle quips, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.”

The good news? The violence from the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville followed by Trump’s trivializing comments has forced Americans everywhere to defend their most basic national values, whatever they perceive them to be.

Trump may not be the voice for Americans everywhere – he certainly struggles to reflect the mood of the country – but at the very least he’s forcing Americans to have a conversation, a confrontation, of what it means to be American. He’s the proverbial trickster. A rousing ringleader. The grand master of controversy. The court jester who masquerades and provokes. The words that spill out of his mouth are not intricately prearranged, but reckless, and thus easier to destroy.

Fortunately, the greatest difference between 1930s Germany and today’s America is the lack of political violence by its leader. Whereas Hitler mobilized his Sturmabteilung brown-shirt henchmen to beat up political opponents in the streets, Trump has no such organized paramilitary government wing. Instead, Prof. Evans argues, political violence has taken the form of tweets and trolling, poisoning our political discourse.

But at the same time (and with the greatest respect, Prof. Evans!), Twitter, Facebook and other social media also allow everyone – Trump included – a political voice and online presence to confront ideas, create communities and mobilize politics. Smart phones allow people to record events like Charlottesville, so that those who promote hatred and bigotry are exposed. Modern communications certainly attracts trollers and hackers, but the brutal political violence that typified Nazi Germany is not what one experiences when they open their laptop, check their news, and write their blog. Thankfully.

Covefefe.