Red, white, and blue, gaze in your looking glass
You’re not a child anymore
Red, white, and blue, the future is all but past
So lift up your heart, make a new start
And lead us away from here
In Chapter Two of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna: “He lives in wisdom who sees himself in all and all in him.” The same might be said of the good global citizen. She is one who sees herself in all peoples and all peoples in herself.
The problem is that we are not trained to see things in this way. In fact, we are trained actively to not see things in this way. We view the world through nation-state-colored glasses; anything else is but a cataract begging for removal.
This is a singular form of myopia, characterized by an inability to see ourselves as a part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the planet. It is not restricted to any one nation or nationality; we all suffer from it to one degree or another. D.T. Suzuki, the great Westernizer of Zen, explained that “it is in the nature of the intellect to set up a series of antitheses in the maze of which it loses itself.” And the greatest antithesis of all is “us against them.”
We understand ourselves by categorizing the Other. This in itself is not a bad thing. But we tend to go farther than that, and imbue those categories with moral significance, as if we cannot conceive of our own importance without calling into question the importance of our opposites. Insert whatever label you like–white, male, European, Christian, heterosexual; the point is the same: knowing one’s place and defining it as more.
National borders serve a similar purpose. There is some benefit, of course, in fellow feeling and shared identity that has nothing to do with imaginary political delineations: to be “American” (or “South African,” or “Iraqi”) is to share a journey, to participate in a greater vision born of multiplying one agent by many. We are part of a whole, larger than ourselves and cumulatively purposeful. Nationality is not in itself a bad thing: it can show us who we are, where we’re going, and give us an inkling of how to get there.
Difficulties arise, though, when nationality bleeds into nationalism:
Nationalism gives rise not only to the affirmative mischief of exceptionalism and the various paranoid doctrines of “un-Americanism” by which our modern history is so unfortunately disfigured, but also to narratives of patriotic sovereignty and separateness that are inordinately bellicose about enemies, the clash of civilizations, manifest destiny, “our” natural superiority, and, inevitably (as now), to policies of arrogant interventionism in politics the world over, so that, alas, in places like Iraq, the United States today is synonymous with a very harsh inhumanity and with policies whose results are particularly and, I would say, even perniciously destructive. (Edward Said)
Keep in mind that Said died in 2003. He wrote these words with relatively little reference to post-9/11 history. And yet…a decade later, the prophecy in his words could not be more evident. In the midst of an election cycle defined by one man’s wall, and in the wake of Paris and all its implications for our national morality, it’s hard believe Said didn’t pen these thoughts last week.
Speaking of Trump’s wall, one of the truisms often voiced by presidential candidates from both major parties is that, for a country to be a country, it must have strong borders. This suggests, incorrectly, that national borders are real. They are not. If they were, we wouldn’t be spending so much time talking about walls.
At the end of the day, national borders are lines drawn on a map, and we’ve all been taught the evils of coloring outside the lines. The Fun Pad is not just a toy; it is a tool of indoctrination. Rather than embracing the creativity of broad and reckless strokes, we instill the aesthetic of prescribed limitation. Overstatement? Perhaps. But consider the utter joy that characterizes the liberal scribblings of a crayon-wielding child, before the authoritarian imposition of “lines.” Is it any wonder that the accomplished artist in the adult world is one who succeeds, at long last, in pushing past the rules governing a lifetime of expressive orderliness?
Talk of wall-building also suggests, sadly, that in order to be a country, a nation must vigorously decouple itself from the rest of the world, to avoid, as George Washington counseled, any “foreign entanglements.” I think we can all agree that the isolationist ship has sailed; for better or for worse, there is no returning that genie to its bottle. And even if we could, should we?
Perhaps the day of the nation-state, like that of the city-state in ancient Greece, is passing. We boldly went where no corporation had gone before–everywhere–without considering the logical outcome of the process: having gone everywhere, it is now incumbent upon us to be everywhere. Be there as if we belonged there, as if we had a true stake in the places we are. “In but not of” is not a sustainable model, either for business or for citizenship. Not anymore. Not in the 21st century.
It is not enough to think in terms of natural resources as materials dug out of the ground and loaded onto airplanes for transport. We cannot just get our stuff from “other countries” anymore. People are resources as well, not to be used up but to be learned from, worked with, respected and cared for. Our profit must be their profit as well, or it is no profit at all.
We do not need walls, Mr. The Donald. We need doors. Lots of them. Open doors, through which relationships are formed, through which people come and go as neighbors, not doors that are closed and fastened against “the rest of the world.” The rest of the world is really the rest of Us, and without it we cannot be strong. Not really. Fear is never strong. And we are afraid. Of everything. And fear breeds enmity.
We need new eyes. Radical eyes. Eyes that see past the false logic of strong borders to the real strength of fair, honest, and equal relationships. We must be brave enough, human enough, to color outside the lines drawn for us by the process of industrial globalization, which insists that we spread our nets for our benefit alone. To seek out the softer, more graceful lines of a shared globalism, diverse but united, that is not a threat to our national identity but its complement.
We need to stop fortifying our borders and learn to cross them. We need to stop creating enemies by way of recognizing our friends. We need, simply put, each other.
Enough with the walls. What we need is a bridge.