Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Border Song

Holy Moses! We have been confused.

We just got back from a four-day weekend in Canada, and as we crossed the border in each direction, I got to thinking about what a border is all about. Actually, it got me to thinking about it again.

Now, you may think that I had been originally thinking about it because of the debates on immigration reform or securing the border between us and Mexico; and you’d be partially right. But I had really been thinking about it because of a History Channel series called How the States Got Their Shapes (highly recommended, we bought it from the iTunes store); a special on Bonnie & Clyde and the other machine gun-toting criminals of the 30s; an NPR piece on the impossible to police border between Texas and Mexico; and the curious cases of a few spots in the lower 48 where you can’t get from one piece of US soil to another by land unless you go through Canada.

So what’s a border for? Is it to keep one group of people out and another in? That may be what it’s used for in many cases now, but originally it was something totally different. It was about property rights and what rules got followed. Bonnie & Clyde and their compatriots used borders to their advantage when they outran the police in the state where they had just robbed a bank in order to cross the border into the adjacent one where they had no jurisdiction.

On a less violent note, crossing the border from New York, Pennsylvania, or Delaware into New Jersey means that not only do you not have to pump your own gas, but that you’re not allowed to. You’re welcome to come in, you’re welcome to stay, but if you pick up that gas pump yourself, you’re violating their hazardous materials handling law, and can be fined.

And then there’s our big friend to the north…Canada. Let’s not even talk about the border between them and us, I want to talk about some of their internal borders…the ones between Quebec and “the rest of Canada.” The moment you enter Quebec from Ontario or any of the other neighboring provinces, you become aware of the fact that you are definitely “someplace else.” This is because while English and French are both official languages of Canada, Quebec is the only province where French is the predominant one. Crossing the border into Quebec means that you’re in a place where the descendants of the original French settlers get to make the rules, and they make the rules to try to preserve their culture. The Quebec border isn’t about keeping anyone out, it’s about saying that this is a place where they are...well...more French than the French.

And looking at the borders in this way explains a lot. The border between the United States and Canada wasn’t drawn as a defensible border against attacks and “furriners” coming in. It was drawn to say “This belongs to Great Britain and this belongs to the Yanks.” People were welcome to travel freely in either direction, but the rules were different once you crossed from one side to another. The same with Mexico; it was simply about saying “this is yours and this is ours,” and not about trying to create a border that we could prevent people from crossing. When they were created, these borders were seen of as being not much different than the ones between Pennsylvania and Ohio or Utah and Nevada…or Ontario and Quebec; just on a larger scale. But somewhere along the line we got the idea that these borders were always about keeping people out.

Perhaps need to rethink that.