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World Without Borders

by Berry Friesen (July 24, 2017)

The lyric of John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s Imagine has been floating through my head again:  “Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do.” Like most any Westerner with decent liberal credentials, I’ve lived my adult years with skepticism about nation-states and national borders.  Lennon and Ono brilliantly gave us the song to sing this sentiment.

I don’t think we can exaggerate the impact of this on us liberals. We may have a dozen Wendell Berry books on our bookshelves, but it’s not Berry’s localism we admire. We revere the world citizen—the man or woman who moves easily across cultures and languages, is at ease in most any environment, unimpressed by the bluster and rigidity of narrow perspectives, confident of his/her ability to connect with humans everywhere, able to see abundance and common humanity in what more parochial minds see as irreconcilable and hostile difference.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s “new world order,” this heroic image of the stateless world citizen has slowly been deconstructing.  With the threat of nuclear war off the table, long-overlooked realities came into view. Like how effortlessly predatory corporate agents embodied the ideal of a world citizen. How eagerly major US employers adopted the language and imagery of multi-culturalism and diversity to mask cruel practices of asset-stripping, job destruction and exploitation. How perfectly the rhetoric of globalism fits the agenda of the hyper-aggressive US-led empire.  

In short, bit-by-bit, the liberal ideal of a world citizen has been co-opted and corrupted by the imperialist impulse. Gradually, suspicion has replaced admiration: "You, world citizen, tell me, exactly who are you loyal to beyond yourself and your own wealth?"  

President Barack Obama sealed my disillusionment. In many ways, one could not imagine a finer example of a post-nationalist leader.  But he turned our national economic crisis into a great victory for Wall Street and he ruled as an imperialist through-and-through. The peoples of the United States, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen are among his victims.

Which brings us to this moment.  Now we have a prominent political movement—the alt-right—built around the disillusionment I've just described. And we have a President whose victory was fueled by the desire of the disillusioned for a leader who identifies with us, our country, our needs, our future.  And yes, by “us” the restless electorate means people who are resident in and citizens of the USA.

Of course, we liberals—those still enchanted and those already disillusioned—despise the alt-right.  We see them as a hateful aberration with nothing significant to say.

If we’re the kind of liberal who gets a lump in the throat upon hearing Imagine on the sound track, then we probably spend part of our days yearning for co-opted and corrupted Hillary and blaming the Russians for stealing our election.  No, none of that makes sense when you stop to think about it, but we need something to distract us from the painful truth: American liberalism has hit a dead end.  Its beautiful ideals and inspiring rhetoric have been used to prettify corporate cynicism amid a great hollowing out of our moral, social and economic infrastructure. Opioids, pornography and weaponry:  those are America’s preoccupations these days.

On the other hand, if we are the disillusioned kind of liberal, then we may be dusting off those Wendell Berry books, hoping our second read-through will reveal something heroic we missed the first time.

Or better yet, we may be doing the hard work of adjusting our worldview to this painful new reality.  We can start by reading media sources that are NOT alt-right, but nevertheless include at least an occasionally honest critique of liberalism in their discussion of world events. To endure the rough ride we face in the years ahead, we need to generate new options. So long as we curry nostalgia for the co-opted tenets of liberalism, new options won’t emerge.  

Alistair Crooke’s essay “How Trump Defines the Future,” can serve as today’s example; it discusses President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Europe, his speech to the Polish people and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Both presidents, writes Crooke, are “pursuing parallel paths of political and cultural re-sovereigntization.”  That’s what “America First” is all about.

We liberals oppose this, of course. We still imagine a world without borders, even if such rhetoric has become a propaganda ruse for imperial control.

But we cannot let our knee-jerk opposition blind us to the broad attractiveness of Trump’s message, which demotes “globalism,” “diversity” and “identity politics” and elevates instead particular national historical and cultural legacies. That reversal, says Crooke, provides the framework for the emerging debate that will define America and Europe in the coming era.

Speaking earlier this month in Warsaw to the Polish people, but with broader Europe and the US clearly in mind, Trump gave us a sample:

“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.  Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?  Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders?  Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?  We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive.  If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has.  Let them come to Poland.”

I am not saying we should pick one of the “sides” as Trump defines them.

I am saying we’d better wake up to the fact that the debate has shifted in a major way, and that world-without-borders idealism is now commonly perceived to be a façade for rule by a predatory, US-led oligarchy that cares not a whit about any of us.

The people of the world want new options, and we had better use the disruptive space Trump is creating to forge a few good ones.  Because if we keep pretending liberal rhetoric is the ticket, we’re only fooling ourselves.    


  1. What would you propose as a response to this? The localization option is akin to me to a Benedict Plan where we recluse ourselves. This has been fine for Amish but harder for me as a person of engaged faith and privilege to embrace. Liberalism has come to mean privilege to me in many ways. The outcome of globalization or globalism has meant tribalism to some degree. Do we work to include the tribes or work in ways that subvert the whole system which very well may be a path toward anarchy which isn't in itself problematic but at this day and age would likely be quite violent?

    1. Stephen, as a Jesus-follower, I expect to be part of a "tribe" that subverts imperial assumptions. Obviously that assumption needs to be explained and supported (we try to do that in our book), but it is the opening premise, as I see it. But not every effort to bring social or economic order is imperial and we must not pretend the only critical choice is between anarchy and empire. Though some in the biblical record apparently held such a view, as a whole the Bible does not. So localism, yes, especially an engaged localism. Better yet an engaged localism that is networked around the world with other communities of faith.

  2. Yes, Stephen, it's been the eventually pyrrhic victory of a sort of tribalism, that defined by Warren Buffett, where he calls it class warfare, which his tribe of financial elites has won. By no means is the defeated class very aware of the alt-right, which was a kind of bogeyman for liberals to latch on to, to demonize their critics, the mass of economic losers in the war against them by oligarchs, as irredeemable deplorables who need no attention paid to.