Book review by David Warden
Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries (2020) by Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi is a Hungarian-Canadian academic and Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent.
Humanists often wish to emulate the eighteenth century Enlightenment journalist and revolutionary Tom Paine in declaring themselves to be "Citizens of the World". It is a noble ambition to wish to transcend borders and divisions and to imagine a possible human future as one big happy global family, co-operating for the common good. Unfortunately, evolution has not wired our brains in this way. We are a groupish species and we have loyalties to particular families and communities. We are culturally and religiously diverse, a fact which makes human existence richly interesting, and diverse cultures do not always mix. We also know from the work of anthropologist Robin Dunbar that human groups are numerically bounded by upper limits. To some extent, we can transcend such boundaries and we can learn to live comfortably in a cosmopolitan world. But the belief that such boundaries are "xenophobic" and "racist", that we can abandon them without risk, and that a wonderful multicultural world will thereby spontaneously emerge, is a dangerous liberal delusion. The world's most intractable conflicts arise when different cultures and religions try to inhabit the same geographical location, and indigenous cultures can lose strength and confidence if they are forced to try and absorb inward migration at too great a pace. Liberal migration policies are often championed by the comfortable classes with the price being paid by the poor and vulnerable, who may then suffer the additional insult of being called "racist gammons" if they complain.
Frank Furedi is a former Hungarian refugee who was forced to leave his country of birth and cross a border into another country. But this personal experience does not make him an advocate for open borders – an ideal which, he states, enjoys cultural ascendancy. He writes that "The prevailing narrative presents borders as oppressive, discriminatory, exploitative, and violent" and "The prevailing anti-border narrative looks down on people who take borders seriously and regard borders as essential for their security."
Furedi notes that Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the European unification movement, regarded "borders as the scars of history" and Claude Juncker, former President of the European Commission, has said that "Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians." Cue applause from the liberal intelligentsia. Many humanists are, of course, inspired by John Lennon's song Imagine, with the immortal line "Imagine there's no countries". It's an alluring dream. But Furedi remarks that "Physical borders and different forms of territorial demarcations create a space within which individuals develop a sense of belonging and community, as well as cultivate their identity."
At the microcosmic level, this applies to humanist groups. A humanist group is for people who identify as humanists, atheists, freethinkers, secularists and so on. If the group were completely open to every possible worldview or religion, without distinction, the humanist character of the group would rapidly dissolve. The same thing can happen at the national level. We can argue over what makes the English English, or what constitutes British values, but at the very least they have come to mean pluralism and tolerance, the rule of law, and the liberation of women and sexual minorities, in addition to more prosaic things like real ale, village churches, and Wimbledon. We have a remarkable capacity for absorbing, integrating, and celebrating other ethnicities and cultures, but there are limits to how far you can "dilute" a culture before it passes the point of no return. And long before we reach that point, there can be an increase in feelings of alienation and a corresponding weakening of trust and social cohesion. The comfortable classes are often insulated from such effects, but they can be felt by poorer and less mobile communities.
Furedi remarks that "Western society's estrangement from borders is not an enlightened step forward – rather it expresses a self-destructive sensibility...". He adds that "Borders are essential for the maintenance of national sovereignty, which is so far the only foundation that humanity has discovered for the institutionalisation of democratic accountability. Without borders, a citizen becomes a subject – subject to a power that cannot be realistically held to account". It may seem strange for this to be argued in the British context. Are we not "subjects" of King Charles III? Not really. We are citizens in a polity where a democratically-elected Parliament is sovereign. The monarch is the ornament of that system. The British vote to leave the European Union in 2016 was a vote to restore borders which had been partially surrendered to a much larger and effectively borderless European polity with insecure external borders. The fact that UK borders remain porous is really a betrayal of the 2016 revolt.
People who argue for borders may of course be racist "gammons". But this lazy and dehumanising stereotyping does not do justice to the full range of views on the matter. The majority of voters are tolerant of reasonable levels of inward migration and British people are friendly towards individual migrants. We seem completely relaxed about having a Hindu prime minister. But net inward migration in the hundreds of thousands every year is a liberal social experiment which no one has ever voted for. If we actually care about democracy, and our own indigenous culture and values, then such rapid and irreversible social change should at least be dignified with a democratic mandate.
Why Borders Matter is a complex and wide-ranging volume which explores the erosion of traditional boundaries between right and wrong, private and public, adults and children, and men and women, as well as the paradoxical drawing of new boundaries around "safe spaces" and between cultural, racial, sexual, and gender identities. Furedi contends that borders matter "because they provide the cultural infrastructure necessary for the constitution of self-identity". He adds that "A sense of belonging, which is a crucial component of identity, is historically rooted in a particular space that is defined by both the physical and the symbolic boundaries that surround it." Perhaps the root problem we have is a liberalism which does not know when stop pursuing liberty at the expense of belonging, solidarity, and community. Humanists of all people should be able to see that some of our human desires pull in opposite directions and that the best societies are those which learn to manage the tensions and contradictions which arise in our experience of being human.