A couple of weeks ago I wrote an essay about violence. I have two companion ideas I’m developing: borders and boundaries, hegemony, and the essential role of hierarchy to run a modern political, economic or social entity.
Understanding how these three threads are connected—violence, borders and management—opens a portal into the cultural, political, social and economic source code that computes most of the reality people experience. A great deal of what goes on around us in our daily life, from our safety and welfare to opportunities and livelihood, depends upon the right balance between these three forces. Disruptions through the forces of instability and random chance are what makes life ‘interesting’ often in the way Chinese use the word ‘interesting’—meaning chaotic and uncertain.
Passports, visas, refugees, work permits, occupation, red line, occupiers, invaders are among the terms that rise from the reality of boundaries, the kind that defines a recognized border, the edges measured, recorded, mapped. A world map is a visualization of those boundaries. I have a globe with lines etched in for the boundary lines of countries. What makes other planets and moons in our solar system so alien is the absence of any recognizable boundary marks? These alien landscapes go on and on with a tedious, mind-dulling featureless repetition.
It seems that you need a life form that evolves to defend its territory against outsiders. That life form creates and acts on a mental construct of borders as part of its evolution. Borders aren’t an organic part of nature. We invent them.
I’ve been thinking during the past two weeks about boundaries and how they set the human dimensions of movement, affiliation, and self. What they mean, how we define them, and our connections to them. Boundaries can be geographic term that we associate with a nation-state like Canada, Thailand, Australia or Indonesia. The last two countries are surrounded by water boundaries. Canada and Thailand share land boundaries with other countries and those boundaries have resulted in disputes with other countries. Land or sea acts as boundary demarcations. Boundaries are real, tangible as well as abstract and romantic.
I am a realist as a writer. The title ‘reality check’ as part of the title of this blog is no accident. I accept, though, the range of writing expands beyond the boundary lines of the ancient Roman and encompasses the mythical kingdom of Camelot where boundaries float in the imagination. Ordinary life is boundary contained and writers report the activities inside those boundaries, or they might rebel against boundaries and write about lives outside them.
I am also interested in other boundaries such as knowledge or experience. There are limits to what we can know and limits to what we can experience. You can’t experience x-ray frequency waves. You can’t know the physics that existed before the Big Bang. We have boundary gaps, although we live our lives as if all information and knowledge is accessible. That is a delusion that allows us to feel in control of our lives.
You were born inside a boundary. That act of birth plays a role in shaping your identity. You are a Thai, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese, etc. What happens inside those borders becomes a version of your own personal story. Boundary stories and personal stories inside a bounded area are something we take for granted when reading a novel, watching a film or TV drama.
All boundaries have an element of control. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to a boundary. Though primates, like our close cousin the chimpanzee, band into small groups to patrol territories. There border patrols are to chase away intruders, look for weaknesses in a boundary line where resources might be harvested, and cross the line into another bands territory. That is our heritage. Boundaries run through old bloodlines that predate our species. What we’ve managed to do is to use technical means to create weapons and transport systems that allows us to scale a geographical space, draw the boundaries (over the objections of others living there if need be), and install security forces to guard the borders.
Chimpanzee culture of border patrol shows the evolution of violence as a way of boundary enforcement and boundary encroachment. When those two collide amongst rival chimpanzee bands, violence is the likely outcome. Borders come at the cost of blood. The aggressor who is better equipped, led, organized and more violent, and more willing to put himself at the risk of death or injury, will likely emerge as having the upper hand.
Boundaries are never static for long. This digital map of Europe shows the changes of borders over a span of 1,000 years. In less than three minutes you watch a 1,000 years of borders twitching, receding, expanding, disappearing, in wave after wave of change. The chances are if you trace your ancestors back ten generations you would discover your relatives were born within boundaries that no longer existed in the same way they did at the time of your birth. You have no feeling for that ‘place’ as it was a location that existed in one time but failed to exist at some stage. May be it’s not unsettling for most people to view ten generations as not relevant to their modern life. The point is how boundaries are no more fixed than these ancestors who also thought their boundaries possessed an permanence which time proved to be illusory.
Borders are also an underlying reason for abuse and human rights violations against minorities. A recent example are the Rohingyas, an ethnic group inside the Burmese border, who have been systematically persecuted, killed, villages burnt, women raped as the authorities consider them as not ‘belonging’ inside Burma. What is ‘Burma’? The answer lies not in nature but in the boundaries drafted by British colonial mapmakers. There are many other minority groups considered as ‘outsiders’ or ‘aliens’ around the world born inside borders of countries that deny them identity or nationality. Stateless people are those not accepted by any country and who have no place to go. They face a dismal future.
The vast scale of migration around the world over the last 20 years, as people cross borders, is captured in this chart prepared by researchers at Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.
Your geographical connection is a leading piece of information about you.
When you meet a stranger, one of the first questions that you ask is: Where are you from? Your answer supplies a database of assumptions about your education, culture, language, wealth, religion, sports, and your attitudes about guns, abortion, health care, schools and university funding, war and peace. One word fills in a library of pre-conceived notions about what you find funny, sad, and the food you most like.
Thais are forever asking me where I am from. Canada. Snow, ice hockey, near America, cold, Neil Diamond, and Leonard Cohen. I receive responses along these lines as the listener tries to say something nice about Canadians. Foreigners will hear some Thais say that a farang doesn’t understand how Thai people think. There is a tacit, shared feeling among a lot of people that outsiders don’t quite get how they think, so Thais aren’t alone in this assumption based on geography (and race).
Of course race and boundaries have a close connection in the mind of many people. A person born in Thailand is expected to look different from someone born in Finland or Nigeria. This ignores the fact of ethnic and racial diversity that unites all members of the species. But people are raised to think ‘globally’ of a species, but specifically as a tribe of people coming from a certain location.
Globalization promised to free trade, commerce and finance of the traditional boundaries that restrained them. In a way, globalization has allowed powerful states the same kinds of advantages that empires exercised in the past. Our new ‘Rome’ is Washington, D.C., where those in control of the forces of violence make decisions about certain activities inside the borders of other states.
When Russia decided to size of the Ukrainian borders by assuming control over the Crimea, the reaction from Europe and America was condemnation. Modern states aren’t supposed to invade other countries and claim them as part of their own state. That’s the theory, but the practice, going back to the 1,000-year map shows a long history of land grabs and border changes. The American expansion into their western frontier in the 19th century represented another example of occupying the territory of others, expelling the occupants into reservations and taking their resources.
When you live in a country in which you weren’t born, aren’t naturalized, or have a permanent residence in Thailand, you have regular reminders that you are inside the boundaries of a place that considers you an outsider with specific duties to perform in order to remain. For ten years I made 90-day visa runs mostly to neighboring countries in the region including Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam or Indonesia. I had to leave before the expiration of a 90-day visa, get a new visa and re-enter for another 90-day period and start the process over. I never complained about this feature of expat life.
I felt the requirement worked in my favor as it gave me enough time to concentrate on writing a draft of a book during a 90-day period, left the country, worked on the next draft for another 90 days, and so on until after 3 or 4 visa runs I had a finished book. I had a 90-day sword over my neck. I didn’t want it falling before I’d finished a novel. I convinced myself that this sword was actually a chance for an international holiday between drafts of a book; it worked like an incentive plan. I lived with that delusion. It kept me productive, focused and aware of how much there was to explore outside the borders of Thailand.
With a minimum of 40 international trips in 10-years (I often made trips more frequently than every 90 days), I had a chance to spend time in places where battles over borders were still fresh in the minds of people living there. Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam provided me lessons of how boundary lines defined much about the people, and how their civil wars had often turned out identity issues of people who shared space inside a common border.
Years ago I switched to an annual visa but still must report my address every 90 days. That takes me back to where I started. Authorities take notice and keep track of ‘foreigners’ within their borders. There is a suspicion about foreigners that likely comes from our time in roving bands when a stranger was enslaved or killed.
Crimes such as smuggling of people, illegal logging, fishing across borders. Trafficking of people, drugs, weapons, logs, ivory, and other contraband is enticingly profitable precisely because of laws that control the movement of people, goods and services across international borders. There are organizations like Doctors Without Borders or Reporters Without Borders, which are the exception that proves the general rule of that borders are patrolled and regulated.
Life inside every culture is shaped by a shared heritage of what it means to be born, schooled, and employed within a certain political boundary. In the physical, geographical sense of a border that defines space in which authorities and law applies. Step out of that space and local authorities, local laws suddenly apply. Substantial difference in legal systems range from women excluded from the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, to legalized gambling in Macau, to a single payer health care system in Canada. To cross a border requires the foreigner to be alert as to the laws of that place.
In Thailand, it is common to find tourists who having left their country act as if the new space they occupy has no laws or rules that apply to them. And every year there are sad cases of foreigners arrested, tried and convicted for breaking Thai law (which in the vast majority of cases would likely be illegal in their home country).
That sense of anything goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased through travel.
We lose our sense of perspective and comprehension once we are deprived of a boundary marker. It is strange to contemplate spaces without working out the boundaries that make up that space. The search for Malaysian flight MH370 gives us a glimpse of failure to understand the featureless huge expanse of the area in the Indian Ocean where the search has been concentrated. Or how, with climate change and the melting of the Northern ice caps, passage becomes possible and countries begin to assert arguments as to what portions of the geography they can rightfully claim as coming within their border. But other environmental disruptions caused by climate change may include mass movement of people seeking water and food who have been displaced inside established borders.
Geographical borders provide a sense of order, define a finite world that gives a feeling that, for their problems and arbitrariness, we have a need for boundaries. The infinite makes us recoil. Without a border the infinite simply has no meaning for us. Take the decimal points of pi 3.14, which are both infinite and random. A universe where there is an endless roll of the dice, with no winner or loser, or with no point or meaning. The infinite might have a ‘sound’. A mathematician/musician created a hauntingly beautiful piece for piano using the decimal points of pi a taste of the infinite nature of these random numbers.
I hear the music written from pi decimals when I read a news story about the search operation for MH370. It has become a substitute for the dark feelings that descend. I am forced to concede that borders are phony constructs I’ve been taught. Borders have always defined who I am and how I experience the world and will continue to do so.
As land and resources are finite and scarce, defining, guarding and defending a territory defined by borders will remain a natural part of political, economic and social life. We can’t imagine a life where borders are irrelevant except in a utopian fantasy. We listen to the music that pi writes, with its promise of infinite decimals, but without our geographical and psychological maps with the borders colored in, our sense of self disappears. That may be one definition of enlightenment. Or it may be the refugee where grief and madness write their own eternal song.