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If we viewed a time-lapse map of the world across geological history, we would see mountains rising and falling, seas swelling and drying up, continents drifting and colliding, climatic regions expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight. If we viewed a less condensed time-lapse map of the world across human history, we would see nations rising and falling, empires swelling and drying up, cultures drifting and colliding, borders expanding and contracting, in a complex, uninterrupted flowing pattern over the surface of the Earth. I imagine it would be a beautiful sight.

The world is in constant flux, geologically and anthropologically. Even in my lifetime, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia dissolved into smaller nations, and the European Union consolidated into a new political entity not quite belonging to any category that had existed before. South Africa managed a remarkably peaceful transfer of political power from the white minority to the indigenous majority. Japan evolved from exporting cheap trinkets to exporting state-of-the-art high tech gadgets. China, India, and to a lesser extent Brazil are on a path of accelerating economic growth, poised to become economic powerhouses in short order.

Rewind the human historical map to prehistoric times, and watch homo sapiens emerge from, and eclipse, closely related species, pouring out from the African savanna and spreading over the face of the globe, differentiating into a plethora of local cultures, coalescing here and there into larger civilizations, fracturing here and there into smaller ones; languages, cultures, religions, ideas developing, splintering, cross-fertilizing. Fast-forward, and we’ll see something similar in our future, accelerated, respecting the borders between polities and forms only in their fluidity.

We are cognitive prisoners of our moment in history when we treat the frozen frame in which we find ourselves as if it were the moving picture itself. The human world is not reducible to sovereign nations as its immutable units; it is reducible to individuals (or, in another sense, “ideas”). We need to confront the challenges of a world composed of human beings, not one composed of nations.

One example involves global poverty. Foreign aid from wealthier countries to help address global poverty, reasonably enough, is channelled to poor countries. Except that it’s not countries that are poor, it’s people. An increasingly large portion of the world’s most poor reside in countries that are now classified as middle-income countries (http://www.economist.com/node/17155748?story_id=17155748).

Another example involves human migration. Let’s view our time-lapse map again, and watch the way in which an enclave of disproportionate wealth was produced in the northern portion of the American continent, a continent on which (to simplify slightly) the Spanish conquered densely populated, highly developed indigenous civilizations and intermarried with the indigenous population, whereas the English settled less densely populated tribal lands, intentionally and unintentionally exterminating the indigenous population. Inhabitants of the African continent were imported in many regions as chattel to be used beasts of burden. As we watch the time-lapse map play, we see that the distribution of wealth continues to favor the conquerors and to disfavor those with more indigenous blood and the descendants of those who were imported as slaves.

A land grab and an opportunistic war in the American Southwest in the first half of the 19th century led to the shift of the border in favor of the United States, and at the expense of Mexico. Combined with differences in the social institutions inherited from the respective European conquerors, these various dynamics led to a continuing polarization of wealth and poverty on the two sides of that border. As is natural in such circumstances, those to the south of the demarcation sought to migrate toward opportunity, and those to the north sought to exploit their desperation.

Those who reduce our immigration issues to “criminals” “illegally” crossing a border, and “violating” our sovereignty, engage in a convenient conviction that the present is all there ever was and all there will ever be. The disproportionate wealth to one side of the border, in this ahistorical self-justification, is deserved (despite the history of conquest, enslavement, opportunistic warfare, and just plain dumb luck involved), and those to the south have no right to migrate across our militarily imposed line in the sand. Few on the wrong side of such mythologies have ever, or will ever, adhere to them. Poverty is everyone’s problem, because poverty respects no borders in a variety of ways.

Pandemic disease, economic crises, climate change, terrorism all are problems that do not respect borders. The United States has retreated from international partnerships in which we participate in good faith, and has regressed into an attitude of uncooperative ideological insularity. We stood poised a couple of generations ago to lead the world in its inevitable and necessary gradual transformation into one with more permeable borders and more transnational social institutional cohesion. We have now become, instead, the hegemon with a comb-over, clinging to the past rather than embracing the future. And the future will be far less kind to us as a result.

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