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featured guest
 Dan Stein

Border Talk Discussion - Join one now
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6 Questions Your Questions >

P.O.V. kicked off the discussion by asking Dan 6 initial questions, the same 6 we are asking all the featured guests.

P.O.V.: In your work, you consider the notion of 'borders.' What is a border to you?

Dan: A border is a basic unit of understanding around which all human and natural activities are organized. Borders are fundamental to our perceptions, framing our understanding to enable us to interact with our world. They allow the survival of all individuals, families, groups, tribes and nations. They permit diversity to exist (otherwise every place would feel the same). Borders create variety and interest. As far as nations go, borders frame a people bounded by a common history, culture, language and tradition fulfilled by a common sense of purpose, duty and destiny. Borders are a necessary part of human existence, and on a practical level, effective democratic self-governance. In immigrating internationally, some people try to "cut and run," crossing borders rather than working to improve their situations at home. Ironically, those factors that might attract someone to cross a border illegally are often attributes made possible only by the very existence of the borders themselves.

P.O.V.: What's an important border that you've crossed in your life?

Dan: In 1978 I passed through Checkpoint Charlie, a famous official border crossing station between West and Soviet-controlled East Berlin — demonstrating a stark contrast between two ways of life, two political philosophies and two views of personal freedom. The transition was stark. That's when I realized that people will hate borders when borders are used either as prisons to keep people inside an area against their will, or — more commonly — when they feel they have nothing of value (geographically, culturally, historically or financially) to lose by their abolition.

P.O.V.: If you could erase any border in your world, what would it be?

Dan: I'll be practical. The use of labels and epithets in public discourse deployed as a convenient barrier to the meaningful exchange of ideas. You can recognize them by their suffixes: "…ist" and "…ism." I would also like to erase the barriers that prevent true multi-party democracy in the US, especially the current two-party monopoly control over the nation's primary system.

P.O.V.: When and how are borders useful?

Dan: There are so many kinds of borders, and they are essential to our epistemologies — our theories of how we understand our world — and indeed to our very human survival in all its dimensions.

Borders are limits that provide the center of gravity for personal and community action, even in the charitable realm: discriminatory altruism — practiced by all charitable entities — is effective because it promotes the conservation of resources. You have to choose how you can help within the practical limits of available resources. Promiscuous altruism — however appealing to the ideological or doctrinal mind — so dilutes the distribution of resources that it is functionally ineffective.

Borders form the basis of social cohesion, social action and the maintenance of social justice, for the efficient allocation of natural and material resources, for sustaining societal action — indeed the entire frame of reference for democratic action. Borders provide the protection around which an overpopulated world can protect wilderness and endangered species.

Man-made borders are essential to maintain and develop civilization — including those that define private property itself. Borders are important in the modern nation state; indeed as Vattel said in his Law of Nations, control over borders is the very definition of sovereignty. It provides the center of gravity for the nation states and tribal forms to cohere. Borders define jurisdiction, responsibility and accountability for group and governmental actions. For nations and tribes, borders define the framework of cultural cohesion, forming the foundation on which the nation can survive.

Borders define and order our mental images to enable us to apply mental forms to the world we perceive. Borders frame the common and substantial forms in the mind that organize and guide our sense perception. These mental borders enable us to grasp the significance of the visual signals that our mind processes. Without these visual distinctions — this discrimination between objects — we would be unable to interact and survive in our physical world.

Beyond this, borders define the essence of effective personal and social action. As children, we resist the imposition of "ego boundaries" by our parents — hoping we can remain the center of the world forever — and yet an acceptance of them provides the core foundation for social maturation. Borders provide the basis for discriminating between safe and unsafe conditions, situations and substances. These boundary limitations also provide the borders that define groups and family members — borders that have assisted in assuring human survival for millions of years.

Natural geologic borders define patterns in earlier topographical shifts and movements. They define beginnings and ends, limits and prisons. Biologically, borders define individual cells, which — through the mediating influence of permeable barriers — enable the human body to survive (with a breach in that wall causing the death of the individual).

Borders can provide challenges for the intrepid to surmount, encouraging us to move beyond our known limits and reach new heights. In the end, they are essential to every aspect of the world we live in and the substance from which we are made.

P.O.V.: This episode of P.O.V.'s Borders concentrates on borders as a physical reality, in terms of people moving from one place to another and having to cross mental and literal borders to do that. What, in your experience, is the most contested border?

Dan: Clearly it is the border defining control over essential natural resources, like arable land, water and oil. Violence erupts over land border disputes when tribes seek to defend an ancestral land claim or holy land. There are also contested borders between languages, religion and culture amidst rapidly growing population groups competing for dominance, power and control over all these elements.

P.O.V.: Expand our borders. What's a book, movie, piece of music, website, etc. that challenges or engages with the idea of 'borders' that we should know about but perhaps don't?

Dan: Garrett Hardin's Limits to Growth (Oxford University Press 1993) provides a mature exposition on the value of borders and a practical sense of nature's limits.

An interesting piece of music is Duke Ellington's Harlem Air Shaft (1940, RCA), demonstrating how the borders on one building — indeed just the sounds coming from the building's airshaft — can define a whole community of voices and feelings having their origins in Africa.

Read more! Check out Dan's dialogue with Borders visitors...

about Dan Stein


Dan Stein has been the executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) since 1988. He has worked for nearly 15 years in the field of immigration law and law reform, and has appeared in Congress on behalf of FAIR.


Visit the Federation for American Immigration Reform website: