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Recently there has been a great hue and cry over how the United States government has attempted to handle the influx of refugees – many of whom are small children – from the persistent violence that plagues Central American countries like Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. In response, several political commentators in the United States have insisted that a relaxed federal posture on the border and providing shelter for the refugees threatens the viability of the United States as a nation.

For example, former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin opined that “without borders, there is no nation.” Similarly, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan asked the question “is a nation without borders a nation?

Think what you will about the crisis on the southern border of the United States; that’s a political matter that will generate a variety of reasonable (and some unreasonable) perspectives on the matter. But when it comes to the issue of what constitutes a nation and how a nation is defined, that’s a matter for social scientists.

As a political anthropologist, I accept that the conventional use for nation is as a synonym for country or state. But when folks suggest that a nation is only as real as its borders, then it is necessary to offer a bit of perspective on the topic from the disciplines of political science, sociology and anthropology.

 

The etymology of “nation” traces back to the Latin “natio“, which means “that which has been born”. In effect, nation is a common people. Originally, the concept of nation reflected what is conventionally regarded as ethnicity today. When you were born, you were born into a nation; a community, a people. You were part of that nation and that nation was comprised of you and your compatriots.

As nationalism swept through Europe, nations became fixed within defined political units – states. Here the people and the political entity became intertwined. A nation was that which filled a state and a state was that which was filled with a people. This led to the rise of the nation-state throughout Europe in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But on the matter of borders, it is crucial to understand that these defined the state, not the people.

 

Keep in mind that nation-states were seldom, if ever, homogeneous. Minority communities – and at times minority nations – existed in nearly every nation-state and were often marginalized, disenfranchised and suppressed in order to further the aspirations of the majority nation. 

Returning to the more recent debate over nations and borders in the American political discourse, one must first recognize that there is not a singular nation that resides within the United States. The US is a multi-national country where myriad different nations reside within a singular political entity. This is not to say that Americans lack a sense of collective identity; indeed Americans have shared historical, ideological and commemorative basis through which a common identity is constructed.

Americans do have collective identity, but it is fundamentally different from classic national identity. The political scientist Benedict Anderson has argued, that in countries like the United States, the collective identity of a heterogeneous population is an “imagined community” constructed through powerful ideals, secular rituals and common symbols.

While Anderson famously identified borders, as articulated through the production of official maps, as a key component, along with museums and a census, in facilitating the construction of imagined communities, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that the flexibility and permeability of borders in an increasingly globalized world has not necessarily undermined the strength of imagined communities.

 

In reality, borders have neither prevented nor provided for the actualization of nations. Nations have certainly existed within recognized borders, but nations have also existed without established borders. Few would argue that the Kurds are not a nation; however, for centuries the Kurdish people have been without a state that has recognized borders. Clearly the Kurds do not cease to be a nation simply because the prevailing international and regional powers prevent the realization of a Kurdish state.

Similarly, in the United States, American Indian nations are recognized by the federal government without corresponding sovereign territory where its nation is situated. While the reservation system and semi-autonomous nature of American Indian nations are a sort of middle ground here, the fact remains that many members of these nations do not reside within the confines of the reservation borders and the borders do not have much if any bearing on whether the American Indian nations exist. To put it more succinctly, if the reservation system and semi-autonomy of American Indian nations disappeared tomorrow, the nations would continue to exist.

Alternatively, the State of Israel has long refused to declare its borders due to the continuing conflict between it and its neighbors. Does Israel’s absence of recognized borders impact its ability to function as a nation? Certainly not. The Jewish people have been a nation long before the creation of Israel and will continue to be with or without declared borders.

To return to the statements made by Sarah Palin and Peggy Noonan; the response to Sarah Palin is “No, clearly nations can exist without borders” and to Peggy Noonan the answer is “Yes, borders are an aspect we associate with nations, but borders do not a nation make.”

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  Posts

October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.