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The World Is Still Becoming One

The biggest political challenge of the 21st century will not be terrorism. It will be borders.

April 10, 2016

The biggest political challenge of the 21st century will not be terrorism. It will be borders.

The West – which is many things, good and bad – is still dominant, but it feels that its dominance is deteriorating. This is not an illusion.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Kamel Daoud addresses the cultural differences the West is currently grappling with, with the arrival of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Until recently, the West succeeded in accommodating these, but now it is confronting difference on a scale it cannot subsume:

What long seemed like the foreign spectacles of faraway places now feels like a clash of cultures playing out on the West’s very soil. Differences once defused by distance and a sense of superiority have become an imminent threat.

But this is much more than a clash of cultures: The world is finally becoming one.

Walls and bombs

And the world’s many factions are resisting. Donald Trump’s wall – which is as impractical as it would be counterproductive – is analogous to the bombs in Brussels. Both represent the choice we face: to come together or to sever ourselves from our humanity.

The West, which prides itself on its freedom, its equality and its humanism, is finally confronting its contradictions. And it is realizing that it is no longer able to justify itself.

The values that the West would appeal to in its defense cannot be used to justify the inequality of those it excludes – just as unfreedom cannot secure freedom without undermining it. And so, we must make our choice.

We can choose humanity — or we can continue to pretend that some people are inferior.

We are told that we are Belgian, European, American, any number of things, but these are half-truths, which misrepresent our humanity to us, as culturally circumscribed, and conceal from us the humanity of those who are “different” – as if it were they, rather than our cultures, that are different.

The exclusion of nationalism

Nationalism and its 21st century equivalents (Europeanism, whiteness, etc.) do not merely grant inclusion. They also necessitate exclusion which is integral to their functioning. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a related point in his article, “The Enduring Solidarity of Whiteness”:

Social exclusion works for solidarity, as often as it works against it. Sexism is not merely, or even primarily, a means of conferring benefits to the investor class. It is also a means of forging solidarity among “men,” much as xenophobia forges solidarity among “citizens,” and homophobia makes for solidarity among “heterosexuals.” What one is is often as important as what one is not , and so strong is the negative act of defining community that one wonders if all of these definitions – man, heterosexual, white – would evaporate in absence of negative definition.

In Cape Town and Oxford, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, with its focus on decolonizing education, has highlighted the exclusionary legacy of the past. In doing so, it has (perhaps inadvertently) revealed the inherent shortcomings of a politics that concerns itself only with community.

Our politics should involve all of us – because communities invariably change, and because there are no legitimate grounds for discriminating between people.

And while politics will always begin with us, as people, it should also, like our ethics, look beyond us, beyond community, and concern itself with the wider world – including animals and the natural environment.

Do some lives matter more?

To choose “all of us” we must have as aspirational ideals freedom and equality that are tantamount to open borders.

Any insistence to the contrary is, when we unveil it, little more than racism, as it cannot avoid supporting itself with the premise that some lives are more important than others, and that “race” can be used to distinguish these.

Our political arrangements, then, must tend toward open borders.

We will not – we cannot – open our borders overnight. We are not prepared to. We can, however, take steps now to ensure that, when the time is right, we will be prepared, by using our civic privileges to shape more open societies, by educating each other – by practicing openness.

We cannot leave the task too long

We will always be capable of this work; it is important to affirm this. The longer we leave it, though, the less goodwill there is likely to be, and the less confidence we will have in humanistic values. If we value human life and human lives, we will begin the challenging task of opening borders now.

As we work within our communities to prepare them for this, we might remember the words of James Baldwin, who, in dealing with social exclusion in his time, wrote:

A country is only as good – I don’t care now about the Constitution and the laws, at the moment let us leave these things aside – a country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become.

As Baldwin writes, “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”


The biggest political challenge of the 21st century will not be terrorism. It will be borders.

We must prepare our societies to integrate with each other. Preparing sooner would be better.

Border walls and terrorist bombs are not really a culture clash, but more a last gasp against unity.

This is much more than a clash of cultures: The world is finally becoming one.