This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Can there be a world without borders?” You can hear the whole episode online here.
When I moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1994, the only other country I had ever visited was Canada. I was twenty-four and I knew two German words, please and whipped cream; I learned them from John Irving novels. I took a bus from the airport and then a taxi. At the end of the trip, I gave the driver money I didn’t understand and said, “I want to give you a tip, but I don’t know how much.” Like most Austrians, he was honest, taking only a few small coins and saying thank you. If I had been in Rome, the driver would probably have taken every Euro I owned. Austrian and Italian cabbies have different moral codes.
His hospitality was important and initiated my love for the city and its people. I stayed three times as long as I was supposed to and I try to go back almost every year. My friends know that there are two of me, the Viennese Jack and the American, and that the two are fairly different. To be honest, though, I suppose there really are three: the Vienna Jack, the Grand Forks one, and the New Yorker. A surprising amount of stress in my life comes from their conflicting desires.
The idea that a person could have three competing identities is a fairly modern one. It suggests that core elements of personality are fluid. It doesn’t reduce me to my ethnicity, my religion, or my national origin. It suggests instead that I am cosmopolitan, a citizen of the world. And while inevitably someone, somewhere, is going to ask which one is the most important or the most authentic, that misses the point. It is novel that we live in a world where someone can coherently claim to transcend borders. Even when I’m in Grand Forks, part of me is living elsewhere.
Is the cosmopolitan person an ideal worth striving for? I think so, but many don’t. The pull of provincialism is strong and many people bristle at the idea of moving. Some Western North Dakotans believe that moving to the Eastern part of the state is traitorous; forget about moving to Nigeria, or Turkey, or India.
Yet at the same time, people ask newcomers to assimilate. New Americans are constantly asked to change their own ways and live like us, whatever that means. In the past two decades, Grand Forks and Fargo have seen an influx of Somali, Bhutanese, and Iraqi refugees, and many locals have been angry that they preserve their own ways. This is, at best, inconsistent, and at worst, impossible. If I am to stay American when I’m abroad, immigrants should be expected to preserve their practices. If the immigrants are expected to assimilate, then I should too, unless we want to argue that the American way is the only proper way to live, a hard position to defend.
The fact of the matter is that the last century and a half has been a time of great negotiation. We are all trying to figure out what it means to have a migratory population, to ask what happens to morality, laws, and culture as people separate from their kin and their history. And insofar as our friends and neighbors turn out to be different from us—again, whatever that means—the concept of “one humanity” has become more real and more complex. . Philosophers have always talked about the human race, but it’s easier to think in those terms if your next-door neighbor is from halfway around the world.
If we no longer defined people by their heritage, how would we describe them? Suppose, for example, that there were no borders, no passports, and no travel restrictions. What vocabulary would replace the myriad of descriptors we use without pause? Would we cease to refer to someone as Irish or Korean? Would we still need to place people in groups? Saint Augustine did. He argued for understanding the world as if there were two categories, those who lived in the city of God and those who lived in the city of man. Or, in other words, he claimed that nationality, ethnicity, and heritage didn’t matter, the only thing that did was whether someone was a Christian.
I don’t think a one-religion world would count as cosmopolitan any more than I think that the American way of life is the only proper one, but that’s a conversation for another time. What is revealing, however, is that Augustine wrote at the end of the Roman Empire, another period of porous borders. But Rome, like all other empires, connected people by force, and the questions that we face on today’s show is how all of this happens peacefully, voluntarily, with space for dissent, diversity, and protection for all. Can there be a global point of view that doesn’t come from military might but from respect, understanding, and common humanity? It is far from clear that such a thing is possible. It is also far from clear that we would want it to happen if it could.