No recent essay I have read captures the potential intrusion on natural human life by political borders better than Joshua Treviño’s recent piece for The New Ledger . It is not a policy proposal, or even a philosophical defense of any particular position on border enforcement. Instead, Treviño provides an intimate account of life on a particular section of the US-Mexico border. As such, it functions as the datum which philosophical and political conversation seeks to understand and integrate.

Treviño’s central theme is the absurd treatment of American citizens by border patrol agents and the infringement upon civil liberties that routinely occurs. Such behavior rejects in principle the presumption of innocence by American citizens. Trevino alludes to the rationale for these restrictions—heavy protection at the borders leads to freedom of travel and freedom from harm within—but is worried about the loss of the cultural unity of the region. Writes Treviño, “All this is prelude: the Rio Grande Valley from which half my family hails has always been a communal and cultural unity, regardless of its political division. Now, terribly, senselessly, that political division threatens to override all else.”

It is important to properly constrain Treviño’s worry. He is not troubled by the existence of the border per se. In fact, he opens with the interesting argument that the border has played a unifying function and has shaped the culture of that region. Instead, it is the “regime of fear, control, and interdiction” that is Treviño’s concern, and rightly so. Treviño’s concern is not to articulate all that proper border enforcement entails, but rather to specify what it does not entail.

Of course, many conservatives have anxieties over the existence of the border out of a lurking fear that progressives would undo it, and that in doing so, would undo America as we know it. It is possible that this fear is based on some sort of xenophobia, but the desire to preserve a border might have deeper and better grounding than race. In Ways of Judgment , Oliver O’Donovan writes:

What is it that gives unity to these various focal points of social tradition? They are likely to have certain things in common: the use of a language, the observance of religion, beliefs that are accepted as premises for discussion among strangers, a mythology, a literature . . . and economic interaction. All peoples have some such cultural features that unify them internally, though there are great diffferences in what carries most weight . . . yet a people is more than an ensemble of its cultural features. These are simply the precondition, the channels worn by habits of communication that have brought the people to birth. To be a people is to put these culturally unifying features to the service of collaborative action, and that is what makes the difference between a group of homogeneous tribes and a viable political entity.

In framing the possibilities of common action, one feature has come to assume a special significance: a defined territory. The more complex the content of the tradition, the more varied culturally and racially it has grown, the more depends on this formal mode of demarcation. There was a “king of the French” before France had defined borders; but today we depend on the borders to know who the French are. Territory gives objective form to the infinitely varied cultural elements that comprise the people’s communications. This point is illustrated by the conquest-traditions of Israel. It was not through the promised land that Isreal became a people; it was a people already, by descent from the patriarchs, by the common experience of Egyptian bondage and miraculous delivery, by the shared nomadic existence in the desert, and supremely by the law. Territorial existence was an enhancement of Israel’s identity, one which the prophets never forgot could be reversed if it were abused. It offered opportunities for growth and maturity, for establishing a civilization with internal disciplines of cultural transmission and ordered relations to surrounding peoples. Territorial boundaries mark the division between the domestic and the foreign. But the effect of the division is not merely to set a limit. It is to form a horizon which will stimulate neighborly relations between the people and other peoples. It defines a “You” in relation to which the people acts as a corporate “I.”


O’Donovan highlights, I think, the difficulty that Treviño’s essay so ably teases out:  The pre-political community that exists on the border has been severed by the loss of neighborly relations between the United States and Mexico, but the border also preserves the continuity of the American experience. Because America has always been so culturally diverse and pluriform, it has needed a stronger sense of borders than other cultures for its self-identity. Conservative anxieties about illegal immigration and border enforcement are grounded in this desire not for a uniform culture, but rather the communication of distinctly American traditions to continue.

But Treviño’s point should be heeded: The manner in which we conduct border enforcement is intrinsically connected to our self-identity as Americans, for our identity has always been shaped by our relationships to other countries. Our loss of neighborliness, then, is more than procedurally tied to the infringement of the civil liberties. They are substantially connected. As our internal communication of American traditions weakens, anxiety about the public symbols will increase, and the state’s role will inevitably expand.

In this regard, despite Treviño’s initial caveat that he differs from conservatives on this point, his essay ends up being deeply conservative, for it defends the pre-political communities that shape life and that legitimize our political institutions. These pre-political communities are precisely what conservatives have attempted to preserve and ground public policy in, with varying degrees of success. And they are what conservatives must promote and defend if the growth of government is to be slowed.

Articles by Matthew Lee Anderson

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