A futurist thought experiment

A futurist thought experiment

Perhaps Czechoslovakia was prologue.

In 1989, the satellites of the old Soviet Union threw off their shackles and declared independence from the Communist empire. Sure, we all remember East Germany and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Czechoslovakia was the moral heart of the 1989 Revolution. Its “Velvet Revolution”, spearheaded by dissident poet-politician Vaclav Havel, captured the world’s imagination. Here was a nation whose fate began the march to World War II and the Cold War sloughing off all ideas of violence and revenge, and through peaceful, ebullient protest finishing what it began in 1968. No tanks in Prague this time, but flowers. In Havel, 1989 found a voice for the age: a poet, an intellectual, a moralist. It was as if Gore Vidal were elected president of the United States.

I remember those days, and was elated. One of my tribe, a writer, destroyed an oppressive empire.

What we didn’t know then was that Czechoslovakia was as artificial a construct as the Soviet Union. Czechs and Slovaks were welded together in jagged fashion after the fall of Austria-Hungary. It was never a neat fit, as World War II showed, with the Czech lands under occupation and Slovakia under a puppet Nazi regime. So, after the Velvet Revolution came the Velvet Divorce. Slovakia broke away from the Czech lands, having no interest in maintaining the fiction of a Czechoslovak polity. And the Czech lands—to be known as the Czech Republic—made no move to keep an unwilling partner in a fetid marriage. A referendum was held, with both sides knowing the terms of the divorce, and the divorce was agreed with a minimum of acrimony.

I think back on this signal moment in our modern history while reflecting on our own difficult times.

Our country is riven by divisions not seen since 1860. While I don’t think they’ll erupt into all-out civil war, I can’t be very sure of that. Ever since Barry Goldwater’s defeat, the Right has mobilized to overturn the progress of the Great Society, while we liberals have, for the most part, remained complacent, sure in our moral superiority. Add to that the rise of the global economy, to the detriment of places like Lordstown, OH, and you have a recipe for a culture and economic war which may turn into a shooting war. (Again, I’m not predicting this, but the ground has been laid.) We see this most clearly in the news of the past two weeks, with state after red state passing laws in that most fraught of culture war topics, abortion, more or less banning outright the procedure as Supreme Court bait for an overturning of Roe v. Wade. Meanwhile, with an eye towards abortion being sent back to be a state matter, blue states like Oregon are enshrining abortion rights in law.

Abortion is merely one point of difference. From the environment to social welfare, the divisions between red and blue states in our Union are growing more pronounced, to the point where we really are two nations inhabiting one continent. (And yes, I know that even within states, like in my beloved California, there are divergences. But the larger picture remains. California is a majority blue state. Alabama is not.)

One has to ask the question: Is there a better way to organize ourselves politically? And does that necessarily mean the Union which has existed since 1789?

No nation is eternal. History is literally a litany of failed states. They come and they go. And as much as I love my country, as a student of history I have to acknowledge that this applies to the US as well.

Will we, at one point, decide that, rather than engage in a ruinous, destructive civil war in order to impose our wills on each other, instead take a page out of 1991 like Czechoslovakia and say “We’ve had a good run, but it’s not working out,” and cut our losses?

Again, as a student of history, I’m well aware that the modern nation-state is an artificial construct. It arose out of nationalist movements in the 19th century. Now, as we see with Catalonia, the trend is towards even more localism. But localism won’t solve the problems we face as a species. Localism married with more global structures seems to be the way forward.

As a Californian, it’s hard for me to inhabit the same national space as Alabama. And politicians in Alabama make a habit of castigating “California values,” so the feeling is mutual.

If states were allowed to pursue their own policies, would this end the culture wars? If an independent California, with the world’s 5th largest economy, were to power forward, would people in Alabama and Tennessee take lessons from that, and become less insular?

I’m merely offering a thought experiment. My preference is still Abraham Lincoln’s. But ignoring that we’re at an inflection point is burying our heads in the sand. The Right played for all the marbles, thinking it could turn the Republic into a Gilead. And those of us who live in the states which actually power the national economy aren’t going to be consigned to a theocracy. My guess is that people in the red states won’t have much stomach for a civil war to make California bend the knee, much like we Californians won’t wish to spend lives and treasure keeping together a Union which seems to be on life support. Perhaps, we will, like the Czechoslovakians, decide to end an untenable situation, and agree to disagree in different republics. Unless we can learn to reconcile our differences, this may be the only option.


Author’s note

My interest in futurology was sparked by the book in the graphic at the head of this essay. I recommend it as reading for everyone.



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