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A Disintegrating U.S.? Critics Come Unglued
Russian's Prediction Spurs Celebrity, Scorn

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2009

For seriously predicting that the United States will break into six parts in June or July of 2010, Igor Panarin has suddenly become a Russian state-media celebrity. Hardly a day goes by without another interview or two for the KGB-trained, Kremlin-backed senior analyst. The clamor in Russia for his ideas is growing, he says.

Panarin's disintegration divination comes complete with a map. In it, Alaska goes to Russia. Hawaii goes to Japan or China. "The California Republic" -- the West from Utah and Arizona to the Pacific -- goes to China. "The Texas Republic" -- the South from New Mexico to Florida -- goes to Mexico. "Atlantic America" -- the Northeast from Tennessee and South Carolina up to Maine -- joins the European Union. And "The Central North-American Republic" -- the Plains from Ohio to Montana -- goes to Canada.

Few Americans paid any attention to his novel views until this week, when the Wall Street Journal trumpeted them on Page 1. Within hours, the U.S. media began the counterattack.

This is preposterous, Time magazine said in a blog.

"The man knows nothing at all about American regional differences," wrote Justin Fox, Time's business and economics columnist. South Carolina is like Massachusetts? Tennessee will join with France? Idaho will find something to love about California? Wyoming will snuggle up to Ottawa? Alabama will happily report to Mexico City? "Yeah, right!" Fox wrote. "Has this man ever been to the United States? Has he never even heard of 'The Nine Nations of North America'? . . . Igor, do your homework!"

Ahem, yes, that 1981 "Nine Nations" book I myself wrote. Well, I was young. I needed the money.

The regional bloggers who find it useful to view the continent functioning as if it were nine separate economies or distinct cultures that pay little regard to state or national boundaries have been loudly a-chirp about Panarin for a while.

Their complaints are similar to Time's. They're not so concerned about some Russkie anticipating American disunion, devolution, revolution, fratricide and overthrow of the government. What the hey, we celebrate those every Fourth of July. Never uncommon in North America is the geopolitical urge to take a walk for a pack of cigarettes. At any given time, there are as many as a dozen secession movements ongoing. The one getting the most press currently is the Second Vermont Republic.

Such unhappy places usually want to secede because they are marginal, cheated, powerless, sparsely populated areas neglected by the big urban centers that control powerful states. The reason their secession movements are thoroughly ignored is that they are marginal, cheated, powerless, sparsely populated areas neglected by the big urban centers that control powerful states.

The regionalists' problem with Panarin is that he couldn't be more clueless about where the real fault lines of culture and values are.

Las Vegas beats with the same heart as Portland, Ore.? Detroit is the soul mate of Bozeman, Mont.?

Good Lord, Richmond is the same place as Fairfax?

One possible explanation for how Panarin's hypothesis is being eagerly lapped up in Russia is that the Kremlin is projecting its own insecurities onto the United States.

"What may be clouding Mr. Panarin's crystal ball is the mistaken belief that U.S. citizens view themselves in the same way that residents of the old Soviet Union viewed that state," e-mails Thomas J. Baerwald, an investigator in a project called "Beyond Borders" and past president of the Association of American Geographers.

Just before the breakup of the Soviet Union, four Soviet and five American geographers started "Beyond Borders" to map within the Soviet empire the human values that endure -- those that have taken centuries to produce and are not likely to change precipitously. Their approach was based on the idea that all countries have underlying patterns of pasts, futures, loyalties, industries, climates, resources and politics. These functional cultural regions, in turn, frequently are far more significant than the arbitrary boundaries and surveyors' mistakes that usually make up politically defined borders.

To take one former Soviet example: The European gateway of St. Petersburg, across from Scandinavia, is profoundly different from all those Muslim "-stans" north and east of Iran, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, that declared their independence from the Soviet Union the first chance they got.

Those departures still burn some Russians who hate the loss of empire. Perhaps they would like to shed crocodile tears at the idea that history might repeat itself near the U.S.-Mexico border.

When the Soviet Union broke apart, 14 independent countries emerged in addition to Russia. Quite a few of them instantly and desperately turned to Europe for their futures, including Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine -- not to mention all those Warsaw Pact places from Poland to the late Czechoslovakia. Might it warm a few cockles in Moscow to think that Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey or New Hampshire could go the same way?

Oh, and be still my Kremlin heart: those shooting wars in the Caucuses, in Chechnya and Georgia? If only those would erupt in the Rockies!

"I really see Panarin's argument as Russia looking in the mirror and projecting that onto the United States. 'Here they speak Spanish. Of course this can't hold together. Of course this will fall apart when the economy tanks,' " says Kathleen Braden of Seattle Pacific University, another member of the "Beyond Borders" team.

"The Russian mentality is, 'There are ethnic borders, and they won't go away. The only thing that keeps this melting pot together is money.' There's also a sense of 'Our empire broke up; why shouldn't theirs?' "

"We constantly were corrected when we tried to use the term 'Soviets' as a catch-all phrase for residents of the U.S.S.R.," Baerwald says. "People firmly told us that they were Russians or Lithuanians or Estonians or Ukrainians or other terms that identified a region or subregion that described their own geographical identity. In contrast, if you ask U.S. residents what term describes who they are, an enormous majority will reply 'I am an American.' Even in those places where regional loyalties are especially strong, such as Texas, loyalties to the U.S. are far greater than they are to states or regions.

"I suspect this would be true even had the U.S. not had the powerful reinforcement of national identity that followed in the wake of 9/11. But one can compare the way that U.S. citizens have dealt with the Iraqi war in comparison with the way the nation was torn by an equally unpopular war in Vietnam four decades earlier, and sense that there is a very strong belief among a very large percentage of Americans that while we may have problems and differences, the best way to attain a positive future is to remain solid as a united nation."

We can hope that Igor Panarin is offered the opportunity for a long road trip in these parts, either before or after his 2010 deadline for the end of the federal empire.

Perhaps he would discover what the acutely perceptive Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville did in the 1830s, as he wrote in "Democracy in America": that we Americans are an extravagantly creative people in how we generate social forms.

"Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations," he wrote. "In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others."

Indeed, Tocqueville noted, community here was rarely the same thing as formal government.

I have never thought that North America is flying apart, or that it should. But I once talked with someone who did: Archie Green, a University of Texas professor, folklorist and regionalist.

What he liked about the observation that North America was made up of quite real, tangible and long-lived civilizations such as the breadbasket or the Pacific Northwest is that if Washington, D.C., were to slide into the Potomac tomorrow under the weight of its many burdens and crises, the result would be okay. The future would not be chaos; it would be a shift. North America would not suddenly become a strange and alien world. It would be a collection of healthy, powerful constituent parts -- for example, Dixie -- that we've known all our lives.

Green saw this as a resilient response of a tough people reaffirming their self-reliance. It's not that social contracts are dissolving; it's that new ones are being born.

Check it out, Igor. In addition to the Mississippi Delta not being Belarus, you might find these real places nothing like your imagination.

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