I've been thinking about disintegration lately. In a world united by the sharing culture of the Internet, where "friends" share all kinds of information through Twitter, Facebook and MP3, our broader global society is not holding it together.
It is hard not to be aware of this, considering the fracturing beyond recognition of nations such as Chad, Sudan, Iraq, Kenya, Pakistan and even Belgium. "Boring" old Belgium is more interesting than ever, now that the thin veneer of statehood holding its Walloons and Flamands together is disintegrating. The fact that it is interesting now doesn't mean it is in better shape than before; just that it is demanding attention as a manifestation of an idea whose time may have come: the breakup of nations into smaller societies of common values.
The disintegration of some of these states was probably inevitable. They were never nation states with sturdy institutions to begin with, just federations of tribes with innate irreconcilable differences that never desired inclusiveness.
But is the idea taking hold that being once joined doesn't mean never splitting apart? Does it indicate that the whole within which small states thrive does not have to be a nation, but could be a federation of autonomous states? Belgium may go away, but tiny Flanders and Wallonia could still be part of Europe and the European Union.
You have to wonder if a nation the size and cohesiveness of the U.S. but with today's polarized electorate, could also fall sway to deep divisions. Already the push and pull between federal and state power is occurring over divisive feelings that relate to beliefs, the limits of freedom and the option of controlling one's own destiny. Will a progressive, creative Cascadia emerge, linking Northern California to British Columbia? Will a fundamentalist Christian Core become an inland nation? Is it conceivable that the U.S. may someday need to consider making room for a Hispanic autonomous zone in the Southwest, much as as Spain's Catalonia, France's Basque southwest, Canada's Quebec and Italy's alpine Tirol regions?
When listening to public discourse, I hear lots of indications of rifts, but few of unity. What happens when people can easily name more things that divide than unite us?
There is probably more than one underlying reason for disintegration of states, some more relevant than others depending on the geography. Perhaps globalization is breeding a familiarity that arouses contempt. More likely, globalization threatens cultural identity, and in dividing peoples into winners and losers elicits opposition. Globalization and technology makes people painfully aware of who is winning. Losers could include not only those who have lost jobs, but those who are poisoned by toxic environments or starved of staple crops by climate change.
It might all come down to scarcities -- water, food, power, security, wealth. These might open the way for bigger wedges like religion, nationalism, and hostilities from other societies.
Jared Diamond believes the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s was spurred by resource scarcities resulting from population pressure.
Once disintegration starts, how does it end? Lebanon was once a peaceful, multi-cultural, prosperous country. Will it ever be again or will its parts ever be whole and able to live alongside each other?
China recognizes avoiding disintegration is critical to the country's success. Whether or not they will find a solution is another matter. By distributing the benefits of globalization to rural areas, China's leaders could ensure that a culture of optimism that unites the country.
And that's where Belgium comes in again: these antagonistic societies, if they find a way to live with each other, might create a model of fractious states coexisting.
For now, it seems the U.S. will remain united because of pervasive post-9/11 culture of fear replacing the national, unifying pride in individual freedom. As Jared Diamond suggests, societies have choices to make. The 2008 election could be a values vote for sure.