Why can’t country divorce be easier?

In the US in the 70s, divorce suddenly became o.k.. That is, it became acceptable for married couples to say that things hadn’t worked out, and then split up. Divorced people not only began to fill Updike novels, but were, in the course of time, accepted by and large everywhere as perfectly normal, and went about their lives, often remarrying and even having new families, and no one had to wear a big letter D on his or her chest. The legal changes boiled down to one person being enough to initiate a divorce, but of course this wasn’t so much a cause as an effect of a broader social change: women increasingly gaining respect as equals to men, and thus capable of making the decision to end a marriage on their own. Because in most cases, certainly early on in the divorce boom, it was the women who wanted to get out.

Why can’t country divorce be like this? I wonder if what we’re seeing now, in Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps also – with serious qualifications – Ukraine, is the beginnings of a change in attitudes about what it means for countries to break up. Or rather, for one group of people, living in a contiguous area, to break up with their neighbors, leaving the nation-state they’ve shared and either forming their own or joining another. It seems to me that the 21st century could be the century of country divorce. There may well be an evolution of attitudes ongoing, one that will bring the coalescence of a new set of broadly accepted rules and procedures for these breakups. The key being not the consent of both parties – as in the Czechoslovakia breakup – but rather the breakers-away deciding themselves, by democratic vote, and by some generally taken-to-be-decisive supermajority – perhaps two-thirds “ayes” – to leave.

Not everyone shares the new attitudes, and perhaps some of the folks espousing them are cranks. Separatism of all sorts has traditionally been confined to the margins of politics. But Artur Mas and Alex Salmond are perfectly normal politicians, and in setting up independence referenda and advocating for them, they’ve used perfectly legal means, if pushing, particularly in Mas’s case, into grey areas of the law of Spain. They’ve made arguments that, if perhaps too much colored by the romantic for most contemporary taste, aren’t the stuff of nut-jobs. I would argue they’re something like the divorce advocates of the early 70s, who pushed for others to adopt attitudes that theretofore had been acceptable only among urban libertines, mostly of the larger coastal cities, who were certainly marginal to American society as a whole.

I can’t say anything about anyone down in Crimea, and anyway, given different attitudes about the nation and the state, and the shaky hold of meaningful democracy in that part of the world, this is clearly a very different case from the other two. Also, it must be said, Putin’s methods of breaking Crimea away from Ukraine are repulsive. Hillary Clinton is quite right, I think, to compare him to Hitler and this to the case of the Sudetenland. That said, from what I heard during several years of living in Russia, and from talking to my Russian friends now, I would gather that a truly free vote were held in Crimea – perhaps in a couple of decades, using procedures worked out in Scotland and Catalonia – independence or unification with Russia would win easily.

So of course outsiders can screw everything up, as in Ukraine now. Let’s say, though, that the outsider isn’t a horrid jerk who’s moved into your house without asking and is sleeping downstairs on the couch with your wife, threatening your kids if they complain to the neighbors about the setup. O.k., perhaps he’s a jerk, and yes, he’s had a fling with your wife. But he hasn’t moved in, and if, perhaps, he and your wife have slept together, those things do happen – we accept that now, as an unpleasantness of life for some, as part of a transition to an aloneness or being-in-a-new-coupleness for others. Even leaving one country not to be another, but to join another, might well be, one day, just one of those things that happen. With everyone at least being civil to one another afterward, when they run into each other in the grocery store.

The change in attitudes about such things hasn’t taken hold widely, of course. We can see that in the huffiness, for example, of not only most British and nearly all Spanish politicians outside Catalonia, but also in the pronouncements of various EU officials, who shouldn’t really have any stake in either instance but have made clear they as one hold traditional anti-secessionist views, in their every pronouncement on the forthcoming Scottish and Catalonian referenda. The sanctity of marriage, before meaningful self-determination, for all of them, it seems. Moreover, there isn’t yet anything like an accepted set of procedures to guide the process of secession. But this is always the case with new political ideals, and the procedures for making them real. Think of the popular vote, before the standard procedures for that came to be broadly accepted as such worldwide, in the long aftermath of the Second World War. (These were even honored in the breech, by the fake elections held throughout the socialist world, with the de-democratization largely confined to the stage of choosing candidates, not by having secret policemen follow anyone into the voting booth.) Or think of the system of parties using primary elections to choose their candidates. This is used in only a few countries even now. But the system is spreading elsewhere, if slowly, and I’m sure it will be commonly accepted as necessary to democracy everywhere, within a few decades.

And why shouldn’t secession be available too to states and provinces, counties and district, and cities, within countries – that is, to those who’d form new ones, by breaking off from the ones they occupy now? It seems to me this will be the logical next step. If we all hold as valid the notion that political entities are formed by the active choice of those who inhabit them, how could it be otherwise? Really this is only what follows Locke, at least in my reading. Absent this active choice – which, it seems to me, should certainly be able to be re-made, not made only once – how can any political entity be legitimate? And how can we be that far, I think, from this notion becoming widely accepted, as part of the received canon of ideas, about how people can and should decide how best to rule themselves?

In Moscow, no one complains about the cold

That was my experience, anyway, when I lived there, and it made the cold easier to deal with – you learned to accept it as part of life, and so didn’t worry about it as much as you might have otherwise.

The picture, which I got here, is of an event called the US Pond Hockey Championships, which takes place on Lake Nokomis, in Minnesota. I’m sure the players aren’t cold. But I wonder about the guys standing around the rinks – are they talking about the fact that it’s 25 below? Or are they talking about anything but, while stoically refusing to lower the ear flaps on their hats, in a Russian-style show of masculinity?

The river and the mountains

He sits on a rock overlooking a river. He flicks the ashes off the end of his cigarette; the breeze kicks up and blows them back toward him, and he starts. He was here as a boy, with his family, before everything changed, and this morning, the sun just coming high, the rapids silver, he remembered swimming below them, where the banks spread apart and the water goes flat. The river is a border—was a border then too—so he couldn’t have done that. He laughs. He has blond hair, curly if it weren’t so short, and he’s tall, and tan from the sun in a place too hot for him ever to get used to. He’s been here four hours, mostly standing but sometimes, as now, sitting, smoking while he sits. His thoughts repeat, and he notices this, the effect of boredom or fear or both. To his left, ten miles off, are mountains, also marking the border, tall, fog toward their bottoms, where the border runs, and high up, despite the sun and summer heat, patches of snow and among these a glacier that runs down to melt that flows into the river, the last bit in a waterfall. He doesn’t see the mountains. He didn’t see them this morning when he came. He waits for his radio to buzz, and then the voice saying he’s done his watch and can come back. By the time on his phone, he knows when he’ll be done, but the call is the thing. His replacement won’t come all the way up here—they can’t both be exposed. He takes off his canvas hat and wipes the sweat up off his brow, through his curly, dark hair. He’s too old to be here, doing this. If things had gone differently – if he hadn’t fucked around so much, as a kid and after – he’d be somewhere else, living a real life. As he comes down to meet his replacement, out of sight of the other side of the border, for a few minutes no one will be on watch. He’s sure they know this, will use the chance to move closer to the border, or across it. The water was cold, and moved too fast – he was scared he’d be washed away. His father laughed. He’s sure of this. He tried to come up onto the bank, but the current running along it was too strong. He saw something he took for a tree limb, a willow, though willows, he knows now, don’t grow so far south. He reached for it, and it was a clump of poppies that came off in his hand. This could have been on the other side, where there are no flats, just cliffs with rock screes at their bases, and those too steep to climb onto. The river bed was small stones, mostly smooth, though some with sharp edges, and when he fell back in, they dug into his thighs and the backs of his upper arms. He had marks for days after, and several cuts that his father swabbed with alcohol. Late that afternoon it rained, and they sat under a tree and drank lemonade. He checks that the battery in his radio is still good. If only he weren’t so young – if only he’d lived a little first. The air is dry and it hasn’t rained for weeks, and won’t for months. Someone on the other side helped him climb out onto the scree. He’s sure of this. His hand leaves a print of sweat on the side of the radio handset, the spot where all the hands that have held it, in just this way, have worn off some of the paint, in the form of a palm. He has eight more watches, then he’ll go home for good. He’ll be called up again, and sent to the same place, to do twenty more. The sun is high now, and he squints to look across the border, where something, he’s been told, is happening, something he should watch though he hasn’t seen anything to note, a couple of shepherds with their flock, nothing else. At his feet is a bag and, not looking down, he feels in it for his sunglasses and canteen, and his last two cigarettes. There’s a noise – rustling, coming uphill, and closer. His relief. He can’t be sure. He knows not to be sure. When he gets back home, a year, year and a half from now – home for good, not on leave – his daughter will be in school, and he’s not sure, will his wife tolerate him, changing her routines and loud and into everything. He can’t find his cigarettes. His neck is flush now and his forehead too. The rustling stops. Someone hiding, having come in sight of him. His father steered the boat toward him, slowly – under the surface were rocks that neither of them had seen at first. The cigarettes could have fallen out. He walked out to the promontory an hour ago and reached into his bag – he can’t remember, for what, something that seemed important but god damn it now. The next sound could be a bird, pecking at a hard rock. The sun is high and if he looked for a shadow he wouldn’t see one. If only he had a girl at home, or some scheme to do something meaningful, even just to go somewhere else, or enjoy his life in a way we’d want to enjoy our own lives. He wants his fucking goddamn cigarettes. That day, he sat on the scree and the shade disappeared, and in an hour he was sunburned. The rustling should start again now. He digs still, flush everywhere, irritated at being scared, at being here at all, and close now, the boards in the prow of his father’s boat, cracking as they snap on the rocks


In the late 1020s, Stalin launched a massive program of government-funded investment in projects that were supposed to stimulate the growth of the Soviet economy, by modernizing the country’s productive capacity and infrastructure. Did it work? Hmm… Well, it did succeed in radically expanding the economic authority and power of the central Soviet state, which, for many observers, made it a success regardless of its economic efficacy, narrowly drawn. As to its performance on that score, let’s say that there are debates. Either way, this effort was followed by decades of follow-on efforts, meant to cover up for its mistakes, do everything it hadn’t done, figure out why and how it had failed, and ensure that those failures wouldn’t be repeated. And all these subsequent efforts focused to some significant degree on devising and implementing technical, i.e. “apolitical” techniques for monitoring and measuring the effectiveness of top-down state-sponsored investment programs, in order to eliminate waste and fraud. These techniques were supposed to ensure that each and every such program did exactly what its authors intended them to do, and nothing else.

And what about them, you ask? Am I only mentioning them because they, and the programs they were intended to fix, were a focus of my dissertation, and so represent a whole mess of figurative bees I just can’t get out of my bonnet? No. O.k., then, you ask, Did they succeed? Well… the Soviet system pretended to be “beyond politics,” but of course everything it did was shaped by interest groups jockeying for resources, politicians using funding to buy support for themselves and their allies, rent-seeking, corruption, and so forth. With predictable results, in a country with no private sector to grow and thrive, free from direct state control, and thus make everyone feel wealthy enough to overlook the state sector’s failings.

Am I saying, in a roundabout way, that the forthcoming “stimulus” will be an utter folly? No, I’ll leave that to Greg Mankiw, in today’s New York Times. I’d add only that the Soviet experience was not entirely unique, and indeed that the history of that experience has much to tell us about our own world – and, in this case, about the nature and likely effectiveness of enormous, centrally planned, state-sponsored economic endeavors. And that politics being what it is, I wouldn’t put much faith in Mankiw’s suggestion that the stimulus package could be improved by a government commitment to submit all of its various and sundry components to “a rigorous cost-benefit analysis,” and go forward only with those that pass its muster.