Wait for the wheel (III): For my axel to become roots


The wheel has turned once more; the fasting is done, the samovars are heated, the tea is served. Naw-Rúz has quietly returned. Today is a holiday older than memory, signifying the cosmic cycle of seasons; the eternal struggle of light and dark; the lesson that must always be re-learned at ever-subtler hermeneutical depths, as we sift through the alluvium of meaning upon the banks of an enigmatic river.

This was the first cycle since becoming a Bahá’í that I performed the full fast: that is, getting up before sunrise to eat, abstaining from food and drink, etc. In previous cycles, I ate bread and water at set times; insomnia made arising so early an impossible challenge; and solitude, wrought by a lack of like-minded colleagues, was disheartening company for the journey. Understandably, I dreaded the coming of the fast this year — but this cycle around proved different. This cycle, I had company, as well as a determination, spurred on by close friends, to step beyond doubt and foreboding to try.

I was always perplexed by my fellow Bahá’ís, who every February would anticipate the fast with excitement, and then seemed so happy to be starving themselves. Now I see why. The air has been thick with providence, and every other day the earth shook with unforeseen encounters and conversations. New insights seemed to creep around every corner. A few of the things I’ve learned, some quotidian, some esoteric, some harsh, some I needed to be reminded about, some that should not have been so surprising. And in the end, I find myself writing this:

I circle
my edge scraping through the mud
damp soil clinging to my spokes

I circle
rolling and whirling and churning
never advancing, never regressing

I circle
digging and sinking and descending
seeking a telos, finding epicycles

I circle
the same lessons with new textures
grinding through sediments of meaning

I circle
the epochs of my life laid like old shores
traces of ancient continents re-discovered

I circle
down deeper to the planet’s burning core
where elements transmutate, matter reshapes

I pray
for my axel to become roots, my hub a seed
and hatching, finally, arising toward the sun

[Note: The image above is by the artist Alphadesigner. It concerns the myth of Ganymede, but I’m more interested in its imagery than its symbolism…]


Capitalist realism: homo capitalus / homo financus

Update 31 May, 2012: Some readers, even after braving through the many photos and philosophese, have asked me: “Just what exactly is the ideology or goal of ‘capitalist realism’?” I think what I’m trying to say is simply this: if socialist realism celebrated and promoted the mechanization of humanity, then capitalist realism celebrates and promotes the marketization of humanity. Moreover, both art forms have strong semiotics of the future and of power. However, where socialist realism was explicit in its totalitarian drive (at least, it’s obvious in retrospection), capitalist realism still purports to be liberalist (in the sense that people are allowed to be whoever they want to be “in private”, although what exactly that means, much less the boundaries of the private, is uncertain).

Although this is clearly a critical photo-essay, it’s also, perhaps paradoxically, supposed to be appreciative: contrary to opinions currently in vogue about the aesthetic “superficiality” and psychological “blandness” of either communist or capitalist architecture, the art form is actually quite intelligent, provocative, and in its own way, rather sublime. That’s not to say that it’s morally good; rather, that’s to say it shouldn’t be blithely dismissed or knee-jerkingly condemned.

This post could be alternatively entitled, “How I learned to stop grumbling and love corporate-capitalistic architecture.” As a young boy, I would sometimes visit my father’s stock brokerage firm in 650 Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t decide whether its granite modernist facade was drab, imposing, and soulless, or somehow futuristic, even graceful and attractive. I think in general that has characterized my feelings about most post-Sixties corporate/financial office architecture — until yesterday as I wandered Hammersmith and the City of London for a few hours. I found myself taken in by some kind of obscure metaphysical charm, even sublimity. And then I realized: this stuff’s not at all dissimilar Soviet socialist realism. In fact, I’d dare even call it capitalist realism.

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Абай, Штра́ус, и совет от моего отца.

The BBC has published my piece on Abai Kunanbaev, which I was working on while in the United States. It’s entitled, “Abai’s thoughts, Kazakh matters”, which is a play on what struck me as a very Abai-esque quote from a young Kazakh psychologist I just happened to bump into underneath Grand Central Station. The Kyrgyz version was released yesterday; still to come is the Uzbek version, and then the original English version, which I believe will come during the early summer. This is a big moment for me, as it’s not everyday one can get published on the BBC, much less in three languages and about philosophy, that perennially “un-newsy” of disciplines — alhamdulilah!

Like an excitied little boy, I shared the English copy with my close friends, colleagues, and family (I can’t distribute it publicly at the moment due to copyright). My father had the following remarks to make:

Congratulations, Chris! Heady stuff, although that’s nothing new. Reading your description of Abai as Kazakhstan’s first philosopher as a tie in to today’s independent journalists there, makes the whole piece all the more timely. Also, in my opinion, it is very well written, and I could follow it as I read it, not too obtuse although certainly intellectual. Key elements for your first direct BBC contribution. Love, Dad

Not only is this advice I will remember as I continue to seek one path of service as a public intellectual, finding a way to communicate complex and important ideas for a general audience, but it also resonates with the direction many of my thoughts have been turning in recent months.

Continue reading “Абай, Штра́ус, и совет от моего отца.”

Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

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Transcendental journalism?

“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6

When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.

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Totemism and Panopticon

This blog has been quiet for almost a month, first because I was happily secluded in the Alps for the better part of two weeks, and then because it’s examination season here in Leuven. Not only exams, but also PhD applications, grant applications (for neweurasia), and budget paperwork are all due this month. I’m somewhat frayed at the edges at the moment, as there’s not enough me (and what there is, isn’t especially great at time management).

Nevertheless, I would like to share something I have worked hard on these last few weeks for my “Media Ethics” course. Admittedly, it’s an academic Frankenstein’s monster: a paper entitled, “Totemism and Panopticon” (click on the link to read a pdf version), that fuses Foucault, Durkheim, and an immanent critique of Assange’s now well-known essay, “Conspiracy as Governance”, to explore the conflict between WikiLeaks and the United States under the Obama Administration. My use of Durkheim is key, as fundamentally I am proposing a spiritual and identity dimension to the debacle. Here’s my conclusion:

WikiLeaks as a reverse, grassroots panopticon with a peculiar ratio of liberal and democratic beliefs, a murky conception of the publics at stake in its Bolshevik-like endeavor to mobilize and transform the world, and an ambivalance between a Kantian and utilitarian understanding of the proverbial leak has collided headlong with the full totemistic power of the American national self as embodied in national security and the soldier, prompting in turn an equally Kantian response in terms of secrecy. This response is perhaps evidenced by the dogged manner in which the Obama Administration is pursuing legal action against Manning and Assange, the latter under the Espionage Act of 1917, a federal law which, as I understand it, has in mind the concept of leaking toward a specific enemy in officially declared wartime, not a general mass during what is still formally peace time (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never receiving formal Congressional declarations), even if that leaking occurred for journalistic-activistic-historical (much less contre panoptic) purposes. Even more remarkable — and all the more telling of the totemistic crisis at stake — was when United States Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his confusion/disappointment on Fox News that Assange [had not yet been] tried for treason a sentiment echoed by several other pundits on the station, even though he is not a United States citizen.

My interests in monopsychism and panpsychism also extend to the notions of “mass consciousness” and “public opinion”, hence why I thought using Durkheim would be at least interesting, hopefully a bit funky and creative. The goal in the paper is to get a fix on the public ethos that Assange et al have engendered, specifically in my homeland. By the Greek term “ethos” I mean something akin to the English notions of character, disposition, and fundamental values. With respect to WikiLeaks — specifically WikiLeaks as its own variety of mass media (by dint of it being a digital entity) and as a response to and element of the broader mediascape of today — I also mean ethos along the lines of how the Greeks used the term to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer’s emotions, behaviors, and even morals.

Besides trying to find an interesting new angle to the issue, I also felt duty-bound as a Baha’i journalist to get a fix on what WikiLeaks means for me. Assange et al are a moral confrontation right at the intersection between my religiosity and my professional work. The philosopher, in an essay such as this, tries to sort out the resultant mess – although the philosopher is also torn, between Hegelian and Gandhian instincts.

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Journalism on Solaris

If I’m capable of summoning the discipline to complete my PhD proposal and application, what I would like to do is to research ethnic and religious identity among Central Asia’s journalists, particularly how these factors shape their approach to reporting news. In my view, journalists comprise a key group of social architects in a society’s self-understanding, as it is as much through media as education, especially mass media, that a population’s self-perception is inculcated and shaped. Therefore, it is of pressing importance to understand how they construe events.

Incidentally, my time here in Kyrgyzstan has been partially spent doing preliminary “research” in the sense of conversations with various colleagues — anthropologists, activists, journalists, and friends — about my topic. Generally-speaking, there’s a lot of interest, in some cases even excitement, about my would-be project, particularly as it encompasses religious studies, regional studies, media studies, epistemology, some psychology, and anthropology. One of the cooler conversations occurred this past weekend during the Kyrgyzstan barcamp with several members and acquaintances of Internews’ Central Asian wing, in particular Nicolay Kolesnikov, a talended videographer with whom I got along very instinctively despite the language barrier (he will be good practice for my Russian once I start learning it). Nicolay was very sharp, as he immediately intuited that what I’m really exploring is whether journalists are objective.

He caught me, so to speak, red handed: when I suggested that journalists, à la Searle or Wittgenstein, are actually in the act of forging a reality out of the clash of their differing narratives, a clash that occurs ironically from their pursuit of ultimate, objective reality — indeed, they are creating an overlay of one reality over the bedrock of another, deeper one — Nicolay whipped out an analogy I didn’t see coming but which got me seriously thinking: “You know who wouldn’t need journalists? The Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar.” According to Nicolay, the Na’vi’s ability to interface with each other, their ecosystem, and even the souls (i.e., minds) of past generations, an ability constituting a combination of racial and geosystematic memory, rendered the problem of subjectivity moot. Theirs is a kind of collective objectivity (or objective collectivity), a unity of perspectives, perhaps in a way that is, at essence, not dissimilar from the Internet.

It was a daring argument, a challenge which, as both an Averroist and Science Fiction fan, I was more than happy to meet: I retorted with my own counter-example, that of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s famed novel, Solaris, and it’s even more famed film version by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, I upped the ante: he wanted to talk about conglomerate unities/pluralistic panpsychisms, but I went straight for the monopsychic jugular vein.

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Scientific journalism un-redax

I’ve been a bit remiss on my “WikiLeaks beat” duties, as like much of the rest of the world I have only recently discovered the revelation of the entire unredacted cache of American diplomatic cables. In trying to figure out the situation — first and foremost ethically — I basically follow the version of events by Nigel Parry, who asserts that he was among the first people outside of the Guardian-WikiLeaks agreement to crack the cache, as well as the views of his more astute readers in the comments section. It’s clear that the snaffu emerges from a critical oversight on the part of Assange, an outright blunder on the part of Leigh (which was what made Assange’s oversight critical), and Lord only knows what game some ex-WikiLeakers and online snoopers are playing.

Immediately, my first instinct is that this has been a terrible development, as it runs the risk of putting careers and lives in danger, from the many State Department in-country human intelligence assets to the well-intentioned and often empathetic embassy employees whose inner worlds were revealed by the cables. Now, I’m familiar with all the ins and outs of the “blood on hands” debate/dispute, but I do not agree with most of the argumentation either way. My own experience as a journalist working in Central Asia, an informationally unfriendly region to put it nicely, teaches me some very fundamental, if complex facts: informants’ motivations are vastly varied, which means that there will always be someone around willing to talk, but also that authorities’ motivations are equally varied, which means that talking always carries with it an inherent scale of danger depending on the Who and What factors.

In other words, Assange et al cannot shirk responsibility for any one who will be hurt as a result of WikiLeaks’ actions — but then again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear this responsibility — nor can the State Department hide from the light under the veil of security and safety — because again, they should not have gotten into this business if they are not willing to bear certain culpabilities. WikiLeaks can be responsible if authorities track down informants using the leaks and the State Department knows full well that in most cases it can re-generate lost intelligence assets. These two parties are facilitating certain processes and realities, wanting to reap the positives but heap the negatives onto the other (at least in terms of their public relations; privately, I suspect they are more regretful, for the State Department is not so “imperial” nor Assange so “cavalier” as their mutual detractors would have us all believe).

By the same token, a debate that’s been missing has been the one regarding the moral culpability of the informants themselves. That’s because for every informant who is motivated by high ideals and the desire to improve his or her society, there is another who is seeking narrow personal gain. What I find striking is that, although discussing the motivations of informants and the morality of working with them is routine for journalists, diplomatic officers, and intelligence officers, the public discourse about these cables, almost from the get-go, seems to have presumed the innocence of the informants as a whole. If my assessment here is correct, then this is a huge lacunae in the ethical analysis of WikiLeaks — much less the State Department, who is working directly with these informants — about which simple rationalizations like “they’re traitors who deserve what they get” or “sometimes the good guys have to work with bad guys” I feel are unsatisfactory.

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The journalistic doors of perception

Next week I fly to Kyrgyzstan to participate in a workshop on Central Asian Islam that’s being hosted by the OSCE Academy, and perhaps even more importantly, to talk with the neweurasia team about the future of our small but highly unique organization in these rather ludicrous economic times. Hard realities need to be confronted and even harder choices need to be made, and not only for other people’s livelihoods and professional futures, but my own.

There is some bitterness, of course. Journalism has proven to be not all that it promised — the quest for truth and justice too often replaced with the resort to spin and the hunt for audience; the ideal of “philosophy put in daily practice” frequently side-stepped by the sophistry of deadlines and an amnesiac news cycle; and for many, even the simple relief of the byline undermined by the lack of compensation. Not only is it hard to make a living as a journalist, it is hard to make a life as one.

Still, for me, as I’ve noted numerous times before, journalism brings some subtle, spiritual leavening. As a journalist, one must be prepared to suffer countless humiliations. I’ve watched as colleagues of mine from Pakistan and Turkmenistan, celebrities and respected minds in their own countries, have been reduced to writing press releases or working in night shops here in the West just to make a living, and I’ve known countless Westerners, myself included, embarrass themselves in displays of wanton self-promotion in their panicked pursuit of the much-coveted — and increasingly vanishing — staff-writer job.

Yet, as the etymology of the word “humiliation” suggests (from Latin humus, “ground; earth; soil”), the travails of journalism somehow reduce the best of us to a lower — and therefore higher — state. We grovel, and so we are closer to the savage, dirty truth of Nature; we despair, and so we are one with the World. We embody the uncertainty that has always defined human history (the frenzied denial of which has led to so many of our species’ horrific acts), and we also hint to its eventual transcendence.

I’m constantly surprised by the ubiquity of atheism among my colleagues, particularly those from the West (my Muslim colleagues tend to suffer from it less). They let the manifold little, transient realities of injustice and insecurity blind them to the Ultimate Reality that is so tantalizingly close within their grasp, much closer than It is among the politicians, much less the philosophers.

This bastard profession, with all its hypocrisies and tragedies, has nevertheless pried open some strange, sublime doors of perception for me. Whatever happens — whether I can continue with it in some fashion, or whether I must recede back into obscurity and even more pronounced insecurity — it has been a good journey.

[Photograph by Adrienne Nakissa.]

Blogging as an act of worship

This is going to be a mad summer for me, full of grant applications for neweurasia, doctorate discussions with professors here at Leuven, writing articles for academic journals, and beginning next week, starting a temporary job scrubbing toilets and mowing lawns from the break of morning into the afternoon. Yes, the man who just appeared on al-Jazeera last night will be a full-time groundskeeper and janitor for a month to help pay his bills.

Does it bother me? At the level of ego, of course it does: survival may dictate that I do this, but yes, it feels very much like abasement. At the level of the spirit, however, it doesn’t: because perhaps in some way I need to do be brought to my knees at this moment — quite literally, considering the number of toilets I’ll be scrubbing.

In practical terms, however, it may very well mean that this blog is going to be somewhat silent for the next month. Short though the job may be, it shall be time consuming. Although the previous times I’ve made such a prediction I always ended up blogging more, nevertheless, circumstances have put me in a reflective mood about this blog, and blogging in general. Why am I doing this?

Immediately, one answer comes to mind: therapy. Fellow Baha’i blogger Ben Schewel wrote a post a few weeks ago discussing the varieties of philosophical actions, but which can also be used as a taxonomy of philosophical motivations. An addition he could could make is Wittgenstein’s use of philosophy as therapy. Wittgenstein is famous for his Philosophical Investigations, which were essentially a journal, but not in the traditional, entirely private sense; rather, they were dually intended for personal exorcism and public reflection and conversation. In other words, it was a blog.

Yet, there is another aspect, something closely related to therapy but deeper. Strangely, when I think over my question, what comes to mind isn’t this blog at all, but Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and the Baha’i House of Worship that was built there in the early twentieth century. That remarkable building, the first of its kind and a legend among the Baha’is alive today, and the Baha’is who struggled to raise it as the center of the first community ever to be organized according to the Teachings of the Faith, only to witness their work destroyed by earthquakes ideological and geological, somehow feels connected to my writings here and my work on neweurasia.

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What if the USA collapsed instead of the USSR? (что было бы, если бы вместо Советского Союза распались Соединенные Штаты Америки?)

[Нажмите “Read More” для русского языка.] While I was on my tour through Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, I thought of what could be a really fun premise for a story: what if the United States broke up instead of the Soviet Union? The story would follow an alternative reality version of myself, namely, a young Soviet Kazakh journalist in charge of newamerica.net (instead of neweurasia.net), who has just written a book about post-US North America using the blog posts from the region and goes on a tour of independent New York and Pennsylvania to promote his work. I might want to add some political intrigue or a murder mystery to the plot, but essentially it would be a road trip tale.

Obviously, the story would be very much a satire. Instead of ex-KGB oligarchs, Chechen and Uighur rebels, Uzbek-Kyrgyz strife, and authoritarian presidents, there would be ex-CIA robber-barons, Native American rebels, Mexican-American strife, and New Media-based autocrats (Obama as the Turkmenbashi of Hawaii, his home state? Bush as the president of an Uzbekistan-like Texas?) I imagine that what is today the Midwest would break down into a kind of Afghanistan: without the strong federated American state to maintain irrigation and borders, it would devolve into a war-torn wasteland as the Soviet Union, Canada and Mexico vied for dominance in a new Great Game. The coasts would probably be the most stable areas.

Beyond North America, I imagine that the European Union would be a stronger and more socialist confederacy (but it would probably be struggling to absorb Italian and Irish returnees from America, the inverse of what happened to the Volga Germans and other Western ethnic groups from Central Asia). Africa would still be a mess, while Australia and New Zealand would be some of the world’s last capitalist countries, and Afghanistan and Pakistan would be a hybrid Marxist-Islamist republic; I have no idea about India, China, South America or the Middle East. Radical Christianity, instead of radical Islam, would be the new ideological scourge confronting the world. Technologically, global warming would probably be incredibly worse, but we would probably also be mining the moon.

But these are only tentative ideas. I’d love to hear from you, my readers: what would this alternative world be like? Also, try to imagine little details. For example, what would movies be like (would we be watching Standartenfuhrer von Stirlitz movies instead of James Bond?) and instead of China, where would cheap, shitty plastics and textiles come from? Leave a comment on this blog post in whichever language you feel most comfortable.

Continue reading “What if the USA collapsed instead of the USSR? (что было бы, если бы вместо Советского Союза распались Соединенные Штаты Америки?)”