If At First You Don't Secede

By David Swanson

When I think about secession, my first thought is of the Conch Republic (motto: “We Seceded Where Others Failed”), the briefly lived independent nation of Key West, Florida, now reduced to a joke and a tourist attraction. But would it necessarily be a joke to have an independent nation with some conchs, if you know what I mean, holding BP to higher standards than BO is willing to?

Or I think of Jesus Land and the United States of Canada, the division of the United States based on the states that were formally declared to have voted for Bush or Kerry in 2004. The west coast, upper Midwest, and northeast go with Canada, plus Hawaii. The rest, including Alaska, is Jesus Land. And good riddance. Except that what divides us in the United States is not exactly our preference for militaristic corporatism run by a white moron or militaristic corporatism run by a smart black guy. We are deeply divided, indeed, but each state contains some of everybody, and all sides are bound together by their common disgust for Washington, D.C. I want to get rid of Jesus Land, too, but I live in it — although I’m writing this in airports in both proposed nations.

Bill Kauffman’s new book “Bye Bye Miss American Empire” tells a story of past and current movements for secession or division or realignment. Vermonters want to be a nation unto themselves. New Yorkers want to split the state in two. Californians want to split their state in two or in thirds, or combine the northern parts with southern Oregon. Alaskans want out. Hawaiians claim they were never in. Texas, portions of Texas, West Kansas, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and the Southeast are all homes to secession movements. And the nation has a rich history of (failed) secession movements dating back to its earliest years and the temptation for New England or the South to pull out in response to the other’s domination of the federal government.

The Civil War is thought of as having made secession a crime, but the horror of the civil war actually makes secession appear a wise alternative. A peaceful northern neighbor unwilling to provide industry or return escaped slaves could have ended slavery without mass slaughter. Secession by the South was motivated by support for slavery, and there are all kinds of ugly motives for secessionist tendencies down to this day. But there are admirable motives as well, including opposition to war taxes and empire. Hawaii was invaded and occupied and then dragged into statehood by war. Remember, Pearl Harbor was an attack on a distant American military outpost, not on the United States, no matter how many times we falsely cite it as such. Why shouldn’t Hawaii be allowed to leave if Iraq is? Why are there not even bills in Congress requesting a nonbinding waiverable timetable for an exit from Hawaii?

Those advocating secession today do not seem easily divisible into left and right, a division that appears as artificial and superimposed a distraction as that between Sunni and Shia or north and south Vietnam. The motives behind secession center around resentment of foreign empire — not just the imperial escapades in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and the rest of the globe, but also the imperial idea of governing Alaska or Maine from Washington, D.C. In place of this distant, anti-communal, outside rule, the people of Vermont could keep their money and their self-respect, not to mention their militia (which is now called the National Guard and shipped overseas to plunder in the interests of Washington, D.C., not Vermont). If pieces of the United States grew tired of funding wars and Wall Street, BP and Massey Energy, if a group of us determined that we’d rather elect our elected officials than buy them, if we objected to the media outlets in our state being owned by outsiders, if we finally said we weren’t going to stand for another Code Orange day at the airport and were going to keep our clothes on when we traveled but cease antagonizing half the world against us, well what harm would be done exactly by pulling out?

Of course it’s not just the Civil War that makes us long for federal supremacy. It’s Jim Crow. It’s Arizona Apartheid. There are states that would move right if they detached and others that would move left. But it’s not clear to me that the people of Arizona would have a harder time undoing racist laws if, instead of appealing to a broken federal government thousands of miles away, it were forced to appeal only to itself and to establish for itself international respect and recognition.

Kauffman’s history of secessionist tendencies is a colorful one that spends an inordinate amount of time generously excusing and apologizing for crackpots in the movement. Of course by now you all think I’m one of them, but I’m talking about some serious, serious crackpots — trust me on this. But, then, that’s what colonists were called who thought seceding from England might make sense. The trouble with Kauffman’s book is that, by the time he’s done telling the history of secessionist parties, the book is over. There’s not a word about how, technically and legally and militaristically, it would work. If Vermont says “Seeya,” what does the federal government say and do? Who gets locked up? Who gets soldiers on street corners? Whose contracts get renegotiated and whose scrapped? I think we need a second book.

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