Politics/Law/Government

More sloppy thinking about secession

Chris Hedges, normally a pretty bright guy, has a puff piece about some nice, thoughtful secessionists over at Truthdig. As always, the comments are entertainment enough in their own right, and are worth a look (although only one commentator seems familiar with the data from the Tax Foundation, which even Hedges doesn’t cite). Like other secessionist pieces we have commented on in the past, there’s an air of unreality here, as if we’ve fallen into some parallel universe where actions don’t have consequences. It’s an interesting piece nonetheless, because it’s unusual among this kind of reporting to actually engage in some of the logical, indeed, unarguable, rationales for secession. But it’s the wrong solution for the problem that the intellectual secessionists like Thomas Naylor and Kirpatrick Sale want to address. And it turns into an attempt to give an intellectual veneer to a very ugly phenomenon, although I suspect that was not Hedges’ intention.

The problem, according to Naylor and Sale, which Hedges does not offer a disagreement with whatsoever, is that corporatism has won. Hedges phrases it this way:

The movement correctly views the corporate state as a force that has so corrupted the economy, as well as the electoral and judicial process, that it cannot be defeated through traditional routes. It also knows that the corporate state, which looks at the natural world and human beings as commodities to be exploited until exhaustion or collapse occurs, is rapidly cannibalizing the nation and pushing the planet toward irrevocable crisis. And it argues that the corporate state can be dismantled only through radical forms of nonviolent revolt and the dissolution of the United States. As an act of revolt it has many attributes.

Well, I guess I have no disagreement with the observation that the corporate state has corrupted the economy and the political process. Whether or not it has so corrupted them that they are unsalvagable is an interesting an important question. But that question doesn’t get addressed—Hedges, like Naylor and Sale, just sort of assumes this is true. And he has no objection to the next step, which is just to withdraw from the process entirely. The last two sentences are key there—“the corporate state can only be dismantled through radical forms of nonviolent revolt and the dissolution of the United States.” Whoa.

Now, Hedges does admit that there are some problems with some of the secessionists:

These movements do not always embrace liberal values. Most of the groups in the South champion a “neo-Confederacy” and are often exclusively male and white.

Well, yes, this does not come as a surprise, somehow, and I think we could have figured this out anyway. But then Hedges follows up with this:

Secessionists, who call for statewide referendums to secede, do not advocate the use of force. It is unclear, however, if some will turn to force if the federal structure ever denies them independence.

WTF? Chris, if I may call you Chris, the “federal structure” already sorted this. It was called the Civil War, and you may have read about it. A bit of discussion of some of the legal framework for secessionist arguments would not be inappropriate here.

If you haven’t already figured it out, there are a number of problems with Hedges’ piece, not the least of which is its uncritical acceptance of the notion that secession has some sort of legal justification. In fact, Sale has offered a defense of the notion that there is legal justification, but since I’m not a constitutional lawyer, I’m not going to go there. If you read Sale’s piece, though, you’ll get a flavor for some of the intellectual rigor involved here.

But a larger problem is the broad range of reasons why we’re hearing a lot of secession talk these days. Hedges would have us believe that people who talk about secession are reasonable people who have principled moral stands against the corruption of American politics and culture, and think secession is the only alternative. I’m sure such people exist—Hedges interviews a bunch of them—and they do have a point, I suppose. The system IS broken.

But how does that, even if it were true, lead to Hedges’ comment that

These groups at least grasp that the old divisions between liberals and conservatives are obsolete and meaningless.

Say what? What on earth is he talking about? I daily read stories about the increasing rage among conservatives, much of it directed directly at Obama, but much of it more unfocused, but directed at the government in general. Do the tea partiers accept this point—that there’s no difference between liberal and conservative any more? What about those militia folks who occasionally makes headlines by getting arrested for various insane plans of some sort—they’re targeting Glenn Beck, are they?

And it totally ignores why the system is broken—the increased consolidation of the media, which means there is no such thing as an independent, investigative media any more is a case in point. As I commented in an earlier post, the failure of anti-trust enforcement over the past three decades in America has had hugely important consequences, not just in terms of the business landscape, but also in terms of the social and political landscapes as well—this is exactly what Barry Lynn’s Cornered is all about. But that suggests a fairly straightforward solution—start anti-trust enforcement actions again. America did it once, under Teddy Roosevelt. It can be done again. It will require extraordinary will and a bunch of decent politicians , but it can be done. The FCC used to have rules about companies owning both newspapers and television stations in the same market—bring them back. There are actually a whole lot of actions along these lines that could be taken if Democrats had sufficient gumption. Which always gets me back to the question of whether people like Naylor or Sale—or Hedges, for that matter—have ever run for political office. And if not, why not?

But let’s pretend that this whole concept has some intellectual justification. Naylor and Sale aren’t stupid, and they have a view of the world that is worth considering. And Hedges for sure isn’t dumb—he’s a remarkably good journalist and writer at times. So what is it about this concept that is so seductive and makes people lose their bearings? I suppose the notion of good old liberal Vermont wanting to be independent because it doesn’t want to support America’s wars of aggression has a certain appeal. As Hedges points out, the Vermont secession movement started under the Bush administration, for some compelling moral reasons, reasons that I fully share, in fact. And we can even, if we’re so persuaded, pretend that we share some bond with the secessionists of South Carolina and Georgia and Texas. (Hedges mentions Hawaii and Alaska in his leader, but these get no mention in the article, so I have no idea how they figure into these arguments, but I can just imagine in the case of Alaska).

So we can pretend a bit, but then we, once again, run up against the real world economics of all this. Because as we’ve mentioned before, it’s interesting how so much of this secession talk originates in states that are basically on the federal dole. So it would be nice, just for once, to hear how the states in question plan to deal with this. If we check with our friends over at the Tax Foundation, we find that Vermont is a taker state, getting back $1.08 for every $1 in federal income tax Vermonters pay. So how does this work, exactly? How does Vermont plug that hole? By raising taxes at the state level? Or cutting the projects and services that the federal government subsidizes? Have Naylor and the good folks at the Vermont Secession movement given this much thought? Or are we still in airy-fairy land? Where is Vermont’s army gong to come from? Or do they have the luxury of assuming they won’t be a target? What currency will Vermont use? The Vermont dollar? Unless Vermont has some pretty nifty exports, I suspect the exchange rate with the US dollar won’t be particularly favorable. Vermont doesn’t exactly have a long growing season, so most food will need to be imported—and priced in a different currency. Hmmm. And unless everyone in Vermont is prepared to start using wood stoves, there’s that oil problem—that’s in US dollars, too. Hmmm again. Unless they build a wind plant on Lake Champlain which can power the state. And how prepared are Vermonters to pay for all of this? Or will they borrow from the World Bank for the Lake Champlain project? Details, please.

Similar questions arise with other states where the term “secession” is thrown around so cavalierly. So most of the states of the confederacy—everyone except Texas and Florida, in fact—are taker states. How will they pay their army so they can arrest all those illegal immigrants? In Confederate dollars? And since these are mostly very poor states (or else they wouldn’t be on the federal dole), where does the money come from in the first place? Rice exports? How is Florida gong to compete on world sugar markets without federal sugar subsidies? (Simple answer—it can’t.) I suspect Arizona might want to get into the act as well—but, gosh, Arizona is a taker state too, getting back $1.19 for every $1 of tax it pays to the dreaded feds. And will Arizona take Confederate dollars, or will they need to develop an exchange rate for converting Confederate dollars into Arizona dollars? In fact, this is the economic question for everyone who thinks this is a nifty idea, including Hedges—who pays for it? Not just the process of leaving the Union, but the ongoing economic viability of the state (or states) afterward. I suspect there’s a reason we don’t actually ever hear that discussion—because (a) they know it’s never going to happen, so why bother, or (b) they’ve run the numbers, and it doesn’t work.

So there’s a disconnection to reality that underlies much of this discussion, which makes much of it something like an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin type of discussion. But there’s a more insidious problem, one that Hedges makes a nod to, but doesn’t really explore in too much detail. And that’s the deeply racist underpinnings of much of this discussion. It’s not an accident that the current wave of secession talk didn’t really take off until America had its first black president. And for all the prominence that Hedges gives to the Vermont secessionists, it’s not an accident that most of this talk originates in the old Confederacy, where, of course, it never really died out in the first place.

And so when Hedges says this, I have to wonder what could possibly be going through his head:

What all these movements grasp, however, is that the American empire is over. It cannot be sustained. They understand that we must disengage peacefully, learn to speak with a new humility and live with a new simplicity, or see an economic collapse that could trigger a perverted Christian fascism, a ruthless police state and internecine violence.

Well, the American empire may or may not be over. But to ignore the fact that much of the secession movement is driven by an outright desire to pursue Christian fascism seems a bit blinkered, frankly. And it’s not clear to me that “all these movements” share this understanding. Certainly many of the secessionist groups tracked by the Southern Poverty Law center probably have a slightly different view of the world, and I’m not sure that it includes learning to speak with a new humility. Hedges quotes some Texas secessionist talking about how tea partiers will become secessionists when they realize they won’t be having an impact through electoral politics. What he should perhaps give a bit more thought to, so he won’t gloss it over next time, is the similarities between many secession groups and the militia movement.

Personally, I’d love to get rid of the South. Aside from the blues, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, the Allman Brothers and a bunch of good Texan musicians, it’s hard to see what value they still bring to the table. So it would be nice to see them go before they drag the rest of the country down with their crappy politicians and deranged racism. But they can’t afford it, and it’s not like we can afford to pay them off. But at least let’s not try to give this an intellectual veneer it doesn’t deserve.

If Vermont secedes, it will presumably have its own stamps. Let’s hope they’re as pretty as the one above.

15 replies »

    • Ann: There are some fine people in Tejas. They don’t appear to comprise a voting majority at present, though. Y’all are welcome to move up here when your governor finally gets his wish… 🙂

  1. If it makes you feel any better, Ann, i’d also be willing to sell Florida to Castro for a box of cigars and if Putin would cough up a bottle of Pyatizvezdnaya and a Lada Niva he could have Alaska back.

    I wish it were me in the Oval Office instead of the Mr. Conciliatory. I’d be calling the bluffs of the Tenthers and the Secessionists by preemptively kicking them out of the union. It’d be a hoot…or at least as much fun as the partition of India.

  2. Don’t worry, boys – endless unvarying iteration around here has pretty much robbed that stereotype of its power to sting, to say nothing of its rhetorical value… If I didn’t run those sweeping generalizations through the “unthinking jackassery” filter, I’d never have time to get all hysterical about nothing or oppress my Latino gardener.

    On a slightly more serious note, no sane person I know on any surface of the Texan political Moebius strip takes secessionist babbling seriously. Pandering and posturing – it’s a safe banner to wave because it just won’t happen. Militias, when they reach the boiling point, will kill people and destroy property. That’s a real problem. That’s why they gather in enclaves and rant online – no one wants them around.

    But seceding from the United States to form some kind of religious republic? There’s not a successful neo-fascist fundamentalist dreaming of the lily-white New Jerusalem who’d give up his Escalade, his MacMansion or his tee time to actually fight for it. Boy, if that federal highway teat went dry, he’d have half-a-dozen redneck relatives to support… and if you think the Bass or the Richardson women would tolerate a revolution that disrupted the social season, you’d better think again.

  3. No one eve mentions that something like this could be a nuclear proliferation nightmare that makes the breakup of the Soviet Union look like nothing.

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