Old School

The Need to Secede

September 29, 2009

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In a recent column for the Charleston City Paper, I explained how my moniker, the “Southern Avenger,” came from my advocating for states’ rights and even secession in my early 20s, a brand of politics I still subscribe to today. Long comfortable with such concepts, it’s easy to forget that plenty of folks are not, and was reminded promptly by a number of readers that very notion of Americans no longer living under the same government is still considered “crazy” by many. Here are a few of those comments:

“Just great! What we need is to divide our country into a Balkanized mish-mash of impotent little ‘countries.’ This is crazy talk, meant only to incite as far as I can see.” Another wrote: “So, are we asking for the idea of 50 individual countries? Talk about a screwed up idea.” A kind critic wrote: “Jack—I’m a big fan … but the secession idea these days is on par with colonizing the moon. It just doesn’t make sense.” And a less kind critic wrote: “You need to broaden your exposure to world ideas. This column shows how narrow your focus is. You haven’t grown much from your early years. You thought you knew it all then and still do.”

While I’m always more fascinated by the amount of stuff I don’t know, than I am the narrow worldview that exists between my two ears, I am quite certain of two things: big government doesn’t work–and yet it is always considered sound, sane and respectable to advocate for it. And the opposite is also true—to advocate for smaller government is acceptable so long as you’re talking about voting Republican or lowering taxes, but the moment you try to actually seek limiting Washington, DC’s jurisdiction; it’s time for a straightjacket.

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Upon his death in 2005, George Kennan was remembered for lots of things, but being crazy wasn’t among them. As a U.S. ambassador, adviser, political scientist and historian, Kennan was known as the “father of containment” and was one of the most influential architects of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. Kennan’s New York Times obituary described him as “the American diplomat who did more than any other envoy of his generation to shape United States policy during the cold war,” Gen. Colin Powell described him as “our best tutor” and Foreign Policy magazine declared Kennan “the most influential diplomat of the 20th century.”

But in his later years, Kennan had also become a full-blown secessionist, advocating independence for the state of Vermont and imagining a United States that would break up into “a dozen constituent republics.”

In February, 2010, a group of activists, academics and intellectuals will meet in Charleston, South Carolina, to pick up where Kennan left off. Known as the Abbeville Institute the theme of the conference is “State Nullification, Secession and the Human Scale of Political Order.” Say conference organizers:

George Kennan, author of the Cold War policy to contain the Soviet Union and described by some as the ‘conscience of America,’ taught that a regime can become dysfunctional by simply becoming too large. Near the end of his long career in service to his country, where he stood for moderation and realism in international politics, he judged that the American regime had grown too large for the purposes of self government and that we should begin a public debate on how to divide it in the direction of a more human scale.

The Abbeville Institute’s mission is to kick start Kennan’s desired public debate:

For the first time in 144 years the topics of State nullification and secession have again entered public discourse. Nullification and secession were understood by the Founders as remedies to unconstitutional acts of the central government. Yet over a century of nationalist indoctrination and policy has largely hidden this inheritance from public scrutiny. The aim of the conference is to recover an understanding of that part of the American tradition and to explore its intimations for today.

America’s Founding Fathers were indeed revolutionary, but by no means “crazy.” The same was true of George Kennan and those who will attend the Abbeville Institute this winter in Charleston, who continue to explore his vision of devolving, limiting or breaking-up the modern state.

There is a big distinction to be made between radicalism and insanity. And the admittedly radical idea of states’ rights or secession is far more logical than the conventional, popular habit of pretending we still possess the wealth, will or cultural consensus to maintain and expand the American empire forever.

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