Here in the United States, the idea of secession is inextricably tied to slavery. And there is damn good reason for that. Despite what some putrid politicians may claim, the civil war was very much about slavery. But the Confederacy didn’t invent the idea of secession. They aren’t the only people in the world who have seceded or want to secede. And the people who want to secede aren’t always the bad guys.
Those of us who are horrified by slavery (and I hope to hell that means you) have a tendency to see the Civil War in very simplistic terms. The Southerners wanted to own people. The Northerners wanted to stop them. But I would like you to ask yourself this - How badly did the Northerners wanted to stop them?
Northerners consistently compromised any principles they claimed to have in order to appease slave owners. When slaves escaped to non-slave states in the North, Northern officials helped to capture those slaves and return them to their enslavers. Not exactly the actions of the good guys.
What if the Northerners had really been passionate about the human rights of those slaves? What if they had been so appalled by slavery that they refused to make compromises with the South any longer? What if, rather than continue to compromise their principles, the North had seceded?
In this fictional world, the adamantly anti-slavery North would not have returned runaway slaves. They would have given them asylum. Perhaps the North would have helped freedom fighers like Nat Turner to procure weapons and overthrow the plantation owners. Perhaps slaves would have gotten their 40 acres and a mule, rather than a post reconstruction sellout of Jim Crow and the KKK.
One thing is for certain, what we associate with the idea of secession would be much different. And then perhaps it would not be so difficult for us to speak about the principle underlying the idea of secession. Secession is about self-determination. Every anti-colonial and nationalist struggle in history has been about self-determination. Democracy is about self-determination. If you think that secession is only for neo-nazis, but have a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on your car, I have news for you. Tibet is trying to secede from China. Tibet wants self-determination.
It’s asking a lot to separate the idea of self-determination from the context in which it was used. We cannot ignore history for the sake of principle. But nor can we ignore principle because of history.
Secession is back in the news lately. And often it is on the lips of exactly the kind of white supremacists that you expect to talk about it. Undoubtedly, many of these people would not be talking secession if the president were not black. But, as Chris Hedges laid out in his recent article, it isn’t just racists who are thinking about seceding.
Many people are disillusioned precisely because they thought electing Barack Obama was meaningful change. He is an extraordinary person with an incredible life story. He galvanized communities. He inspired even the jaded. We elected an African American community organizer. From the perspective of the mainstream left, Barack Obama is quite likely the best we can do. And the best we can do isn’t good enough to get out from under the rule of Goldman Sachs and the Military Industrial Complex.
I’m not writing this to argue for secession. I don’t think a new state would be, ultimately, better than the old state. And I’m sure as hell not trying to defend racist separatist movements. I’m just trying to point out that it is completely possible to be a rational and decent person and believe that a government, our government, any government is beyond hope. I’m just trying to say that it is not such a bad idea to imagine what real self-determination, out from under the power of Exxon and Halliburton, might look like.