Wherein We Meet Genial Radicals by the Shores of Lake Champlain

This is an excerpt from BILL KAUFFMAN’s new book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map (Chelsea Green)

The American Empire is dead. That gathering murmur you hear is not sobbing: Good riddance to the damn monster. Rather, the noise is the sweet hum of revolution, of subjects learning how to be citizens, of people shaking off (or flipping off) their Wall Street and Pentagon overlords and taking charge of their lives once more, whether as members of verdant countryside or the sodality of the city neighborhood.

Oh, the empire’s corpse may yet wander the desert sands, rattling chains in Marley-like clangor, but the thing itself, as a breathing and vascular entity with its own tomorrows, is dead. An expiry long past due, I might say. Senator J. William Fulbright, the only good Bill ever to exit Arkansas for the national political stage, said in the 1960s that “the price of empire is America’s soul and that price is too high.”1 He was right. The American Empire, that cold-eyed death machine that ground American boys into fodder to spit out into the frozen Chosin of Korea, the rice paddies of Southeast Asia, the dunes of Mesopotamia, has run out of money, out of even the fig leaf of moral justification, out of any international sanction save the specious pule of the coerced and the fraudulent. The empire—what Edmund Wilson called “a huge blundering power unit controlled more and more by bureaucracies whose rule is making it more and more difficult to carry on the tradition of American individualism”—always was the enemy of the true America, the America of Mark Twain and Levon Helm, Henry Thoreau and Zora Neale Hurston. The empire demanded that we pledge allegiance to the distant over the near, to the abstract over the real, to perpetual war over peace and harmony.

The Crash of 2008 and its salutary humbling of the hubristic was only the overture. The dissolution is yet to be played out, though the plot thickened and union thinned early in the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama, who continued the Bushian policy of socializing risk and privatizing reward in his series of bailouts of corporate entities that were, in the obscenely inverse phrase of the mass media, “too big to fail.” The phrase reeked of wishful thinking, though it conveyed with great effectiveness the mind-set of those who run the empire. Bigness is next to godliness, which is in turn a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs; smallness is mingy and negligible; and modesty is for losers. Ten thousand corner delis must die so that AIG can live. The political corollary is that Xenia, Ohio, and Fairbanks, Alaska, are nothings, fit only to send tribute in the form of taxes to Washington and future corpses to the war of the hour. The fifty stars of Old Glory are no more than smudge marks on a wet rag; what counts is the octopus in the District of Columbia whose tentacles curl out to smother and strangle and steal from the nether provinces.

As the empire accelerates through its welcome decline, real patriots of all shades and shapes will hold with renewed and redoubled fastness to the cherishable pieces of our lorn and lovely land: its little places, its accented regions, its history-echoing, blood-seeded grounds.

The times—the Times, too—push me to the rocks off Lake Ontario’s Point Breeze, where I sit licking an ice cream cone and pondering Brooklyn’s Good Gray Poet, for I love Old Whitman so, to borrow Allen Ginsberg’s line (via James Whitcomb Riley—how do you like that triple play?). Saith Walt as his America was rent asunder:

I listened to the Phantom by Ontario’s shore,
I heard the voice arising demanding bards
By them all native and grand, by them alone can these States be fused into the
compact organism of a Nation.
To hold men together by paper or seal or by compulsion is no account . . .

Paper, seal, compulsion: These are the ties that strangle, not bind. I love America deeply but the country I love is far too small to show up on a television screen. The idea of “citizenship” has been diluted from one of membership in an organic body in which each person matters and takes part in civic affairs to the current condition, in which you are a cog in a machine, just another brick in the wall. The role of an American citizen, as viewed by our rulers in Washington, DC, is to pay your taxes, cast a meaningless vote every four years, and shut the hell up.

The anti-Obama reaction of 2009 was like a controlled burn that blew past its carefully constructed boundaries. Republican operatives had hoped to exploit popular unhappiness over the new president’s (typical, even Bush-like) acts of aggrandizement and power grabbing to set up the GOP for a rebound in 2010. But the rubes wandered off the reservation, past the barbed-wire fences of Responsible (which is to say eunuchlike) Dissent and into the Forbidden Zone of revolution, refusal, even . . . secession.

By spring 2009 radicalism spiced the air. States from Michigan to New Hampshire were considering “state sovereignty” resolutions that audaciously reasserted the Tenth Amendment to the US Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Since both parties—two wings of a single bird of prey—and the corporate media that serve them regard anyone who quotes the Bill of Rights as a militiaman (occupying the same rung of the social ladder as a white-trash meth head), this seemingly innocuous act—declaring, in the face of all evidence, that the US Constitution is operative—had the flavor of sedition. And the sovereignty resolutions, once unpacked, left a great question hanging in the air: What if Washington tells the states to shove off? Don’t mind your own business, Montana and Oklahoma: Uncle Sam will mind it for you. What then? The choices, it would seem, are two: submission or secession. And given that choice, what man or woman of hale and hearty spirit would not choose secession?

Even dullard politicians caught the fever, or at least mimicked its symptoms. On Income Tax Day, April 15, 2009, that annual reminder of our serfdom, the empty-suited Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a man theretofore so unremarkable as to have languished in the shadow of his predecessor, George W. Bush, addressed a raucous crowd in Austin (many shouting “Secede!”) and later told reporters, “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot.”

Inarticulate, to be sure. And where was Perry when President Bush and Dick Cheney were shredding the Constitution for the previous eight years? But still: Something was abrew. Our birthword and birthgift—secession, which had been removed from our vocabulary when we were but a young country—was on the tongues of the unregulated, the unbossed, the unruly.

Perry was pilloried, naturally. No unapproved opinion may be expressed in the land of the free without earning the sayer thereof his time on the cross. Who should come to Perry’s defense but the most radical and honest presidential hopeful of the prior year, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), the libertarian scourge of war, militarism, statism, and Big Brother? “Secession is an American tradition—it’s how we came into being,” said Paul, standing by Perry in the eye of the storm. “A free society means you can dissolve.” Conceding that the Civil War, er, complicated matters somewhat, Paul opined that had secession remained a vital principle in American life, “the federal government would have been restrained” throughout our history, as the threat of states breaking away would have acted as a brake on the runaway national juggernaut.

If secession today has a vaguely naughty, even disreputable sound, owing to that war which Gore Vidal called “the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our republic,” that only means we need to throw away our social studies textbooks and relearn, or learn for the first time, history as it is not dictated by the winners to the stenographers.

Talk of breaking up our increasingly fractious and unhappy union predated the presidency of Barack Obama. In fact, it gained voice largely due to the man who made possible the Ovalization of Mr. Obama: George W. Bush.

In the wake of the egregious Bush reelection in 2004, frustrated liberals talked secession back to within hailing distance of the margins of national debate—a place it had not occupied since 1861. With their praise of self-rule and the devolution of power, they sounded not unlike many conservatives had in the days before Bush & Cheney & Limbaugh welded the American Right to the American Empire. While certain proponents of the renascent secessionism were motivated by spite or pixilated by whimsy or driven by the simpleminded belief that these United States can be divided into blue and red—as though our beautiful land can be painted in only two hues!—others argued with cogency and passion for a disunionist position that bordered on the, well, seditious. Emphasizing both culture (“Now that slavery is taken care of, I’m for letting the South form its own nation,” said Democratic operative Bob Beckel) and economics (Democratic pundit Lawrence O’Donnell noted that “ninety percent of the red states are welfare clients of the federal government”), writing in forums of neoliberalism (Slate) and venerable liberalism (The Nation), liberals helped to disinter a body of thought that had been buried at Appomattox. And—surprise—the corpse has legs.

Secession is the next radical idea poised to enter mainstream discourse—or at least the realm of the conceivable. You can’t bloat a modest republic into a crapulent empire without sparking one hell of a centrifugal reaction. The prospect of breaking away from a union once consecrated to liberty and justice but now degenerating into imperial putrefaction will only grow in appeal as we go marching with our Patriot Acts and National Security Strategies through Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and all the frightful signposts on our road to nowhere. The liberals who considered secession while tossing and turning in the fever dreams of the Bush nightmare may back off, for the nonce, mollified by the honeyed cadences of the savior Obama. But he is no less a servitor of Wall Street and the American Empire than are the Republicans, and when President Obama dispatches troops to Georgia (the land of Joseph Stalin, not Ray Charles) or Somalia or bombs Iran, in fulfillment of John McCain’s campaign jingle, they may be jolted once more into a radical and clear-eyed wakefulness.

Some of the contemporary secessionists are puckish and playful; others are dead serious. Some seek to separate from the main body of a state and add a fifty-first star to the American flag, while others wish to leave the United States altogether. Some proposals are so sensible (the division of California into two or three states) that in a just world they would be inevitable. Others are so radical (the independent republic of Vermont) as to seem risibly implausible—until you meet the activists and theoreticians preparing these new declarations of independence.

For these movements are, in the main, hopeful and creative (if utopian) responses to the Current Mess engulfing our land. They are the political antidote to the disease of giantism. We are a nation born in secession, after all, and of rebellion against faraway rulers. Ruptures, crackups, and the splintering of overlarge states into polities of more manageable size, closer to the human scale, are as American as runaway slaves and tax protesters.

BILL KAUFFMAN’s new book Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map (Chelsea Green) is a look at contemporary secession movements.