Have you ever taken a really wide-angle view across the American cultural landscape and experienced a nagging feeling of deja-vu? It’s almost as if issues that ought to have been settled over a century ago just keep popping back up into public discourse, usually at the behest of reactionary turnip heads fueled by an unceasing wish to go back to a better, more moral, more “traditional” time that only ever existed in their own fever-swamped craniums.
Let’s all shed a tear for the untimely and tragic demise of American whiteness. No, I’m serious. At no time in history have those-of-the-pasty-complexion had it so bad. It’s almost as if they’re on the brink of losing their sacred, inalienable rights to reap the best social, economic, and cultural goodies just because they’re melanin-challenged. To quote one of the most famous of all white philosophers, “this aggression will not stand, man!”
I mean, just look around you! White peoples’ percentage of the electorate is shrinking fast; their standard-bearer lost the presidency to a communist-socialist-Kenyan-Muslim-Buddhist-Podiatrist-usurper in the 2012 election, and perhaps worst of all: white people can’t even hold their annual “White History Month” parade in the proud American small town of Hope Mills, North Carolina without fear of being criticized by dusky people who just don’t know their place, dammit.
On May 31, 2014, U.S. president (and secret Muslim-communist-fascist-anti-colonialist-dentist) Barack Obama announced that he’d negotiated for the release of Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last known POW, in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Since at least July of 2009, Bergdahl had been held captive by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s premier Muslim religious nutball cult, and the president’s actions ignited hope for the beginning of the end of the thirteen-year-long U.S. military operation in Afghanistan, which now ranks as America’s longest-running war.
A lot of people in America don’t believe in anthropomorphic climate change, or, as it’s more colloquially known as, global warming. You see, it snowed this past winter in Squeallikeapiggyville, North Carolina, so that must mean that global warming is a big hoax concocted by pointy-headed, anti-Jesus, scientific Satanists hell-bent on promoting a vast, global climate conspiracy for the nefarious purpose of…securing grants to study the climate. You know, as far as conspiracies go, that one is pretty damn lame — especially when you consider the far grander designs for world conquest proposed by the New World Order, the Reptilian Lizard People, and Justin Bieber.
But the utter ridiculousness of a world-wide conspiracy to secure funding for scientific papers hasn’t stopped an army of right-wing interests from convincing one in four Americans that climate change isn’t real. More importantly, only a measly twenty-four percent of registered Republicans believe that humans are contributing to climate change. And there’s the kicker: climate change denial is, for all intents and purposes, a conservative phenomenon. If you’re a believer in right-wing political theology, there’s a good chance you think that global warming is a giant liberal hoax.
It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.
So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the 19th century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.
Secession is the idea that simply won’t die in the United States. You would think that after secession — the withdrawing of one or more states from the Federal Union — caused the The Civil War, which cost over 600,000 lives and left half of the country in ruins, the issue would have been settled in 1865. But Americans have never been ones to let a nutty idea go to waste, and in the year 2013, a few brave patriots are still bandying about the concept that withdrawing from the national compact is 1.) legal, and 2.) desirable.
Some recent examples from around the country are keeping the dream of secession alive and well — at least for a few misguided individuals. Back in June, some right-wing residents of northern Colorado counties with a serious Jones for the oil and gas industry drew up plans to secede from the rest of the state and form the newly sovereign state of “North” or “Northern Colorado.” Citing a general butt-hurt caused by the growing influence of liberal urban enclaves like Denver, conservatives in northern Colorado hope to create a separate haven for pro-gun, pro energy industry interests. As the CBS Denver news affiliate reported:
The secessionist movement is the result of a growing urban-rural divide, which was exacerbated after this year’s legislation session where lawmakers raised renewable energy standards for rural electric co-ops, floated bills increasing regulations on oil and gas, and passed sweeping gun control.
Pro-secessionist leaders in northern Colorado cited a lack of attention by state and federal lawmakers as the reason for their wanting to secede:
“We really feel in northern and northeastern Colorado that we are ignored — citizens’ concerns are ignored, and we truly feel disenfranchised,” Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said.
Conway said the new laws don’t support the interests of the northern part of the state, which is rich in agricultural history. Conway said that’s why he and others are proposing to break away from Colorado to form a new state.
Following the Colorado brouhaha, conservative activists in northern California and western Maryland have proposed seceding from their respective states in order to escape the perceived liberal political dominance of metropolitan areas. As the Washington Post reported, Western Marylander Scott Strzelczyk summarized the secessionists’ views succinctly:
He wants to live in a smaller state, he says, with more “personal liberty, less government intrusion, less federal entanglements.” He wants the right to carry a gun. He would abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Although he thinks the government shouldn’t be involved with marriage, he’d put the question of gay marriage to a vote. Medical marijuana would be just fine, he says. There would be lots of liberty.
Proponents of contemporary secessionist movements who want “lots of liberty” have an intellectual godfather in the figure of nineteenth century South Carolina senator and Vice-President under Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun. He was a political theorist whose most famous ideas refuse to die despite being discredited in practice over a hundred years ago.
An early American nationalist and proponent of a strong national government in his early years, Calhoun eventually morphed into a radical proponent of limited government and states’ rights, especially the right of individual states to nullify any Federal law they found distasteful, constitutional prohibitions be damned.
Calhoun was also a steadfast defender of southern slavery, and his defence of states’ rights usually served as a bulwark against federal interference in the “peculiar institution.” Calhoun’s most famous idea was the concept of the “Concurrent Majority:” the theory that all interests within states had to concur on the actions of the government. The idea behind this concept was to prevent tyranny of the numerical majority, which would supposedly lead to mob rule running roughshod over the interests of minorities, thereby denying them a say in government. Calhoun proposed two measures to prevent supposed tyranny of the majority: nullification, the idea that states have the right to invalidate federal law, and secession, in which states would withdraw from the federal Union.
No less an authority than President Andrew Jackson — himself no fan of excessive federal government — recognized that Calhoun’s theory was blatantly unconstitutional. The constitution expressly grants the federal government power over the states, meaning that states cannot nullify federal law. But beyond the legal issue with the idea of “Concurrent Majority,” it also created a deep philosophical problem: taken to its logical conclusion, Calhoun’s theory negated the very principle of democratic government and sowed the seeds of anarchy. Requiring all states and interests to agree on operations of the general government guaranteed the death of compromise and the perpetuation of governmental paralysis. Furthermore, if a state, or a municipality within a state, could simply secede from the Union whenever it found fault with federal laws, then the basic idea of democracy failed, and republican countries would devolve into ceaseless fracturing, threatening social and governmental order.
This is why Abraham Lincoln characterized secession as the “essence of anarchy,” and why he and the vast majority of northern states decried the secession of the slaveholding southern states in 1860 and 1861 as a violation of the experiment in democratic republicanism. Put simply: you can’t spend years drawing the benefits of membership in a federal Union and then pick up and leave when things don’t go your way.
Despite the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederacy, however, the idea of secession, underpinned by Calhoun’s “Concurrent Majority,” just refuses to die. In 2009 Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) floated the idea that his state could secede from the Union if the federal government continued its supposed tyrannical overreach, though he failed to mention that Texas is among the states that receive the highest amounts of federal money. Republican state legislatures have also invoked Calhoun’s ghost by passing restrictive voter I.D. laws designed to hold off the growing majorities of non-white voters that in the future may not support the Republican Party.
Thus, John C. Calhoun’s ideas will continue to be popular among cranky conservative Americans for the indefinite future, or at least as long as they continue to perceive that their political privileges are slipping away. But in republican societies, secession isn’t the answer. Those who lose at the legislative level should go back to the drawing board, reorganize, and try winning at the ballot box. Leave Calhoun’s ghost in the past where it belongs, guarded by the hundreds-of-thousands of Americans who perished thanks to his ideas.
Well, its Labor Day 2013, a national holiday in both the U.S. and Canada bolstered by an idea — that the national economy thrives when we recognize workers’ contributions to creating an economic system based on broadly shared prosperity — that seems more and more hopelessly symbolic in the New Gilded Age. In the contemporary U.S., American income inequality has reached pre-Great Depression-era levels, private sector unionization is now a pale shadow of its former strength thanks to 30-plus years of concerted right wing ideological and policy assaults, and public sector unions seem destined for collapse for the very same reason.
A few years back — I think it was 2009 — I took a summer trip back home to the Youngstown, Ohio area after having endured my first few months of graduate school in Calgary, Alberta. While back home, I went to a biannual local event, the kind that attracts a certain breed of generally harmless miscreants: a Civil War reenactment. Granted, there are lamer ways to spend your time, but not many, and since I’m a historian who focuses on the Civil War era, viewing one of the more popular modern manifestations of the war in contemporary culture seemed like a good way to spend an afternoon.