by Christopher Ketcham
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” —The Declaration of Independence
INCREASINGLY, I have no fealty to the U.S. government. This has nothing to do with George Bush, bogeyman of the Left, the war in Iraq, or Halliburton, and everything to do with the reasonable assessment that the United States is too big for its own good. Too big in its 300 million people to be represented by 550 mostly millionaire men (not women) in a far-off swamp called Washington, D.C. I therefore have stopped calling myself a U.S. citizen.
I prefer to be called a Brooklynite or a Moabite, after the two places I call home— Brooklyn, New York, and Moab, Utah—which to me are part of the same nation only in name and only by the force of outmoded institutions. In each there are unities of language and custom, sure, but the fundamental interests of the citizens are not the same. My loyalties to each place will last as long the place lasts, but the fealty is local, my interest zoned within a hundred-mile radius and certainly not tied to the abstraction known as the national interest. “There is no national interest,” the historian Howard Zinn once said. Which brings me to the question of secession—the breaking-off of smaller countries from bigger countries. I am for it in the case of the United States. I am for it because I think we need to rejigger our loyalties to the needs of localities. And I am not alone in this thinking.
What happened in Chattanooga was an American moment, certainly, and not the least of its charms was the irony of the old Left of the North and the old Right of the South standing united in their opposition to the Union. The Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Newsday, The Washington Post, and USA Today carried the story, which traveled to newsrooms in Canada, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Belgium, and India, and thence to the ubiquity of eyes on YouTube, and across the airwaves of at least 50 radio stations that ran interviews with the leaders of the convention. By the evening of October 4, the convention had settled on a list of principles they called the Chattanooga Declaration. “The deepest questions of human liberty and government facing our time go beyond right and left, and in fact have made the old left-right split meaningless and dead,” said the declaration. “The privileges, monopolies, and powers that private corporations have won from government threaten everyone’s health, prosperity, and liberty, and have already killed American self-government by the people.” The answer, it went on, was that the American states ought to be “free and self-governing.” Two hundred and fifty years earlier, the Declaration of Independence asked for a similar dedication to self-governance: “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Indeed, it could be argued that secession is the primal American act, the founding event as old as the concept of the states themselves. What else did our founders accomplish in 1776 but secession from the tyranny of England?
Here’s how it will be with Vermont: The leaders of its secessionist movement, the Second Vermont Republic, want to feed, shelter, clothe, and fuel a free republic broken from the empire. This doesn’t mean the little country will sink into Albanian isolation, its citizens ceasing to trade with China or refusing to watch the rot beamed on DirecTV satellites. It will continue to be a tourist destination, its slopes welcoming New Yorkers and Quebecois equally. But the state’s secesh want to keep their tax dollars at home and put them toward localized food economies (calling it “food sovereignty”), energy supplies based on wind and water, and credit lines out of community lenders freed from the distant tyrannical rate controls of central banks.
One day two years ago, I heard Kirkpatrick Sale speak before 1,500 attendees at a meeting of the SVR. Sale, who has the build and mien of a terrier on methamphetamine, reasoned out the desire for separation from the behemoth. “It is intolerable,” he said, “for a citizen to succumb to a government that is in favor of unjust and unjustified warfare, brutal torture in defiance of all conventions, illegal detentions, the fostering of terrorism, war profiteering, sky-high trade deficits. … It is intolerable, I say, for a citizen to live under such a government, in such a country.”
“But,” Sale went on, “I have no intention of going to Canada, or France. I love my home, and I want to leave this country without leaving home. And the only way to do that, ladies and gentlemen, is … secession.” The crowd exploded, but gently. They were young and old, hippies and farmers, old Right and new Progressive, college educated and tenth-grade educated. The room where they gathered, the great hall of the Vermont State Legislature, was hung with purple velvet, and built of fine wood and marble, and smelled clean. The rebels were not of the type to shame the solemnity of the place.
As Sale slapped out his peroration at the podium, nearby sat the foremost organizer of the secessionist cause in Vermont, the softer-spoken but no less radical Thomas Naylor, 72, a former Duke University economist and social critic, co-author of the bitterly funny Affluenza, a diagnosis of the American consumerist condition as political pathology. Naylor, who knows his history, christened the movement under the title “Second Vermont Republic” because there was once a first Vermont republic—it was no mere colony or state—that ceded its independence and voted on March 4, 1791, to join the nascent American union. Each year, Naylor and his Second Vermonters like to memorialize the event by walking in a mock funeral procession through Montpelier playing a dirge and carrying a casket marked “Vermont.”
Now he took to the podium, looking tall, if a little aged, with white hair, and answered questions from skeptics who wondered if Vermont could indeed go it alone as a political and economic unit, or, more important, if perhaps the secession urge was just a hotheaded reaction to the injuries of the Bush administration. What Thomas Naylor will tell you in answer when you sit him down at his little house in the Vermont village of Charlotte—what he tells every crowd he addresses—is that the problem of the United States as it stands has no solution in the current framework….
“The nation is not sustainable,” Naylor tells me. He thinks the United States is a political and economic monster, stumbling and out of control, a land where bigness in all things has led to military overstretch, runaway debt, mass inequalities, and a government by and for the few. He draws a causal connection with the dire social effects on the ground: Of all the western democracies, the United States stands near dead last in voter turnout, last in health care, last in education, highest in homicide rates, mortality, STDs among juveniles, youth pregnancy, abortion, and divorce—a society which, in keeping with its degenerate morals, wreaks one-quarter of the environmental damage on the planet every day.
“It comes down to the problems of the human condition: separation, meaninglessness, powerlessness, fear of death,” he says. “The human condition is not being dealt with in the United States. It is our inability to deal with this human condition that leads to a sickness that I call affluenza.” Affluenza, he says, can be recognized by key symptoms: technomania and e-mania—obsession with technology and the Internet—rampant consumerism, megalomania, narcissism, “robotism,” and “affluenza’s concomitant: imperialism and national aggression.” Consumerism and megalomania and narcissism I get—I grew up in New York City. But “robotism”? As Naylor puts it, all Americans “watch the same TV programs, listen to the same radio programs, subscribe to the same political viewpoints”—the limited amplitude of opinion afforded in the two-party system—”claiming to be a country of individualists while in truth we are the nation of conformists.”
So what to do? “You can commit suicide,” offers Naylor. “You can deny the human condition through megalomania and the pathology of having, owning, possessing, which requires an empire that stomps around the planet stealing resources. Or you can say ‘hell no’ and rebel and confront the human condition and, as Camus says, die happy. Secession is fundamentally an act of rebellion driven by a combination of fear and anger and hope. It’s the ultimate destructive rejection of the system, the strongest possible way you can say to someone like George Bush, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ The creative element is Vermont. A state of small towns, small farms, small churches, small businesses—this is the alternative we’re offering to America.”
Here’s the way it is with Vermont: At the border with New York State, the billboards disappear. They just go, as if aliens had hoovered them away. Vermont, you see, is already a separate country. It is the most radical state in the Union in terms of the number and kind of town meetings—direct democracy in action. Its constitution of 1777 made it the first state to outlaw slavery, it was the first to mandate universal suffrage for all men, and is currently one of only two states that allow incarcerated felons to vote. It has no death penalty and virtually no gun-control laws, yet remains one of the least violent jurisdictions in America. It has no big cities, no big businesses, no military bases, no strategic resources, few military contractors. All three members of its Congressional delegation voted against the Iraq War resolution. It is rural and wild, with the highest percentage of unpaved roads in the nation. And those billboards? It was the first state to ban them along its roads. With its strict environmental-impact laws, Vermont fended off the predations of Wal-Mart superstores longer than any other state, and Montpelier today remains the only state capital in America without a McDonald’s restaurant. Economically, though, Vermont has the smallest gross state product. And the SVR concedes it is still unclear how secession would play out—legally, economically, and logistically.
The idea of it coming to pass in Vermont today is not entirely quixotic: Following mock secession debates during the 1990s in seven Vermont towns, all seven voted in favor of the idea. Statewide, this peculiar contrarianism would need to be harnessed in a legislative vote (the method employed by Confederate states in the 1861 secession), a popular referendum, or a constitutional convention. In each of these cases, a supermajority would be required. Vermont’s governor would then be empowered to present the state’s exit declaration to the U.S. secretary of state. As it stands, a 2007 poll found that just 13 percent of Vermonters say they would opt for it.
The movement’s detractors, of course, have a valid set of concerns, too. Some have expressed discomfort with conferences like the one in Chattanooga, seeing a dire development in the far Left working in tandem with the far Right….
Another concern is that the understanding of the U.S. Constitution today allows no other recourse but armed revolt for a state wishing to go its own way. “Secession is not possible today without violence,” Pauline Maier, a professor of American history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology…. “It’s to follow the example of the Southern secessionists who thought that they could just leave the Union peacefully, and, nuttier still, get a part of the unsettled territory as a parting gift. … Isn’t it time that Americans began learning something from history? Or must we again bleed ourselves into wisdom?”
In her 1936 book, Give Me Liberty, Rose Wilder Lane, [once] an avowed Leninist, described her travels to the Soviet Union, where she found that the workers “liberated” into the “communal” life of the state were pretty unhappy. One peasant she spoke to said of the new country: “It’s too big.… At the top, it is too small. It will not work.” History bore out the lowly peasant’s judgment, not Lenin’s.
George Kennan, the architect of Cold War containment and the national-security state that arose in answer to the Soviet Union, came to the same conclusion about the United States. “There is a real question,” Kennan warned, “as to whether bigness in a body politic is not an evil in itself.” Years later, when Thomas Naylor wrote to the old Cold Warrior outlining a New England secession uniting Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, Kennan personally responded with a letter dictated from his sickbed: “I write to say that in the idea of the three American states’ ultimate independence, whether separately or in union, I see nothing fanciful. [Such] are at present the dominating trends in the U.S. that I see no other means of ultimate preservation of cultural and societal values that will not only be endangered but eventually destroyed by an endlessly prolonged association … with the remainder of what is now the U.S.A.”
It was the stratagems of George Kennan, who died in 2005, that ultimately defeated the Soviet Union. Naylor sees this as historical irony, and he takes pleasure in drawing a dark comparison between the Soviet Union and the United States: There is the same far-flung geography. The same corporate socialism that defies free markets. The same spread of influence worldwide through violence, murder, and pillage. The same stunted public discourse. The same electoral sclerosis in the legislature (Congress is almost as stable in membership as the Politburo). “No one in the Soviet Union in 1960 or 1970 or even 1980 found it imaginable that someday it would collapse,” says Naylor. So, too, he says, is our certainty today in the stability of the United States of America.