It’s time for America to get a divorce

Part one of a series.

This past week AlterNet published an interview with Chuck Thompson, author of Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern SecessionIn brief, Thompson argues that the United States has become two very different countries (or perhaps that it was always two very different countries) and that perhaps the time has come to shake hands and go our separate ways.

Thompson makes a compelling argument. Secession is a subject we here at S&R have engaged in the past, primarily within the context of the inequitable distribution of tax revenues (donor states vs. taker states), and it’s perhaps telling that so many of the smartest people I know – rational, clear-headed, educated, progressive-minded, deliberate thinkers all – are more than willing to entertain the idea. Sure, there are plenty of logistical concerns to be considered, but make no mistake – the “South’s gonna do it agin” crowd isn’t the only segment of the population that would be okay parting ways.

I encourage you to have a look at the Thompson interview. He remains relatively objective in explaining his conclusions and how he got there, and whether you’re an effete blue-blood northeastern librul intellectual, a shit-kickin’ Dale Earnhardt fan with the number three shaved in your back hair or, most likely, something in between, it’s just about impossible to ignore some basic facts.

As I see it:

  • we’re fractured and fragmented and polarized along a number of important dimensions,
  • the gap is getting worse, not better, and
  • there is no prospect for putting things back together.

Before I dive into this, let me offer a caveat. Yes, I’m generalizing. Broadly. Because we are a nation of more than 300 million people and 3,794,000 square miles, discussing “America” necessitates generalization. I am well aware of what Voltaire said on the subject (“Tous les generalizations sont faux, y compris celui ci”) and this conversation will certainly go more smoothly if you’ll acquaint yourself with Dr. Johnson’s verdict on the subject (“Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature”).

Specifically, what this means is that no, not all Southerners are ignorant, racist hillbillies. No, not all Northerners are fully enlightened higher souls with a foot on the path to Nirvana. Some of the best human beings I ever met are Southern and some of the worst members of our society have never set foot in the South. In crafting my generalizations, I’m trying to draw upon the best collective evidence we have at hand, so if your state (and here I’ll pick on my native state) has millions of noble progressives but recently voted in a controversial anti-gay measure by a better than 20% margin, I’m going to feel comfortable enough putting you in the red column based on the behavior of a clear voting majority. What this means for that 40% minority I’ll address in part two.

Also, this is not strictly a North/South issue – not all of the states that I think belong in a “Red confederacy” are Southern by a long shot. Three of them border Canada, in fact. I’ll be addressing these issues in greater detail in part two, and for now am merely trying to sort out the broad dynamics that I feel necessitate a partition.

Finally, I’ll apologize in advance if my tone seems condescending. I’m going to be addressing issues on which there is no compromise, however. If you feel I’m looking down my nose at you because you think racial minorities are a problem, for instance, that’s fine, because I am.

Now, without wasting a lot of time on what I think we all know, it seems uncontroversial to assert that America is a house divided on multiple fronts. Perhaps the most daunting has to do with religion. A significant portion of the populace believes that the Bible takes precedence over the Constitution and they adhere to a brutally reactionary reading of Christian history. Others focus on a progressive theology of social justice, and it’s important to understand that this liberal strain has far more common cause with the nation’s atheists, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews and neo-Pagans than it does with conservative Christians.

The correlations between religious philosophies and political-economic ideologies are extremely high. Religious conservatives support politicians and Darwinistic policies that favor slashing social programs, whereas the other end of the spectrum favors a politics of nurturance and collective holism. Oddly, as has been noted in several past S&R looks as the “donor state/taker state” phenomenon, the constituencies most unhappy with how federal monies “redistribute wealth” are those on the receiving end of the proposition.

Race is, and has been since the colonial era, perhaps our ugliest point of contention. We were founded as a nation that allowed for the ownership of blacks, and if you are unable to detect the persistence of racism in our political and social spheres today then I’m not sure there’s anything that anyone can do to help you.

I’ll go a step further at this point and argue that race is the single most important political, economic, cultural and social issue in America today. If you go back a few decades you arrive at a point where Democrats and Republicans differed on a variety of issues, but in terms of how these differences impacted public life it was the equivalent of “are you Rotarian or Kiwanis?” The wealthy paid substantially higher marginal tax rates that benefited the society in the form of strong public education, a robust infrastructure, a booming middle class and organized labor force driving the most powerful economy in the history of the planet, and so on. I’m sure they didn’t exactly like paying more in taxes – who does? – but it was part of a social contract that they understood was good for everyone, themselves included.

Then what happened? Ah. Yes. The civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson acknowledged that the Civil Rights Act was going to cost the Democrats the South for a generation. He underestimated by a generation and counting. Millions of whites fled for the GOP, which had by then begun to sense an opportunity, and each one who did made the switch because of racism. I grew up in just such a Southern working class family. Reagan’s mythological welfare queen? Willie Horton? The infamous hand in the Jesse Helms campaign ad that was taking away your hard-earned money? All black. All dog-whistles. This large, powerful voting bloc may have learned that it could no longer say “nigger” in public, but it could damned sure vote white when it pulled the curtain.

And on and on. Again, if you’ve been paying attention at all, you already know all of this.

I suggest above that it’s getting worse and there is no hope for putting the marriage back together. The first part of that equation seems too obvious to require discussion, but what about the second? Is there a way the US can survive and thrive as a union?

Some folks I know – actually, quite a lot of folks I know – argue that the battle is already won. Our worst, most reactionary, hateful elements are aging and dying off. The younger generations, especially the Millennials, are far more progressive, and even many of the conservative ones have no time for church-based hate campaigns based on race and sexuality. We have plenty of demographic evidence supporting this view and I do not discount it out of hand.

But…how long must we wait? And even in the best case scenario, how divided do we remain? I look around the political landscape and see more than enough powerful interests and willing enablers to keep us in turmoil for decades to come. So I’m not honestly sure I believe we can get there, at least anytime soon. No matter what, we’re still going to be significantly divided in ways that place tremendous strain on the political process. If we go our separate ways, both nations can stop spending billions on theological issues, for instance, and get straight to the task of developing policies that serve whatever the commonly agreed-upon interest is.

In other words, even if we can keep the marriage together, does it necessarily mean that we should?

One more issue: what about the independents? I’m describing the ends of the spectrum in this missive and paying not a lot of attention to the vast middle. And I don’t know that I’m worried about it. For starters, that middle hasn’t proven vast enough to effect an end to the polarizing influences I discuss above, has it? I also suspect that a good segment of that middle is actually more progressive than it pretends, but is generally disgusted by the Democratic Party proper. I know I am. Or it’s more conservative that it pretends to be, and will be well positioned to take care if itself whatever transpires.

Yes, even if we agree to separate, there remains a massive challenge around things like where to draw the lines. And yes, there are people on one side of the line who belong, politically and socially, on the other. That’s a subject for part two. Like a couple that was once madly in love but now crawls into bed every night with someone they hope dies in their sleep, step one is to simply agree that the marriage is over and we’re all going to be happier once we move on with our lives. We can work out custody arrangements and who gets the house later.

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10 thoughts on “It’s time for America to get a divorce”

  1. As someone who has looked into these issues in some depth, I agree completely. If there is a substantial portion of the population that wants to set up a Biblical republic with no environmental protection laws, where children learn that global warming and evolution are socialist plots, and where citizens will be required to carry concealed weapons in schools and churches, let them go. And then watch as they try to figure out how to pay for it, as well as the endless wars they seem to want to fight.

    Let’s just be careful not to give them nuclear weapons, so they don’t use them on us.

  2. I’m all for what I consider an appropriate generalization. They can be effectively polarizing, in the sense that all those to whom it doesn’t apply find themselves drawn into more sharply delineated camps. In this case, and correct me if I’m mistaken, you make a compelling argument that there’s no such thing as moderation in racism. Some may be offended in spite of your polite caveats, but for the life of me I won’t understand why. I think it’s largely a failure to paint with this broad brush that’s allowed the boil on the ass of America we call racism to fester for so long. It’s one of the few Us vs. Them divisions I’m comfortable with. Perhaps from a sociological perspective I might try to take the high road and sympathetically ask, “but how did those poor racists get that way? After all, they had to learn it from somewhere, right?” But, no. A solid no. A resounding fuck no. If some yahoo from any part of the world seriously thinks they are somehow better, somehow superior, somehow Special and Chosen based on the accident of birth that put them in the favored melanin pool, I’m of the opinion that it takes so much more than mere education to rectify their delusions as to make it impracticable. Maybe some live-action roleplaying of American History X would help, but that’s not exactly a program one can roll out.

    I’m Richmond, VA born, to Yankee stock, and my formative years were all in New Orleans. I’m not racist. Neither are my friends from that area. Yet I encountered incredibly ugly racism there from the time I was 4-5 years old.

    Sensitive souls, close your ears/eyes. No punches pulled here. PTSD/rape trauma sufferers: trigger alert.

    Case one: When I was a young child in the early 70’s, my parents frequented a local greasy spoon. There was a white waitress there (actually, zero black employees). She had a black boyfriend. That’s when I learned the word nigger-lover. When I met the guy, I refused to shake his hand. When he asked why, I bashfully answered, to my parents’ horror, “I don’t like the color of your skin.” Some of the local Klansmen petitioned the restaurant management to have her fired and talked loudly at the counter about burning a cross on her front lawn so she gets the message. Management didn’t fire her and eventually told those customers to cool it.

    Case two: at about age 11-12, an older, trusted acquaintance of my mother’s offered to take me on a ride to boonies on the Westbank as he had an errand to run and I could probably use an adventure. She agreed. I was game. While on the road, he regaled me with tales of how, when he was a kid in Mississippi, whenever they’d find some nigger bitch in the field, they’d “tear that pussy up.” Mom, I’m certain, had she known of this guy’s character, would never have let me near him, much less get in his truck.

    Her brand of Yankee racism was to have a token black friend, make a big deal that said friend was *actually* welcome in her home, and that it’s probably better if folks kept to their own. Many years later, she was rudely surprised when my girlfriend at the time had her dad come pick her up. The girlfriend was Creole (read: mulatto). Somehow Mom chalked that up to Latino, as though it mattered, but never mentioned that. When the gf’s dad showed up black as midnight, Mom had a hard time hiding the fact she was outraged, but managed to pull off a friendly greeting, saving the worst of her “how could you?” speech for me after he left.

    As for the old fucker, he’s long since deceased, and, if there’s a hell, hopefully enjoying its warmer climes. It was a great many years before I realized that he essentially confessed to serial rape…as though it were good, all-American fun.
    How I turned out anti-racist is beyond me.

    These many years later, I see the race/religion divide you describe and can only wonder how it is that there isn’t an equally massive, equally passionate, equally strident southern liberal opposition to that kind of hate. Maybe it’s oldschool southern gentility that causes our more enlightened Southerners to be reserved, but in the face of the kind of hate and violence bred down there, loud, raucous, constant, and unrelenting protest is called for. Yet *that* is absent. Calm, reasoned, passionate people meet, reason, and chip away at racism one tiny, hard-fought, always-resisted increment at a time, never mind Dr. King’s statement that the time for incrementalism is over.

    Does the North have its share? Oh, hell yeah. But coming as I do from that background, I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than a rancid continuation of the South’s “peculiar institution.”

    Kudos to the good folks down there (and everywhere) for fighting the good fight. just think it’s high time that they were radicalized just short of violent revolt in order to make the case clear that good, old-fashioned racism is no longer welcome on these shores.

  3. Just be very certain that you let everybody who wants to move do so before you make the change. I’m guessing that a large percentage of people in any major urban area will want to move out of the South.

  4. My initial impression is, “What about the children?” As a child growing up in the South, I’d have been doomed to live there all my life if there hadn’t been other places in the US to go. Secession would doom all the smart kids to a life of trying to make religious magic work when all the other countries are using science.

  5. This is a great argument, although I might argue that the invisible barriers we already have are nearly as bad as official borders. But one might also argue that there’s a third-world batshit with nukes waiting to happen there and the influence of the North, such as it is, is preventing disaster.

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