September 11, 2011

The Disunited States

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“Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of.” Phil Ochs sang that back in 1965, and it’s still fairly shocking. From a modern vantage point, the idea of a single state splitting off from the United States seems absurd. People of my generation, who came of age in a period during which the United States held a position of unparalleled dominance on the world stage, grew up believing that the USA was eternal and invulnerable. In elementary school, I pledged allegiance to a flag with fifty stars, one for each state, and it seemed to me like that was how it always was and how it always would be. Even when I grew a bit older and became a bit more aware of the historical and political realities that brought all these states together in the first place, there was always a feeling in the back of my mind that they were meant to be together.

And yet the idea of the United States becoming disunited has been a recurring and virulent theme in American politics since the nation’s beginning. After the Revolutionary War, the fledgling U.S. government had to put down several secession movements started by people chafing under even light governmental rule. A few years later, during the War of 1812, a group of New England Federalists proposed secession at the Hartford Convention, worried that the war was hurting their commercial relations with England. The topic has become somewhat more taboo since the Civil War, a secession crisis that resulted in the deaths of over 600,000 people. But every once and a while, usually at times of great social division and upheaval, certain people will once again begin whispering about secession (or more accurately, about escaping political disagreement — the mindset is never “let’s start our own” but always “let’s get away from the bad elements”). It happened in the ’60s, and it’s happening now.

As much as I’ve internalized the idea of the United States as an inviolable entity, I’d be lying if I didn’t see the appeal in this. After all, there are certainly times when I don’t feel like I’m in the same country as people in Los Angeles or Tulsa or Tallahassee or Westchester.

But here’s the thing: I used to live in Tucson, Arizona. Its population is a diverse mix of Mexican immigrants, good old-fashioned cowboys (I remember on more than one occasion seeing people with large sidearms strapped to their belts shopping at Safeway — wary of attack by bandits in the bread aisle, perhaps?) and sun-damaged hippies taking refuge from California. Tucson, in recent years, has been host to its own secession movement, since its predominately liberal population wants little to do with Arizona’s increasingly right-wing government. Then I moved to New York City, which is a diverse mix of, well, pretty much everyone. New York City has also been home to various secession movements: from its Confederate-sympathizing mayor Fernando Wood attempting to split the city off from the rest of the nation as a southern-allied city-state known as the “Free City of Tri-Insula,” to more recent movements advocating the city’s secession in order to avoid paying state taxes. And yet, when I moved across the country from Tucson to New York, while I did feel like I was going someplace radically different, I didn’t feel like I was going to a different country. I was still in the USA, even though I had traveled between places that, to an observer with no knowledge of national boundaries, would seem thoroughly unlike each other.

The obvious thing to conclude here would be that there is some innate quality of “American-ness” that unites us all and keeps us from splitting off and founding our own little kingdoms. And I’d say this quality exists, though it isn’t something uniquely American: People are united by their ability to recognize and benefit from the differences between themselves and others. Except in cases where a national government is oppressing its population and this population needs its independence, partitioning each other off with arbitrary national boundaries is not going to help anyone. It will only promote intellectual stagnation. So as much as the cultures of some states seem totally alien from my experiences and values, I still sort of regard them as family members, albeit family members with whom the conversation is going to be a bit jarring next Thanksgiving.

Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner