On Scotland and the Secession of American States

Sometimes I discover that my knee jerk reactions are contradictory. That's a good time to stop and reflect because, if one's knees jerk in different directions, one is likely to fall on one's face. As an American of Scottish descent (I'm a mutt, so I have as much Scottish blood as any other kind, but that's not saying much), my initial reaction to today's Scottish independence vote was to support it.

One of my best friends is Alaskan. He talks wistfully about Alaskan secession. I have some family in Texas who are not secessionists but defend their neighbors' views against Yankees like me who don't get it. In both cases, my gut reaction is to associate those views with the Confederacy and to view them as unpatriotic.

But why is Alaska any different from Scotland? Texas, like Scotland, was once independent. Why shouldn't it be allowed to do so again?

I don't know which way today's vote will go. If the people of Scotland decide it's just too risky, I completely understand. No one will negotiate oil rights in the North Sea with a country that isn't yet sovereign. The voters don't know what currency they will have. They don't know if they will become members of the EU. It could turn out very well for them, or it could be a disaster. I can empathize with those who don't want to take that risk.

But if I were a Scot, I'd vote for independence for the same reasons that slightly more or less than half of them did today. I'm more politically liberal than the people in my country, too. I am very concerned about growing income inequality in my own country, and I realize that the very elites who get to dictate public policy are the ones who benefit from it the most, so they are unlikely to take the kind of action necessary to rein it in. The idea of a place with the social safety net of Norway or Sweden, but where the people speak roughly the same language I do, but with a cooler accent, strikes me as a kind of paradise.

So I have to reconsider Alaska and Texas (and bits of North Dakota and Michigan's upper peninsula and probably some other pockets of the US with secessionist movements). In our country, I can't escape the knowledge that we fought a horrible war to preserve our union, a war secession certainly doesn't deserve. Scotland's example of an amicable divorce seems wonderful, but it's the exception rather than the rule.  Should we tolerate talk of secession in the US, where so many died to keep the Union together.

Upon reflection, I realize that the key difference between my tolerance for Scotland's desire for independence and the equivalent desire of the Confederate states in the US is that, while both Scots and 19th century Southerners see themselves as people preserving their culture by separating from a government that doesn't share their values, the Southern way of life that the Confederacy wanted to preserve was fundamentally built upon the institution of slavery. Certainly there were aspects of Southern culture which were different from tht of the North in other ways, but slavery infected every element of the economy, the art, the family life, and the polity of that region and the mercifully brief nation it birthed. Bearing that in mind, I think the calculous rightfully changes. The Northerners may not have intended to fight to preserve the Union because they were concerned with the issue of slavery (and they were far from free of the stain of racism themselves), but if an individual Northerner felt compelled to preserve the Union not because unity is a good in itself, but because the Union would obviate the existence of a nation built on the immoral foundation of slavery, then I take that soldier's side over a Southerner trying to preserve his cultural heritage regardless of the culture's dependence on such a fundamentally immoral institution.

I cannot be intellectually consistent if I support one group's right to self determination and reject another's. But I can regain that consistency if I support or reject secessionist movements based not on the desire to be independent itself but on the underlying motivation to do so.

Consequently, while I still reject the Confederacy's motivation to secede, I can support Scotland's, as long as I'm willing to reckon with Alaska's and Texas' motivations and evaluate them on the same terms. If Alaska wants to secede because it has a unique cultural identity it wants to preserve, or because it doesn't feel that its values can be represented by those of the nation as a whole, I can get behind that. If, on the other hand, they only want to secede so hey can over-fish their waters and "Drill, Baby, drill" until their oil reserves are depleted, then I think that's foolish. Similarly, if Texas finds itself to be far enough outside the cultural mainstream of the United States that it cannot bear to be a part of the United States anymore, then Texans can leave with my blessing and I don't think anyone should shed any blood to prevent them from doing so. If, on the other hand, the cultural values that distinguish them manifest as a desire to set up more stringent policies that encourage self-deportation (like preventing illegal immigrants from reporting crimes or workplace abuse), or passing personhood bills to criminalize Texan women's choices about their own birth control and family planning, or generally to push for lower and lower wage jobs to attract companies while harming their own Texan workers, ...in short, if Texans want to leave so they can be harder on their fellow Texan neighbors, then I think they can be judged quite harshly for the extraordinary lengths some Texans would go to just to make sure they can be as awful as possible to other people in their new, sovereign country, then I think Americans who share values like worker rights, women's rights, and basic human rights for those who have immigrated illegally should certainly stand up and say no to allowing such a country to form along our southern border.

Regardless of the underlying motivation to secede, it should have weight when it comes to assessing someone's patriotism. Secessionists might be the perfect representatives of their constituents interests in bodies like the Senate or the House, but they disqualify themselves from national offices where they will sometimes have to put the interests of people from other states before the interests of those in their own little aspiring country. After this vote in Scotland, should it fail, I think Scots should continue to take positions as MPs to represent Scottish interest in Parliament, but anyone who voted for independence from England should have a limited say in the day-to-day government work for the whole of the UK. Similarly, people like Rick Perry and Sarah Palin shouldn't even be considered for jobs in the White House since they have entertained ideas about secession in their home states. If you believe your part of the country would be better off as an independent nation, you shouldn't be trusted to care for the nation as a whole.

I hope that Scotland becomes its own country. I hope that Catalonia is given the same chance if that's what Catalans want. And if Alaskans and Texans want out for the same reasons, let them go, too.