Over the past year we have seen an increase in public sentiment supporting secession as a viable mode of political action in the South, with recent examples in a letter to The Times outlining the constitutional legality of states’ rights and in an article about the more public stance of the secession focused Abbeville Institute in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
This upswing in affinity for regional separation warrants a closer look at the idea. One may dismiss the proponents of separation as lunatics, but dismissal of such people is careless, for those on the political fringes are often the most committed and forceful.
To understand why the issue is so loaded, it is worth noting the two historical periods most closely associated with secessionist sentiment and rhetoric in the South: the period immediately preceding the American Civil War and the era of the Civil Rights Movement.
It should then come as no surprise to today’s proponents of Southern sovereignty that they are quickly associated with racial politics, for history has on both occasions linked Southern regional affinity with ethnic antipathy.
Although I am open to more uplifting explanations, my suspicion is that the increase in separatist sentiment is because we have a president of black and white descent. Nevertheless, it remains that separatist fantasies still pollute the Southern mind and must be grappled with.
With more than 200 years to consider the regional question, theories to explain the original Confederate secession abound, but can be simplified into three broad categories. One camp can be called the proponents of states’ rights. Its members usually offer vague, obscure notions of exactly what rights were not respected under the original republic, and thus avoid stating the obvious, the states’ rights to own slaves.
A second camp believes the true motive to be a commercial power grab by Northern industrial interests, who enlisted the federal government to effect the annexation and consequently increased the power of the central authority.
A third faction believes Abraham Lincoln to be the true villain. Hell-bent on expanding his dominion, he moved swiftly to the use of force, and turned the military of the republic into his personal army. I suspect the truth is that some mix of these forces caused the inevitable conflict and the destruction that resulted, but regardless of its origins, the devastation wrought by the war is not in dispute.
What is in dispute is whether secession would bring a different result now. The hard fact is that a sovereign regional government is unworkable. The South is now fully invested in the industrial consumer society, where our way of life revolves around commerce.
The South today competes for factories with Korea and Japan. And we regard it as a near sacred right to drive our trucks (often made in Alabama) to Walmart and stock up on cheap stuff. The political instability and conflict inevitable in regional separation would have an immediate impact on the industrial river of wealth that now flows through the region.
Secondly, the decline in public education and political thought leaves serious doubt that any improvements on the current federal system can be made. The political mind combines a historical sense, a thorough understanding of diverse political systems, a capacity for efficient administration, and a certain genius for the application and management of power. All of these faculties are neglected by our academies today. And it would require an entire young generation of well equipped political minds to create a viable regional alternative to the federal system we currently have.
The last obstacle to innovation and regional separation is the primitive tribal mentality that perpetuates one-party rule. We suffered generations of corrupt democrats here until Nixon split the region by appealing to Southern racists. After a brief period of turmoil we are now ruled by a different party, but as recent scandal in Georgia shows, endemic corruption and incompetency remain.
What’s more, such a narrow concept of political power inspires no one. After all, how would petty corruption and vested regional interests improve the current conditions of a public life dominated by internationally invested commercial interests and federal corruption?
What is most inspiring about the South is in fact not its distant past but its recent achievement of peaceful desegregation. Regional pride must not remain divided along racial lines, with one side championing a fraudulent plantation mythology of social order and the other lionizing the noble struggle against an evil oppressor.
Our greatest achievement is the peaceful transition from a divisive apartheid system to an integrated community. Since both sides made the transition possible it can be collectively celebrated, for it is truly a marvel of the world.
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and Northeast Georgia resident. His columns appear regularly.