The language of self-determination: independence vs. secession

catalonia-flagsAmerican political sensibilities certainly have their share of contradictions, but one of the more ingrained is the idea of “independence.”

On the one hand, there’s 1776 and all that — an enshrined principle of self-rule that has even found its way into the United Nations charter. Throughout much of the 20th century, the US championed independence and national self-determination everywhere, especially places and groups subjugated by major colonial powers.

On the other hand, it takes only brief exposure to the chronic wrangling over the Palestinians’ desire for their own state to realize that the American conception of “independence” is selectively applied, at best.

It would be useful to know more about what the basis for selection might be. We seemed to approve of the Orange Revolution, for example, without giving much thought to how benign the Ukranian state might be, and certainly without learning many particulars about what makes up the Ukranian sense of national identity.

Scotland, with its current bid for independence from the UK, is also likely to be finding favorable American opinion. They’re using the term “devolution” in this case, and it’s all very civil and proper, British style, with a referendum going before the Scots people next year, and the mother country willing to accept the outcome either way.

For other places in the world, Americans seem to be mostly indifferent to the compositional issues that continually bother multi-national states. Well, there’s Canada, with the Quebequois nation sitting in uncomfortable union with the larger Anglophone state, though with one foot perennially out the door. It’s right in the neighborhood, after all, and some Americans may even have given some thought, one way or the other, to Quebequois legitimacy.

Spain is another case. Unlike Britain, Spain has been taking a hard line with its restless nationalities — the Basques since practically forever, and more recently, the Catalans. For Spaniards, Basque partisans aren’t “freedom fighters,” but “terrorists.”

The Spanish central government eventually blocked a plebiscite for Basque independence in 2008 by a successful appeal to its constitutional court, and a similar move is now planned for defeating Catalonian independence when it comes to a vote next year. In Spain, independence is called “secession,” and it’s unconstitutional.

Other nationalities around Europe are in similar contention with the central governments of their ruling states: the Flemish in Belgium, the Corsicans in France, the Welsh in Britain, and Venetians and Sicilians in Italy. Other  independence movements in the rest of the world, which tend to be less polite than in Europe but every bit as serious, include the Kurds in Iraq, Abkhazians in Georgia, Moluccans in Indonesia, and the Tamil in Sri Lanka.

The usual response to such a list is to judge each case for its legitimacy: some bids for independence are deemed clearly authentic, some puzzling but probably okay, others just rabble making trouble.

The very terms we use are loaded with foregone conclusions about legitimacy: “independence,” “self-determination,” “devolution,” “cultural nationalism,” “separatism,” “secession,” and “rebellion” all refer to the same phenomenon, but each carries its own shade of bias.

We see the same range of bias echoed in “revolution” versus “civil war,” and “freedom fighter” versus “terrorist.” It all depends on who’s got a dog in the fight.

If this seems obvious enough so far, the next question may not be so clear-cut: what, exactly, is the “self” in “self-determination”? We refer to “a people” or “a nationality” as the entity that seeks political autonomy in these independence/separatist movements. It would be good to have some kind of operational definition that isn’t muddled by political boundary lines drawn on a map.

Geography comes into it, of course, in the sense of a cultural area or region. Culture and place tend to be closely bound. Regions are difficult to outline, though, so the edges tend to blur. Better to focus on the people who live there.

In many places, the inhabitants share a cultural complex of values and customs — manners, dress, cuisine, outlook, institutions, perhaps a distinct dialect or language — that they identify with, and that help secure their identity as a group.

In some places, the sense is strong, and often leads to a wish for the group to govern itself; in other places, the inhabitants may be just as distinct, but for whatever reasons are perfectly content to let the “host” state do the governing.

In lieu of extensive anthropological field work for each case, probably the most operational definition of “a people” is when a majority of the population in question says so.  The people of Veneto, for example, recently polled above 80% in favor of Venetian independence from Italy.

Readers who are following this line of argument so far will probably find the next step an uncomfortable leap, at least if they are Americans. Mere mention of regional self-determination here in the land of E Pluribus Unum is sure to trigger PTSD-like flashbacks to the events of 1861-1865.

Nervous dismissals of Rick Perry and Texas “secession” that paint the situation as merely the ranting of a silly right-wing crackpot are understandable enough. It works in his case, however, because he is in fact a silly right-wing crackpot, and a fantasy replay of Texas circa 1861 is as unresponsive to the underlying issues as it is unlikely.

Secession is still probably as poor a means for ending overextended dominion as it was the first time around. Washingtonian rule is still very well backed up by sufficient firepower to make that idea a non-starter.

The “S” word is altogether unproductive, and misleading at best. In Vermont, for example, there is a quite respectable independence movement that bears little resemblance to the crackpot demands of a conquered people hollering for a rematch.

The spectacle of Perry and his ilk, unfortunately, tends to obscure some structural issues that would be worth a visit by some well-considered public discourse. From what I can tell, these involve at least two factors that affect governance: cultural unity and effective scale.

It’s probably reasonable to assume, as a general principle, that a smaller, more homogenous group is more likely to get closer to a consensus more consistently than a larger, more heterogeneous group. The grand experiment that is the USA certainly tests the limits on both size and diversity.

We have a continent-sized state with central rule from a capital that is more than a thousand miles away from the majority of locations in its territory. There are many of the same problems of scale that faced ancient Rome.

It’s not just the number of miles to cover — though that is still an issue in the petroleum age, and will be even more so as the petroleum age winds down. It’s also about the number of different regions and cultures that such a large territory is bound to contain. In forming a federal union that consists of so many different cultures, we found it necessary to achieve cultural unity by simply declaring it: “Out of many, one.” Just to make sure, we declared it in Latin.

Although it’s not officially recognized as such, the USA is effectively a multi-national state, just as surely as Canada or India.

As a democracy, this union runs into further complications when trying to determine the public will about what shall be the law of the land. Each of the constituent cultures would have a pretty good internal consensus about the values and institutions that would be the law of their own land, but often, in order to have it so, they must get Washington to make it the law of the whole land — for all the constituent cultures, even if the values of the one conflict with those of the rest.

With many distinct regional cultures, the chances of irreconcilable conflicts in values and institutions are going to increase, just by the sheer numbers involved. We had our first such challenge in 1861, when the institution was slavery, the values were about caste, and the culture was Dixie.  Charleston found some allies in different regions with similar interests, including out-and-out marriages of convenience like Texas, and together they formed another multi-national, federated state.

Up to that point, it could be supposed that the idea of a “federal union” meant that participation was voluntary. By 1865, though, Washington had established unambiguously that such is not the case.

Obviously, Dixie was on the wrong side of the moral issues, and its leaders had a lot of awful ideas about how to run a society. Equally obviously, they didn’t have the same opinion, and a good many of them still don’t to this day.

Without expressing a shred of sympathy, though, we can still observe that the people of the the former Confederacy were brought under Union rule by force of arms. In every practical historical sense, they were conquered. That gives the FCSA a unique status among the people of America and in its politics.

Historically, a conquered people tends to resent it for generations. They don’t “get over it.” They find any number of ways, sly and otherwise, to make life inconvenient for the conqueror.

It seems likely, then, that Southern resentment accounts for much of the gridlock in Washington, particularly in light of the very credible argument that Republican “Conservative Revolution” culture has Southern culture at its heart, and certainly in most of its political base.

If so, there are probably a couple of factors operating together here. One would be simple uncooperativeness due to resentment of the conquered; the other, an effect of the large-scale, inter-regional competition for central-government favor — Dixie is different, and has some values that are going to conflict severely with those of many others, should they become the law of the land.

Since about 1990, Dixie’s minions have had sufficient power in Washington to grind it to a halt and, well, here we are.

One effect of the long term decline in abundant energy will be the necessity of organizing our affairs on smaller scales, closer to home. Politically, this would mean some devolution of autonomy to more regional and local entities.

To assume that the American federal union will continue in its present capacity is probably not a good strategy for successful adaptation. But there are plenty of peaceful, constitutional options for making more realistic governing arrangements, and these will probably have to be explored at some point in the not-too-distant future.

How we get from here to there is a huge question that’s still mostly taboo, even though it would serve our longer-term interests to give it some serious and creative consideration. It’s not hard to gain an appreciation of how regional self-determination operates in the rest of the world. Perhaps that understanding — along with the cautionary tale of a conquered Dixie — can help show the way forward.

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