Secession Cocktail: Mint Julep with Maple Syrup

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secede.JPGIn his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, President Obama declared:

[W]ars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations.  The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos.  In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.

Whatever you think about the prize or Obama's war policies, it is hard to argue with this point. On Saturday morning alone, I read in the New York Times of unrest in southern Sudan on the eve of an independence vote, protests in India over the creation of a new state, and the constitutional court of Turkey's suppression of a Kurdish party for supposed ties with separatist rebels. Meanwhile, with less U.S. media publicity, testimony for and against recognition of Kosovo's independence ended at the International Court of Justice, and the Weekly Standard sees the bright side of Flemish separatism (thanks to aldaily.com). Since then, demonstrations in India have escalated; there's good historical background on that nation's unique federalism.

Breaking up is on the minds of some Americans, too, and not only the Alaskans we read about during the 2008 campaign. The Chronicle of Higher Education has just spotlighted a less familiar society of academic Southern traditionalists. The 64-member Abbeville Institute, founded in 2003 by the Emory University philosophy professor Donald W. Livingston and named for the original home of the statesman and political theorist John C. Calhoun, is about to hold a public conference on two of Calhoun's own themes, secession and nullification. And the speaker list leaves little doubt about what side they're on.

Among the speakers are the professed neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale and the emeritus economics professor Thomas Naylor, advocates of the Second Vermont Republic, a movement admiring the New England secessionism of the early nineteenth century.

The Vermont separatists don't tell the full story of New England intellectuals and secession. Take Yale President Timothy Dwight, John C. Calhoun's mentor. The Web site Yale, Slavery & Abolition quotes him on separation (and justifying slavery):

The evils of disunion would be so great, that nothing like an advantage which appears to be promised by it, is worthy of a moment's regard. Dissolution would involve so many calamities, that it would be childish to weigh it against a few questions of local interest, which are as nothing when put in contrast to it.

And Abbeville's hero, Calhoun himself, began his political life as a nationalist, and turned to nullification and secession ideas only beginning in the late 1820s.

The Abbeville conference still is a good thing, because it focuses attention on a growing and--on balance--disturbing trend. But the issue is a complex one involving environment and security issues as well as political theory; look especially at the map on the Georgia-South Ossetia conflict. Secession is too important a subject to be left to the secessionists.

Photo Credit: Flickr User sylvester75117

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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