Localism with Teeth

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“I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing one another by argument.  I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another.” –Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph

“Anyone who observed us would conclude the purpose of all academic discussion was to provide the grounds for becoming further entrenched in our original positions.”  –Richard Russo, Straight Man

Somewhere south of Hell for Certain Creek, Lee County, Kentucky. Whew, my friends, it’s an unseasonably warm November afternoon down here in the woods, and warm weather always lends itself to plain English and other incendiaries.  And so it is that I want to talk about secession, or least to talk about talking about secession.

Which is funny, because unlike other contributors here I’ve never been greatly occupied by the topic, other than as a matter of painful historical interest.  Though I wish a general “good luck” to groups such as the Second Vermont Republic and the Southern National Congress, I’d be surprised to find North or South that they have much of a constituency, and I know they don’t have a prayer.  We live in an Age of Iron, though we ourselves are as soft and heavy as lead.  And North or South we are too strongly latched onto the federal teat to have any lip left with which to argue full-strength local independence.

Better to spend my time on something small but possible, like reforming health regulations so Kentucky farmers can better make a living.  That’s less inspiring or less infuriating, depending on your point of view, and will elicit a gargantuan yawn at many desks, but it’s the sort of thing you can lobby your state legislature for and maybe get.  Maybe.

And yet–because secession has proved to be a sore tooth here at FPR, I find myself unable to stop probing the place with my tongue.  I’m unlikely to relieve the soreness, and I don’t expect to change anybody’s mind, but I can at least clarify matters in my own.

On this site we talk a lot about subsidiarity and localism.  Those are the terms we prefer to use when discussing the idea that the federal government shouldn’t do what a state, county, city or town can and ought to do.  “Localism” is a fuzzy term, and it can have non-political meanings—the “Buy Local” bumper stickers argue for stronger community life outside of any regulation—but as this is a site heavy on political theory, “localism” often means local political sovereignty here.

The word the founders used, “federalism,” is largely out of favor at FPR for reasons I don’t know, but that’s the old American term for what we are talking about.  “States’ rights” is another, but few people find it palatable anymore, not because of its original meaning of federalism at the state level, but because they read it as code for slavery and segregation.  Even the Southern National Congress mentioned above, willing as they were to call for the withdrawal from the federal government by Southern states at a meeting held in Alabama, carefully avoided both the terms “states’ rights” and “secession.”

Nevertheless, when some good people at this site read that Alabama compact, in an FPR post by Kirkpatrick Sale that went up and then down in September, what they heard was the language of states’ rights and secession—which, in the context of a piece on a Southern group, would likely be read as code words for racial peonage and prejudice.  They were right about all of that:  secession and states’ rights are precisely what that compact is about, and flak in the responses section, from readers who either hate black people or hate white Southerners, was likely.

But I disagree that the rock-throwing that passes for much of public discourse these days means secession and states’ rights—even in the South—are subjects we can’t honorably and (with some editorial effort) peaceably discuss.  As many readers know, Mr. Sale had discussed secession before on this site, and Bill Kauffman is writing a book on the subject.  The principles underlying states’ rights and secession are ideas many writers here sympathize with.  And as “localists,” we can’t separate ourselves from association with these terms.  This is particularly true of “states’ rights.”  What else do we mean when we talk about greater local autonomy and power, but states’ rights?  What is subsidiarity, but the moral argument for the devolved power of states’ rights?  What is federalism?  We can avoid certain terms, in preference for others with less baggage, but we can’t avoid their meaning when their meaning is our own.

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