Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lee Siegel secedes from reality


SOMETIMES FOR a writer, it’s all just too much. The protracted stasis from Capitol Hill, the inability (or the unwillingness) of lawmakers to get things done bubbles over in frustration and outrage. When writers get mad, sometimes madness gets into writers. The author and cultural critic Lee Siegel understands this, on purpose or by accident.

Apparently still smarting from the rash of post-election petitions from people in several states wanting to secede from the United States, Siegel wrote an essay in The Daily Beast on Tuesday, effectively calling the question: If they want to leave, why don’t we let ‘em go?

In a piece that’s by turns reasoned and ridiculous, Siegel gives full vent to his frustrations with “a solid block of Southern states” he blames for every current American ill. But in his attempt to fix the source of the national malaise, he overlooks much of what would make his plan practically unworkable. The political geography isn’t as clear-cut as he thinks.

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“The sad truth is that ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ can only be achieved at this point if the nation is split in half,” Siegel writes. “Far from being fanciful or fanatical, the proponents of secession have a stronger grasp of political reality than just about anyone else. In fact, there are serious reasons why the North itself should take the lead in a secessionist movement.

“Just think what America would look like without its mostly Southern states. (We could retain ‘America’: they could call themselves ‘Smith & Wesson’ or ‘Coca-Cola’ or something like that.) Universal health care. No guns. Strong unions. A humane minimum wage. A humane immigration policy. High revenues from a fair tax structure. A massive public-works program. Legal gay marriage. A ban on carbon emissions. Electric cars. Stronger workplace protections. Extended family leave from work in case of pregnancy or illness. Longer unemployment benefits. In short, a society on a par with most of the rest of the industrialized world — a place whose politics have finally caught up with its social and economic realities.”

Siegel’s vision of this new nation conceived in vitriol is at times thunderously comic: “The red-state nation, giddy with new mobility, could make the 1958 Chevy its official car, and use the cutting-edge resources of cable television and the Internet to broadcast postwar situation comedies 24 hours a day. It could arm all of its citizens, and thus relieve itself of the financial burden of maintaining law-enforcement agencies. And without any type of regulation, it could finally compete with similarly unhampered societies all over the world.”

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AT OTHER times, he’s just pessimistic. Siegel says “we are stuck living in an America whose politics hang suspended somewhere in the 1850s, when the almost symmetrical divide in the country kept one half of it mired in a barbaric system of slavery — itself rooted in ancient customs and conventions—and the other half moving quickly, along scientific and technological lines, into the modern era. ... the country is still as neatly divided as quinoa pilaf with mushrooms on one side and roasted pork belly on the other, and will continue to be.

“The presidency will swing one way and Congress — then, or two years later — will swing another. No matter the current state of the Republican Party, the iron law of “throw the bums out” will kick in, and the outsiders will once again have the White House. And still nothing will have changed. ...

“May I, with the subtlety of cannonballs falling upon Fort Sumter, suggest that we stop using the anodyne categories of red and blue, and start calling the two sides ‘Confederate’ and ‘Union,’ which is what they really are?”

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No doubt about it, Siegel’s dystopian conjuring is passionate and provocative; it also invokes a geographical convenience that today’s political reality thoroughly contradicts. His real beef isn’t with the states themselves; it’s with the politics that history and the collective regional culture have embedded in those states. In the American South of our lifetimes, that politics has been Republican, more often than not.

When you consider that, you have to ask the obvious question: Where, exactly, in Siegel’s political cosmology does the “South” begin? Let the South secede? What do we do about Arizona and Utah, North and South Dakota — states that aren't in the geographic orbit of the South, but are run by Republican governors obliged to uphold the Republican principles that define the Southern states?

Strong unions? Stronger workplace protections? Wisconsin’s nowhere near the South, but Gov. Scott Walker signed a law intended to curtail unions and workers’ rights in a state with a long and powerful history of championing labor reforms. A humane immigration policy? Arizona wasn’t listening. We can thank Gov. Jan Brewer and the state legislature for a law that effectively profiles Latinos on sight, and does so a long way from the Southern states.

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LEGAL GAY marriage? What about California? Not that long ago, the sun-kissed bastion of the lefties elected a Republican governor. Then, to make sure nobody thought it was a mistake, they turned around and elected him again. For all the purported progressive values the Golden State espouses, the Bear Flag state is still lagging in its historical bellwether status on matters of gender equality.

Cali’s run by a Democratic governor now, but what happens if they flip back to a Republican leader? It could happen: In the last 45 years, as many Republican governors have occupied the statehouse in Sacramento as Democrats.

California passed Proposition 8 in November 2008, eliminating the rights of same-sex couples to get married. It’s still on the books today. Does that mean California should secede too, on the basis of its legislative fidelity (on this issue) to the southern states Siegel’s willing to cast adrift?

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All of this points to the primary fallacy in Siegel’s thinking. As convenient as it would be to ascribe a particular way of thinking to a particular geographic region of the country, the fact is, the problem is wider than that. As any number of states west and north of the Mason-Dixon Line have shown in recent decades, and certainly since Barack Obama’s election as president, the “South” is bigger than the South.

At this point in our political culture, and with the gridlock on Capitol Hill as evidence, it’s clear that, legislatively and culturally, the South is not so much a confederation of states as it is a state of mind — a way of thinking that slipped the easy boundaries of state lines a long time ago.

Separating the United States from the southern states with some kind of emancipation chainsaw is a tantalizing idea that owes a lot to the persistence of history. We might as well try to separate American history from America itself.

Image credits: Lee Siegel: via nytimes.com. The Daily Beast logo: © 2013 The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC.

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