To Succeed, Must We Secede?
The morning after George W. Bush's re-election, I became a secessionist. It's a matter of instantaneous revelation, like looking at the face of God. All of a sudden, I see the solution to all the irreconcilable differences that have divided the nation: We need a constitutional divorce. And where better to start than here at home? So I begin to riff on running for governor on a secession ticket. I'll be a single-issue candidate, a referendum in human form. Even Governor Arnold, I joke, will secretly support me, for California will be a nation of the foreign born of which he could eventually be president. I may not like Arnold, but one of the few bright spots on the political landscape is how, in the last year, he's had to govern as a moderate, pushing for stringent environmental standards, as well as a sweeping stem-cell research initiative that stands in direct opposition to the faith-based policies of his president. Anyway, if I'm going to spearhead a secession movement, I need all the support I can get. My resolve only strengthens when, a few days later, I pick up my son at a birthday party and one of the moms there mentions that she thinks we should secede. She's smart, this woman, sharp and witty and political, but she's always struck me as practical also, which gives her comment added resonance. "That's funny," I say. "I've been thinking the same thing." We talk about statistics, about how California has the fifth largest economy on the planet a Gross State Product of $1.4 trillion, more than Italy, France or Brazil. We talk about our population, which is bigger than Canada's, our ethnic and cultural diversity, the way we reflect a changing world. We talk about our history of progressive politics, from Llano to Upton Sinclair's 1934 End Poverty in California campaign to the free speech movement to gay rights. But most of all, we talk about a feeling, how the balance has shifted, how there seems to be no place for us anymore. It's an emotion I can't quite articulate, until a few days later, when someone I know sends me the following e-mail: "It's their country, I wrote to a friend Wednesday morning, expressing my feeling of statelessness. She countered with an idea that cheered me: California is our country, she said." Of course, the idea of California as its own country is as old as the idea of California itself. As early as 1822, we split off from an increasingly fractured Spanish empire to join newly independent Mexico. Twenty-four years later, American settlers captured the presidio in Sonoma and declared California a sovereign nation, the Bear Flag Republic celebrated on our flag. The Republic may have lasted only a month (although it wasn't until 1848 that we were annexed by the U.S.), but it offers an angle of perspective, a psychological creation myth. California's independence, after all, differentiates it from the rest of the union; of the other 49 states, only Texas was a nation of its own. Interestingly, the independence theme continues to appear in literature: William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's novel The Difference Engine posits an alternate 19th century in which the California Republic flourished, while Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia imagines a green utopia carved out of Northern California, Oregon and Washington. Callenbach's fiction may even have a historical precedent, for in the late 1920s, a small region along the California-Oregon border sought to secede from the United States and become an independent country called Jefferson. Identity aside, California has plenty of reasons to rethink its relationship to the federal government. "In 2002," claims a California Institute for Federal Policy Research report, "Californians sent in excess of $58 billion more to Washington in federal taxes than the state received back in federal spending." Like all statistics, such numbers can appear circumstantial or conspiratorial, depending on your perspective. "Our incomes are above average," says Tim Ransdell, the institute's director, "so we pay a higher percentage of income tax, and because we're a young state we have the sixth lowest percentage of population over 65 we get less money for Social Security and Medicare." Either way, it puts the lie to the notion that we're out of step with America, since it's America we support. As for politics, the Tax Foundation notes that 11 of 14 states "receiving the least federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid" are blue states, while 17 of 20 states "receiving the most federal spending per dollar of federal taxes paid" are red. Considering that the country's highest divorce rates are in Bush states (Nevada, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Wyoming, Indiana, Alabama, Idaho, New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, Kentucky) the lowest, ironically, is in Massachusetts, home of John Kerry and gay marriage we are looking at a new demographic, where the traditional values argument falls apart. "California people, California values," declares the Web site of Move On California, which launched six days after the election to encourage secession debate. "The only boundaries are in your mind." Yet here's the thing about secession: The more I think about it, the more it feels like a capitulation, like walking away from a necessary fight. (There are other issues, starting with the fact that states have no constitutional right to leave the Union, but let's set those aside for now.) Partly, this has to do with my desire for confrontation I don't want to turn my back on the red states; I want to battle it out. Even more, it gets at the essence of patriotism and identity or my sense of what they mean. For me, such values come loaded: I wince when I see the flag wave from a car window, and I sit out the National Anthem at baseball games. But that's not because I stand against America, just those who have corrupted our most basic symbols and ideals. No, I love America, love that tolerance is written into the law here, love the notion that democracy is something you have to work at, that it's a process as opposed to set in stone. I love being part of a lineage that goes back to Thomas Paine and John Peter Zenger, and includes Eugene V. Debs, Jack Kerouac and Martin Luther King Jr. This is not a statement I make easily; I'm too mad, at Republicans and Democrats, at the voters who cast their lot against gay marriage and for a misbegotten war. I'm not interested in church especially not as a place for politics and I don't trust anyone who says, Besides, if it's change we're after, we can create more from the inside than we ever could by breaking away. As for how, I get an inkling from Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and as astute a thinker as we have. California, Solnit says, is already independent, if only philosophically. As evidence, she cites the conservation movement, which got its start in the 1890s with the founding of the Sierra Club, then mentions bioregionalism, noting that, when Mendocino outlaws the growing of genetically engineered food, it starts a ripple effect nationwide. She argues that electoral politics are just one part of the dynamic, and that we must push for change from the bottom up. I'm not sure I agree, completely at least not about electoral politics but over the long term, I think she has a point. It's true: California does help set policy, albeit in an indirect sense. Our stem-cell research will draw scientists from all over the U.S., and what they learn here will seep back into society at large. Our emissions standards will become, by necessity, national standards, if only because we buy so many cars. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, California will continue to be a haven for safe abortions, because of the Reproductive Privacy Act. We are, in other words, setting an agenda, one that cannot help but influence the rest of the United States. So reluctantly, I leave off my gubernatorial ambitions and resign myself to four more years. I think about traditional forms of protest, like not paying my taxes, or organizing my neighborhood. History, I console myself, is cyclical, and millions of kids growing up in red states will be ripe for rebellion, if we can wait until they come of age. After all, there are many ways to fight a revolution. Or, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in response to the Sedition Act: "A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true sight, restore their government to its true principles."?
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