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Secession and Patriotism

I rarely find myself in complete agreement with anything that comes out of the Obama administration. But I have to commend Jon Carson, the White House director of public engagement, for his thoughtful response to the petitions received from those asking that Texas and some other states be allowed to peacefully withdraw from the union. This is the sort of thing that can easily be dismissed as the domain of crackpots. Fortunately, only a tiny minority of Texans supports secession. Nevertheless, the ongoing debates about gun control and the debt ceiling have given a concept that deserved to be consigned to the dustbin of history some traction. And since 125,746 signatures were appended to the Texas petition, the White House was obligated to respond in some way. There are some on the right who are inclined to indulge secessionist fantasies as well as others who think such talk is an amusing way to jibe the current president. But those who read Carson’s low-key takedown of the idea will come away understanding that there is nothing funny about it.

As Carson writes, the courts and history have long since adjudicated the concept of secession by the states. No less a source than Abraham Lincoln can be cited to tell us that “in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.” Lincoln’s answer to the secessionists of his time, who launched a bloody war that left more than 600,000 Americans dead, was to point out that their effort was the antithesis of democracy. The same can be said of the ideas of the latter-day Lone Star republicans who no longer wish to be part of the same country run by Barack Obama. While some radicals may see this as a rational response to the policies of the administration, this is the sort of absurdity that deserves the most severe condemnation from conservatives who understand that any such talk is an irrational diversion of attention from vital debates on the great issues of the day.

One would think that 150 years after the Civil War it would be impossible for Americans to give even a moment’s serious thought to the merits of secession. The idea that the losers in a presidential election—such as southern advocates of slavery in 1860—could be justified in dissolving the union is contrary to the Constitution as well as to any sense of patriotism. In a democracy, those who are defeated in elections do not seek revenge via destruction of the country, they redouble their efforts to persuade the people of their mistake and look to come back to win the next time. Secession isn’t an expression of autonomy as much as it is a rejection of the system by which we use ballots rather than bullets to choose our leaders. Once you understand that, talk of Texas resuming its brief career as an independent republic stops being an interesting diversion and is seen, as it should be, as a noxious form of public discourse that should be shunned by patriotic Americans.

Extremism is not the exclusive preserve of the right. For the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, the left often acted as if there was nothing, no matter how outrageous, that could be said about the president, including jokes or films about his assassination, without censure. Since January 2009 some on the right have similarly sought to demonize Barack Obama. Far from advancing the fight against his agenda to expand the power of the federal government, extremist utterances and the related conspiracy theories have helped Obama stigmatize all his critics as extremists.

But the history of secession, associated as it is with the cause of slavery and the issues that were fortunately decided by the triumph of the Union, makes it particularly egregious and is therefore especially deserving of denunciation.

One should never throw words like treason around loosely since it has a specific definition that does not apply to offenses that fall short of “making war on the United States.” But the oaths of our public officials speak of preserving and defending the Constitution. Those who advocate the destruction of the union, even in the context of a form of political protest against the government of the day, are treading on very dangerous rhetorical ground. No responsible person, either in Texas or anywhere else, should be under the impression that this falls within the bounds of legitimate political discourse.

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