Secessionist Scholars Gather in Charleston
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Feb. 5) — They could have been just another gaggle of tourists walking down Meeting Street, a typical enough sight among the cobblestone and historic homes of Charleston, S.C. But what they wanted to explore were not the guidebook-endorsed attractions of this old town — the Market, the Battery, Rainbow Row, the nearby plantations. Instead, they had come to the heart of the pre-Civil War South, the former center of the American slave trade, to discuss an idea that had once been all the rage among Charleston’s ruling class: the end of the United States as they knew it.
The 40 or so visitors, most of them men, all but one of them white, were attendees of the Eighth Abbeville Institute Scholar’s Conference, a four-day gabfest on the resurgent topics of state nullification and secession. At the conference, which runs through Sunday, a collection of scholars and lay folk will discuss what they see as the decided downsides to living in an imperial-minded, centralized-power-mad American Empire, one in which state’s rights, personal liberties and personal connections to the land and fellow man have all but vanished.
Shortly before the official start of the proceedings Thursday evening, the group left the Francis Marion Hotel, the site of the conference, and headed to the state historical society to view the South Carolina Secession Banner and the Ordinance of Secession, the document declaring the Palmetto State’s exit from the Union following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860.
Leading them was Donald Livingston, a professor of philosophy from Emory University and the founder of the Atlanta-based Abbeville Institute. The institute was named after Abbeville, S.C., the birthplace of John C. Calhoun, the former U.S. vice president and defender of slavery and advocate of secession. Nary a Confederate-flag accessory was to be seen on the group, though, and there’s a reason for that.
"Secession is for everybody," Livingston says.
Indeed, the intended message of the Abbeville conference is just that.
While there are certainly neo-confederates in attendance — such as Jim Hanks, the former head of the South Carolina branch of the League of the South — there are plenty of others who in no way are affiliated with those preoccupied with the Late Unpleasantness.
Take for instance conference speaker Yuri Maltsev, a professor of economics at Carthage College in "the People’s Republic of Wisconsin." Maltsev feels he knows the dangers of an over-extended and debt-ridden empire all too well: He was born and raised in the former Soviet Union.
"The Soviet Union was definitely ‘too big to fail,’" he said. "It had 11 time zones, one-sixth of the world’s surface. And it failed miserably. I think that what would be interesting to discuss is ‘too big not to fail’ because bigness is not necessarily a good thing. Bigness in many cases leads to excessive centralization, depriving people of their liberty.
"We have a government that is spending like a drunken sailor," Maltsev added. "This is a slander against a drunken sailor because he spends his own money."
The specter of a heavily centralized national government also troubles Kirkpatrick Sale, a left-leaning scholar, neo-Luddite and founder of the Middlebury Institute, a pro-secessionist think tank in Vermont. Sale is also a member of the Second Vermont Republic, a group that hopes to one day return its state to its former status as an independent nation. For him, it’s no surprise that the conference attendees would include those on the both sides of the ideological spectrum.
"There has always been a part of the left that has been anti-authoritarian and decentralist," Sale says. "And then there are anti-authoritarians on the other side. Ayn Randian types, Paulists types. But that’s the guiding principle: the anti-authoritarian impulse."
Of course, the presence of men like Sale and Maltsev will do little to persuade some from declaring that the conference and its attendees have merely opted for a more-erudite, better-mannered white power movement. Livingston himself is a former member of the League of the South, which has drawn accusations of racism from groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, and the Abbeville Institute’s Web site quotes a historian decrying the ignored "achievements of white people in the South."
The racism question has been a divisive (if perhaps inevitable) one for the secessionist movement. In 2008, Thomas Naylor, the head of the Second Vermont Republic, dropped his earlier measured alliance with the League and called on it to disassociate itself from hate groups. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Naylor wrote, "[s]o long as the albatross of racism hangs around its neck, the LOS can never be a truly effective partner for SVR," adding that the Second Vermont Republic "risks being tainted by the scourge of racism simply by associating with the LOS."
That risk would appear to extend to the scholars at the Abbeville conference, but at least one attendee had resigned himself to that. "Unfortunately, and no pun intended, we’re going to get tarred with that brush anyway," said Stephen Heiner, an Asian-American MBA student who had traveled to Charleston for the weekend’s festivities. He added: "From everything that I have seen, I have never had the sense from any of the events that I attended that I’m with a bunch of people that hate other races."
For evidence of secessionism’s mainstream potential, he pointed to the overlap he discerns between its philosophical underpinnings and those of another crowd experiencing momentum of late: "buy local" consumers. "As we see government expand more and more these days — OK, we’re going to pay for everybody’s health care, we’re going to pay for all the bankers to holiday in Switzerland, and everyone has to pay for it — people are looking more to local things," Heiner said.
Still, Heiner believes that any moves toward actual secession are a long way off. People may be suffering today, but just not enough to make that happen, he says.
"They’re going to have to get a whole lot worse before secession is viable. Because you have to have pain to look at a political solution like that."
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