THE BLOG

The Dark Reality of Secession Fantasy

11/19/2012 05:57 pm ET | Updated Jan 19, 2013

You would think, reading the plaintive petitions of secessionists, that they were an embattled minority saving the last vestiges of America -- and, by extension, the English language -- from imminent extinction.

Sure, by last Friday morning there were just 863,000 or so signatories -- around 0.27 percent of the population -- on petitions from all fifty states. Research by Neil Caren, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina suggests that there are closer to 300,000 actual individuals, with many signing multiple petitions.

But, while small in number, petitioners almost certainly belong to a majority demographic. Caren's data shows petition signers as predominantly male; it is a fair punt that they are mostly white and speakers of English. It's perhaps easy to dismiss petitioners as fringe cranks wearing three-cornered tin-foil hats. Perturbingly, however, the undercurrents of American secessionist movements run deeper.

Separatist movements worldwide are usually smaller populations who, for one (usually bloody) reason or another, have been annexed by a larger nation. They seek to forge distinct political and cultural identities: to be Welsh or Quebecois, for example, and not British or Canadian.

Language is a potent catalyst for the crystallization of these identities. Separatist movements often coalesce around protecting a distinct minority language, such as Breton or Taiwanese, from a more powerful one, such as French or Mandarin. Having a common language is almost the litmus test for whether separatists have a prima facie case for recognition.

The curious aspect of U.S. state secession is that the agitation is not to become more Floridian, Tennessean, or Alabamian. Instead, secessionists define their states as more American than America itself. By seceding, they wish to preserve America against the encroachment of, well, America.

Couched in the Cold War paranoia of Texan movement leader Daniel Miller -- who believes the majority of U.S. states "esteem the principles of Karl Marx" -- is the subtext that secessionists are dissatisfied with a democratic process that reelected a black president. By extension, President Obama's popularity among ethnic minorities and socio-economically disadvantaged groups reinforces the bunker mentality. Secessionists seem to view themselves as the only sector of society who can deservedly call themselves "American."

It's not been made explicit what the emblematic language -- if any -- of American secessionists might be. A good guess, however, would be English. An unashamed link between American-ness and English was made by former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, during the opening speech of the Tea Party's 2010 convention:

People who could not spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama.

Tancredo's attitude appears to be that simply being a citizen and voting is not enough to be American. Instead, it requires homogenization toward the dominant language and culture, as well as voting "correctly": hardly the epitome of liberty, democracy and rights.

Secessionists and the Tea Party are not necessarily coterminous, but their political positions seem closely aligned. In right-wing discourses, including that of the Tea Party more broadly, the majority language -- like the majority demographic -- is falsely portrayed as being under attack. According to U.S. Census data, just 19.6 percent of the population speak a "language other than English at home"; less than half of those -- 8.6 percent -- report speaking English "less than very well".

Census data can be tricky regarding language -- people tend to over-report English ability precisely because of attitudes like Tancredo's -- but the picture is broadly accurate. As the linguist Geoffrey Pullum quipped, making English the official language of the U.S. is "about as urgently called for as making hotdogs the official food at baseball games." But language is a convenient cipher for bigotry which would be unacceptable if cast in other terms.

Various groups worldwide have quite legitimate separatist claims due to historical experiences of colonization, exploitation and domination. Carefully managed, separatism can be a productive force in liberating minority groups from the clutches of oppressive, and more muscular, regimes. But, by definition, U.S. secessionists do not belong to this category. They claim beleaguered minority status despite being in a demographic majority, and despite their underlying rationale being an exclusive, homogenous nationalism that actively denigrates minorities.

Secession itself is almost entirely unrealistic. But brushing off secessionist sentiments as the harmless, if misguided, grumblings of a handful of malcontents is risky. The more virulent symptoms of nationalism which underpin it -- xenophobia, racism and an obsession with linguistic and cultural homogeneity -- can quickly become catastrophic, especially when turned inward.