February 28, 2009

The Perils of Secession

When I hear the scornful response of some conservatives to Barack Obama's very risky proposals for fixing everything at once, I have two thoughts. One of them is funny. My old friend Wolfgang was once asked to talk a friend into a tight parking space. He kept saying, "Keep coming, you have plenty of room," until his friend rammed the car behind him. Then he announced, "You hit him; I'm going to go tell." Wolfgang was sometimes somewhat hard to love.

The other response begins with the word "secession." The critics have decided to secede for a while, to let the problem be his problem. On secession, there is a very nice remark in the preface to Louis Menand's book, The Metaphysical Club, on the secession of the South:

Secession allowed the North, for four years, to set the terms for national expansion without interference from the South, and the wartime Congress did not let the opportunity slip. The Congress was one of the most active in American history. It supported scientific training and research; it established the first system of national taxation and created the first significant national currency; it made possible the construction of public universities and the construction of the transcontinental railway. It turned the federal government into the legislative engine of social and economic progress....For more than thirty years, a strong central government protected and promoted the ascendance of industrial capitalism and the way of life associated with it -- the way of life we call "modern." (ix-x).

At this point, some of my progressive friends are saying, "Right on, Menand. They shot themselves in the foot again, those thick-headed conservatives. Barack's the new Lincoln, and he will preside over the new Lincolnization of the U.S. economy." But aren't the currently fashionable problems rooted exactly in decisions that were made very quickly back in the 1860s. Isn't the lesson here partly that powerful ideas need critical scrutiny and real debate? Those who secede do real harm by not being there to help think things through.

My spouse has proposed a new bumper sticker for the 21st Century, "What would grown ups do?"

Posted by shea0017 at February 28, 2009 11:17 AM