Monday, November 08, 2021

Book: Life In Dis-United States

Break It Up; Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union by Richard Kreitner, Little, Brown, and Company, 2020

OK, we're done talking about politics. Let's talk about a book instead ... about politics!

Provenance: Purchased from Amazon after seeing it reviewed on a progressive website.

Review: History is a big bag of stuff, from which we spin out narratives and create our own national backstory. George Washington is a folktale figure, his lore filled with cherry trees and skipping coins across the Potomac. Washington is the great man of Valley Forge and the First Presidency. George Washington is the man with dentures made from the teeth of slaves. George Washington is a land speculator seeking to keep the Forks of the Ohio out of the hands of those Pennsylvanians, and in the process kicking off the Seven Years' War in Europe and America. All these are stories, all have their truth, and if you pick apart the threads of our past, you can see a number of them all functioning at the same time.

In the case of Break It Up, the story presented is that United States has never been particularly United, and at any one time part of its population is threatening, edging, or dashing for the exits. Krietner's work overturns a big box of data points to make the case that US and its people have always been heading for a crack-up.

How could it be otherwise? The thirteen English colonies were founded for different reasons by different groups. Here is a prison colony, there a group of religious separatists, over there a failed business venture or three, and here's one to pay off a debt by the Crown. We swallowed New Amsterdam, and New Sweden, expanded into established Native American lands and grabbed territories claimed by other European Powers. Those groups that were not disenfranchised were set up in continual rivalries. The Beta Test of the whole shebang, known as the Articles of the Confederation, crashed and burned.

And the big elephant in the room for much of our history is slavery and the elites that supported it. Even within the Constitution itself, which by counting the South's declared property as partial people for representation, put Virginia in the driver's seat for many years (Such that four of the first five presidents were from Virginia - there's a reason for that). From that moment on, our political history is a case of "Make Virginia (and by extension the South) happy". And where things happen like New England seceding (yeah, it was a thing), it was because the northerners felt Virginia had TOO much power. 

And that's sort of where secession comes from - You won't let me do something, at a state level, so I'm going home. From nullification acts to outright secession, the ruling class of those states pushing headlong into separatism are fired up about their rights being trampled. In example after example, those heading to the exits are claiming that they are the "real" Americans, the followers of those original founding fathers that believed in life, liberty, and often the ownership of slaves. 

Further, where states break off from other states, it is because they don't feel they are getting their slice of the power - the brief state of Jefferson comes to mind, as well such nascent movements as the Upper Peninsula and east of the Cascades. Heck, in the last few elections, nonbinding resolutions in Oregon have eight counties expressing a desire to join Idaho.

The flip side of "Make Virginia Happy" is "Virginia Gets Kicked In the Teeth", which could be the title of another book with much of the same facts. Virginia's original colonial claims went out to Minnesota, yet the same spirit of compromise whittled it back and eroded its power. When push came to shove in the 1860s, they lost about half the state west of the mountains (which didn't like the eastern half that much anyway - see previous paragraph) to form Kanawha/West Virginia. Of course, Virginia got their part of the original District of Columbia back so they could still bring in slaves through Alexandria. 

Krietner grabs fistfuls of examples in the first hundred years, though in doing so chooses to glances briefly over a bunch and other parts gets lost in the shuffle. He addresses the Mormon migration and Deseret, but not the other utopian communities that set themselves up apart from the world, like the Shakers, Millerites, and Amish. He hits the origin of Texas as an independent nation playing into the them of separatism but gives a short shrift to Hawai'i. And the fate of the Indian Reservations and federal lands throughout the west are not addressed (And the nature of the reservations to the rest of the country? The most recent examples are that Oklahoman law does not apply to the area that at one time wanted to be the state of Sequoyah, and Elon Musk is setting up dealerships on New Mexican reservations to avoid NM's prohibition of manufacturers directly selling their cars).

The bulk of the book is antebellum America, where the spirit of compromise and consensus passes the nation through an ever-narrowing set of gates, such that ultimately secession seemed inevitable, though each generation would make sure it didn't happen on their watch. After the Civil War, the book jumps about 50 years to tensions on the borders with Mexico in the First World War. The Civil War was a period when we went from the The United States are to the United States as a singular, but still, such a large gap it undercuts the argument.

And he makes connections between the separatism of the prewar and that of today's Red and Blue America. The thing is, I don't see this current crisis as being Unity versus States' Rights, but rather about who is controlling the whole shebang. Further, the weakening of States' Militias (and the rise of the National Guard as a national military unit) has weakened the ability of entire states to walk away. Still, the thriving right-wing militia movement (which hit a high point on Jan 6 of this year) and the ongoing attempts of Nullification of Federal Laws by Texas indicates that the nature of the battlefield has changed, but still remains a battlefield.

I think that Separatism, Factionalism, and Sectionalism are features, not a bugs, in modern nations regardless of their origins and intentions. This is not just a US thing. I'm looking at a European union that is currently dealing with Brexit and Polish nullification. Britain itself deals with continual calls for Scotland and Northern Ireland to go their own ways. Canada has always had to deal with its Quebec problem. And the entire Soviet Union collapsed on itself like a shaken souffle, and its primary inheritor, the Russian Federation, is trying to put the pieces back together. 

One thing I am going to dun Kreitner for is his footnotes, particularly coming off the latest Three Musketeers novels. This book's foot notes are not numbered where they appear, so you have to check in the back to see if there are any references or additional comments for that particular line or quote. Worse, the footnotes in the back are not tied to page numbers, so you really don't have any idea what is getting footnoted or not. That's a basic error, and weakens his presentation.

From a gaming side, this book does have some resonance. We designers love to carve up the map. Shadowrun. Cyberpunk, Castle Falkenstein, Crimson Skies. Deadlands. Heck, even my own FREELancers took a shot at it. The idea of separatism a (even if we don't aspire to it) and a balkanized United States is a gaming trope - it creates conflict, and out of that, stories.

But there is another interesting gaming intersection here I want to touch on briefly. In the classic (1975) White Bear and Red Moon, the foundation of Runequest and Glorantha, the two cultures in collision are guided by separate and equally powerful principles. The Lunar Empire believes that "We are All Us", while the barbarian Sartar live by the motto of "No One Can Make You Do Anything." Inclusion vs. Individuality. Oddly, that echoes with the current situation.

In the books I want to write but never probably will is one called "Worst Election Ever", which works off the initial idea that EVERY presidential election is worse than the one preceding it. Given the tonnage of data points I can utilize, I think I can make a good case for it. Kreitner gives a great amount of points, but needed to carry through on how the separatism of the Antebellum period downshifted into the current state of affairs. Same battles. New battlefields.

More later,