The Redemption of the S-Word

Opinion by Phil Jacobson

The term “secession”, in the United States of America (USA), has generally been associated with the American Civil War. The concept of secession, the act whereby a sub-section of a political unit breaks away from that unit to form a separate unit, is actually a common one in USA history. Yet the word “secession” is generally not used when describing anything other than the unsuccessful attempts at separation by the short lived Confederate States of America (CSA). Recent events are shifting this pattern.

USA history begins with an act of secession, whereby the “united States of America” declared their independence from the British monarchy in 1776. This successful secession is, however, usually referred to in words like “winning their independence”. During the War Between The States itself, the western counties of Virginia were established as a separate state, recognized by the Federal Union. But they are usually described using words like “broken away from” Virginia to form West Virginia, rather than them having “seceded” from Virginia. When Federal forces won the American Civil War, the term “secession” became associated with the unsuccessful CSA. Victorious Federal politicians declared the attempt by the CSA to be illegitimate. The word “secession” took on a negative connotation, which remained until modern times. In America, those who considered the notion of secession to be legitimate were branded not only as advocates of a CSA revival, but of anything the CSA was associated with, notably slavery and racism.

However the notion of political separation has advanced considerably in modern times. Other colonies of the European states have successfully won their independence. The term “secession” has become more acceptable as a description of these events. Most recently, the term has come to be associated with claims about the rights to independence of parts of the former Soviet Union (formerly Russian Empire). Two notable uses of the term “secession” have been prominent. Luhansk and Donetsk, two of the Eastern-most oblasts (equivalent to American counties) in Ukraine now have regimes which claim the status of governments of independent republics. Russia has recognized these as two new independent republics, asserting that they have exercised a right to secede from Ukraine. Much more recently, Russian leader Vladimir Putin made another claim, that Ukraine itself had no right to independence, that it had illegitimately seceded from Russia. (I will not, here, go into the contradictory nature of these two Russian claims.) A war has resulted. News organizations across the world are dominated by this story.

While opinions about the basic issues regarding this story vary, there is one common description: this is a war to determine whether or not Ukraine had the right to secede from a political union with Russia, and (now to a lesser extent) whether or not Luhansk and Donetsk had a right to secede from Ukraine. No longer is the term “secession” automatically associated with the American Civil War. Indeed no matter which side (if any) a commentator may take regarding this war, there is no reluctance to describe it in terms of an attempt at secession. Both sides claim that secession is not only a valid concept, but one worth fighting for.

It is not clear how long the war in Ukraine will last, but it seems to be going more slowly than the Russians expected. Thus we will be seeing discussions about secession involving great passions for some time to come, likely even after the fighting stops. Few if any of these discussions will make any reference to the American Civil War or to the CSA. That association is now largely a thing of the past. Discussions about a right to secede are much more fundamental, now part of the world wide discussion of human rights. This is true even in the USA.

It’s time to drop the fear that “secession” is a term which is automatically associated with the CSA and its controversies. We can, we should consider the term to have been recast in a modern context. We can use it freely to describe efforts by communities to leave the jurisdiction of political units which claim to own them, but that they no longer wish to be associated with. It is also important to realize how flexible the term is. Not only can nations claim the right to secede from empires, but local communities can claim the right to secede from nations or provinces. And to secede from one political unit does not require full independence, but might involve a transfer from one nation to another, from one province to another, or the formation of a new union of several small communities. Freedom of association, to secede or not, can be seen as a basic human right, subject only to the limitation that political units should be made up of those communities who voluntarily wish to join them, or even of individuals who wish to join them, independent of geographical considerations.

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  • Jonathan Hopper
    published this page in Issue Papers 2022-03-25 18:48:08 -0400
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