A serial review of books numbering the States after a dissolution of the Union.
A review of Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy (W.W. Norton, 1993) by George F. Kennan and The Nine Nations of North America (Houghton Mifflin, 1981) by Joel Garreau.
Although his suggestion that the United States might be better off breaking into 12 parts is detailed on only three pages (pages149-151), which conclude with his own assessment that its realization is largely a “pipe dream,” it is clear that Kennan wrote in earnest, taking up another side of the argument in three more pages of his epilogue (pp253-255). There, his previous demurral is put aside with the observation that the political difficulty of the “pipe dream” does not detract from its rightness: in politics, as in science, thoughts do not necessarily have to have a visible immediate utility in order to have value. (p254)
Written when he was 89 – he would live to be 101 – Around the Cragged Hill contains Kennan’s broadest reflections not only on foreign policy, but on political philosophy in general. Kennan is best known for his policy of Soviet containment: The Cold War doctrine that Soviet Russia was inherently expansionist and must be contained – not militarily or even primarily diplomatically in his view, but mainly by adaptable alliances countering every point of expansion. Despite being profoundly erudite – he was fluent in German, French, Russian, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, and Norwegian – and despite having more confidence in a thoughtful elite than in the democratic impulse (he had “no high hopes for the development of a world consisting only of democracies” [p71]), he remained always grounded in realism, never giving way to grand ideas that presume too much from notions of natural law and human rights. (pp69-71)
His initial statement that he is a practical thinker, that he does not have a philosophical cast of mind, seems odd at first, not only in light of the book’s title, but above all in the broad range of ideas set forth in a deductive way. The first part of the two-part book begins with a fundamental treatment of a universal political philosophy, starting with man’s nature and ethics; the second part considers those ideas in their import for the United States. Nevertheless, he claims “I have no ideology at all” (p97). He offers a rather peculiar definition of ideology – peculiar for someone so intimately familiar with the “appalling cruelties” committed in the name of the Marxist ideology in Soviet Russia. He states that ideology is “a system of secular thought about contemporary politics […] as a guide for public policy.” (p97) Yet it is difficult to conceive ideology, especially in its Marxist aberration, without an element of religious zeal that violates Kennan’s very reasonable definition. After some reading we begin to understand what he really means: That he is a realist, not a system-builder; that he prefers regional affections over sweeping nationalistic ones; that he prefers the close and familiar to the distant and grand.
Kennan’s realism in foreign policy proceeds from a plea for “a modest and relatively self-effacing foreign policy” (p255) that recognizes that the U.S. is not a divinely directed nation (p183). The temptation to a foreign policy of empire and hubris is rooted in several factors. One is that, given our pride in democratic institutions, it has a misplaced insistence on “human rights.” For Kennan, the concept of “human rights,” like “natural law,” is not a clear notion, and U.S. insistence upon “human rights” is “sanctimonious.” (p72) Another factor is that while “love of country” (p78) is wholesome, uncritical nationalism is dangerous, especially since it rests upon “the rather unreal theories of total equality and total sovereignty”. (p81) Those unreal theories of total equality and total sovereignty are assumed for all members of the United Nations, and they should not be; they should be tempered by the countries’ relations with their neighbors, among other things (p89). For example, sovereignty is in flux for the reshaping of the European Union, and current “disintegrative tendencies” affect the reshaping of other nations (p90).
Kennan has grave reservations about the notion of “equality:”
It is the lesson of history, after all, that every attempt at social leveling ends with the leveling to the bottom, never to the top. (p129)
Citing de Tocqueville, he notes that it is an insatiable claim: The greater the equality, the sharper the detection of inequalities, and the greater the demand for more leveling (p121). (For example, he is against forced busing to achieve racial equality. For one thing it is self-defeating, since many families move out of the forced busing zones, resulting in greater racial disparities.) Equality before the law should be the end of any drive for equality. Elites are necessary and should be sought after for control of important social institutions (p131).
Curiously, after listing many pressing problems of the day, he picks overpopulation, transportation – actually, the automobile – and communication – actually, advertising – as meriting his special attention (p159). He thinks that the United States is far too populous, and might do well to limit its numbers to 200 million (p142). Unlike the railroads, the automobile has scattered cities. “The automobile, in short, has turned out to be, by virtue of its innate and inalterable qualities, the enemy of community generally.” Also, it’s a major polluter (p161). For these reasons, he favors government disincentives against the automobile (p166). Advertising, he claims, is the bane of public communication. It exaggerates consumerism; it reduces public attention spans; it cheapens the journalism where it’s placed in proximity (p168). He favors reversing the price schedule of the postal service between standard mail and junk mail: Standard mail should be discounted; junk mail should pay full freight (p172).
In spite of all the counterexamples of Kennan’s claim of not having a philosophical cast of mind, there is one glaring corroboration: His very contradictory estimation of the power of government. Early on he disparages de Tocqueville’s suspicion of centralized government as wholly unfounded for the U.S., since it has many checks and balances to prevent despotism (p68). And this is the man who, throughout the book, rails against government bureaucracy, calling it a “fungus” (p147)! It’s as if this career public servant is blind to the very beast at the source of the many national problems he discusses. Not only is he blind to the unintended consequences of government intervention to regulate population, the automobile, and advertising, he is very willing to make citizens temporary slaves of the government by requiring all to serve a stint in the armed forces:
Whoever has never learned to accept orders without the loss of his own dignity, or to give them without impairing the dignity of the one to whom they are given, is unlikely to be very successful in the control of himself. (p230)
In keeping with his confidence in government elites, Kennan makes a remarkable suggestion of creating a “Council of State” composed of nine permanent members sitting in Washington DC to consider no more than three national issues at a time, offering “guidelines for governmental action, not […] recommendations for specific measures.”(p240) To ensure that the Council is apolitical and drawn from wise experts, he elaborates the composition of a selection panel composed of all the state governors “together with the state’s highest judicial figure, and one layman to be chosen by the two of them.” (pp244-245)
Notwithstanding this confidence in central government, in the summing up of his most basic principles in the epilogue, Kennan has written the very creed of the South:
There is a preference for the small over the great, particularly in the case of the human political community. There is a preference for the qualitative over the quantitative, for the personal over the impersonal, for the discriminate over the indiscriminate, and for the varied over the uniform […]. With particular relation to the habits and practices of governments, there is an aversion to the American tradition of the treatment of social and political problems by great, all-inclusive categories (that is, by abstract and rigid legal definitions with theoretically wide-ranging applicability) and a longing for intelligent discrimination in the treatment of both persons and situations […]. Insofar as ethics come into the picture, there is an emphasis on the importance of a controlled and courteous outward behavior, of manners, and of common decency […]. And finally, there is the belief that if we are to have hope of emerging successfully from the great social bewilderments of this age, weight must be laid predominantly upon the spiritual, moral, and intellectual shaping of the individual with a view to the development of his qualities for leadership, rather than on the prospects for unaided self-improvement on the part of leaderless masses. (p257)
It is only such a creed that enabled Kennan to entertain the idea of secession.
Kennan would maintain “the rudiments of a federal government” (p149) for the United States, while having it
decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the federal establishment. I could conceive of something like nine of these republics – let us say, New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West; the Northwest (from Wisconsin to the Northwest, and down the Pacific coast to central California); the Southwest (including southern California and Hawaii); Texas (by itself); the Old South; Florida (perhaps including Puerto Rico); and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles – a total of twelve constituent entities. To these entities I would accord a larger part of the present federal powers than one might suspect – large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp. (pp149-150, bold emphasis added)
The purpose of these twelve republics would be for “[e]ase, flexibility, and intimacy of government, not a quest for racial or ethnic uniformity” (p150) and to encourage, to promote, regional differences (p151). Each would be distinguished by “certain peculiar cultural and social qualities” (p150). He takes up the argument again in the epilogue to put forth their merit of small size, suggesting that the enormous size of “the so-called monster countries (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, India, and Brazil) – were problems to themselves even where they were not problems to others.” (p253)
However brief Kennan’s treatment of secession, it’s clear that he was in earnest, and he has lent his authority and reputation to several of the key arguments supporting it.
Joel Garreau’s, The Nine Nations of North America is a stark contrast to than the more cerebral offering by Kennan. It’s almost embarrassing to suggest Garreau as a thinker on the subject of secession, in spite of his proclamation as “the editor in charge of ‘cultural revolution’ reporting at The Washington Post” – or maybe because of that. As Colin Woodard points out in American Nations, Garreau’s account is an “ahistorical […] snapshot” (p14) and thus without any hermeneutic value. Nevertheless, the book was a best seller in 1981, going through at least five editions, and for that reason alone it’s worth mentioning. With no equivalent best sellers thereafter, Garreau seems to have come into the game in the fourth quarter, thrown the winning touchdown pass, then forever returned to the bench as a B-string futurologist. Still, one would have to think that because of the book’s success, a significant number of people thought that the idea of an America divided along other than political boundaries is compelling, despite Garreau’s oddly never once discussing secession in the book’s 427 pages.
What is the organizing principle for Garreau’s nine nations? It’s not George F. Kennan’s principle of distinctive local culture; it’s not Colin Woodard’s insistence on historical culture; it’s not Kirkpatrick Sale’s principle of ecoregions. For each of his nations, Garreau says that
Some are clearly divided topographically by mountains, deserts, and rivers. Others are separated by architecture, music, language, and ways of making a living. Each nation has its own list of desires. Each nation knows how it plans to get what it needs from whoever’s got it. Most important, each nation has a distinct prism through which it views the world. (pp1-2)
Well, OK. And how do you know when you’re in your nation? It’s the place where surroundings stop feeling threatening, confusing, or strange. Ultimately, that’s the reason we are Nine Nations. When you’re from one, and you’re in it, you know you’re home. (p13)
In other words, Garreau offers no definition: Ya kinda just know – a hopelessly woolly formulation.
So what are the “Nine Nations”?
New England sweeps up the entire eastern seaboard from Labrador to Connecticut. Québec includes Québec city and Montréal, north to include the entire eastern shore of Hudson Bay. The Foundry includes Ottawa and all the Great Lakes with the exception of Lake Superior, and everything north of a crescent touching Chicago, Indianapolis, Washington DC, and New York City. Dixie is the 13 states of the Confederacy, but only as far west as Dallas. The Breadbasket covers a great swath from Lake Superior, west to Winnipeg, and south to Houston. Ecotopia includes the West Coast from Anchorage to just north of, but not including, Los Angeles. The Empty Quarter is everything between Ecotopia and The Breadbasket. The Islands is the entire Caribbean, sweeping north to include Miami and south to include Caracas. Interestingly, the nation that most conforms with Woodard’s nations is MexAmerica: It includes all of Mexico, South Texas from Houston, west to El Paso then up almost to Denver, then again west to include Los Angeles.
As stated, Garreau never enters upon an abstract discussion of secession. One would have thought that his treatment of Québec could not have avoided that discussion, but he only brushes over it, giving a purely journalistic account of the 1980 “referendum” on “sovereignty-association” (pp182-183).
There is one critical objection to the notion of distinct nations on the North American continent, to which both Woodard and Garreau give the very same answer. The objection is that Americans move around so much that the entire former republic has become one homogenized suburb; that these so-called “nations” no longer have a distinct identity. Indeed, the National Association of Realtors states that the average tenure of an American family in one home is between seven and 18 years, depending on the city more than on the region. Yet both authors confirm that new arrivals adopt the culture of the place they’ve moved to. Garreau:
The power of these ties to the Nine Nations is confirmed by what would appear to be a contradiction: the extraordinary mobility of citizens who move from one nation to another. These migrants retain some of the old trappings, but they push to embrace the styles and attitudes of their new nation. (p12)
So what is the value of this book? Garreau is a first-rate reporter, giving countless “human interest” accounts of all of North America. But there is no attempt to make any sense of these “nations,” other than to emphasize that they supersede arbitrary political boundaries. That emphasis struck a profound chord of affirmation with countless readers. Would these readers actually vote to confirm their enthusiastic response, to actually create the nation that spoke so directly to their feelings? Who knows. Maybe after all, their enthusiasm is like that toward a horoscope: Each reader fills in the woolly sketch with his own satisfying details. But then maybe they recognize that what the Québec poet said applies just as well to Lincoln’s sprawling Leviathan:
Canada does not exist – just does not exist – other than on paper, and it has never existed and it will never exist. (p367)