WTMA commentary broadcast 2/19/08:

When Kosovo declared its independence over the weekend, Russia, Spain and others refused to recognize the newly formed nation-state, while the United States, Great Britain and other European countries embraced them. Each have their reasons for rejecting or accepting Kosovo’s independence, but the very idea of secession – to break away from a larger political body and form an independent government – is a subject on which Americans have long suffered from a sort of moral and political schizophrenia.

The United States was born of secession, it produced perhaps the most famous and influential secessionist document in history with our Declaration of Independence and our Founding Fathers considered secession an inalienable right that could never be denied to any American state, as outlined repeatedly in The Federalist Papers and elsewhere. The intrinsic right to secession was so ingrained in the American tradition that even Abraham Lincoln could make statements like the following and encounter little disagreement;

“Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable, a most sacred right — a right which we hope and believe is to liberate the world.”

Of course this was in 1848. Lincoln later rejected the right to secession, rewrote and reinterpreted history to suit his own political objectives, and each President’s Day our 16th president ends up getting voted as our “greatest” American president, by some random poll or newspaper questionnaire.

So what gives? A popular, yet wholly insufficient explanation is that when it came to Southern independence, Lincoln “did what he had to do.” If the various Serbian enclaves within Kosovo, who are none too happy about the Albanian majority’s recent declaration of independence, rose up to suppress the secessionists, what would the United States say? There is an argument to be made by the Serbs that they were merely “doing what they had to do.” When the Soviet Union fell apart, what if Mikhail Gorbachev had instead maintained his empire by force, what would the United States have said or done? Gorbachev could have easily justified his actions with a simple explanation that he “did what he had to do.” No, we celebrated the newly won independence of these people and would have considered any attempt to forcibly suppress them to be a heinous act, both politically and morally. And of course there was our own American Revolution – does anyone today dispute the righteousness of our secessionist Founding Fathers and the oppressiveness of King George who bitterly refused to let his colonies go?

The very notion of democracy, of men deciding their own political fate, is so inextricably wedded to secession that one cannot imagine any fair-minded person opposing it. Yet, on our own soil, here in the United States, the man responsible for one of the most bloody and oppressive wars to suppress a secessionist uprising is considered by many to be a great leader, if not an outright saint.

People will argue that those were “different times.” Damn right they were. There was no CNN, or talk radio, or other modern media to record and broadcast the heavy-handed, unconstitutional and immoral actions of Lincoln, which no doubt today would have secured him a prime spot in Parade Magazine’s list of worst dictators.

It takes a colossal lie to cover up colossal injustice, and the huge statues of Josef Stalin in the old Soviet Union designed to give the Russian people a positive impression of the dictator weren’t much different from our own Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Lincoln’s earlier belief that secession was a sacred right that might one day “liberate the world” continues to be true in our own day in nations like Kosovo, even as he viciously denied this right in his time. Like Stalin, or any other dictator, no amount of rationalization or obfuscation can ever change his true record. And the oversize statue of Lincoln that towers over our nation’s capital stands not as a grand monument to greatness – but denial.