Why stick around? The Bay Area is already a nation unto itself
- G. Pascal Zachary
Sunday, April 20, 2003
The German computer scientists were talking heatedly about the war in the lobby of a University of California research lab where I was a visitor. I listened to them with curiosity because the government of Germany has condemned the U.S. campaign against Iraq, earning it the enmity of official Washington.
The German geeks casually told one another (in English) how friends back home kept phoning them, nervously asking about their safety, as if they expected a German to be lynched every day on Main Street for disloyalty to the American cause.
"I tell my friends I'm safe in the Bay Area," one German said. "People here even apologize to me for what Americans are doing in Iraq. They say they are sorry."
"Berkeley isn't America, and neither is San Francisco or Oakland," a second German added. A third interjected, "I don't think I would live anywhere else."
Listening to the conversation, I felt glad to be a resident of the Bay Area,
a place I've called home for 25 years. I told the geeks that in Omaha, Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles or even my native New York City they might be assailed by Americans who now view Germans as an enemy because of the German government's opposition to the war. But in much of the Bay Area, I said, Germans are moral heroes, standing up in favor of enlightened cosmopolitanism and against U.S. militarism in a manner that exposes the shallowness of President Bush's simple maxim, "You are either for us or against us."
The views of these Germans -- and my own views of official American power --
are heretical in America, highlighting the wide gulf between the iconoclastic Bay Area and the rest of the United States. This gulf, always present, seems more intensely felt now. There are no American flags waving on my street, or any of the streets I pass each morning when I bring my children to school.
A recent Field Poll notwithstanding, the people of the Bay Area seem more deeply opposed to the war on Iraq than anywhere else in the United States. Elsewhere in the country -- say, in New York City or Washington, D.C. -- critics of our government strive to be viewed as "responsible." In the Bay Area, dissenters are idealistic, stubborn, unpredictable -- and often seem irresponsible to the rest of the nation. Remember the vomit protest earlier this month? In Bay Area terms, it was an example of inspired street theater, but the rest of the country saw it as completely weird.
Of course, San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley are cities full of weirdos --
misfits who relish turning respectable behavior upside down. Not surprisingly,
the anti-war movement is fractious in the Bay Area. Rather than presenting a "responsible" alternative to Bush's war -- say, for instance, by calling for hard sanctions, but no invasion of Iraq -- dissenters here are more likely to question the entire project of decapitating Saddam Hussein, pointing out that some of our closest allies (Pakistan, Israel) already have secretly acquired nuclear weapons and that the United States helped build Iraq's military arsenal in the 1980s when the country went to war against our archenemy Iran.
Bay Area people are more willing to accuse Bush of rank disloyalty, for selfishly trying to improve his re-election chances by going to war with Iraq in order to distract attention from the government's failure to smash al Qaeda.
Dissenters here see the illogic of capitalism at play in the world, the drive for oil and profits coloring the government's behavior rather than Bush's self- professed obsession with bringing freedom and democracy to the Arab world.
By raising uncomfortable questions about the "American empire," Bay Area people guarantee their marginalization in what passes for the national conversation. Being ignored hurts. One of my closest friends, a veteran Democratic activist, badly wants to engage the body politic on the issue of Bush's failed diplomacy, but he gets nowhere. "I've never felt more out of step with the rest of America," he tells me.
Join the club. No one is listening to people in the Bay Area. No one ever listens, actually. The Bay Area is out of sync with the United States on every political metric. Indeed, the people of the Bay have more in common politically and culturally with the geeks from Germany. Bay Area politicos would fit comfortably under the rubric of European "social democrats," favoring a humane welfare state, multilateralism and a ban on offensive military force. Yet in the skewed political structure of America -- where minority political parties are effectively silenced at the national level by the country's winner-take-all system -- the distinctive voice of the Bay Area vanishes into thin air.
Unlike Germany, where the minority Green Party has a stake in the ruling administration, there is no left-liberal party on the national scene. Ralph Nader may have grabbed enough votes to tilt the last presidential election in Bush's favor, yet he has no role in national government -- not in Congress, the administration or even in a federal agency.
The Nader saga illustrates the dilemma of Bay Area "social democrats." We are, like children in an English novel, not to be seen nor heard.
I wish to propose an immodest remedy for this sorry situation: We, the people of the Bay Area, need to leave the United States. We are held prisoner by a foreign power, colonized by an alien civilization. We require cultural and social self-determination. We demand, in short, a declaration of independence -- and our own nation.
I realize that my suggestion is a delicious fantasy. Americans since Jefferson have been attracted to the myth of the sturdy individual, the self- reliant small town. For alternative thinkers, "small is beautiful" remains a rallying cry. While American pluralism allows for experimentation on the state and local level, for some more radical autonomy is desirable. The historian Arthur Schlesinger bemoaned in the 1990s "the disuniting of America," but radicals see the United States as too big, too unified, too homogeneous. Independence is a rational response to a loss of identity.
In the 1970s, the social thinker Ernest Callenbach posited a unique Northern California identity in his popular notion of "Ecotopia," a futuristic nation formed out of Northern California, Washington and Oregon. The ecotopian ideal inspired, if not an independence movement, an alternative culture and sensibility that thrives to this day.
Of course, hard-headed "realists" scoff at independence movements, saying they would create unsustainable small nations. Yet look around the world; there are many prosperous small nations: Singapore, the sophisticated city- state, in Asia. Finland, the home of Nokia, the cell-phone juggernaut. Slovenia, the tiniest and most prosperous of the former pieces of ill-fated Yugoslavia.
None of these nations is home to more than 5 million people. Some successful nations are even smaller. Ireland, which boasted Europe's fastest growing economy during the 1990s, has fewer than 4 million people. The island nation of Iceland, with a mere 300,000 people, regularly posts the lowest unemployment of any country in the world.
Indeed, small countries are increasingly economically secure because of the power of world trade. Does anyone doubt that the Bay Area, if an independent nation, would be economically viable? On its own, the Bay Area would have a diversified economy, strong universities and the kind of scenic beauty that assures a steady stream of tourists. Of course, an independent Bay Area would have to reach some kind of military treaty with the United States, which would not want a Bay Nation to pose a security threat. But we wouldn't mind. We would be like Switzerland, a neutral country that tries to help people. We, the Bay Nation, would try to prevent conflicts, not make promoting conflicts an aim of national policy.
To those who say that an independence drive would be fruitless, even wacko, I reply that the people of the Bay Area have a better shot at withdrawing from the United States than winning over the political mainstream. Look at the evidence. Nancy Pelosi may be the second-most powerful Democratic member of the House of Representatives, but what influence does she -- or even the House -- have over a national government bent on war, the gutting of civil liberties and destructive tax cuts? Opponents of the war can wave flags and express sympathy for the soldiers in Iraq, but the powers that be control the symbolism of patriotism. Rather than out-wave the flag wavers, radicals in the Bay Area -- and I mean most of us -- would do better to seek self- determination for our region.
Think of the advantages of having our own country. We wouldn't have to apologize to people of conscience for being Americans any more. We wouldn't go to war against Arab dictators (or anyone else). We wouldn't suffer through any more rogue national elections. We would finally have a government that shared the concerns of its people.
The question isn't why leave the United States, but why stay?
Few in others parts of America would mourn the loss of the Bay Area. The Republicans might even cheer, realizing that winning the state of California in the next election might be possible -- without the voters of San Francisco and the East Bay. It is easy to imagine Karl Rove, Bush's domestic guru, gleefully calculating his boss' chance for victory in a Golden State minus the Bay Area -- and then cheering its departure from the United States.
In U.S. history, preservation of "the Union" has long been presented as virtually a religious necessity. Our greatest national myth remains the inevitable rightness of the Northern victory in the Civil War. We are taught again and again about the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, who held our nation together. Yet at what price? Lincoln freed the African American slaves, but they fell victim to "Jim Crow," the peculiar institution, to paraphrase historian Kenneth Stampp, that maintained racial separation in the South (and sanctioned violence against blacks) well into the 1960s. With the South in tow following the Civil War, the United States subdued the Native Americans in the West in the most brutal fashion, seized Cuba and the Philippines from Spain in 1898, thus ushering in an era of imperialism. American hegemony in the second half of the 20th century might have been impossible without a Northern victory in the Civil War.
Maybe Lincoln would have been an even greater president if he had let the South leave the Union in 1861. In the absence of Southern racists in Congress, the North would have become an industrial democracy of the European sort. American global power would have been moderated, humanized and democratized -- because urban voters in the industrial cities of Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York would have insisted on solidarity with workers of the world. Our roster of presidents would have included the populist William Jennings Bryan, the Socialist Eugene Debs and the one-worlder Henry Wallace. A more compact, social-democratic America would have still struggled mightily with the legacy of slavery and discrimination against African Americans, but a movement for racial equality would have begun decades earlier.
Might the liberation of the Bay Area unlock similar positive change? Think of the model social legislation that a Bay Nation could enact: bans on guns altogether, full legalization of same-sex unions, an expansion of public television and radio, complete decriminalization of marijuana, basic health care for all, environmental protections that would be the envy of North America.
The possibilities for positive change are indeed tantalizing, yet how to bring them about might vex leaders of a Bay Nation. Keep the dollar, launch a new currency or take the euro? Join Canada or the European Union in a federation, or go it alone? Control immigration or let the market determine who lives among us?
The stickiest question might come over setting the boundaries of our new nation. The core surely must include the cities of San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland and most likely the counties of Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt. But what of Silicon Valley (probably too Republican to exit the United States),
Contra Costa County (better left behind because of its suburban sprawl) or San Mateo County (worth grabbing?).
Inevitably, some people inside the new Bay Nation would want to remain U.S. citizens. Let them do so and continue living there. "Foreign-born" people already number about one-quarter to one-third of San Francisco's residents -- so who would care if Americans swell our local population? By the same token, undocumented Americans (a.k.a. "illegal aliens") could gain immediate citizenship in the Bay Nation. Bye-bye INS, hello multicultural justice.
Then there is the matter of national security. The United States would surely insist on a demilitarized Bay Nation, but such a condition would gladly be accepted by our people. The United States would probably insist on fobbing onto us some of the federal debt, but at least we would avoid incurring the truly horrific debts likely to be incurred under future Republican governments.
And while the Bush administration would insist that the nation desist from harboring any terrorists, we would never do so -- if only to avoid antagonizing the giant on our borders.
After the battle at Gettysburg, Lincoln famously consecrated the war dead, offering them as sacrifices to the ideal of national unity. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," Lincoln declared. In consecrating the dead in our current war, the world will longer remember not what we say but what we do. Actions speak louder than words -- and perhaps never so loudly as in an America that swallows dissident voices without a trace, leaving dissenters only the option of hollow gestures. There is an alternative. It is time for the unthinkable to become the debatable.
G. Pascal Zachary is international director for the Toronto-based media advocacy group, Journalists for Human Rights. A former senior writer for The Wall Street Journal, his book, "The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity and the New World Economy," has recently been published in paperback.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle