I traveled through the north of Scotland with my mother in the beginning of September, and while we did pass through a stark and forbidding room labeled “UK Border” and passed around money that said “Bank of England,” there was a sense of being somewhere distinct and different from the United Kingdom.
In 2014, backers of Scottish independence lost their referendum by about 400,000 votes, but the dream of breaking free remains for many. “Yes” stickers still adorn lampposts, and “Yes” signs are still in windows. Polls suggest independence is still favored by around 40 to 45 percent.
As September turned to October two more independence referendums were held within a week of one another; one in Kurdistan, currently a part of Iraq, and the other in Catalonia, currently part of Spain. Unlike the peaceful, agreed-upon referendums held in Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995, these were marred by fierce opposition by the mother country, and, in the case of Catalonia, violent repression by Spanish police.
Independence is messy. It splits apart more than just countries — it can divide families, friends, and communities, often irrevocably. Struggles for independence sometimes do turn violent. Our own did; the United States was born to the roar of cannons.
Why do it?
That’s … really complicated. You might as well ask, “What’s the criteria for being an independent nation, anyway?”
Countries are weird. A lot of them, mostly in Europe, exist because of successive waves of ethno-nationalism that destroyed old empires, caused political and social awakenings, and were the root cause of the genocidal horrors of the the first half of the 20th century. The nations of Europe now are much more ethnically homogenous — and a lot duller — than they were a century ago. They have all the creative spark of a town full of nothing but overly satisfied white people. Scotland and Catalonia want to get in on this.
Other nations exist because lines were drawn on maps by colonial powers. So much of the living hell that is the Middle East happened because Western powers carved up the old Ottoman Empire in ways that made zero sense. Iraq’s a good example of this, a country where three religious/ethnic groups who really hate one another are crammed together under the same weak government. The Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state, are sick of it — especially after they’ve sacrificed so much fighting ISIS.
Countries pull apart because of ethnic and religious differences like these, but they don’t always. German-speaking Italians seem to do okay, and there’s no serious independence movement in places like Wales or Brittany. Some sort of autonomy, like a regional governing body or the devolution of powers from the central government, is often a good compromise.
Actual divorce happens when a group feels so ignored, slighted, and crushed by a central government or another group that seems to share none of their values that they just want to get out of the relationship any way they can.
Or, to put it another way, they look at their countrymen and think, “We have nothing in common with them. Why are we together?”
Oh. That sounds kind of familiar.
I’m not saying that we’re doomed to see some sort of American crackup in the near future, but it isn’t completely unthinkable anymore. America is not a homogenous nation-state like the ones in Europe, it’s a huge, cosmopolitan, diverse, and constantly changing place. What connects one American to another isn’t so much about an ethnic group, but about an ideal. America is a story we’ve been telling ourselves.
Except now, as some of us start to confront our past, we’re telling different and often conflicting stories. The ideal of freedom and equality seems less and less real.
It’s bad right now. We’re so politically and culturally divided in this country that it seems hard to find any common ground. When we do find it, if we dare, we’re faced with the fury of our own fringes calling us traitors — not to the country, but to the group.
I want to believe in this country, but if we’re going to make it work, all of the different groups that live in this land have to find some way to live with one another. We have to put our weapons down. We have to stop turning one another into monsters. We have to at least agree on a shared reality!
If not, if even after everything that’s happened this year we can’t do that, then we have some serious questions we need to answer.
We can go forward alone, without one another. But, like a wise woman said last year, we’re stronger together. We have to try.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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