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Neo-secessionism, anti-Zionism, and the epistemology of counterfactual conditionals in historical inquiry


How’s that for a mouthful of a title?

A debate is currently raging over neo-secessionism, or neo-Confederatism. I am, and always have been, a pro-Union, pro-Lincoln person. I basically agree with this 2006 piece by Timothy Sandefur in Reason Papers (which Carrie-Ann and I edited). In general, I’ve been a big fan of Sandefur’s work on this topic, which seems to me to hit all the right notes; in that spirit, I commissioned his positive review of the film “Lincoln” for the forthcoming Reason Papers. In the near future, we’re also hoping to run material on Frederick Douglass, and on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I have no sympathy for the neo-secessionist or neo-Confederate cause. Or, it should go without saying, for racism.

Why oh why, must it be this way?

Why oh why, must it be this way?

That said, I find the tenor of the current debate unfortunate. It’s true that some (perhaps many) neo-secessionists and neo-Confederates are motivated by racism, but I don’t think that that’s a conceptual truth. Racism is not in my view a necessary condition for espousal of neo-secessionism. One of the most intelligent neo-secessionists is the historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, who defends a sort of neo-secessionist view in his 1996 book, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men (Free Press).  (“Neo-secessionist” is my designation; I’m not sure he would accept it, and I mean no disrespect by it.) In fact, about 15 years ago, I convinced the Princeton historian James McPherson to write a critique of Hummel’s book; McPherson agreed to write it and did write it, but believe it or not, having written it, his computer crashed, and the critique was irretrievably lost. Personally, I think Hummel has gotten Lincoln and the Civil War badly wrong. But are his neo-secessionist sympathies evidence of racism? No. Are they evidence of nostalgia for the Old South? No. Are racism or Old South nostalgia an essential component of the neo-secessionist point of view? No.

I still wish Professor McPherson’s computer hadn’t crashed.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the debate about neo-secessionism is, in my view, really a debate about the epistemology of counterfactual conditionals in historical inquiry. As I see it, non-racist neo-secessionism is an invitation to a sort of extended historical thought-experiment. It asks us to imagine an entity like the Confederacy, but one not steeped in racism, and one not committed to slavery or Jim Crow. It then asks whether it would be justified for such an entity to secede from an entity like the Union–and answers “yes.” Neo-secessionists, on my interpretation, are not asking a straightforward historical question of the sort that people often think they’re asking. They’re not asking whether the historically actualized Confederacy of the nineteenth century was justified in seceding in the actual presidential election of 1860. They’re asking whether a hypothetical Confederacy was justified in seceding from an entity like the Union, then using historical information about the actual Confederacy and Civil War to guide their inquiry into that hypothetical case.

I think they’re wrong no matter how they run their thought-experiment, but their inquiry is not necessarily racist:  it poisons the well to accuse them of racism if they are asking about the legitimacy of secession by a hypothetical non-racist version of the Confederacy. (Interested readers might consult Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 292-4, for the helpful and relevant idea of a “hypothetical history.”)

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Emancipating Slaves (1996)

You might regard what I’ve just described as an outre or outlandish approach to political inquiry–how coherent is the idea of a non-racist Confederacy?–but I don’t think it is. A great deal of contemporary analytic philosophy makes use of thought-experiments–thought-experiments far, far more outlandish than anything the neo-secessionist historians invoke. Though I reject their conclusions, what I find admirable about the neo-secessionist approach to inquiry it is at some level historically grounded. Unlike those analytic philosophers who think that sheer conceivability is a guide to normative possibility (and whose conceivabilities are rarely clear enough to be fully understood), neo-secessionists don’t just create thought-experiments out of mere conceivabilities, but mine history for the possibilities that it serves up. A proper response to them begins by asserting that the secession of the actual historical Confederacy was (given its commitment to slavery) illegitimate, but then follows the inquiry downstream by asking whether secession by counterfactual non-racist Confederacies might have been legitimate. How many alterations to the Confederacy would have been required before its secession was legitimate? Some? None?

The issue is analogous to an apparently unrelated political commitment–anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is often thought axiomatically to presuppose or entail anti-Semitism. And there is, to be blunt, an undeniable (but contingent) connection between the two things: many anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, and most anti-Semites are anti-Zionists.

That said, the most thoughtful anti-Zionists are not saying what people think they’re saying. Like neo-Confederates, they’re asking a question about counterfactual conditionals in historical inference. It may be that given the historical contingencies of the world ca. 1940-45, there was no alternative to the creation of a Jewish state in Mandate Palestine. By the 1940s, European Jewry faced the Holocaust, had to escape it, and had few places to go but Mandate Palestine. To deny them the sanctuary of Mandate Palestine would have been to condemn them to death. Since that is inconceivably evil–a case of what Nozick once called “catastrophic moral horror”–it cannot legitimately be entertained as a possibility. But entertaining it is not what a thoughtful anti-Zionism requires.

Thoughtful anti-Zionists are pursuing a different question. They’re pointing out that if we imagine a different hypothetical history, with different possibilities for Jewish escape from the Nazis, there was no inherent need for the creation of a state like Israel–that is, for a Jewish state in a place where the majority population wasn’t Jewish. To engage in this imaginative exercise, we have to attribute libertarian freedom to the relevant historical agents, regard historical institutions as contingent rather than fixed, and ask: what would or could have happened if things had been otherwise than they were?

Zionist historians today like to focus on the illegitimacy of Arab/British attempts to exclude Jews from Mandate Palestine during the war years, but anti-Zionists focus on the illegitimacy of American attempts to exclude Jews from America. One possible solution to the problem of European Jewry ca. 1940-45 was to open American–not Palestinian–shores to displaced European Jews. We didn’t do so. Having closed our shores to Jews, we insisted that Britain open Palestine up for Jewish immigration. We might wonder what might have happened had we been less hypocritical about Jewish immigration. We might also wonder why comparatively little effort was put into opening America up to Jewish immigration as compared with the effort that went into opening Palestine up for it. There were anti-Semites in America as there were in Palestine. Still, why is it that the effort to open Palestine to Jewish immigration succeeded, but the comparable effort (if it was comparable) to open America failed? These seem important historical questions, but do you ever remember pursuing them when you studied the Holocaust in school? I don’t. And I don’t think things have changed since my schooldays.

Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust (2009)

Gilbert Achcar, The Arabs and the Holocaust (2009)

I think it’s unfortunate that we now occupy a discursive milieu in which accusations of racism are so easily made, and so often function to end debates that need to be pursued a few dozen steps before they reach closure. I don’t doubt that there are racist neo-secessionists as there are anti-Semitic anti-Zionists. What we desperately need are philosophers capable of saying, out loud, that neo-secessionism isn’t tantamount to racism any more than anti-Zionism is tantamount to anti-Semitism.

If you want to read an intelligent, non-racist, historically informed case for neo-secessionism, read Hummel’s Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men. If you want to read an intelligent, non-racist, historically informed case for anti-Zionism, read Gilbert Achcar’s The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives (Metropolitan, 2009). You may not agree with either author, but you won’t, after reading them, be able to insist that neo-secession means sympathy for slavery or Jim Crow, or anti-Zionism means Holocaust denial. Both books, I predict, will clear your mind of the weeds of conventional thought. To paraphrase an old song: clear your mind–the rest will follow.




  1. Just a historical note: the first secessionist movement came from abolitionists in the North.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Good point, too easily forgotten.


  3. I’d be curious to know what you think Hummel is wrong about.

  4. I am still trying to find the connection to the cover. Great album by the way.

  5. irfankhawaja says:

    Thanks. Actually, there’s a link to the song “Free Your Mind” at the end of the post, but none of the images are hyperlinked to anything.


  6. Right on. I understand the connection perfectly now ‘Free Your Mind’. Thanks for the response.

  7. irfankhawaja says:

    Oh, now I understand your question (I thought it was a technical one)–and I guess now you understand the connection.


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