Thomas S. Kuhn, the Culture War and the Idea of Secession

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is an uncomfortable topic. Most Americans probably still react to
the idea by saying that it was tried 140 years ago, and the result
was the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Many Libertarians want nothing
to do with it. Theirs and other third parties such as the Reform
Party continue to work under the assumption that today's statist
political system can be reformed from within, however much their
dismal showings at the voting booths suggest that this hope is quixotic.
Why this reaction? It has to do with the conceptual framework most
Americans are accustomed to. This framework postulates the United
States (i.e., the federal government) as a permanent entity, along
with any state's association with it, and that change is to be accomplished
through reform and modification, not separation. There is no place
in this framework for secession.

wasn't always like this. Our Declaration of Independence was, after
all, a declaration of secession from the British Empire. "When
in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people
to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another,
and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal
status to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them,
a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should
declare the causes which impel them to that separation." This
couldn't be clearer. Our country resulted from a secession.

the new republic, once established, was hardly as stable, initially,
as today's history books suggest. Secession was threatened a number
of times during its first 70 years by states or groups of states
both Northern and Southern on various pretexts. Of course, the War
for Southern Independence changed everything. Not only was secession
never again threatened, but those pre-War threats were purged from
the history books. They can be found today only in independently
published and distributed works such as that of the Kennedy brothers'
South Was Right


believe the work of the late historian and philosopher of science
Thomas S. Kuhn can shed some light on this. For those who aren't
familiar with his name, Kuhn penned what will likely be one of the
few philosophical works of the last 50 years with lasting, historical
importance: The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(orig. 1962). Even if
they have not read Kuhn's tract, most educated people have encountered
terms like paradigm and paradigm shift. They got them
through Kuhn's considerable influence. Kuhn didn't invent these
expressions, but they are now associated with his name.

was mainly a theory of science and its development over time. He
defined a paradigm as a "universally recognized scientific
achievement which for a time provides model problems and solutions
to a community of practitioners." This packs a lot of information
into a small space! A paradigm is the way the community practicing
a given science understands its corner of the universe. For example,
in physics, Aristotelians took the earth to be at rest, and located
at the center of all space. Isaac Newton and his followers, beginning
in the 17th century, understood the earth to be in motion,
circling the sun, in a universe without a center. Two quite different
physical theories grew out of these assumptions. There have obviously
been quite different answers to basic questions like: in the last
analysis, what is reality like? How do its fundamental components
interact with each other and with us? When a science acquires a
working set of answers to such questions in its own corner of the
world and establishes it sufficiently well that the next generation
can take the answers for granted and use them as a basis for further
research, it has a paradigm. Kuhn believed a science was not fully
mature until it had developed one.

paradigms are ways of understanding the portion of the world studied
by a given science, they condition the scientist's way of thinking
and seeing. He sees what he is trained to see, i.e., what his education
tells him is there. Things that don't fit the conceptual boxes provided
by a paradigm are either sources of acute discomfort, or are not
seen at all. However, some scientists (often younger and with less
of a stake in an established point of view) are more adventurous
than others. They become aware of problems that resist solution.
Apparently well-verified facts that don't fit the expectations set
by a paradigm are called anomalies. As anomalies multiply,
and particularly if they begin to suggest patterns that contradict
the fundamental assumptions of the paradigm, they become sources
of crisis, which develops when part of the scientific community
uses anomalies to cast doubt on a paradigm's assumptions. Scientific
revolutions, according to Kuhn, are relatively unstructured events
during which a paradigm is thrown out and another is chosen to replace
it. During the interim are sometimes intense debates over fundamentals
and battles over the acceptability of the new paradigm. Egos and
reputations are sometimes at stake. Normal science was the
term Kuhn used for paradigm-governed science. Revolutionary science
challenges the rules of the game in ways paradigms are not designed
to handle.

theory was controversial in his own field, history and philosophy
of science. Critics accused him of being a relativist, and depicting
science as a fundamentally irrational process (this was back in
the 1960s; during the more recent "postmodernist" era
these charges have lost most of their sting, because a good bit
of academic philosophy today is explicitly relativist and irrationalist).
I've never thought these accusations were valid. Kuhn offered a
description of science as an imperfect activity done by imperfect
human beings, working in an environment of uncertainty, in a specialized
community. Kuhn never took the view either that one paradigm is
as good as another (the ultimate consequence of relativism), or
that change is arbitrary, or that a paradigm is not adopted for
good reasons. He explicitly identified some of the latter, which
include an ability to solve the problems that got the old paradigm
into trouble, fruitfulness in solving new problems in unexpected
ways, a greater elegance or simplicity, etc.

description wasn't perfect, though. First, paradigms overlap significantly,
as they must. Some of Kuhn's remarks in Structure can leave
a careless reader with the impression that they don't. He sometimes
speaks of scientists with different paradigms as operating "in
different worlds." Second, the central events he tried to describe – scientific
revolutions – were not as sudden and unstructured as he made them
look. Kuhn's description of science was also incomplete. As involving
comprehensive views of reality, at least by implication, paradigms
appear to be either theistic (as was Newton's cosmology) or materialistic
(as was Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection). This
takes us into territory Kuhn nowhere explores. Kuhn's ideas are
incomplete in another respect. So close was his focus on physical
science that he did not notice that social sciences typically operate
with more than one paradigm in his sense of the term. Psychology,
for example, has had several for the past hundred years: behaviorism,
Freudianism, humanistic psychology, Gestalt psychology, among others,
all with research programs and purported applications of their own.
We would expect that once we turn our attention to human beings
and organizations of human beings, some of the rules change. A single
paradigm may not rise to complete dominance; or if it does, it may
not be able to replace alternatives.

paradigms clearly exist. When Newton's dynamics replaced Aristotle's
cosmology, fundamental assumptions about the nature of physical
reality changed. The same thing happened when Einstein's relativity
replaced Newton's dynamics – as least for the behavior of objects
moving at high speeds. Similar events can be found in other sciences,
such as when Lavoisier's chemistry replaced the phlogiston theory,
and when Darwin's theory of evolution replaced the creationist accounts
that existed at the time. No doubt we will see future scientific
revolutions. A team of physicists at Princeton now believes that
Einstein's constant c is not an absolute upper bound for
how fast something can travel after all. And biochemists such as
Michael Behe appeal to irreducible complexity to argue that natural
selection is incapable in principle of producing living systems
as complex as the human eye or brain.


ideas can still be used to illuminate how paradigms of society
develop and interact. In fact, if we look at the United States as
it was founded, and we look at the United States as it is today,
we should see how Kuhn's notion of a paradigm applies. If we shift
our focus from physical objects to human beings, and from physical
reality to human social reality (and, to some extent, the latter's
relation to the larger world), we see that the America of today
has been shaped by what we could call two paradigms of society.
The two are not compatible. The idea of secession fits into one
of them, if its advocates recognize this. It does not fit into the
other at all.

first paradigm of society involved the view that we have inalienable
rights as individuals (not as members of groups), and are also moral
agents with moral responsibility. According to the philosopher John
Locke, natural rights originate with God, as does the rest of common
morality. The absolute nature of rights in combination with the
essentially sinful nature of mankind makes government necessary.
Rights do not protect themselves; hence there is a need for an institution
the primary purpose of which is to safeguard individuals' rights,
punish those who infringe on the rights of others, and protect our
borders. Government is therefore created and granted a monopoly
on the use of powers no other institution has. Otherwise it is simply
an organization of ordinary mortals, with nothing special about
it. Hence it must be watched carefully; power must be obligated
to control itself. Government's actions must be limited by morally-grounded
laws that pre-exist it. With this as background, the Framers authored
the U.S. Constitution – the most explicit statement of the political
paradigm on which our republic was founded, the foundation for a
system based on the rule of law, not the arbitrary whims of kings
or other despots. The paradigm itself – like any paradigm – is larger
and broader in scope than any particular document. It involves an
entire way of looking at the world, and in the case of political
paradigms, at the human condition, which is imperfection and uncertainty.
It has problems to solve – this is the human condition. Its components
suggest avenues for tackling these problems.

the way for this paradigm of society on American soil was, obviously,
a revolutionary action that involved getting rid of the last residuals
of the idea that kings and despots could do as they pleased. The
Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document, as we
already noted. It articulated the problems a group of colonists
were having with the British Empire and set out to solve those problems – by
separation. In effect, it declared that the British paradigm was
invalid, and had no further claim on a people who would soon call
themselves Americans. It spelled out a new way of thinking. The
threat of secession and possible dissolution was a way of checking
the unbridled power of a central government. This threat would continue
to provide a check on power.


U.S. Constitution became the paradigmatic statement of how our federal
government was to be organized and what were to be its limits. In
the original paradigm of American society, concentrations of power
were not to be trusted. A few, whom history calls the Anti-Federalists,
distrusted centralization more than those history remembers as the
Federalists. Since that time, however, our society has largely jettisoned
that paradigm and embraced a different one. There wasn't, of course,
a single revolution but rather a slow, gradual process. But conceptual
revolutions, as we noted above, don't have to be sudden. In human
affairs, if the humans are not vigilant, they can occur almost unnoticed
for a long period of time.

replacement paradigm doesn't have a single central text, such as
a Constitution. But its components are not hard to identify. For
starters, materialism had already started to replace theism throughout
the so-called learned world. Materialistic accounts of the origin
of life were in vogue, and their application to society was on the
upswing. Focus was removed from any life in the Hereafter in favor
of life in this world exclusively. With God out of the picture,
the traditional origin of rights was in doubt. If God didn't exist
(or had simply absented Himself from human affairs), then He couldn't
very well have given us natural rights. Rights, proposed the alternative
paradigm, were granted not by any supernatural agency but by the
State, which had the highest authority. The door opened to the idea
of group rights, and began to close on individual rights. With God
gone from the picture, morality and moral responsibility needed
to be overhauled. According to the new paradigm in the making, morality
is dependent on culture: you ought to do what your culture tells
you is the right thing to do. This, of course, does introduce various
forms of cultural and ethical relativism. Moreover, why the limitations
on the power of the State? These limitations were proving oh-so-inconvenient
for those, in both expanding government and expanding industry,
who preferred what Albert Jay Nock would call the political means
of getting things done, as opposed to the much harder economic means.
And so, under the new paradigm, the State began to expand.

then the South upset the apple cart by attempting to secede. The
South was still primarily agrarian. Much of the original paradigm
was still intact here, as well as elsewhere on the frontier. This
included the belief that government ought to be limited, including
in its powers to tax and impose tariffs. And it included the idea
of secession. The War for Southern Independence was the first turning
point in what was to become an ongoing struggle between the two
paradigms of society. The more industrialized, more materialistic
North won the first battle hands down, and so far as the victors
were concerned, the idea of whether states could legally secede
had been settled. They did not notice that it had been settled by
the raw exercise of force, not deliberation or the rule of law.
But we were seeing the slow rise of a paradigm of society in which
the idea of secession had no place – that of empire, as opposed
to Constitutional republic. Federal troops continued to occupy Southern
states for over ten years following General Lee's surrender. They
left in their wake a ruined countryside and an embittered, resentful
population. One of the most prosperous regions of the country had
been transformed into one of the poorest – materially, at least. Many
rural areas never did recover, and remain poor to this day. The
idea of secession was all but extinguished until very recently – including
from the history books.

Progressive Era ensued. One of its most important legacies was the
doctrine of the "living Constitution," reinterpreted to
fit supposedly changed circumstances. The idea would have been unintelligible
to the document's authors. But it fits with the idea of the rising
paradigm of society, which placed ultimate authority in the State,
not the Transcendent. In the 1930s, the new paradigm implicitly
guided the creation and build-up of the welfare state. While the
old paradigm viewed government as, as Bastiat put it, "the
attempt by everyone to live at the expense of everyone else,"
the new paradigm regarded it as capable of being all things to all
people. Part of its job was to take care of everyone by creating
"social safety nets" beyond what families had traditionally
done for their members, and communities for struggling families
through volunteer efforts. The new paradigm, that is, saw the State
as fundamentally benign. Moreover, the greatest State in history
had a duty to perform: becoming the world's policeman. A bit pushy
from time to time, perhaps, but the primary denizens of government – politicians
and armies – meant well. Thus grew the welfare-warfare state. And,
with characteristic arrogance, those building it up came to see
their creation as the culmination of history. As history's crowning
achievement, the Washington Empire would escape the fate of former
empires and be permanent. This view permeated "public education,"
and was largely responsible for the sense of permanence, even invulnerability,
we noted at the outset.


that had previously festered below the surface began to erupt openly
in the 1960s, with the flaunting of what had been conventions of
polite society (rooted, obviously, in the old paradigm). When the
Berkeley Free Speech Movement defended the freedom to use whatever
foul language its members enjoyed using in public, without restriction,
the concept of freedom inherent in the new paradigm emerged. While
the old paradigm had understood freedom as a social value that required
individuals to behave with moral restraint, the new paradigm introduced
the idea that freedom meant freedom to do whatever one wants – without
restraint. All else is "unjust" or "repressive."

new paradigm, using political correctness as its enforcement wing,
has now captured our main institutions – having begun with the universities
and the legal system and moving outward from there. One of its own
reached the White House in 1992. Despite the scandals and the evidence
of its own repressive nature, political correctness has gained the
support of a widening segment of the public – to the point where such
obviously beneficial organizations as the Boy Scouts of America
are under attack for refusing to allow practicing homosexuals to
be scoutmasters. A small businessman finds large grocery store chains
refusing to carry his products because he flies the Confederate
flag over his places of business. There are countless other examples,
some relatively unknown because the media does not report them.
(Recall the Kuhnian observation that the things that do not fit
into the dominant paradigm are often not seen. According to the
new paradigm, straight white Christian males are inherently oppressive
and prone to bigotry and even violence, while other groups are victims.
So evidence of bigotry and violence directed against them by designated
victim groups is simply not reported.)

the Republican Convention of 1992, Pat Buchanan took the stage and
told the truth: we are in a culture war, a battle to define America.
The culture war is actually the struggle between advocates of the
two paradigms of society. Buchanan was widely condemned in the media,
and still is. Republicans took over Congress in 1994, but the "Gingrich
Revolution" turned out to be a joke. Since then, one side has
continued to rack up victories – partly because the other cannot seem
to figure out the rules of the game. Kuhn observed that adherents
of different paradigms do not necessarily play by the same rules.
In the political realm, if one side plays a principled contest and
simply assumes that the other will do likewise, this is a recipe
for disaster – as we should have learned from our contests with Communism.

had better learn it from our present contests with the Washington
Empire, and from the use of political correctness by those now in
power – in government, in the media, in the universities, in gigantic
corporations such as Wal-Mart, and elsewhere. The new paradigm is
sufficiently entrenched that efforts to reform it are unlikely to
be effective. This calls for strategies other than mere reform.
Reform is a normal activity; what is needed is something
more – well – revolutionary, in the sense that it challenges
the new paradigm itself, not this or that aspect of it. The architects
of the original paradigm of society regarded secession as a legitimate
strategy. This needs to be emphasized now for defenders of liberty
of all stripes. It is worth noting that ten years ago, intellectually
serious discussions of secession were almost unheard of. Today,
new scholarly writings dealing with various aspects of the subject
are appearing every year. Some of these, such as that of Charles
Adams, reconsider Southern secession and invite readers to question
the usual explanation of that war, which is that it was fought over
slavery – or, at least, that the slavery issue is overplayed. Others
consider the possibility of an independent Southern Republic in
the future. It is unfortunate, though, that the discussion focuses
mainly on the South, for there are independence movements elsewhere
in the territory claimed by the Washington Empire: Hawaii, Alaska,
Montana, Arizona, Utah, and no doubt others. These merit more attention
than they have so far received. Moreover, since the breakup of the
Soviet Empire, topics such as devolution have become part of the
political climate. The number of independent nations has increased
dramatically in just the past ten years, and the split between what
is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia proves that separation can
be accomplished peacefully if both sides recognize that peaceful
separation is in everyone's best interest. What is needed is an
instance of such separation that has not taken place halfway around
the world.

of Kuhn's lessons is that efforts to change the dominant paradigm
at the fundamental level (as opposed to making this or that minor
reform) are invariably ignored, at least at first. If noticed, they
can be taken as threats. Challenges to a troubled paradigm in the
physical sciences were sometimes seen as challenges to science itself.
Challenges to a troubled paradigm of society can, likewise, be seen
as challenges to social order. Think here of the efforts by groups
such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to brand groups such as
the League of the South as "hate groups," using a strategy
that has been effective in the past: most people shy off from the
threat of being called racists or haters.


planning for eventual secession anywhere a realistic strategy? The
question is not merely academic; this is serious business. Obviously,
nowhere on American soil at present is a group capable of declaring
independence from Washington and giving its declaration teeth. If
some group, e.g., took control of a small town and cordoned it off
with barricades, the result could well make what happened to the
Branch Davidians look like a schoolyard brawl by comparison. Currently,
no one interested in the idea has the resources, and it is going
to take time to build them up. It will help if advocates of the
idea win election to local offices, school boards, etc., beginning
their own "long march through the institutions." They
will have to show that they can address workaday problems like fixing
the potholes in the streets and keeping the school buses operational.
In short, they cannot appear to be obsessed with ideas that will
make them seem crazy to those whose support could be invaluable.

then, patience will be the key. Other events may make the
job easier. Quebec's ongoing efforts to secede from the rest of
Canada will force discussion of the idea here. Quebec has already
largely seceded culturally and economically. A vote to secede politically
back in 1996 lost by a surprisingly slim margin. The next vote might
not lose. The result will be the addition of one independent nation
to the North American roster, and a precedent that will be impossible
to ignore. According to Joel Garreau, writing in a book that proved
to be decades ahead of its time, "nine nations of North America"
have been developing increasingly divergent cultures for some time
now. Economic secession must come next, in order to establish self-sufficiency – which
obviously must be in place before any explicit act of political
secession can hope to succeed.

most we can recommend is to continue building up a scholarship and
strategy around the idea of secession. And then to wait until
the time is right. One of Kuhn's themes is that dominant paradigms
get into increasing trouble when they cannot handle anomalies – patterns
of well-verified facts or events that throw cold water on their
basic assumptions. And today, the anomalies are accumulating. The
Washington Empire cannot really produce prosperity; rather, it must
tax and micromanage everything in sight. There are no federal "surpluses,"
its propaganda machine notwithstanding. The Washington Empire must
conduct overseas excursions into little countries where its interests
are not at stake. Its efforts to increase entitlements for everyone
at the expense of those who work for a living are a serious drain
on the economy. We are told almost daily that the economy is "booming";
yet in over 60 percent of families, both parents have to work to
make ends meet. Now, the hunger for power has reached the point
where those in power can no longer conduct a national election,
however close, without one of the sides (the Gore brigades) showing
that they will do almost anything to come out on top.

the materialism and hedonism associated with the secular outlook – a
central component of the Empire paradigm of society – has produced
a culture characterized by rootless youth and young adults, obsessed
with sex, with huge numbers of abortions, out-of-wedlock births
and sexually transmitted diseases; a culture of random violence
and so-called road rage; a culture of shocking levels of rudeness
(e.g., cell phones going off in theaters and even during church
services); a culture where the stress level is steadily rising.
This is because materialism is, in the final analysis, a philosophy
of reality and therefore of society which ultimately holds out no
hope, and promises only the extinction of the individual at death.
In the meantime we do as much "busywork" as we can, and
enjoy as many distractions as we can, to avoid facing that idea.

social anomalies and perplexities will continue to accumulate until
they reach critical mass – and probably in the not-too-distant
future. Quebec may have left Canada and provided the legal precedent.
Our society will look more like Bladerunner
than 2001:
A Space Odyssey
. The Washington Empire will have its hands
full, just preventing social disintegration, as the masses of "victims"
demand still more entitlements and it has nothing left to offer
them. Then – assuming God Himself has not intervened in the
meantime – the dominant paradigm of society will shift. Secession
will again become a live option, and not just in the South, either.

25, 2000

has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of
Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action
(ICS Press,
1994). He is at work on two manuscripts tentatively entitled View
From the Gallery and The Paradox of Liberty, and also
lectures occasionally. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.

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