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


Secession 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.

It 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.

Moreover, 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' The South Was Right!


I 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.

Kuhn's 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.

If 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.

Kuhn's 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.

Kuhn's 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.

But 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.


Kuhn's 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.

The 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.

Paving 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.


The 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.

The 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.

And 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.

The 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.


Trouble 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."

The 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.)

At 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.

We 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.

One 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.


Is 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.

And 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.

The 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.

Moreover, 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.

These 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.

November 25, 2000

Steven Yates has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and is the author of Civil 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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