Have you ever had one of those moments when you gazed across and did not recognize your fellow Americans?
I find myself in the middle of one. Not that there is anything new or novel about the sensation. Surely the Prohibitionists felt this way, gazing across at the antic flappers of the gin-soaked 1920s. Probably the button-down men of the 1950s felt it, wearing their identical suits on their identical trains en route to their identical jobs while the beat generation mocked the very notion of identity. Certainly the hard hats of the 1960s felt it, swatting truncheons against their palms as they stared across police barricades at the long-hairs whose flouting of cultural, sexual, religious and racial mores threatened them in ways too primal to express.
I felt it last week, that jolt of unrecognition, that instant of worry for the state - and future - of the Union. Not because of the so-called "teabag" protests on April 15. No, it was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking after one such demonstration, who made the moment surreal.
"When we came into the Union in 1845," he told reporters, "one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that. My hope is that America, and Washington in particular, pay attention. We've got a great Union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what may come of that?"
You may read it twice if you wish, but it does not improve upon repetition. To the contrary, it becomes all the more incredible. That is, indeed the Republican governor of Texas - not a yahoo from some group of gun-toting goobers that meets in the woods, but the honorable James Richard Perry himself - saying Texas doesn't like the way things are going in this country and suggesting that if we don't get our act together, his state might take its mountains and rivers and go home.
For the record, Texas last tried that in 1861. It didn't work out so well.
That it is borderline traitorous for Perry to obliquely threaten it might be tried again goes without saying. That it is dangerously irresponsible in a nation where there are, in fact, goobers in the woods with guns, is likewise obvious.
And no, I am not unaware of the legal theses which hold that any state has the right to leave the Union, though I tend to agree with Abraham Lincoln that the nation that would stand passively by and watch itself disintegrate is unworthy of the name.
For all that, though, I am not here to debate the feasibility of secession which is not, after all, a clear and pressing danger. No, I just find myself wondering what it says about us that secession even enters the discussion.
I suppose Perry is just the conservative analog to all those dispirited Democrats who threatened to relocate to Canada four years ago when George W. was re-elected. But isn't it telling that leaving the Union or sundering it has now been floated as a possibility by the losers in two consecutive elections? In a sense, it feels as if secession has already occurred, except that it's not geographical but, rather, what columnist Michael Gerson has dubbed a "spiritual secession," a nation of extremes pulling away from the center, rejecting the very idea of common cause.
Perry's words have made him a hero out on the angry fringes of conservatism. Those of us who do not live on that fringe can only mourn this new reality in which ideology supersedes country. Country, after all, is supposed to be that which pulls us back together after everything else - politics, race, religion - has conspired to pull us apart.
But there are too many days lately when it does not. And too many days when you find yourself wondering if anything still can.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132.
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