Now is a wonderful time in New York’s history, in spite of orange alerts, million-dollar co-ops, and $2 subway rides. It’s clean, it’s safe; there’s a real swing to the city’s stride. The food’s probably never been better, our bars are smoke-free, and the mayor, for the first time in decades, has a shot at turning around our public schools. Every kid who watched Friends wants to go to college here. Every foreign somebody who’s anybody wants an apartment here. Why secede?
That’s exactly why. The city is no longer the land of Taxi Driver; it’s the land of the Today show and You’ve Got Mail. We no longer fear other New Yorkers. What we fear are more attacks from terrorists, and it’s hard to escape the suspicion that our prolonged association with the United States, at least this United States, does not make us safer. From a political perspective, it seems legitimate to ask whether this city still shares the DNA of its parent country, or whether, at this point, we’ve mutated into something else—something closer to Europe in values and aesthetics and philosophy, or perhaps something entirely different. With globalization, our physical place is becoming incidental. The whole world over seems to be fragmenting as it’s connecting: In Italy, the Northern League is contemplating breaking away; Scotland again has its own Parliament; Paris seems to be moving in a different direction from the rest of France, perhaps because it’s diversifying; and the same appears to be true of London.
Following September 11, the conventional wisdom was that New York officially became a part of America. The nation swept us in: We got fire trucks from Louisiana and rescue workers from Texas; visitors from around the country opened their wallets, their minds, their hearts. But we’ll never be a red state. New York is the spiritual home and cash machine of the modern Democratic Party, the party that believes in nuance and nation-building. It’s the city of the United Nations. (From diplomats, one often hears that whenever a discussion about moving the U.N. arises, the same objection always comes up: No one wants to leave New York.) Most New Yorkers wouldn’t own guns even if they were allowed, and tens of thousands of them protested the Iraq War. We’re from Venus. It’s the rest of the country that’s from Mars.
“I knew I couldn’t live in America and I wasn’t ready to move to Europe, so I moved to an island off the coast of America—New York City,” said the late Spalding Gray, the quintessential New Yorker. “It was a place that tolerated differences and could incorporate them and embrace them, which was what America was supposed to be about and wasn’t. So it was the melting pot that was a purée rather than individual vegetables. I think of New York as a purée and the rest of the United States as vegetable soup.”
In the ideal secession fantasy, New York would keep the extra billions it sends to Washington and Albany and instead spend it on the things that are dearest to us: education, housing, health care, more cops, inspections of our ports. But since we’re losing the economies of scale, we’d have to scale back our own demands somewhat: health care, yes, but single-payer. Social Security, but it might have to be privatized. It’d be both liberal and libertarian. Sweden crossed with Argentina, with a shot of Bermuda (do your offshore banking here!). Vermont crossed with Texas, with a shot of Delaware (make us your out-of-state corporate headquarters!). Part red, part blue: not a bad flag.
The financial snubs the city regularly gets from Congress feel uncomfortably like taxation without representation—a condition that has had ominous consequences before.
But let’s face it: Secession is pretty much impossible, and any clear-thinking semi-sentient person who knows anything about New York would say so. It’s how civil wars get started, for one thing. Even the comparatively benign custody battles involving the Port Authority are enough to put anyone off the task—Who gets control of the GW and the Goethals, and who gets the toll booty? Are we supposed to establish border patrols at the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, when truckers already bitch about how hard it is to get into Manhattan? Is JFK now a white elephant on the sea? But still, let’s say we try. Elizabeth Economy, the C.V. Starr senior fellow in Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, is an expert on Singapore, one of the world’s few city-states, and therefore a potential model for an independent New York (minus the authoritarianism, of course, and minus the caning). Its primary challenges, she says, are creating an economic niche in a global economy and protecting itself.
Certainly, this city already has an economic niche: Wall Street. The problem is that we depend rather heavily on it. As Wall Street’s fortunes go, so go the city’s. Would an independent New York be enough to survive a downturn in the global economy? Worse, if New York City seceded, would the financial center of the United States find its way elsewhere?
Defending ourselves would be even harder. It’s true that on September 11, New York’s first-responders were its own army. But New York did (eventually) get plenty of national assistance. FEMA came in, as did the National Guard, as did the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fire Department from the Department of the Interior. Washington sent stockpiles of drugs. It also retaliated against Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden. But if New York, the independent nation, were attacked again, it’s highly likely that we’d depend on international assistance—not just from the United States but perhaps even from Old Europe, the same way small countries get aid from large ones now. (“What are we going to do?” asks Mitchell Moss. “Contract the Israeli Army to respond?”)
One possible way around this issue would be for New York to become a territory or commonwealth, like Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands or Guam or Samoa. We’d be extended American military protection; we wouldn’t need new passports to visit our friends in the suburbs; we’d collect Social Security; our commerce could continue, uninterrupted and duty-free. But of course, the United States would need to agree to this arrangement. “Most territories and commonwealths,” notes Felix Mathos Rodriguez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, “are totally ad hoc. They’re a marriage of convenience in history.”
At any rate, defending New York wouldn’t be impossible. “The NYPD’s intelligence unit is better than the FBI by far,” says Gelb. Presumably, we’d get intelligence from our allies. And as we recently learned, the State Department’s intelligence bureau, which has barely any infrastructure or budget, read the tea leaves on Iraq better than anyone else. Perhaps, in the end, what we New Yorkers would have to do is redefine our conception of defense. Our primary mission would be to defend ourselves and only ourselves, just like the Swiss: There’d be no training to fight in deserts or the Arctic, no heavy equipment devoted to razing jungles and boring into caves. Install a couple of surface-to-air missiles under the Brooklyn Heights promenade and call it a day. Or better yet, let Donald Trump build a fortress on the West Side, paint it gold, and crown it with his name in four-story neon lights. That would scare off any barbarians at the gate, sure as a Scud.
All that’d be left would be normalizing relations with the United States. It’d be ugly at first, but eventually we’d find that special someone, that perfect ambassador who both speaks the red-state language but still unambiguously represents New York. Again, I’m thinking the Donald. I have two words for you, Mr. Trump: You’re hired.