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In 1846, 33 Yankee settlers along the northern banks of the Sacramento River became outraged at news the Mexican government of California would require them to become citizens, which would have meant converting to Catholicism. Led by Ezekiel Merritt, an illiterate, smelly, ill-mannered drunk, the rebels rode southward. They stole some Mexican army horses and kidnapped a Mexican general before joining freelancing U.S. Army Capt. John Fremont at the largely empty Mexican fort at Sonoma. There they declared California an independent republic. It became a state less than a month later.
I've always been fascinated by Merritt, the forgotten founding father who reputedly died drunk in a Placer County mining camp. Contemporary accounts describe a tobacco-spitting patriot with a California frame of mind reflected in "bloodshot eyes and a peculiar stuttering speech. His whole appearance and manner was that of a man moved by some revengeful intoxicating passion," according to the memoirs of an Army medic who met Merritt.
You can imagine my excitement last week when I caught up with a possible modern incarnation of Merritt. He's part of a renegade-minded group of Golden State residents who believe Christian doctrine is once again being unreasonably imposed upon Californians by a far-off central government. These patriots are now plotting a return to those halcyon summer weeks 158 years ago, when Californians were briefly on our own.
"[C]itizens on the West Coast are finding themselves increasingly disenfranchised from the conservative cultural domination of the large middle and southern sections of the country, dubbed by some pundits as 'Jesusland,'" reads a manifesto on the home page of www.moveoncalifornia.org, the official Web site of the Committee to Explore California Secession.
Adds CaliforniaMan, whom I met for lunch last week in a Financial District bistro, "No society lasts forever. Rome had its time, and it is no more. At some point, at some time, the United States is going to end. It might be best to give some thought as to how that should happen. I'd suggest a small step toward moving the world in a better direction would be for the state of California to strike off on its own."
CaliforniaMan, like his fellow secessionists, considers the Nov. 2 elections an earthly calamity in which evangelical fundamentalist Christians took over the U.S. government. He spent a week arguing with his wife over whether it was a good idea to quit his job and campaign full time to put an initiative on the ballot recommending that California secede.
"My wife thinks I'm crazy, so she wouldn't let me work on this. I have to do this interview under a cover of anonymity," he said, explaining the CaliforniaMan moniker. "I don't know if the people of California, including the people of California who live in my house, are ready for this."
With ground rules thus set, CaliforniaMan and I finished our onion soup and, later, parsed the benefits and costs of going solo, California-style.
SF Weekly: Secession? Seriously?
CaliforniaMan: Yeah. I think it's quite clear the values held by the vast majority of people in California are utterly incompatible with the people of the United States. And they would be very happy to see us go. And we would be happy to go.
SFW: Which values?
CM: The core value of the separation of religion from government is something the vast majority of the people in California believe in, and following from that, the tolerance for a life lived according to the values of the person -- reproductive freedom, not discriminating on basis of sexual orientation -- are held by the majority of Californians, but are increasingly unpopular in the United States as a whole.
SFW: So it's about religion, then?
CM: America was a product of the Enlightenment. There was a core belief in America that church and state could be separated. It does not look like this idea is supported any longer by the people of the United States.
SFW: Now, you'd mentioned an alternative ...
CM: I think a good alternative plan to secession is to have the European Union invade the United States. When Europe went fascist at the beginning of the century, the pendulum never turned back. It kept getting more fascist. It took the United States going in and saving them from themselves. They owe us an invasion now.
But I'm afraid people in Europe think this is our problem and not enough of a threat to risk their own lives. I wish they would wake up and realize that fundamentalism threatens the whole civilized world.
SFW: So this would be like Operation Iraqi Freedom?
CM: I think America would provide a better field for the Europeans after an invasion, because we have democratic institutions they can build on.
SFW: Would the Europeans then eradicate right-wing Christian fundamentalists?
CM: In the Marshall Plan, and in the de-Nazification programs, Americans used their judgment to install people in leadership positions who were going to abide by democratic values. I think that's the answer.
CM: You, Matt. I'm sure you'd make a good legislator.
SFW: Ha, ha. So I don't suppose the Europeans are going to invade. What happens next?
CM: I thought we could maybe put secession on the ballot, and maybe enough of the Republican voters in the rest of the U.S. would be happy to see California go. And we could work it out peacefully, and it would just be a parting of the ways.
SFW: Like Czechoslovakia?
CM: I think we have to only talk about a peaceful, mutual parting of the ways, and anything else would not make sense.
SFW: Would we have nuclear arms?
CM: No. We would have peaceful relations with our neighbors, as well as with all nations.
SFW: So what's the next step for CaliforniaMan?
CM: We'd do the ballot initiative first.
SFW: But that wouldn't get us out of the USA.
CM: At this point, it's about starting the dialogue.
SFW: Because that's what Californians do, right? We share our feelings?