After seven years living in North Carolina I made my stand about the Civil War: the South was wrong about the slaves but may have been onto something about the politics.

What I meant was that many of the fights about politics in the United States today come from the country simply being too big to be manageable. The language about Washington, D.C., being “broken” and needing to be “fixed” seems to me to come from the wrong semantic field; we’re not talking about a plumbing issue—it’s more like obesity. The vital organs of the capital are under major pressure servicing a body that’s just too large. I thought North Carolina was a nice size for a country. It had mountains and coastline, rural areas and cities, and a diverse population of a tidy 10 million. That was plenty.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I face what may be the most significant day of self-understanding for the people of the United Kingdom in my lifetime—the September 18 referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country. In principle I’m all for devolved authority and the flourishing of free peoples; yet surely nationalism got a good airing in the 20th century and showed us beyond reasonable doubt that it’s a dangerous, inhospitable, and ugly thing. Either way, the United Kingdom is poised to decide on what’s been dubbed the greatest act of self-mutilation in its history. Just imagine a Union Jack flag with the white St. Andrew’s cross removed from it. And the English, for the most part, whether modest or dumbfounded, are saying nothing about it.