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How to Start Your Own Country: A Primer

Is Sealand better than Canada? Do micronations have tiny fights? Filmmaker Jody Shapiro explains the weird world of DIY democracies.

| Mon Mar. 7, 2011 5:00 AM EST
President Kevin Baugh of Molossia.

Last month, Southern Sudan overwhelmingly approved a referendum to sever its ties with the rest of the country, ending a decades-long civil war between the north and south. Almost immediately, President Barack Obama announced that the US would recognize Southern Sudan as an independent state, bringing the total number of countries recognized by Uncle Sam to 195. The total number of countries not recognized by the United States? That's a bit higher.

While places like Kurdistan and Somaliland might occupy more of the government's time, the ranks of aspiring nations are filled with DIY democracies—places like North Dumpling Island in Long Island Sound, and Molossia in (or surrounded by) northern Nevada—that are often equipped with little more than a flag, an anthem, and a back porch. It's these communities, known as micronations, that Canadian filmmaker Jody Shapiro set out to profile in his latest documentary, How to Start Your Own Country. Mother Jones spoke with Shapiro recently about micro-national alliances, the future of the nation-state, and what happens when the mother country doesn't get the joke.

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Mother Jones: Your last project was about the sex lives of insects that live in your garden—how do you go from that to micronations?

Jody Shapiro: Well I had no idea about this phenomenon, really. I found this book that was written by Erwin Strauss called How to Start Your Own Country. I just thought it was this incredible idea—I had no idea that people around the world were actually doing this.

MJ: I don't mean to put you on the spot, but I'll do it anyway: How many countries are there in the world?

JS: We actually set up a meeting [at the UN] with a spokesperson in the secretary general's office, and one of the very first questions we asked was what you just asked me. And their official answer was, "We are not an authority on the topic. Please consult your local library or world almanac." They actually refused to answer that question! I think the United League of Micronations claims that there's something like 567 countries or something like that in the world.

MJ: The United League of Micronations—is that a real thing?

JS: We tried to contact the folks, and we never got a response from anybody. So who knows!

In Sealand, you get your passport stamped, you use their currency, you hear their anthem, you see their flag, you read their constitution. Who says it's not a country?

MJ: After doing the research for the film, how many nations do you recognize?

JS: It's hard to say. Some places—like Sealand and Hutt River Principality—I had a hard time finding somebody to give me a convincing argument why these places could not be considered countries. You go there, you get your passport stamped, you get a visa, you use their currency, you hear their anthem, you see their flag, you read their constitutions. When I left there, I felt like I was actually leaving somebody's sovereign territory.

MJ: In the film you say there are hundreds of micronations being formed, every year—what's the average lifespan for these things?

JS: It's a loose term right now. It fits from anywhere from a kid in a parent's basement, declaring his own virtual community, to places like Hutt River—that's been around for 40 years now. I think some places will last for years; others will fold down the minute their parents kick them out of their house or something like that.

MJ: With the rest of the world stacked against them, it would seem that there's an incentive for micronations to form alliances with each other. Does that happen at all?

JS: There was a connection between Hutt River and Seborga—they've done some trade summits or something. I know that Molossia has hosted a micronational Olympics. I know that [it's] also been at war with some other places.

MJ: What happens when micronations fight?

JS: I think it probably resembles a game of Battleship or something like that [laughing]. But then there's the story of Sealand. Somebody really tried to take it over, and they had to literally fight their way back on and deal with these criminals (as they called them), without the interference of the UK police or other law enforcement. Gregory Green of Caroline, whether you believe him or not, says he's a nuclear nation.

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