Look Homeward, America: Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists

In Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists he means to show us “the better America, the real America” that has existed and still exists under the surface of “the televised America.”

This “real” America is full of “holy fools and backyard radicals,” “third parties, quixotic crusades, border bandits, charlatans, and raggedy-ass preachers on the political fringe,” “Jewish Confederates, Latin Mass Catholics, Ed Abbeyesque tree-hugging beer-can throwers, radical businessmen who admired Jerry Brown, and gay Quakers who campaigned for Pat Buchanan.”

The “real” America is “provincial, parochial, isolationist” (and he means all that in a good way), agrarian, regional, cooperative, and rooted — “Jeffersonian”. It has been fighting a losing battle with the rootless pioneer, the cosmopolitan urbanite, the space-age corporate technophile, and the centralizing imperialist nanny-stater.

Kauffman opens his book by writing: “I am an American Patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an Anarchist… the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day…”

You might think this could mean a lot of things, but you’d be wrong: it means an insanely tremendous variety of things. Kauffman is an “anarchist” who worked for and admires Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he sees role models in the pacifist Dorothy Day and the gun-loving militia founder Carolyn Chute, he stands up for homeschoolers and stay-at-home moms but also for opponents of Mother’s Day, he has good things to say about Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver and post-left anarchist Bob Black, he praises anti-union conservative Robert Taft nearly in the same breath as Wobbly organizer Mother Jones, America-First Republican Robert La Follette along with Democrat Eugene McCarthy, and revolutionary abolitionist John Brown alongside Millard “Fugitive Slave Act” Fillmore.

Is there any common thread remaining here? Mostly it is that Kauffman loves a lovable loser: “ ‘So let us think about the people who lost,’ said William Appleman Williams. That’s what I do.”

This is one of the great flaws of his book. He loves the Millard Fillmore who lost later third-party presidential campaigns, but the Fillmore who actually wielded power he can praise only for his eagerness to prevent the Civil War — a pursuit that ultimately lost, of course, and one that is only really praiseworthy if you ignore that Fillmore’s war-delaying compromises only intensified the ongoing war-like injustice of slavery.

Similarly, Kauffman has to stretch to praise the New Deal liberal that was Senator Eugene McCarthy, but the Gene McCarthy whose political-suicide bombing of LBJ’s campaign led to his banishment into the land of third parties and write-in candidacies — that McCarthy is one Kauffman can get behind whole-heartedly. Kauffman is hilariously willing to accept even the most transparently insincere rhetorical boilerplate to try and redeem McCarthy from his past legislative accomplishments:

[McCarthy] scorned the “bureaucratic control” that “deprives the individual of all sense of individual initiative, and nourishes the belief that he can do nothing if it is not planned and organized and somehow fitted into a pattern of action.”

And the Daniel Patrick Moynihan who wrote welfare state position papers, served in the Senate and as ambassador to the United Nations, and held positions in multiple presidential administrations — well that Moynihan was kind of a jerk, really. But the affable drunk Daniel Patrick Moynihan who used to sit nearly-alone in the Senate chamber for the yearly ironic recitation of George Washington’s Farewell Address — why that’s the sort of gentleman we need more of in the Capitol!

Kauffman’s voted for the losers and hopes to do so again: Jesse Jackson in and , Pat Buchanan in , Al Sharpton in the primary, and Ralph Nader in . His prediction for ? “I suppose I’ll vote for Feingold in the primaries (is he at all in the LaFollette tradition?) and an antiwar 3rd-party candidate in . Both will lose big. Has a drearily inevitable ring, doesn’t it?”

It does, a bit.

In a book that so praises ordinary home-makers and regionally-focused Americans, and for one written by someone who calls himself an anarchist, I find it strange that national politicians represent such a large percentage of the praiseworthy: there’s Moynihan, McCarthy, and Fillmore, whom I’ve already mentioned, but pages are also devoted to Barry Goldwater, Thomas Jefferson, Barber Conable, Augustus Frank Jr., Seth Gates, Clement L. Vallandigham, Stephen Douglas, and so forth.

Kauffman explains: “On my walls I have images not only of American writers and saints (Sarah Orne Jewett, Dorothy Day, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe — the Tar Heel, Gore Vidal) but politicians, too — Conable, Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Debs, Burton K. Wheeler, Robert Taft. ¶ Our history, including political history, is so rich with honorable, grounded, authentic men and women. They’re largely written out of the narrative. I write ’em back in.”

Am I too cynical? I don’t know any Washington politicians personally. Do you suppose that if I had a chance to have a sit-down chat with Representative So-and-so I’d come away thinking I’d spent some time with an authentic, honorable, nice person? I’d probably find Rep. So-and-so “charming,” since charm is, after all, a big part of the politician’s art. But we all know the kinds of choices and compromises that you have to make to play the game in Washington, and to get the votes back home. Honorable & nice people don’t make those kinds of choices and compromises.

Kauffman believes that somewhere in his “real” America, not far under the surface of the real America, there are citizen representatives of a noble sort, who strap on their lances and go forth to fight for good in Washington, just as they do in old Hollywood movies or in civics textbooks.

Take the former Representative from his neighborhood, Barber B. Conable Jr., for instance: “without question the greatest statesman Upstate [New York] has ever produced, the son of rural pacifists and intellectual farmers, a man of extraordinary rectitude and integrity and intelligence and wit. Exactly what the Founders had in mind. He was a kind of decentralist Republican, which is a breed of cat I like, but his character is why I not only admired but revered him.” It’s a strange decentralist who serves as president of the World Bank but we might as well ignore that — Kauffman does.

It reminds me of those polls that regularly show the public to have a low opinion of politicians and legislators… except for the ones that represent their own districts and states. Takes a lot of sheep to make that much wool to pull over that many eyes.

What kind of “anarchist” is Kauffman anyway? My first suspicions came early in the book when he criticized Pat Moynihan for being too timid to buck his liberal supporters and follow his conscience by publicly criticizing abortion. Kauffman followed this by giving a disclaimer about his own position on abortion:

…I should mention that I oppose any and all abortion legislation, pro or con, at the national level, and would see its legality determined at the most local level possible.

What on earth could an anarchist mean by this, unless by “the most local level possible” he meant at the level of the living fetus (a “pro-life anarchist” position) or the level of the mother (a “pro-choice anarchist” position) — and if he meant one of those, why didn’t he just say so rather than couching it in talk of “legality”?

I feel bad that I’ve jumped into my criticisms of this book so quickly, since I did enjoy it, and found it to be a thought-provoking read and a useful corrective to my own prejudices and inclinations — I’m an urban, technophilic, cosmopolitan, rootless sort, myself.

When I think of my American influences, the first names that come to mind are authors like Fitz Hugh Ludlow, Ernest Hemingway, and William S. Burroughs: rootless travellers all — even Thoreau who wrote of rootedness in the course of writing about his travels. I like the blues that went to Chicago from the Mississippi delta to chase the war economy, and the blues that went back to Africa to come back again on “world music” discs from Ali Farka Touré.

I grew up in San Luis Obispo, California and now live in San Francisco; my parents came to San Luis Obispo from San Jose and Fresno by way of schools and careers away from home. Their parents came to California from South Dakota, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Their parents in turn came from Wisconsin, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, and Nebraska (and my Nebraska-born great-grandmother who died in California, on my mom’s side, wasn’t the parent of my Nebraska-born grandmother who died in California, who was on my dad’s). I may be leaving out a few states for lack of information by this point.

When we visited relatives when I was a kid, grandparents, aunts, and uncles all lived in different cities. Nowadays I’m hardly in touch with my extended family at all.

In short, this America where families watch over homes and farms that are passed down from generation to generation, and who teach their children to make crafts and sing songs that have a distinctly regional flavor, and who send citizen-representatives to Congress from families that everyone knows personally and can vouch for — all this is about as real to me as a land in which the knights of the round table battle dragons to rescue damsels in distress.

And I’m about as skeptical that this “real” America Kauffman writes of is really real as I am of dragons. I recently read Joan Didion’s latest book about California, Where I Was From, in which she puts California’s many creation-and-fall myths under the historical microscope and sees them dissolve into fairy tales. Kauffman’s tales of a lost Jeffersonian democracy seem mighty similar.

Every generation has a glass-half-empty contingent that sees itself as at the tail end of some golden age that is being undermined by carpetbaggers, immigrants, and greedy outsiders, who are destroying worthwhile age-old traditions for money and some short-sighted vision of progress. Each generation forgets that what drew them or their immigrant ancestors in the first place wasn’t age-old tradition, but a hope for something new and lucrative.

(Just , when I arrived on the beach at Cabo Pulmo on the tip of Baja, our Green Tortoise tour group was verbally assaulted from off-shore by a hirsute gringo kayaker who, in perfectly vile and unaccented English, cursed us “Schwarzenegger Californian wannabe-hippies” in our “tourist wagon” for coming in and spoiling his untouched local beach.)

Kauffman’s eagerness to cherry-pick the good parts of a politician’s record, or the “real” America from the real America, makes him the perfect mark for romantic myths of this sort, and as he isn’t writing in order to convince the skeptics he doesn’t give these myths much critical attention.

Instead, he devotes his attention to exemplars. He discusses the “regionalist” art movement of folks like Grant Wood (“American Gothic”) and John Steuart Curry, and other Americans who have a regional or at least anti-cosmopolitan bent like Charles Fenno Hoffman, Jay G. Sigmund, Robert Gard, Alexander Drummond, Meredith Willson and Charles Ives.

Not all of these regionalists are quite in tune with Kauffman’s program, in spite of his enthusiasm for them. It “boggles the mind,” Kauffman writes, that Meredith Willson “composed a march for Gerald Ford’s Whip Inflation Now program.”

His mind keeps being boggled by things like this because he so wants his scattershot heroes to represent something like a movement, odd birds of many a feather that nonetheless flock together.

Carolyn Chute is one of these odd birds, a best-selling novelist who founded a “militia” (shortly after ) — a flock that included, in her words, “guys in camo, hippies, bikers, old ladies, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Marxists, Libertarians, John Birchers. It was so cute!”

Chute comes across as a hard-to-pigeonhole leftie/rightie curmudgeon, equal parts Whole Earth Catalog and Loompanics catalog.

Her anti-compulsory public education radicalism resonated with me. I last did time for civil disobedience unexpectedly after I handed out leaflets to local high school students as they left campus for lunch — leaflets that encouraged them to take their equivalency tests and get the hell out of the public school mills before losing their minds. Alas, I included a reprint of that old Yippie pamphlet The School Stopper’s Textbook as an appendix, and its exhortation to “break into your school at night and burn it down” was taken seriously enough (in spite of the steel-and-stone non-combustibility of the school in question) to earn me a handful of felony charges for allegedly encouraging minors to commit arson.

Chute, for her part, recklessly says that “We need to blow up the schools and throw all the TVs into Boston Harbor. We do not want anybody in the schools when we blow them up. In fact, it would be rather nice if 80 percent of the population supported the effort. A great circle of people all holding hands will surround each brick fluorescent-lit school building. Songs of liberty will be sung. Flags will be waved. A cute 99-year-old retired schoolteacher will toss the first stick of dynamite.”

You go, Carolyn Chute! And good luck at getting that 80%.

In Kauffman’s essay Why I’m Not Ashamed to be an American, with which he concludes the book, he starts by quoting the American rock musician John Fogerty, who explained away the shame he felt for his country over Vietnam and Watergate by saying that “The people in power aren’t my country” but that his country “was the Grand Canyon and my friends and neighbors.”

Kauffman accepts this at face value. He too wants to be able to be proud of being an “American” because of things like “the Grand Canyon and my friends and neighbors” or (his list) “volunteer fire departments, …baseball, …wizened spinsters who… write and self-publish books on the histories of their little towns, …the farmwives and grain merchants and parsons and drunkards who made their places live…”

Why not just say that you like volunteer fire fighters and baseball? Why bring “America” into all of that? Why is it important for a localist, a regionalist, an anarchist, to have and to defend an “American” identity? I don’t get it. If you love regional, local things so much, why attach the ballast of a national identity to them?

It reads like someone in writing “Why I Am Not Ashamed to be a German” and going on about the smiling faces of kindergartners and the brilliant mind of Goethe and saying that Hitler isn’t the “real” Germany at all, while meanwhile the real Germany keeps doing things that ought to have made anyone ashamed to call themselves German.

(I actually have a friend who admires the Nazis, but, you know, not everything about them — only the good things — and he actually says things like “Neo-nazis give real Nazis a bad name.”)

I was reminded when I read Kauffman’s essay of another essay, one written by Art Hoppe for the San Francisco Chronicle in :

The radio this morning said the Allied invasion of Laos had bogged down. Without thinking, I nodded and said, “Good.”

And having said it, I realized the bitter truth: Now I root against my own country.

I hate the massacres, the body counts, the free fire zones, the napalming of civilians, the poisoning of rice crops. I hate being part of My Lai. I hate the fact that we have now dropped more explosives on these scrawny Asian peasants than we did on all our enemies in World War Ⅱ.

And I hate my leaders, who, over the years, have conscripted our young men and sent them there to kill or be killed in a senseless cause simply because they can find no honorable way out — no honorable way out for them.

…I don’t think I am alone. I think many Americans must feel these same sickening emotions I feel. I think they share my guilt. I think they share my rage.

…I would hope the day will come when I can once again believe what my country says and once again approve of what it does. I want to have faith once more in the justness of my country’s causes and the nobleness of its ideals.

What I want so very much is to be able once again to root for my own, my native land.

Kauffman seems to want to skip the stage where the real America starts acting honorable, and to instead create a patchwork “America” out of things like volunteer fire departments and the Grand Canyon, and honor that as the “real America.” He says there’s “the televised America… and the rest of us” — methinks this lets “the rest of us” off too easily.

The rest of us, in the “real America,” says Kauffman, “are the America that suffers in wartime: we do the dying, the paying of taxes, we supply the million unfortunate sons” — but what Kauffman leaves out is that for every gram of suffering we earn in wartime, we inflict half a pound. We who do the dying also do the killing; we who are paying the taxes pay for killing; we who supply the unfortunate sons send them off to kill.

But Kauffman is on target when he shows how much stupider loyalty becomes the wider it is dispersed — too often people who love humanity don’t like anyone in particular, and people who love their country destroy anything particularly good about it in the cause of its greater glory.

And he notes (and unintentionally demonstrates) that it becomes easier to be stupidly loyal to “America” when nothing smaller and distinct — family, community, or region — remains securely intact to be loyal to.

Kauffman makes the case that war, cold and hot, has been a major disrupter of these smaller identities and loyalties. Enlistment and conscription rip families apart, the war economy spurs migrations to urban industry, and the interstate highway system was both a defense measure (Kauffman notes that Eisenhower promoted the idea because he had admired Germany’s autobahn) and an enormous disruption to rural communities.

I wonder if in the same way that the “American” national identity killed off regional and family loyalty, globalization will similarly kill off the “American” identity as English becomes more global and as global cultures melt into a universal urban expectation (“where’s the Starbucks?”).

The author Wendell Berry gets some attention here. Berry’s writing defends rural, agrarian, frugal, loyal, regional living, and tells heartbreaking stories of how overseas wars have made victims of these values. “What I stand for is what I stand on,” he writes.

So what’s Kauffman’s program for helping his lovable losers win for a change?

So what to do?

My solution is no more “practical” than a Dorothy Day prayer or a Henry Thoreau spade. It is this: No statesman’s coercive power should ever extend over people he does not know. If Bush and Hillary, Lieberman and Rumsfeld, and the Democracy Geeks of M Street want to pull their brats out of Sidwell and ship them overseas to kill whatever dusky primitives are our enemy of the week, so be it, but they have no claim upon my kin or my neighbors (or yours).

That’s not a plan, that’s a wish. And it’s much less practical than the work Dorothy Day did, or the experiments in living Henry Thoreau conducted. A practical solution is one that you can put into practice — not one that relies on a program for how society ought to be organized, how other people ought to behave, and what coercive power politicians you don’t have any influence over ought to exert over other people you don’t have any influence over.

To his credit, Kauffman does go on to counsel some practical steps, like draft resistance, but since there hasn’t been a draft for decades now, this doesn’t amount to much. And it’s worth noting that Kauffman himself, who is in his mid-40s, is in little danger of having to make that particular choice and that he has decided not to resist the current draft on his money:

I loathe, execrate, and abominate — but pay — federal taxes, which are put to purposes nefarious and even homicidally sinister.

But he votes for Jackson, Buchanan, Sharpton and Nader, so, hey, don’t blame him for the America that the rest of the world confuses for the “real” America. Would that he follow these Thoreauvian axioms of his with some good Thoreauvian conclusions instead:

We have it in our power to restore parts of the good America. We vote not only in booths every November but every day in so many ways: with our time, our money, our hearts, our love. What kind of an America do we want?