The following has been adapted from remarks delivered by Bill Kauffman to the Campaign for Liberty’s 2014 Liberty Political Action Conference in Alexandria, Virginia.
I am delighted to be in the Old Dominion, site of what is, thus far, the year’s best political news: the unseating of Eric Cantor, the most egregious congressional war-monger this side of John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the Batman and Robin of the Senate’s Permanent War Caucus. (The 23-year-old whiz kid architect of that campaign, Zach Werrell, is in the house tonight. Candidates desirous of toppling statists are advised to seek him out.)
I bring greetings from New York—rural New York, that is. (In our state the best we can hope for, politically, is Chuck Schumer coming down with laryngitis.) But I have—if this doesn’t make me sound too much like a motivational speaker—a message of hope. Of possibility. Of resuscitation.
Because far beyond the nation’s capital, which the Upstate New York Anti-Federalist Thomas Tredwell predicted in 1788 would become a city “where men are to live, without labor, upon the fruit of the labors of others; this political hive, where all the drones in society are to be collected to feed on the honey of the land” (you got that right, Tom)—far beyond the city across the river, this country is pregnant with happy auguries, with the delicious foretaste of sweet rebellion.
A great New Yorker, that old libertarian democratic editorialist Walt Whitman, once sang:
‘To the states, or any one of them, or any city of the states,
Resist much, obey little‘
I suppose that advice would make Walt Whitman a person of interest to the Department of Homeland Security. Walt was no clinger to God or guns but he understood that any healthy political or social movement has to begin, has to have its heart and soul, at the grass roots. In Kansas, not on K Street.
And it has to be based in love. Love not of some remote abstraction, some phantasm that exists only on the television screen—Ford Truck commercials and Lee Greenwood songs—but love of near things, things you can really know and experience. The love of a place and its people: their food, their games, their literature, their music, their smiles.
I am a localist, a regionalist. To me, the glory of America comes not from its weaponry or wars or a mass culture that is equal parts stupidity, vulgarity, and cynical cupidity—one part “The View,” one part Miley Cyrus, and a dollop of Rush Limbaugh—rather, it is in the flowering of our regions, our local cultures. Our vitality is in the little places—city neighborhoods, town squares—the places that mean nothing to those who run this country but that give us our pith, our meaning.
Several years ago I published a book called Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a kind of memoir about my repatriation to my hometown of Batavia, New York, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.
I was blessed in that I grew up with a sense that my place had a history, a culture, an accent, all its own. It was ravaged and mistreated—half of downtown was torn down with federal urban renewal money in the 1970s—but to me it was a source of endless fascination. It was alive. My dad used to tell us the stories, some probably apocryphal or libelous, behind the houses: he’d say that’s where the town tramp lived (that one caught my interest); that’s where Moose Kromko’s home run landed in the 1946 championship game; that’s where Vinny the Bookie set up, a guy who never did a day’s work in his life. Parenthetically, a friend of mine, a musician, also a repatriated native son, he and I say that’s our ambition: that when we’re old men we’ll be walking down the street and fathers will point us out to their sons and say, “Those two guys never did a day’s work in their lives.”
Ah, dare to dream.
Anyway, I grew up with the knowledge that my town contained the stuff of myth and drama and tragedy and farce… every story you could ever hope to tell. I knew that where I was from mattered, even if the corporate media relentlessly pound into the skulls of every kid who doesn’t live in LA or Manhattan or D.C. the message that your life is risible, it’s trivial, why even bother to live if you’re not smoking dope with Lindsay Lohan or talking Dianetics with Tom Cruise. As a girl band from Los Angeles sang many years ago, “This town is our town/it is so glamorous/bet you’d live here if you could and be one of us.”
Or maybe not. (I’m afraid I don’t do a very good Belinda Carlisle impression.) There are sager, kinder spirits to follow. Consider the British writer G.K. Chesterton, a marvelously wise man who wrote in his 1904 novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill that the patriot “never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.” The smallness of your country: Not exactly a Fox News slogan.
If I can paraphrase a D.C.-area punk rock band of 30-plus years ago, I used to work for my Senatron and I lived in Washingtron. (The senator was Pat Moynihan, who late in life called for the withdrawal of the U.S. from NATO, the reining in of the CIA, and the transfer of many federal government programs to the states. In today’s Senate he’d be considered a wild-eyed radical—though I think he might find an ally across the aisle in Rand Paul.)
I always felt an intense homesickness no matter where I was. So in 1988, I persuaded my wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, that we should come home to my own small country for what I said would be a one-year experiment. That year, it turns out, is measured in Old Testament terms, a la Methuselah. (My wife just finished her second and final term as our town supervisor. She was, I like to think, the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country—or at least she is until the voters of California send Kim Kardashian to the U.S. Senate.)
Over this past quarter-century she and I have learned in a thousand different ways that if you wanna change the world you’ve got to do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander—more far-reaching—and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as numbers. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into public housing projects—always for their own good, of course. This doesn’t mean shun politics. It does mean, from my angle of vision, that the only meliorative political acts are those which decentralize, which devolve power to the most local levels: to the small community, to the family, to the individual. To the human scale—the only scale that can measure a person’s worth.
We are, today, subjects of an empire, not citizens of a republic. The idea of “citizenship” has been diluted from one of membership in an organic body in which each person matters, takes part in civic affairs, to the current condition, in which you are a cog in a machine, just another brick in the wall. The role of an American citizen, as viewed by our rulers in Washington, D.C., is to pay your taxes, cast a meaningless vote every four years, and shut the hell up. You have almost—almost—no say in U.S. foreign policy. As Dick Cheney once replied when told that the vast majority of Americans wanted our soldiers home from Iraq: “So?”
An empire is a centripetal machine that sucks all power to the center. Smaller bodies, grass-roots democratic institutions, are devitalized, wiped out. All political decisions of consequence are made at a level far higher than the town or city council or county legislature; they are made by men and occasionally women in remote capitals. People who don’t know us—people who have no desire or even the means to know us—make life or death decisions about us.
If you believe, as I do, that rootlessness is one of the great maladies afflicting our lorn and lovely land, then reasserting the importance of place in American life becomes the antidote. America is the sum of ten thousand and one little, individuated places, each with its own character and stories. A politician who understands this will act in ways that protect and preserve these real places. She will ask the question that never gets injected into national debates over the wisdom of American policy: What are the domestic costs? Loving her block, she will not wish to bomb Iraq. Loyal to a neighborhood, she will not send its young men and women across the oceans to kill and die for causes wholly unrelated to local life.
A rootless politico will babble on about “the homeland”—a creepy totalitarian phrase that, before George W. Bush, was never applied to our country. Don’t ever use that term—the homeland—unless you’re an FBI informer, a Mussolini groupie, or a speechwriter for Chris Christie.
Almost the entirety of our permanent political class consists of people who long ago left behind whatever places they may have been from, and they regard those of us who are loyal to a place—not necessarily our hometowns, but the places where we cast down our buckets, in the phrase of Booker T. Washington—as losers. These are men who would never think to boast of the smallness of their country. They’d be dumbfounded by Chesterton’s remark that “I think the first thing that made me dislike imperialism was the statement that the sun never sets on the British Empire. What good is a country with no sunset?”
America used to have sunsets. Parts of it still do. They’re really quite beautiful.
The sun still sets in Montana, which defied REAL ID. It still sets in Utah, where people who believe that the Bill of Rights is not some quaint artifact are taking on the NSA. It still sets in Colorado, albeit through a hazy cloud. And it sets outside the Rocky Mountain West, too, wherever men and women stand up for their places, their families, and their rights against the grim forces of conformity and government coercion.
Something is astir. Wendell Berry, one of our age’s sages, has noted that hopeful signs are sprouting everywhere: life-giving, life-affirming movements… everything from community-supported agriculture to homeschooling to the New Urbanism to the return of the natives that is going on all over this homesick land. People are rediscovering—reclaiming—citizenship. Berry calls this a “redemptive” movement, though he acknowledges that “in terms of standing and influence [it] is hardly a side at all. It doesn’t have a significant political presence. It is virtually unrepresented in our state and federal governments. Most of its concerns are not on the agenda of either major party.”
But it’s out there. And it’s in here.
As that poet of Middle America, Bob Dylan of Hibbing, Minnesota, once sang, “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” What is happening is that the empire is starting to crumble. It is too large, too top-heavy, too arrogant. It is unsustainable. O happy day. For if the Little America reasserts itself, young people today may be the first generation in many years to know what it is to live in a republic.
“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem,” rhapsodized Walt Whitman. I don’t know what men such as Barack Obama and John Boehner believe us to be. Certainly not a great poem. Maybe a due bill? A ransom note?
The American Empire is run by the people in gray. There’s no poetry in them: no heart, no soul. The America of Dorothy Day and Zora Neale Hurston and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Johnny Appleseed and Crazy Horse and Jack Kerouac and volunteer fire departments and craft breweries and country churches—that’s ours; that’s the vital America. That’s the country worth loving—and that’s the country of liberty and local community, neighborliness and peace.
Under the Hillary Clintons and the bevy of squawking Republican chickenhawks, America is never to be a country at peace. We would live out our lives in a bleak future of endless war, endless mobilization, in a regimented and increasingly paranoid nation on red alert. Peace, to our mandarins, is unthinkable. An America that is small, that is modest, that is humble, that speaks in a dizzingly beautiful variety of accents: unthinkable.
That nightmare bears no resemblance to the country that is in my heart and in my eyes. Their empire isn’t a country at all—it’s the cold projection of military might, of political influence—it’s the enemy, above all, of the real America, the Little America, the America that plays the unheard music.
I am a patriot. And I love my country. And this country is only healthy insofar as its little pieces are healthy. Lowell, Massachusetts. Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Batavia, New York. Red Cloud, Nebraska. Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I saw the distinct identity—the meaning—of my own place fading and that’s why I raised my voice.
That’s why hundreds of thousands—millions—of Americans from the Gulfstream waters to the Redwood forests are raising their voices. We refuse to lose our country.
Speak, act, even vote, if that’s your thing, for place. For peace. For the possibility of a life that is not lived in the dark shadow of perpetual war and crony capitalist oligarchy but rather in the reviving sunlight of liberty, of community, of home.
Bill Kauffman’s books include Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America. He delivered this speech to the Campaign for Liberty’s Liberty Political Action Conference 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia.