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Love Is the Answer to Empire

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 [1], 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 [1] and Ain’t My America [2]. He delivered this speech to the Campaign for Liberty’s Liberty Political Action Conference 2014 in Alexandria, Virginia.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Love Is the Answer to Empire"

#1 Comment By Joan On October 24, 2014 @ 9:44 am

Preach it, Bill.

#2 Comment By ck On October 24, 2014 @ 10:16 am

Bill, when the time is right, you need to come here to Sandy Hook, CT and preach it.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 24, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

“All political decisions of consequence are made at a level far higher than the town or city council or county legislature”

And an order of magnitude worse, removed from even mass public accountability, to the Deep State of the secret government behind the government, the national security state with its secret laws and secret police.

One of the potent insights Hannah Arendt had, was the level of betrayal that a people’s own leaders were capable of in service to those who would enslave them and destroy them, relegating all to become non-persons, unthinking cogs in their imperial machine.

#4 Comment By steve in ohio On October 24, 2014 @ 12:57 pm

Great speech! Greetings from the real Batavia (Ohio).

#5 Comment By vxxc2014 On October 24, 2014 @ 1:10 pm

Sir. We must purge ourselves of emotion and examine our situation coldly.

But Gee. This is so sweet.

I’m from the same part of the world actually.

Maybe someday if any of us make it our Spielberg can come up with a Schmaltzy movie about this stuff, dances with Batavia downs or something. The wind in the Genessee willows or some sh_t like that. Maybe, but I doubt it.

The Empire is about to contract and refract upon it’s primary and now desperately needing of final conquest un-subjugated lands, and guess who the Cigar Store White Indian, the next stuffed animal in the museum is? US. OURS. American Flyover country, still full of resources and comparatively empty of people.

I’m sure the people who preceded us loved the land as well, head over to Salamanca to check. Of course they got emotive movies too. Strangely all the movies money doesn’t seem to have improved matters, nor the Casinos. Not that I want my distant posterity growing up on welfare and Casino menial wages anyway, but if you want to see our fate go and look.

Remember Step 1 with the Indians and indeed the primary tool was destroying their economy [game animals].

Now Sir. We must purge ourselves of emotion and examine our situation coldly, as we ourselves are regarded. The Rhyme of History of the New World is the lands and resources are coveted but the Peoples are despised. This is now our fate, for it’s our turn.

Our elites – who would spurn the suggestion of “our” or “us” but take the elite as birthright – owe around $1000 Trillion dollars, or 3 times the net wealth of America and everyone in it. That money was only loaned in anticipation it could be paid.

All our politics of the past is actually mooted by the economics of American Debt, which will turn Farce into Horror.

The system of 40 layers of interlocking minimum payments debt is exactly the model of mid 19th Century Ireland, where the debtors and debt collectors were fatally intertwined. Debt killed and forced into flight 2/3 of the troublesome, romantic, lovers of poetry and land Irish not a potato fungus.

Now we in Upstate NY have a history of both where the Industrial Revolution began and where the Rust Belt Began 50 years ago, and we could say we can see the fate of the rest of America. It is my judgment that is changing rapidly due to the explosion of hopeless debt [it’s in the derivatives]. For just as the Eastern Half of America took over 250 years to settle but the Western Half 25 years so shall our final resolution accelerate. For the same reason, huge levels of debt needing settlement.

That too – huge bills and debts run up by foreign courts being paid on the backs of the natives – is part of the Rhyme of the New World. There was in retrospect no reason to think we’d be different, and we’re not.

Love’s fine. Now as we are men bury that and act coldly, as we are treated ourselves. Take inventory for there is a basic lever of man – and there are only 2 that is Force and Gain – not in their direct hands. They cannot wield it, it frightens them. That too is inventory for our enemies are not numerous or brave.

PS – if we blow it this time against the Roundheads that is the end of the Cavaliers and we their allies.

#6 Comment By Ben Alexander On October 24, 2014 @ 3:40 pm

Not to be a broken record, but PREACH! It takes quite a bit to make me feel patriotic, but this does it!

#7 Comment By RadicalCenter On October 24, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

Come here to Los Angeles to speak, too. We will work hard to find enough people who understand English to attend your presentation.

#8 Comment By Dmitry A. Chernikov On October 24, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

A wonderful speech. I now know there are at least 2 localists in the world.

My localism, though, is rather rationalistic; it is based most generally on the idea that competition between 10,000 towns for citizens and businesses will supply a far more potent incentive for “good governments” in those towns than the very inadequate competition between the present 100 or so states.

But the idea that each town has its own culture and “aroma” that the Lord Himself might smell, be pleased, and say in his heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of Americans,” is a great complement to this.

#9 Comment By Ed On October 25, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

“Potato love is a weak emotion that people often have of friendliness and a melting heart towards other people, the real source of which is terror. It’s a low grade emotion, like potato sap.” — Saul Bellow

Economic collapse may bring back localism, as it did in the 1930s, but in prosperous times the trend is in the other direction.

#10 Comment By Sam M On October 25, 2014 @ 9:52 pm

“The love of a place and its people: their food, their games, their literature, their music, their smiles.”

I do wonder about the food. My grandfather came to Western Pennsylvania from Italy. He was from Umbria. When he saw oak trees, he assumed there would be truffles. He searched for about 60 years and never found one. But he and his fellow Italian immigrants did insist on growing tomatoes. Some even tried wine grapes, but most had to import those from Erie. As soon as they had any money, and by that I mean even two cents, they made every effort to get the grapes from California because… the grapes from Erie kinda sucked.

What I am getting at is that whatever food culture exists here grew not from their acceptance of the local offerings, but from their resistance to same.

It’s easy to be a food localist when you live in fertile Italy. It’s a little different when live in the unglaciated highlands of northcentral PA, where even the Seneca refused to go except to catch pigeons. The soil is horrendous. So much so that parts of the American West were fully settled before anyone even tried to live here.

Similarly, it’s one thing to love the local music scene when there is one. A little less cool when all you have are Foghat cover bands.

But overall, I agree. If you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in.

But don’t feel too bad about eating strawberries in January.

#11 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 27, 2014 @ 10:43 am

Whatever the author likes, he simply appropriates…Bob Dylan and Kerouac and so on are his cuz he says so. No matter that they don’t fit with the Little House on the Prairie girl. And sunsets? We had a sunset here in NYC two Saturdays ago, with Manhattan looking like it was on fire, backlit with red and orange, and a purple halo from horizon to horizon. And then it is all about the local choices and decision making, but Colorado’s choice to legalize marijuana is to be ridiculed.

And how can you can be all about Wendell Berry and the “community” and support home schooling? The local public school, particularly the local, small town public high school, was the centerpiece of small town social life in the yesteryear that is purportedly being celebrated here. (See “The Vermont Papers.”)

“Rootlessness” is bad, with moving to LA being the ultimate horror. But it is just fine and dandy for the author’s wife to move from LA to Batavia! And for her family to have moved from Armenia to LA.

I see little to admire here. Small town boosterism and “my town’s better than your town, and even more so your city” chauvinism. Nor do I get the persecution complex. Nobody, not in “grey” or otherwise, is stopping folks from living in small towns or from living Wendell Berry approved lives, if that is what they want. Most folks here in NYC, and, I suspect, in DC and LA too, really don’t care what is going on in Batavia nor in such like places.

One thing we do know, however, is that cities and their metropolitan areas are the hub of economic activity, and that the big, bad Fed and most State governments too actually subsidize small town and rural living at the expense of us city dwellers and our suburban friends.

#12 Comment By Jonathan On October 28, 2014 @ 7:52 pm

Conformity arises out of the need to survive economically. One conforms outwardly so as not to offend neighbors. In small communities be they villages or hamlets or towns, small businesses, for instance, rely on patronage (return customers). Such establishments survive when the proprietors belong to the same church as their customers and wear the same sets of clothes and speak with the same accent and express with the same mannerisms. Not only that, but their pedigree must also pass muster. The customers know their parents and even grandparents and remember the store owners as they grew up in their town.

What place, I ask you, would a creative individual pressing the envelop on his or her imagination have in such a small community? But when a neighbor looks out for the other neighbor, it is not simply to borrow that cup of sugar or to assist in mending a fence or to trade in goods. It is a form of self-policing ensuring that the communal integrity and character of that town is maintained. Any deviation from the implicit norm is perceived as a threat to that stability. This is the legacy of small communities.

The large metropolises, on the other hand, swallow the individual in its anonymity. Yes, one may be alienated from his neighbor, a deracinated island, a castaway among many self-contained fiefdoms. And yet it is in this cities amid the ebb and flow, the flotsam and jetsam of humanity where creative impulses effloresce. And yes, that same creative individual may wander back to a small town frequently visited by the denizens of the metropolis. A town that is also populated by like-minded imagining souls pressing the limits to their creativity.

It is not an either/or dichotomy. There must be a place for the conformist and for the person who fits no set norm. A society that allows no place and therefore mo freedom for the nonconformist is one already in the throes of totalitarianism.

#13 Comment By Barto On November 3, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

Bill Kauffman writing is very romantic. It reminds me of the “Twilight” series of novels by Stephenie Meyer. A writer of fiction or non-fiction may certainly be able to earn a living by selling an escapist fantasy view of life. There is an audience for that. “A sucker’s born every minute.” But is this really good for people?

#14 Comment By ML On February 12, 2015 @ 12:38 am

“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”

What about California’s own George Deukmejian (governor in the 80s) who, if she is my age, she might have voted for (or maybe against)?

#15 Comment By Howard On October 6, 2016 @ 3:43 pm

If you have ever lived in a suburban home owners’ association, you’ll know that small towns are very tolerant places in comparison. Small towns are actually urban, not suburban, in their sensibility.