In Edward Abbey’s after-the-collapse novel Good News, Sam the Shaman tells the valiant anarchist cowboy Jack Burns, “There’s one thing wrong with always fighting for freedom, and justice, and decency, and so forth.”
“Only one thing?” replies Burns. “What’s that?”
“You almost always lose.”
In deference to Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology poet and anti-imperialist states-rights Democrat, I shan’t quote Clarence Darrow’s line about lost causes being the only ones worth fighting for. Masters had been Darrow’s law partner, and he disdained the Chicago loudmouth as a headline-hogging welsher.
Still, there is the matter of the lostness of our cause. Peace, it seems, often passeth understanding.
Is The American Conservative a contrail in the sky of a dying America or the bright harbinger of revival—of a better, more humane Little America? I do not say this better America would be a more conservative America because for half a century, “conservative” has been a synonym of—a slave to—militarism, profligacy, the invasion of other nations, contempt for personal liberties, and an ignorance of and hostility toward provincial America that is Philip Rothian in its scope. The conservative movement, like the empire whose adjunct and cheerleader it is, is a daisy chain of epicene dissemblers and vampiric chickenhawks who feast on the carrion of our Republic. The c-word is quite simply beyond reclamation. The anarchist founder of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Frank Chodorov, had the right idea, even if it did contradict his pacifism: “Anyone who calls me a conservative gets a punch in the nose.” If we have to play Name that Tendency I’d opt for Little American, front-porch republican, localist, decentralist, libertarian, or, to borrow Robert Frost’s term, plain old Insubordinate American—anything but C! (With a nod to Shel Silverstein.)
Be not deceived that a few opportunistic Republicans who said absolutely nothing in defense of our America during the Bush octennium are now sending up false flags of state sovereignty and the Tenth Amendment. Their Contract with America doppelgangers pulled the same stunt a decade ago before signing on, without any apparent qualms, to the brutally consolidationist Bush-Cheney regime. Recall that Bob Dole carried a copy of the Tenth Amendment during his flaccid 1996 presidential campaign, presumably in the same pocket that held the pills he needed to gulp in order to entertain the gracious Liddy. If these people were anything other than cynical party hacks I would be enthusiastic, but for God’s sake, Charlie Brown, how often does Lucy have to yank the football away before you wise up?
The national “conversation,” to misuse that word, is and has been limited to belligerent neoconservatives and liberal imperialists for many years now. Ed Abbey’s Jack Burns is sooner to wind up on a Department of Homeland Security watch list than he is on CNN. But so what? We dishonor our forebears if we whine that the rulers and their lackeys are nasty, tyrannical, and placeless. Of course they are—they’re rulers and lackeys.
The great John Randolph once explained his contumacy: “I found I might co-operate, or be an honest man. I have therefore opposed them and will oppose them.” This is even truer today, though mere opposition is a debilitating condition for all but the most friendless crank. Standing athwart things is a good way to get neutered. Luckily, we are for things—a restoration of the Republic, the rebirth of citizenship, social and political life on a human scale, a peaceful America that minds its own damn business. These goals will confound those who mimic the attitudes (never the Beatitudes!) blared from the rectangular soul-stealer in the living room, but among those who think up their own notions and sign their own names, to borrow Edmund Wilson’s phrase, we have company. Anyone who engages in authentic civil or social life—ref in a pickup basketball game, drummer in a cowpunk band, secretary of a ladies’ study club, rhubarb-cutter in a community garden—is acting upon the healthy, voluntaristic, small-is-not-always-beautiful-but-at-least-it’s-human impulses that animate the first, last, and best alternative to the empire.
Whether we ever get together politically remains an open question. Protest politics is mostly boring street theater overseen by puppet-master choreographers in service of the two parties. True dissenters who undertake national campaigns—Ron Paul, Ralph Nader—are mocked, libeled, or ignored. Words are stripped of their meaning, even inverted, so that a vote for change produces Joe Biden, and a cheer for family values brings forth Newt Gingrich. I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused, though how much, really, can one take? And for how long? Sixty-one years ago the disgusted but amused H.L. Mencken covered his last campaign, which pitted the double atom-bomb dropper Harry Truman versus the little man on the wedding cake, Thomas E. Dewey. Was Obama versus McCain really that much worse a choice?
Our decline predates the Bushes, the Clintons, even the Kennedys. Trace it, if you like, back to the overthrow of the gentle Articles of Confederation and the triumph of Hamilton, Madison, and James Wilson over Patrick Henry, Luther Martin, and Melancton Smith in 1787-88. We have a helluva losing streak going, but there is a value in showing up for a game and taking your swings even if you have no chance. To give in is a sin.
So many of the vital and flavorful American political traditions go utterly, offensively, incredibly unrepresented in national discourse: the Anti-Federalists, the Populists, Brahmin anti-imperialists, independent liberals, prairie socialists, Old Right libertarians. It is our ennobling duty to keep these fires burning, even in the present darkness. For they illuminate the hopeful signs in our midst: homeschoolers, community-supported agriculture, independence movements from Vermont to Hawaii, the kids fired up by Ron Paul.
“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts,” advises Wendell Berry. Excellent advice.
Our country is Wendell Berry, Townes Van Zandt, Mavis Staples, Ken Kesey, Cormac McCarthy, Levon Helm… How can one despair with these by our sides, at our backs, in our heads? Editorialists in the New York Times and Washington Post, shouters on the television, sallow callow master bloggers who jerk out their vitriol over dissenters: they aren’t worth the scorn in a thumbnail vial. Their depressing and ephemeral work dissipates with the air it befouls, the paper it poisons, the screen it scars. The real country endures. It produces whatever books and songs and films and paintings add up to American culture. It is where sandlot baseball and farm markets come from; it is where peace dwells in this nation of perpetual war.
Sursum corda, pals. We ain’t dead yet. Turn off the TV. Reject the chains they have fashioned for you. Live as if in a free country. Look again at the things nighest unto you. That’s America. That’s worth saving.
Bill Kauffman’s most recent books are Ain’t My America (Holt/Metropolitan) and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI).
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