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Radical Kirk

Kirkpatrick Sale's secessionism brings left and right together.

Kirkpatrick Sale’s secessionism brings left and right together.

Part of being the “Southern Avenger” —the talk-radio moniker I have used for over a decade broadcasting from Charleston, South Carolina—means defending a political act many Americans consider radical: secession. In May 2009, I quoted a contemporary advocate of disunion, Kirkpatrick Sale, in my weekly column for the Charleston City Paper: “Of course, it is true that the particular secession of 1861-65 did not succeed, but that didn’t make it illegal or even unwise. It made it a failure, that’s all. The victory by a superior military might is not the same thing as the creation of a superior constitutional right.”

After the column was published, I received an email from my editor telling me that Mr. Sale had contacted his office, said he enjoyed the piece, and in fact was living in Charleston. That Kirkpatrick Sale was living in the cradle of Southern secession didn’t seem that strange. That Sale arrived at his radically decentralist philosophy as a man of the left, however, might surprise those who associate disunion exclusively with the old Confederacy.

Sale’s hard-left credentials began as a writer for the New Leader, a magazine founded in 1924 in part by socialists Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs. His book SDS is still considered one of the best sources on the youth activist organization that helped define 1960s radicalism, Students for a Democratic Society. And Sale has been a regular contributor to progressive magazines like Mother Jones and The Nation for the better part of his writing career.

His philosophy springs not only from his anti-authoritrianism, his support for environmentalism, and his opposition to globalization, but also from what some have called his “neo-Luddite” tendencies—a term he has embraced. Sale told Wired in 1995:

The Amish have said there are limits: There are certain things that we like, that seem to enhance our lives, and that do not do danger to our sense of family and community, and therefore we can use them; and there are others, quite clearly, that do harm. This is intelligent decision making. The Luddites were the same. The Luddites all worked with machinery, some with fairly complicated weaving machines in their cottages. They were not against machinery, but against ‘machinery hurtful to commonality…’

Sale’s critiques of modernity are not unusual on the left, but they can also be compared to thinking of neo-agrarian author Wendell Berry, who defies the categorization, or even to conservative standard-bearer Russell Kirk. Sale’s contention, for example, that American Indian society was preferable to what followed after Christopher Columbus—Sale wrote an entire book on this—isn’t dissimilar to Kirk’s criticism of “mechanical Jacobins” (automobiles) or “Demon TV.” In fact, Sale’s writing about the downsides of modernity reminds me of the enthusiasm I experienced upon first discovering Russell Kirk in my early 20s.

Sale and I soon got in touch. At one of our early lunch meetings that began in 2009, I asked Kirk—as he likes to be called, and for me appropriately enough —about how his Nation colleagues might feel about his secessionist views. Kirk was more interested in telling me how he felt about his Nation colleagues—noting that he asked to be removed from the magazine’s masthead the moment they began to go gaga over Barack Obama. He preferred not to have anything to do with our president or his admirers.

Kirk also prefers not to have anything to do with Washington politics. At another meeting, I tried to get him to join me in signing a petition to encourage South Carolina’s congressmen to cosponsor legislation to audit the Federal Reserve. Kirk looked at the petition carefully but decided not to sign it. “I don’t do that,” he said.

It wasn’t that Kirk didn’t believe in auditing the Fed; in fact, he would probably agree with Rep. Ron Paul that it should be abolished altogether. But petitioning Congress to do anything—even something Kirk approves of—would be to concede the federal government’s authority and legitimacy. Kirkpatrick Sale doesn’t “do that.”

Even as a native New Yorker who now lives in South Carolina, Kirk is commonly associated with the secessionists of the “Second Vermont Republic,” a group founded by Dr. Thomas Naylor, who was hailed along with Sale and Emory philosophy professor Donald Livingston as “intellectual godfathers of the secessionist movement” by TruthDig’s Chris Hedges.

“The movement, at its core, is anti-authoritarian,” Sale told Hedges last year. “It includes those who are libertarians and those who are on the anarchic community side. In traditional terms these people are left and right, but they have come very close together in their anti-authoritarianism. Left and right no longer have meaning.”

Kirk is proof of that. His secessionist views stem from his rejection of the overarching “bigness” of political and social institutions. Sale’s landmark 1980 book Human Scale argues that virtually every institution—political, religious, social, economic—has grown too large and must be scaled down to better meet basic material and metaphysical needs. Needless to say, he shares conservatives’ opposition to big government, but he doesn’t think reforming it or scaling it down is possible. No, Kirk believes salvation from the modern state lies only in a full and final separation from it.

“The tea party people have not yet understood how they are going to get their view across,” he told TruthDig. “They still believe they can elect people, either Republicans or declared conservatives, to office in Washington and have an effect, as if you can escape the culture of Washington and the characteristics of government that has only gotten bigger and will only continue to get bigger.”

As someone who has written extensively about the Tea Party, I disagree with some of Kirk’s dismissals of what I consider a potentially fruitful grassroots movement. In our meetings, while Kirk and I agree on most political principles, there’s no doubt that the 74-year-old is far more radical than his young “Southern Avenger” friend.

I note this because it’s worth mentioning my very first impression of my lunch partner: Kirkpatrick Sale is cool. In the same way some young men admire a rock star’s flash or an athlete’s physical prowess, I was immediately taken with the intellectual swagger of my radical friend. The stylishly yet casually dressed Kirk always sits down with his customary glass of wine—something I think he always wishes I’d drink more of—eager to have a thoughtful discussion. But Kirk is usually the most thoughtful. When I pose a question to Kirk he pauses, digests the information, and then replies with something that always sounds more like a definitive statement than a mere counterpoint. And he’s usually right. In his presence, Kirk’s admittedly radical proposal of breaking free from the federal government seems eminently reasonable. In contrast, my conventional attachment to electoral politics often seems quite impractical—in that each time Kirk reminds me of what a monumental task I undertake in attempting to reform the bureaucratic monstrosity in Washington, D.C.

Kirk has made common cause with other secessionist-minded, yet markedly conservative, Southern intellectuals. But Kirk thinks wrapping the cause of secession in the flag of and symbolism of the Confederacy is simply bad PR. Seeing decentralist philosophy attached to a mid-19th century war, many Americans might assume that secession belongs to the dustbins of history, Kirk fears, forever settled by a triumphant President Lincoln and his Union armies. This is not the imagery Kirk and his friends in Vermont have embraced or would welcome. Even in his dedication what most might consider a far-fetched solution to big government, the secessionist Sale can be practically radical.

But if Kirk’s political temperament is radical, his personal tastes can be markedly conservative. Taking a break from talking politics once, I asked him what kind of music he liked. His answer was charmingly reactionary. Kirk said that he didn’t care much for popular music outside some of the Tin Pan Alley era tunes of the early 20th century.

Amused and curious, I pressed him further, assuming this man of the left must have had a degree of affection for some vintage antiwar rock or folk music. Kirk did mention that he once heard a “racket” in a nightclub during his left activist days in the 1960s from some “young man” everyone told him was a “big deal.” That “young man” turned out to be Bob Dylan. Kirk told me he’d never heard anything so awful in his life.

As America begins to observe the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, some politicians and pundits have criticized the mainstreaming of what they consider outdated and “antebellum” concepts like states’ rights and nullification. When Texas Governor Rick Perry conjured the specter of secession at a Tea Party rally last year, the mainstream media howled—but many on the grassroots right cheered.

If the Tea Party is any indication, a significant portion of Americans are today willing to entertain radical approaches to restricting the federal government’s power. A decade ago, a politician like Rick Perry would not have brought up secession to excite a conservative audience. That he did so last year, if only opportunistically, is suggestive not just of a drastic increase in anti-government sentiment but of the dramatic possibilities inherent in that sentiment.

Given the rapid growth of the state under President Obama, it’s no surprise that secessionism has become suddenly mainstream on the right. And that a man of the left who has argued for breaking away from big government and mass society his entire life should find new companions on the other side of the political spectrum makes the unconventionally conservative Kirkpatrick Sale feel right at home.

Jack Hunter’s TAC-TV video commentaries can be seen at www.amconmag .com/tactv.

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