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« A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Three | Main | A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Five »

October 19, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Four

Michael Blowhard writes:

It's Day Four of Bill Kauffman Week here at 2Blowhards.

I introduced the political writer Bill Kauffman in a recent posting. Let me also recommend a couple of Kauffman resources that have turned up as these interviews have been running. An intelligent and appreciative Caleb Stegall review of Kauffman's "Look Homeward, America" can be read here. And, for all those New York City partisans out there, here's a Kauffman essay about the city -- found, as you might imagine, by the wonderful Dave Lull.

Part One of our interview with Bill is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here. Now, on to Part Four.


A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Four


Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel

2Blowhards: How do people of the left receive you? People of the right? I notice that, although you're a Democrat, you mostly publish in rightie outlets.
Bill Kauffman:
I have a strong libertarian streak, and when I started writing for magazines in the mid-'80s the right had at least an ancestral memory of liberty. Many of the postwar political writers I admire were on the "right": Robert Nisbet, Murray Rothbard, the Michigan master of the ghost story, Russell Kirk. My work has appeared now and then on the left -- Utne Reader, The Nation, In These Times, The Independent of London -- but more often on the right. In the '90s I wrote frequently for Chronicles and Liberty; of late I've written up secessionist Vermonters and George McGovern and Frank Bryan, the great interpreter of town meeting democracy, for The American Conservative.

The problem is so much of the DC-NYC right is bought off by the GOP and the neocons. A lot of the older cons are secretly antiwar but they long ago lost their voices, not to mention their balls. Loose lips bring pink slips. I still have friends on the right and publish, quite happily, in their journals, but what attracted me to the right 25 years ago -- its capaciousness, the willingness to entertain dissident views -- has vanished. I have friends on the left, too -- I spoke recently at Paul Buhle's "Antiwar Patriots Day" at Brown, and I'm very sympathetic to the decentralist wing of the Green Party.

Mailer calls himself a "left conservative." I know just what he means. I am for place, family, liberty, peace. Is that right or left?

2B: Your version of U.S. history is nothing if not unorthodox. It sure wasn't what I was taught in school. How did you develop that?
"So let us think about the people who lost," said William Appleman Williams. That's what I do.

I had a lost year once which wound up being fruitful. After I'd left Moynihan's office I rode the Hound to Salt Lake City. Lodged in a flophouse, wrote derivative poetry, thought on things. Then I came back for an ill-starred year in grad school at the University of Rochester. I was in the political science department (which boasted two extraordinary professors: Richard Fenno and William Riker) but spent most of my time reading, reading, reading, getting loaded, reading, reading, reading. I took a seminar with Christopher Lasch as he was writing his best book, "The True and Only Heaven," a critique of progress in America. Lasched me into considering things from ground-up angles.

And then I also became interested in antiwar movements, especially those based in Middle America. The isolationists. No one bothered to read what they had actually said. I did. It rang a bell. "Why the hell are we over there?" my relatives had asked of the Empire's various foreign adventures. I thought it was a hell of a good question. And I didn't like the answers.

Y'know what always got me? Those rankings of the presidents by historians. The Greats, Washington and Jefferson excepted, tend to be the warmakers: Lincoln. Wilson. FDR. Those responsible for the most unnatural deaths. The "near-greats" were those who gave warfare the old college try: Teddy Roosevelt. Even the wretched Truman. Those who sat in the White House while peace raged outside the door were average at best, though often below average or the dreaded "failure."

I put the constitutional presidents -- Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren -- at the top of the list. I also have a very soft spot for the semi-pacifists: Fillmore and Hoover. (The c-word reminds me that Warren Oates, my favorite actor since James Stewart, called himself a "constitutional anarchist." Yes! Bring me the head of Rexford G. Tugwell!)

2B: I think your view of American history is likely to come as a surprise to some readers. For their sake, can you pause and explain what you mean by "little America" and "the Empire"?
Chesterton said that the patriot ought never to boast of the largeness of his country but rather of its smallness. My heart and my soul are in the little America. The shop on the corner. The family dairy farm. The country church. Kids playing football at twilight. The untelevised America. The unheard music, to borrow a phrase from X.

To cynics who know nothing of the real America but what they see on TV these sound like cliches. Hackneyed advertising images. They're not. They're the human-scale America.

I suppose a critic might say I'm simply defending the place I grew up in and the country of my dreams against the fucking nightmare of the Homeland Security 24-hour television state that is trying to wipe it all out, even the memories.

The Empire -- by which I mean the national government, the military-industrial complex, Hollywood, Wall Street, and the perpetual warfare state -- is the enemy of my America. It would efface it, trample it, deny its existence. You gotta choose. Do you take your stand with your town, your home, your folks, or do you choose the Empire? You can't have both.

2B: Going back in time: Was Abraham Lincoln not a great President? (But what about slavery?!....)
Father Abraham, my favorite melancholic railroad lawyer. I've read about him all my life. Spent a coupla days in Springfield last year soaking up the sights.

As a human being, he's one of my favorite presidents. As a wielder of power, he's not. I'd have voted for him in 1860 in recognition of his courageous opposition to the Mexican War. But I'd have voted against him in 1864 because I think the Civil War was a tragic mistake. Was there no way other than massive bloodletting (and, secondarily, the enrichment of Northeastern capitalists) to free the slaves?

I like the anarchist abolitionists -- Garrison was among them, till he caught war fever -- who said "No Union with Slaveholders." Let the South go. (It had a perfect constitutional right to secede, in my view.) Stop enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act; don't return runaways. The historian Jeff Hummel has suggested that such a course might have bled dry the slavocracy. It certainly would have saved half a million lives.

The antiwar Democrats of 1860-61 have of course gotten a rotten historiographical press, the superb works of Frank Klement aside. Read 'em. They saw clearly how war fed the state and devoured liberties.

2B: Should we not have gotten involved in WWI?
Ah, we come to my least favorite president, Woodrow Wilson, the priggish Princetonian who jailed the great Gene Debs and refused to pardon him. (That was left for a far better man, the genial Ohioan Warren G. Harding.)

WWI was probably the single worst intervention in the warfare history of the U.S. There was absolutely no American interest involved. And on the homefront -- my concern; I consider the domestic consequences of any foreign intervention first -- Wilson sought, with a success limited only by the vestigial American Don't Tread on Me spirit, to impose a militarized police state on what had been, theretofore, a decentralized republic. His Espionage and Sedition Acts make the Patriot Act look as mild as the resolution declaring National Administrative Assistants Day.


Wikipedia's entry on Bill Kauffman is a good one. It also includes a useful set of links to online articles by Bill. I'm especially fond of this rousing declaration of love and defiance, and this smaller-is-better rant in favor of localism and devolution.

Bill's books are buyable here, here, here, here, here, and here. I suggest starting with "Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette" and/or "Look Homeward, America!" But, really, you can't go wrong.

Bill and a bunch of fellow "reactionary radicals" (including Clark Stooksbury, John Zmirak, and Caleb Stegall) blogged for a while here.

Many thanks to Dave Lull for setting up this interview. Please return tomorrow for Part Five.

posted by Michael at October 19, 2006


What a fascinating interview! I'm not a particularly political person, yet Bill Kauffman made me realize how much it permeates our lives. I recently reread Christoper Lasch's "Culture of Narcissism" -- but haven't read "The True and Only Heaven." Thanks to Bill Kauffman and 2Blowhards for getting my head spinning in such an enjoyable way! (I slept through my Poly Sci classes in college, now I feel like really reading it.)

Posted by: Alyson on October 19, 2006 11:37 AM

Here are some other reviews of Look Homeward, America:

American Conservative

Batavia Daily News


Caelum et Terra

Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College

Crooked Lake Review

Out of Step

Philadelphia Inquirer

Richmond-Times Dispatch

Verbum Ipsum

Vermont Commons

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 19, 2006 12:05 PM

With all due respect, If Mr. Kauffmann has something useful to say, I wish that he would say it. Hurling epithets at Bush, Woodrow Wilson, and Henry Luce is not exactly my idea of high-level political and cultural analysis. Ok, so he thinks that our intervention in World War I was a mistake. I disagree. Where does that leave us?

Maybe tomorrow's interview will clear things up, but so far, he seems to simply be espousing a "Star Wars" politics - evil "Empire" vs. good "Locals". But this is absurd. Are Bush and Hillery TRYING to be evil? If not, why are they doing what they are doing? If the "Empire" is destroying our freedom and prosperity, why is it so popular? Is it true that Henry Luce supported "War - ANY War" just because he enjoyed bloodshed? What doe Mr. Kauffman think should have been our response to 9/11? C'mon - everyone has reasons, even if they are bad ones - what does Mr. Kauffman believe is the "Logic of Empire"? Until he gives some substantive analysis, I'll mark him down as just another ranting granola-lover...

Posted by: tschafer on October 19, 2006 12:19 PM

In what sense were Washington and Jefferson not warmakers? Still, fascinating stuff. I too think your Civil War a terrible blunder, see no constitutional objection to secession, and suspect that US intrusion into WWI was a mistake. Particularly if you believe those who argue that Wilson had done what he could to sabotage any chance of a peace settlement prior to US intrusion.

Posted by: dearieme on October 19, 2006 12:47 PM

Granted that I haven't read much of Kauffman's stuff in the past, so what follows might be overly influenced by the interview content...

As of Day Four, he strikes me as being an un-serious intellectual show-off, juxtaposing unusual combinations of heroes and villains while we gasp, open mouthed, at his audacity.

One seemingly consistent theme is opposition to every war he has mentioned. Can I draw the conclusion that he is categorically opposed to all wars?

And if he indeed is opposed to all wars, then I must write him off as a fool. Sometimes we have real enemies out there who would be overjoyed to see us all dead. So what we must do is submit to their desire, Bill?

As for "Empire," my view (which is open to dispute by all & sundry) is that the next 50-100 years will have us cast in the mould of 19th C Pax Britannica -- like it or not. Better to fight some small, preventive wars using a professional military than get involved in an all-out WW2 conflict with the draft, etc. as a result of letting dangers fester.

This is 2006, not 1824 or 1924.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 19, 2006 2:20 PM

Donald: word.

Posted by: Tat on October 19, 2006 2:36 PM

Donald, you put it so much better than I could have. Thank you.

I'm curious about the ways Kauffman sees the Department of Homeland Security wiping out our memories. As tschafer suggests, not everything Kauffman says is as self-evidently clear to all of us as it is to him.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 19, 2006 5:24 PM

He seems like a good man, but at times he does seem to regard being provocative as an end in itself. For example, his reference to Alaska and Hawaii as "Cold War states" is an extreme oversimplification. We acquired both in the nineteenth century. In Hawaii's case we did so in an extremely dirty and underhanded way, it must be admitted, but by the 1950s, as far as I know, any sentiment for independence in either place was negligible. It would have been undemocratic to hold both as territories forever. What else were we supposed to do? Statehood was the best solution.

Posted by: James Kabala on October 19, 2006 6:41 PM

Donald's post above is a classic example of the "fake-logic" of the folks who love war. Fake-logic is a stab at a description here; it pretends to be logic, it reads like it might be logic, but there ain't no thought in there.

This fake logic is always underpinned by the notion that war is an effective, useful, practical tool for solving problems. The truth is that for most people, most of the time, war does not effectively solve problems, it makes them worse. Occasionally it "works" (though always at a horrible, catastophic, and avoidable cost), and we can see those cases recycled endlessly through the warmonger propaganda mill. Hence the endless WWII references in the U.S., a country which paid almost none of the costs and got a huge amounts of the benefits of that war.

To take some of the more ridiculous parts of Donald's post:

"Sometimes we have real enemies out there who would be overjoyed to see us all dead. So what we must do is submit to their desire, Bill?"

So because we have real enemies, we must either fight wars or "submit to their desires". Talk about a false dichotomy! If the "real enemies" don't take actions to harm us, we can just ignore them. No wars or invasions necessary. If they do take actions to harm us, but they are not an aggressive state power, we can just have them arrested or assassinated. No wars or invasions necessary.

Or this whopper --

"Better to fight some small, preventive wars using a professional military than get involved in an all-out WW2 conflict with the draft, etc. as a result of letting dangers fester."

So, I guess things are looking all hunky-dory in the Middle East now that we fought that nice, neat "small, preventive war"? Seeing any evidence that the war itself might have made the danger fester more and get larger? Again, a total illogical dichotomy -- fighting "preventive wars" or letting "dangers fester". Usually the "preventive war" will make dangers greater, not less.

War is an impractical, in fact usually catastrophic, method for problem solving in the modern world. But we have a lot of people who are so attached to their various macho myths and illusions that they actually prefer war to peace and will ignore this fairly obvious truth.

Posted by: MQ on October 19, 2006 8:18 PM

I didn't want Donald's post to go unanswered, but back to Mr. Kaufmann for a moment. I do agree that there is an extent to which he is a provocateur rather than a serious intellectual. There's a lot of unaddressed internal contradiction and flailing about in his writing. I wonder if it's possible to fully identify yourself as American -- a tradition that is based on a continental scale nation united by war, a tradition which draws on writers and thinkers from all over that continent -- and at the same time be a fanatic "localist" of the type he wants to be. He never addresses the fundamental Federalist Papers point that a group of small nations sharing a continent would inevitably descend into civil war. If one were seriously thinking about making secession happen, this is the first objection to be dealt with.

But there's a role for provocateurs, I think. The "anti-Federalist" and localist tradition in America has become so thoroughly submerged and marginalized that it's important to have aggressive writers bringing it back to the public debate. No one is ever going to hand Bill Kauffmann a constitution to write, so let's not demand he iron out all those problems. But the spirit he champions could have a positive influence. Especially now, stuck between the big government authoritarianism of right-wing warmongers and the IMO much milder and less dangerous, but still present danger of civilian government regulation and bureaucracy.

Posted by: MQ on October 19, 2006 8:26 PM

That's more or less what I feel. I'm reasonably pro-gun, in favor of decreasing immigration, and suspicious of government, but I still consider the Democrats the lesser of two evils; even if they're corrupted by Big Business, the Republicans embrace the corporations wholeheartedly, in their fight to keep workers' wages down, avoid doing anything about the threat of global warming, and shred any sense of security.
It's like the difference between a rotten apple and a bottle of pure acid.

Posted by: SFG on October 19, 2006 9:33 PM

Francis, incidentally (and to all: forgive me for going back to this tangenial detail, but since we'd touched on the subject) -

since when Gowanus or South Bronx became a "high street"? Apparently that's where WalMart plans to built much needed stores. And I'll be delighted to buy $4 prescription drugs there, unions be damned.

Dictatorship of Classicists is not better than the one of Modernists.

Posted by: Tat on October 19, 2006 9:53 PM

Here's my review of Muckdog.

Posted by: clark on October 19, 2006 10:46 PM

I'm a little puzzled. Some of you seem seem stuck on the idea that Bill's not a "serious intellectual," and you seem to think that only "serious intellectuals" deserve a hearing when it comes to political matters.

1) In my intro, I compared him to Whitman and to punk rock. So this led to you expect what? A Kissinger-esque policy-wonk analyst?

2) You remember that serious intellectuals got us into Vietnam and Iraq, right? So maybe the whole "serious intellectual" thing isn't all it's cracked up to be?

3) Aren't you being just a bit like people who say that only "serious music" deserves to be heard? So there's no point to country music, or rock music, or dance music?

4) Of course he's a provocateur. Why does that mean he shouldn't be enjoyed and mulled-over? He isn't bucking for a job on the Supreme Court, he's writing columns about the political scene. He's got you thinking and quibbling and arguing, right? That's the point! You've heard of Mencken, Twain, and Tom Wolfe, right? Humor, wit, excess, etc? And substantial figures, right? I'm not sure anyone ever accused them of being analytical or "serious" either. And thank god for them.

5) What makes you think that provocateurs can't have a lot of substantial thinking going on behind (and supporting) their provocations? Maybe Bill carries on in the way he does (excessive, poetic, defiant) for a number of substantial reasons -- because he's given the scene (and his approach to it) some real thought. I'd guess that part of it would be "the political discussion today needs some excess and passion, and also needs to be violently wrenched away from overblown visions and projects and back towards a focus on human-scale people and real lives."

6) Hmm, the editors of The Nation, The Independent, American Enterprise, and The American Conservative all see something substantial in Bill's work. Do you really think they're *all* blind?

Good lord, loosen up and quit being so literal-minded. You're like people at a Ramones show complaining that, you know, the counterpoint isn't very well done.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2006 11:19 PM

Geez, Michael, you post several lengthy dialogues with someone whom you admit is a provacateur and then you're chagrined when people are provoked?

Posted by: Rachel on October 20, 2006 8:15 AM

I've become increasingly onvinced that seriousness itself can be the biggest problem. I've been reading abou pre-WWI Europe a bit, and it seems that all the serious, respectable people wanted that war. Only the decadents, anarchists, bohemians, cynics and Czechs were opposed. I also think that WWI was the turning point of W. civilization, and that WWII, the Holocaust, and Stalin were just late effects, so this is a very big deal.

I'll recommend Haseks Good Soldier Schweik (Sveyk) again. Hasek was a cynic, an anarchist, a drunk, and a check, and not at all serious, and his beeok is hilarious. There's a new translation of the first book out which I highly recommend. Self-published, cut out the middleman.

Posted by: John Emerson on October 20, 2006 10:09 AM

You gotta choose. Do you take your stand with your town, your home, your folks, or do you choose the Empire? You can't have both.

But can we at least have neither?

Town, home, folks, for those of us not of the bucolic school a lot of these things sing of limitation, of tied-downness, of the perpetual homesickness of being stuck in one place. To me, that's the American contradiction in a nutshell. Can we embrace motion and dynamism and uncertainty and chaos, but still stay clear of the trappings of empire?

Sure, like Kauffman, some of us can "go back home" to the rural whatnots. But if geographic home is destiny then what of those of us not of the pastoral elect?

The bucolic impulse is an impulse to divide humanity into two, the innocent man of the soil and the sullied grifter tainted by the original sin of being born amidst a higher population density. Write off the 60% of us without a rural home, and naturally the world gets simpler. The hard part is not to write the cities out, but to write them back in.

Posted by: Grant Gould on October 20, 2006 10:12 AM

Rachel -- People being provoked is very cool. Like you, I occasionally enjoy provoking people myself. But people not recognizing provocation for the sometimes-valuable thing it is, and people not appreciating a well-done bit of it when they run across it, is maybe not so cool.

John -- I agree! I think the "seriousness" thing is 'way overdone myself. Why let ourselves be over-impressed by it?

Grant -- It'd be lovely to have both and to be able to find a flexible kind of balance between them, wouldn't it? But why don't we have it? And what to do when we're being actively kept off-balance? America's very strange in some ways -- we lurch back and forth between extremes, and seem to have a terrible time finding a tolerable, loose median. In the case here -- and not to speak for Bill, of course -- but: Batavia didn't urban-renew Washington D.C. into near-oblivion. Washington D.C. urban-renewed Batavia into near-oblivion. Perhaps it's OK, when that kind of destructive thing is being foisted on people, to give a good shove back? Me, when such moments come along, I'd love to see a bunch of clowns, satirists, drunks, anarchists (and housewives and responsible dads etc) lying down in front of the bulldozers and marching on the White House. Why doesn't more of this happen?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 20, 2006 10:22 AM

As to "having both," there's a raisin farmer in California who seems to believe we can.

Posted by: Rachel on October 20, 2006 2:01 PM

"If they do take actions to harm us, but they are not an aggressive state power, we can just have them arrested or assassinated. No wars or invasions necessary."

And if they ARE an agressive state power? To have arrested Osama Bin Laden would NOT have taken an invasion? Assasination is a "pacifist" solution (it worked so well with Castro)?

This belief seems to smack of an act of irrational faith - that SOMEHOW, SOME WAY, all wars can be avoided, if only we try hard enough. Fine, everyone is entitled to irrational faith, but that's what it is, and to accuse those who disagree of suffering from "Macho fantasies" is like me accusing all pacifists of being cowards. Sometimes we just disagree, and no pathologies or character defects need be involved...

Posted by: tschafer on October 20, 2006 2:46 PM

Somehow, some way, most wars can be avoided. If we approached the world with that attitude, I'd be fine with that. And who knows, avoiding most wars might eliminate the need for the rest. As John Emerson points out above, the "necessary" WWII was only necessary because of the eminently avoidable WWI.

Yeah, we definitely had to get Bin Laden. It's a shame that our war in Iraq distracted us from actually doing that.

I'm with MB and John Emerson on the problems of "seriousness" qua seriousness, and if my post came off as rather stuffy I do regret that. I admire Kaufmann a good deal and was not trying to put him down by calling him a provocateur. We need to be provoked, and to be called back passionately to traditions in this country that got too quickly submerged. One Bill Kauffman is worth ten sententious Council on Foreign Relations types.

Posted by: MQ on October 20, 2006 8:32 PM

Calling Bill Kauffman unintellectual and comparing his prose to country and rock music is pretty funny. If you read "Look Homeward, America" you'd better have the OED by your side. Bill Kauffman is 10x the intellect and 10x more coherent than many so-called intellectuals (see Bernard Henri-Levy).

Posted by: Jason LaLonde on October 20, 2006 11:02 PM

Tschafer -- I don't recall Kauffman calling himself a pacifist, although he certainly admires some pacifists. Where foreign policy is concerned, he mainly calls himself an isolationist -- something quite different than a pacifist. Don't mean to speak for him, but in reading many of his books and articles I saw no indication that he'd have any trouble with fighting in true self-defence. I suspect that his quarrel with our involvement in WWI and WWII comes down to a conviction that they weren't wars fought entirely in self-defence.

MQ - And maybe most wars can be successfully dodged too!

Jason -- That *is* a quite a vocabulary Kauffman deploys, isn't it? Fun trying to figure out what some of those words mean. That said, Kauffman himself says that punk rock was an influence on his writing. And -- while I certainly agree he's supersmart -- he doesn't write from an analytical/intellectual point of view. For whatever (no doubt supersmart) reason, he writes with a more personal, poetic, and evocative tone. He's defiantly emotional and nostalgic, two things real intellectuals (I don't mean the word "intellecutal" as praise, btw -- it's just a word describing an approach or a temperament) would never let themselves be.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 20, 2006 11:21 PM

Rachel: Having both? I get the feeling that your beloved "raisin farmer" has little time for the Other Greeks these days. Living in the glory of the Battle Ripples is a full-time job. There are quite a few historical examples like that in Kauffman's America First.

Posted by: BChen on October 21, 2006 3:21 AM

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