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« A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Four | Main | Advertising to Kids »

October 20, 2006

A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Five

Michael Blowhard writes:

It's Day Five 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 Caleb Stegall review of Kauffman's "Look Homeward, America" can be read here. Clark Stooksbury provides a discerning review of "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette" here. Lee at Verbum Ipsum is level-headed yet sympathetic about "Look Homeward, America." 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. Part Four is here. Now, on to Part Five, the final part of our interview.


A Week With Bill Kauffman, Day Five


Bill Kauffman, photographed by daughter Gretel

2B: So you think our involvement in WWII was a mistake too?
As for WWII, my sympathies are with the America First Committee and more generally the Middle American isolationists who wanted to stay out of the war, as they would want to stay out of any foreign war. They said we'd get a draft, curtailed civil liberties, confiscatory taxes, and a greatly enlarged centralized state that would never return to an appropriate size. They were right.

The demonization of the AFC, which with 800,000 members was the largest antiwar movement in our history, is a crime. No one, outside the most noxious propagandists, regarded it as anything but wholesome at the time. Hell, its founding members included Gerald Ford, Sargent Shriver, and Potter Stewart. Young John F. Kennedy sent in a check for $100. Its sympathizers ranged across the American spectrum: Sinclair Lewis, Norman Thomas, Edmund Wilson, Alice Roosevelt Longworth ... a long and honorable list. Eighty percent of Americans opposed involvement in the war as late as fall 1941.

But you see, in the United States of Armaments we always go back and paint villain's mustaches on the antiwar side. The losers in historical debates either get flushed down the memory hole or demonized beyond recognition.

Peace is patriotic. That's not a simpleminded slogan, it's the truth. The antiwar folks in '40-41 had seen how the First World War had trashed civil liberties, centralized economic and political power, fed a mass culture of conformity and obedience, and pissed all over traditional American liberties.

War is the health of the state, in the great aphorism of Randolph Bourne. As it was the health of the state in WWII.

That war -- like other wars -- did incalculable damage on the homefront: it served to uproot Americans, to separate them from their homeplaces, often for good, to destroy healthy manifestations of local culture, to intensify the industrialization of our country, to kill the vital spirit of local, human-scale democracy.

The antiwar people were in no way, shape, or form pro-Hitler. They understood him to be the monster he was. Unlike FDR, they also understood Stalin to be a monster. Who knows what would have happened if we'd stayed out? I believe that Hitler and Stalin, who with Mao rank as the last century's satanic trinity of hell-bound mass murderers, would have destroyed each other.

Until then, the US ought to have invited the persecuted Jews (and others ) of Europe to take refuge in our country. We were meant to serve as such a refuge, a beacon of liberty. Two oceans afforded us the blessing of isolation. This was the view of so many patriots of the sweet old neighborly America, the America of Jefferson and the Populists and the Wobblies and Main Street Rotarians. That's my America, no matter how many "Greatest Generation" books Tom Brokaw sells.

2B: What was the key moment in the formation of the Empire?
The fateful step on the road to empire was probably the Spanish-American War and its aftermath, when we suppressed the Filipino independence movement.

Many of the best Americans -- Midwestern Populists, New England Brahmins, Indiana poets -- knew this. But the First and Second World Wars marked a decisive rejection of the sage advice handed down by George Washington in his Farewell Address: Stick to a foreign policy of neutrality. Peace and commerce with all nations, entanglements and alliances with none.

I have on my wall a Gilbert Stuart Washington that hung in my mom's one-room schoolhouse in Lime Rock. I'll stand with George against Wilson, FDR, Truman, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and all those other contenders for Greatness.

2B: Can you tell me some good things about the following words, with which many people have bad associations: Anarchy. Reactionary. Isolationism.
Anarchy is the absence of government coercion. It implies nothing about one's religious or social views; indeed, the most convincing anarchists have been Christians: Dorothy Day, Tolstoy. I prefer to let people, working voluntarily and in small groups with their neighbors, tend to their own affairs, without the state and its credentialed experts bossing 'em around.

I call myself a front-porch anarchist (when I'm not calling myself a Jeffersonian, a localist, a decentralist, a small-town populist, an Upstate regionalist). I'll also happily answer to reactionary radical. That is, I cherish the old principles of '76. Liberty. Rural life. Peace. Small-scale community. The flag of the coiled rattlesnake.

An isolationist is simply one who wishes the U.S. government to refrain from military involvement abroad. I never could figure out why this is an epithet. Why are isolationists, who oppose killing foreigners, considered xenophobes, while those who favor killing foreigners are humanitarians? Most Americans are instinctively isolationist. They don't want their kids and their taxes sent overseas to bomb or bribe people they'll never meet.

2B: How about a few things that could be done politically that would dramatically affect US life for the better?
Bring all our troops home from everywhere. Reunite them with their families. Devolve political power to the most local level possible: the town, the neighborhood, the family, the individual. Slash the defense budget, repeal all corporate subsidies, abolish the many direct and indirect subsidies (interstate highways, federal aid to colleges, a standing army) of rootlessness. Eliminate the national government's role in education; break up soulless consolidated superschools; restore local districts and small, human-scale schools. Revoke TV and radio licenses from absentee owners.

2B: Should we get out of NATO?
We never should have joined. I'm a (George) Washingtonian on this one: stay out of the eternal broils of Europe. And save $100 billion, too.

2B: Should New York State really be split off from New York City?
One of my fondest dreams. The idea has a noble heritage and has been pushed by everyone from William Randolph Hearst to Norman Mailer. Either you believe in self-rule or you don't. I do. The breakup can be amicable. North and South Dakota don't war with each other. (I love North Dakota, by the way. The most antiwar state in the union.) I'm working on a piece on secession. May lead to a book.

2B: Should Microsoft be broken up?
I'm barely computer literate, and I know almost as little about antitrust law. So I'll just say that I want it shattered not by some edict from Washingtron but by thousands of individual acts of rebellion against the compu-tyrant. (To which I am paying obeisance as I type...a Luddite with an e-mail address. I'm afraid I contain more than multitudes.)

2B: I noticed in one of your books that you venture the thought that the best hope is in local organic agriculture. I push a generalized version of the Slow Food thing at our blog -- makes sense to me. But what's the reasoning that gets you to where you are?
Well, it's a source of great hope. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) provides a local source of fresh food, a way to support farm families and agrarian communities.

We have it in our power to restore parts of the good America. We vote not only in booths every November but every day in so many ways: with our time, our money, our hearts, our love. What kind of an America do we want? A Wal-Martized land at perpetual war with the world, a nation of TV watchers mesmerized by CNN and MTV, or a place with vibrant local cultures, flavorful regions, variety and life? I want the latter. So buy local. Live local. Local food. Local music. Local baseball.

Yeah, I know, we're behind 27-1 in the bottom of the eighth. So what? Our side is the real America. What does the other side have? Tanks, bombs, Dick Cheney, Paris Hilton, "The View." Big deal. We have Johhny Appleseed and Bob Dylan and volunteer fire departments and poems about cider and chestnuts. How can we lose?


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.

Thanks to Dave Lull for setting up this interview. And many thanks to Bill Kauffman for taking the time to participate in this interview.

posted by Michael at October 20, 2006



I just read the comment thread below. Your comment is about five times more emotional than they usually are.

Are you really surprised at the reaction? Attacking Lincoln and attacking the morality and wisdom of WWII? Well, I give him credit for consistency, his support for George Washington notwithstanding (though George was quite a redoubtable warrior). It seems clear that Mr. Kauffman is a pacifist. My feelings for pacifists generally are along the same lines as my feelings for the rock climbers who climb without ropes: I respect them, but I think they are stupid.

Perhaps next week you could write up your own thoughts about Mr. Kauffman, the interviews, and even the comments. I'm interested in your overview, but, as for Mr. Kauffman, I come down with Mr. Pittenger from the previous comment thread.

Posted by: Chris on October 20, 2006 10:38 AM

Thanks for running this series! Very entertaining and informative. I've been a fan of Mr. Kauffman's writing since I read his "America First" about six years ago.

p.s. I always think it's funny how people flip out about pacifists and non-interventionists, as though there's much chance of American converting to their position en masse anytime soon (more's the pity, I say!).

Posted by: Lee on October 20, 2006 11:46 AM

"Until then, the US ought to have invited the persecuted Jews (and others ) of Europe to take refuge in our country": once Hitler was at war, and certainly once he was on the channel coast, it was too late. Those folks were prisoners of his regime, not refugees.

As for avoiding WWII, how? You were attacked by Japan: Hitler declared war on you.

Posted by: dearieme on October 20, 2006 1:17 PM

Yes, provocateurs are sometimes needed, but since the 1960's, this country has produced nothing but provocateurs, humorists, and assorted smart-asses. The problem with provocation is that it's such a dead-end. WWII and the Civil War were mistakes? Ok, count me provoked - now what? There is also no contradiction between being serious and being provocative and humorous - just ask Mencken. We've all been "provoked" no end since about 1968 - now, could we please have some thought?

Incidentally, I'm afraid that I missed the humor -at what point was Mr. Kauffman trying to be funny?

Posted by: tschafer on October 20, 2006 1:22 PM

Eighty percent of Americans opposed involvement in the war as late as fall 1941.

Hmmmm. I wonder what happened after that to cause public opinion to change? I guess it will always remain a mystery.

Posted by: grandcosmo on October 20, 2006 2:59 PM

Chris -- I should keep a cooler head, I know, I know. Hey, that's not a bad blog-idea: "Those relatively few things that really do exasperate me."

Lee -- Tks for stopping by. I'm enjoying exploring your blog -- mucho nifty stuff.

Dearieme, Grandcosmo -- I should try to bring Bill back for a response-to-readers posting.

Tschaefer -- I know what you mean about all the wise-assing, and I'm with you on that. Often seems like everyone's scoring off everyone else, with the square middle having been whittled away to nothingness, doesn't it? Still, I'm surprised you don't see more to Bill than just the provocations. He's recommending historians I've never heard of; he's got a half-dozen books written, all with considerable scholarship in them; and he's generated a big body of more-substantial-than-most magazine articles. And I can certainly see a lot of Jane Jacobs, Christopher Lasch, Ed Abbey and other non-pop figures behind his work. He ain't just another boob-tube wiseass.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 20, 2006 2:59 PM

I think what a lot of people are questioning is Kauffman's constant name checking to describe his politics. The names he drops to describe his thinking do more to muddy the waters than clear them.

When you say that your heros are Debs and Mailer and Vidal yet at the same time also include Robert Taft, Murray Rothbard and Russell Kirk as heros then you need to explain the dichotomy or you risk coming off as unserious or a poseur.

Posted by: grandcosmo on October 20, 2006 3:25 PM

Mr. Kauffmann says, "Two oceans afforded us the blessing of isolation."

No, they didn't, and it isn't a matter of opinion, either. The Germans had developed the V2 rocket, and if the United States had stayed out of the war, the Germans would have had the time and resources to develope ICBMs and deliver them onto US soil. Coupled with a nuclear or biologicl warhead-which the Japanese had successfully created-the damage and casualties could have been immense.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on October 20, 2006 4:40 PM

To amplify what Peter just wrote, Hitler described his fantasy of seeing Manhattan immolated--the skyscrapers turned into "candles of flame," in der Fuehrer's pithy phrase--*before* the U.S. had declared itself in the war. Then again, that would have just removed a chancre.

Michael is right, though. As a provocateur Kauffman is classier than most. He wouldn't get under your skin if he was just stupid. I share a lot of his likes and dislikes--Dorothy Day, Al Smith, Sarah Orne Jewett are all favorites of mine, too. And I like a guy who can count both Norman Mailer (however deep my own reservations about him may be) and Russell Kirk among his heroes. As for the deeper explanation of that, I guess you'd have to read Kauffman's books and essays. I've read plenty of the latter, but as to the former I've read only "Country Towns of New York," which I quite enjoyed. I may try out "America First." I think my own prickly obsession with these interviews comes from my wanting to identify with his general viewpoint, and pulling up short when that general viewpoint loses focus or descends into a kind of formless bellicosity.

That said, I've been glued to this series. Michael knew some of us would be!

Now, Michael, how about a five-parter with Virginia Postrel, the opposite of Kauffman in almost every way?

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 20, 2006 6:02 PM

It’s a bit unfair to knock Kauffman’s aversion to WWII without acknowledging that his consistency in being opposed to WWI as well could have kept America out of WWII entirely. Would Hitler have come to power if America hadn’t intervened in WWI or if the peace of Versailles had been settled differently? It’s a bit like the neocons who say to the Iraq war dissidents, “Well, what’s your solution for fixing this mess, smart ass?” The solution would have been not to intervene in the first place, and just because the dissidents can’t devise a magical solution doesn’t mean they were wrong to oppose the war.

Also, I’m pretty sure Bill Kauffman is not a complete pacifist. If an army invaded western New York I think he’d be rearing for a fight. But let’s turn the tables here. For you non-pacifists out there, is there a single major American war that you think was a mistake? That you would have vehemently opposed from the start? Because I find that most pro-war types look back with nostalgia and approval on every instance of American intervention and aggression.

Posted by: Jason on October 20, 2006 11:48 PM

Kauffman is right about America First being wrongly maligned but he's completely wrong about our involvement in WWII. As others have pointed out and as I (an elementary school student at the time) remember quite clearly, we had no choice: Japan attacked us on December 7th and Hitler declared war against us a few days later.

If he thinks that we provoked Japan and Germany into their starting a war against the US then he should have said that instead of implying we had a choice in December 1941.

Not incidentally, virtually all members of America First ceased their anti-war activities following the Japanese attack.

Posted by: James Graham on October 21, 2006 10:20 AM

Michael, Thank you for Kauffman Week. Great show! The man sure knows how stir things up -- he really poked some of my hot-buttons hard.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on October 21, 2006 12:17 PM

As for avoiding WWII, how? You were attacked by Japan: Hitler declared war on you.
Now, why did Hitler declare war on the US? Might it have had something to do with the undeclared war the US was waging Germany in the North Atlantic? The US and British navies joined together in hunting down U-Boats. Then there was Lend-Lease-obviously a hostile act from Hitler's point of view(or any objective point of view).

Posted by: perroazul del norte on October 21, 2006 7:36 PM

If he thinks that we provoked Japan and Germany into their starting a war against the US then he should have said that instead of implying we had a choice in December 1941.

Not incidentally, virtually all members of America First ceased their anti-war activities following the Japanese attack.-James Graham

In the Old Right of the Fifties it was common knowledge that FDR did his best to provoke war with Japan. His provocations against Germany were either less well-known or simply less spoken of.

America First completely disbanded after Pearl Harbor; if any members continued to be actively anti-war after that it was without the imprimatur of the AFC.

Posted by: perroazul del norte on October 21, 2006 7:47 PM

Two good links on this topic:

Posted by: perroazul del norte on October 21, 2006 8:12 PM

Kaufman's interview with Elmer Kelton alone is enough to put me on his side. I'm always happy to find an eclectic thinker, esp. if he's a little bit old-fashioned. At least he's not in the Manhattan bubble.

As for wars we should have stayed out of, what about the Phillipines? Cuba? Panama? Or would you just call those "adventures?"

I never could see why the US would oppose secession. Let 'em go! If we had shattered into three or four countries, what would have been wrong with that? Maybe we will anyway, though via evolution rather than revolution.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 21, 2006 11:28 PM

"Now, why did Hitler declare war on the US? Might it have had something to do with the undeclared war the US was waging Germany in the North Atlantic?"

Gosh, and to think that for all these years I thought it was a *good* thing that we stood up to Hitler!

perroazul del norte, if America First was right about WWII, then why do you think it's important to note that they got behind the war effort after Pearl Harbor?

Poor besieged Adolf! I never knew that if we'd just left him alone we'd all be better off today.

Mary wrote:
"At least he's not in the Manhattan bubble."

I wish someone would tell me what the "Manhattan bubble" is, exactly. Kauffman likes to say he "contains multitudes." No one is more critical than I am about New York's shortcomings. I have made a living out of pointing them out. But I stay here because...the city contains multitudes. Does that mean that Michael Blowhard, say, is part of the "Manhattan bubble"?

Like I said, poor Adolf would have done us all a favor--no?--in eliminating this chancre of a city.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 22, 2006 12:19 AM

Bubbles can be shiny and attractive, valuable and useful. I don't consider Manhattan a chancre at all and enjoy it when I'm there -- which is very rarely in person but often in spirit since I read the slick mags and start my day with the NYTimes on the 'Net. Yes, Michael is in the Manhattan bubble quite a bit, but he comes out of it for upstate NY, right? (Visits CA, too, but that's an even bubblier bubble.)

It's just the same syndrome as that famous New Yorker cover showing Great Big Manhattan and far in the distance -- the Rockies? Teeny tiny, so hard to tell. We think differently way out here on the prairie -- that's okay. But it's not okay to impose Manhattan-thought on us or to assume Manhattan knows more except about Manhattan stuff.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 22, 2006 10:16 AM

That's nicely put, thanks. But the thing that still gets to me are the generalizations a lot of people make about us, which are as bad as the generalizations some New Yorkers make about people elsewhere. Americans who live elsewhere than in New York often--it seems to me--make the same mistake in their thinking about New York that Europeans often make in their thinking about America: They think they know more about us than we know about them. Which is mostly very untrue. A lot of New Yorkers come from elsewhere, and carry their knowledge of elsewhere with them their whole lives. (Rootless cosmopolitans though such New Yorkers may be, they often left those elsewheres because they simply weren't wanted, or otherwise had perfectly valid reasons for leaving.)

My point is that we contain multitudes--Donald Trump (who is, by the way, *far* better known in the farther reaches of America than he is in New York) *and* the Catholic Workers. But you know what I mean. It's just that I identify myself as a New Yorker, and don't like being told that I am trying to impose my will on the rest of the country, because I am not. (Yes, I know some New Yorkers who do wish to impose their will. Then, too, people elsewhere impose their will equally, at least nowadays. New York has financial power, it is true. We have very little say in national politics. And that is in spite of the fact that, as Sen. Moynihan's onetime aide Bill K. well knows, there is a *massive* net outflow of tax monies from New York City and State to the rest of the country. On most matters of national policy, the rest of the country decides, New York pays, and we *still* get to be the whipping boy.) And maybe, Mary, you're more in that bubble than I am: *I* don't read the New York Times!

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 22, 2006 11:10 AM

Francis, my attitude is much influenced by trying to pry open the jaws of the Manhattan publishing community so I can force some writing into print.

I also read the Moab, Utah, Zephyr; the local (Blackfeet Reservation) Glacier Reporter, etc. but I've given up on the High Country News, an environmental newspaper written by people who have evidently locked themselves into their office in order to preserve their elitism.

Have you got any pull with publishers?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on October 22, 2006 11:44 AM

"Gosh, and to think that for all these years I thought it was a *good* thing that we stood up to Hitler!"

"perroazul del norte, if America First was right about WWII, then why do you think it's important to note that they got behind the war effort after Pearl Harbor? "
The earlier poster implied that the US had no choice but to go war with Germany because Germany declared war first. After the fall of France FDR was clearly doing everything he could to get into the war against Germany while telling the American`people that "your boys will not be sent to fight in a foreign war" and "I hate war". Bring up Adolf and 90% of the population abandons reason and logic.

The point about the AFC was that they were patriots and their country had been attacked, so they responded as patriots would. I realize that this is an alien concept to the contemporary leftist(and libertarian) mind- which places ideology above all.

Posted by: perroazul del norte on October 23, 2006 11:40 AM

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