Burned-Over District, NY. The week that Wisconsin voters threw out Russ Feingold, the only stepgrandson Fighting Bob La Follette had left in the U.S. Senate, I went to hear an Upper Midwesterner of similar pedigree, Bob Dylan of Hibbing, Minnesota.

I actually saw some heads without hoarfrost, a pleasing contrast to the last time I paid a column’s wages to sit in a hockey arena and listen to music. When my brother and I attended a Bruce Springsteen concert a couple of years ago, we surveyed the crowd and figured we must have wandered into a tour stop by the Ray Conniff Singers.

Lord knows I loved Bruce back in the Darkness on the Edge of Town/Nebraska days, after he had shed his early Dylan mimicry and set out to be the John Steinbeck of Freehold, New Jersey. My buddy Chuck and I would snake around town in his old jeep yowling “If she wants to see me/You can tell her that I’m easily found…” Alas, while we were easily found, she sure didn’t want to see us.

Politically, Bruce was nowhere near as interesting as the early punks or even that Mormon-Jewish hybrid Warren Zevon. (From Crystal Zevon’s warts-aplenty 2007 portrait of her ex-husband, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, comes this account of the Zevons’ child-custody dispute: “Warren got on the phone; he was obviously drunk…He said, ‘I’m to the right of your father and Ronald Reagan and if you think I’m going to let my daughter be raised by some f—-ing Communist hippie, you’re sadly mistaken.’” But really, who can resist a songwriter who begins a lyric, “I went home with the waitress/The way I always do/How was I to know/She was with the Russians, too?”)

Dylan, on several other hands, has been a Goldwater admirer, born-again Christian, and proponent of agrarianism as the “authentic alternative lifestyle.” He was formed in Minnesota before he ever saw Greenwich Village. In his memoir Chronicles, the singer, mindful of his roots in that frozen ground, writes of Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eddie Cochran, Sinclair Lewis, and Roger Maris as men he “felt akin to,” freethinking sons of the North Country who “followed their own vision, didn’t care what the pictures showed them.”

Lindbergh’s congressman father, whom the New York Times tagged the “Gopher Bolshevik,” was a fierce critic of Wall Street, Woodrow Wilson, and the war machine. Charles Lindbergh Sr. was a progenitor of a vigorous Minnesota antiwar tradition that found expression in men such as Senators Henrik Shipstead and Eugene McCarthy before degenerating into the boring Cold War social democracy of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale or the Republican polenta of Pawlenty.

Bob Dylan is very much in the Lindbergh-McCarthy tradition, as  Norwegian academic Tor Egil Forland explained in a 1992 Journal of American Studies paper titled “Bringing It All Back Home or Another Side of Bob Dylan: Midwestern Isolationist.” But then Dylan is 69, and old enough to remember when the people of his place looked askance at empire. There were giants in the earth in those days.

When the Masters of War (“even Jesus would never forgive what you do”) requested the presence of American sons at the blood orgies of 1917, 1941, 1950, and 1964, it was the Upper Midwest, with its Non-Partisan Leagues and retro-Progressives and Sons of the Wild Jackass, that brayed “No!” Where are their offspring? I don’t mean to be impertinent or importunate, Dakotas and Minnesota and Wisconsin, but we look to you for La Follettes and Nyes and McGoverns and you give us Al Franken and Ron Johnson?

Turn off the goddam television, would you please, and turn on Wisconsin!

Feingold had his flaws but he was the only member of the Senate with the guts to vote against the Patriot Act; as Jesse Walker of Reason writes, he also “voted against TARP, was decent on the Second Amendment, and was one of the rare liberals to reach out to the Tea Parties instead of demonizing them.” He was neither red nor blue—each a scoundrel hue.

Senator Feingold quoted Dylan in his concession speech: “My heart is not weary/It’s light and it’s free/I have nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me.” Dylan closed our concert with “Ballad of a Thin Man,” rasping, “Something is happening here/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”

I’m no more perceptive than Mr. Jones, but one thing is all too clear: the Upper Midwest, historic home of the American peace movement, has come down with an awfully bad case of laryngitis. And it’s gettin’ dark—too dark to see.

This appeared in the January 2011 issue of The American Conservative (www.amconmag.com), to which all fans of Bob Dylan and Bob La Follette should subscribe.

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Bill Kauffman
Bill Kauffman was born on November 15 (also the birthday of Bobby Dandridge) in the otherwise forgettable year of 1959. He was an all-star Little League shortstop for the Lions Club Cubs but soon thereafter his talents eroded. After an idyllic childhood in his ancestral home of Batavia, New York, birthplace of Anti-Masonry, he was graduated from Batavia High School in 1977. He earned, more or less, a B.A. from the University of Rochester in 1981 and went therefrom to the staff of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the only dairy farmer in the U.S. Senate. Two and a half years later he left Moynihan’s staff a bohemian Main Street anarchist who loved the Beats, the New England transcendentalists, early 20th century local colorists (Sarah Orne Jewett his Maine gal), cowpunk music, and the crazy old America. Neil Diamond and Karen Carpenter, too, but don’t tell anyone. He bummed around out west for a while, sleeping in bus stations and writing derivative poetry in Salt Lake City flophouses (nah, he’s not a Mormon, just a BYU fan) before an ill-starred year in graduate school at the UR. He took a seminar with Christopher Lasch and thought on it. In the spring of 1985 he flew west to become an assistant editor with Reason magazine. He had great fun in Santa Barbara with that crew of congenial editors drinking far into the night at Eddie Van Cleeve’s Sportsman’s Lounge, but in ’86 he flew east to become the magazine’s Washington editor. Always homesick, Kauffman persuaded his lovely and talented wife Lucine, a Los Angelena, to move back to Batavia in 1988 in what he called a “one-year experiment”—the year to be measured, apparently, in Old Testament terms. They’re still there—or, more accurately, five miles north in Elba (apt name for an exile!), where Lucine is Town Supervisor. She may well be the highest-ranking Armenian-American elected official in the country, at least until the voters of California send Cher to the U.S. Senate. Take that, Turks! Lucine and Bill have a daughter, Gretel, 17, who writes and acts and plays piano and French horn. Their lab mutt, Victoria, whose tail graces the accompanying photo, is now departed, to their sorrow, but a cat, Duffy, darts in and out of the house when the mood strikes. Bill is the author of nine books: Every Man a King (Soho Press/1989), a novel, which was recently rescued from the remainder bin by a New York Sun article proclaiming it the best political satire of the last century (the Sun thereupon set); Country Towns of New York (McGraw-Hill/1994), a travel book about God’s country; America First! Its History, Culture and Politics (Prometheus/1995), a cultural history of isolationism which Benjamin Schwarz in the Atlantic called the best introduction to the American anti-imperialist tradition; With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (Praeger/1998), his worst-seller, a sympathetic account of critics of highways, school consolidation, a standing army, and the Siren Progress; Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette: A Mostly Affectionate Account of a Small Town’s Fight to Survive (Henry Holt/2003; Picador ppb. 2004), a memoirish book about his hometown which won the 2003 national “Sense of Place” award from Writers & Books; Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI/2006), which the American Library Association named one of the best books of 2006 and which won the Andrew Eiseman Writers Award; Ain’t My America: The Long Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism (Henry Holt/ Metropolitan/2008), which Barnes & Noble named one of the best books of 2008; Forgotten Founder: Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin (ISI/2008), a biography of a brilliant dipsomaniacal Anti-Federalist who warned us this was gonna happen; and Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green/2010), a cheerful account of dissolution. Bill is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The American Conservative. He has written for numerous publications, including The American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Nation, Chronicles, the Independent and The Spectator of London, Counterpunch, Orion, University Bookman, and Utne Reader. He is vice president of the Genesee County Baseball Club, which owns the Batavia Muckdogs of the New York-Penn Baseball League. Come summertime, he can be found in the 3rd base bleachers at Dwyer Stadium. He is also active in the officerless (of course) John Gardner Society. Bill is more handsome than the photo on this site would suggest. See books written by Bill Kauffman.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Glad to see Warren Zevon getting some well-overdue recognition. I’ve never understood his relative obscurity compared to the Boss (whom I love as well) or other singer-songwriters.

    Then again, perhaps there’s a lyrical accessibility gulf. Thunder Road and Backstreets is a little more palatable to the sensitive than Excitable Boy.

  2. Granted, he’s no Gene McCarthy, a wonderfully crazy and smart populist who combined the Keynesian demand for policies of full employment with a civil libertarian approach to personal freedoms. But cut Al Franken some slack; it’s not like there isn’t any of the North Country in him at all. Anyone who threatens National Review’s Rich Lowry with a fistfight, and really means it, can’t be all that bad.

  3. While I’m suspicious of excessive admiration for La Follette, I’m downright mystified by admiration for Bob Dylan. It’s a weird gene in the American makeup that lionizes a second-rate poet who can’t sing. I don’t get it. I guess it comes down to the standard defense of the 60’s: you had to be there. After all, there’s more to politics than being anti-war.

    • Some of us who weren’t there nonetheless think Dylan has written some tremendous songs, Jeff. (Were they poetry? Depends on how you define it, I guess. I don’t think he’s ever described himself that way, for whatever that’s worth. Never forget his own estimation of himself, at the height of the manufactured anti-war folk craze of the mid-60s: “I’m just a song and dance man.”)

  4. I’ll second Mr. Polet: while I occasionally derive pleasure from the tunes and lyrics of Mr. Dylan, he’s most emphatically not an excellent poet, and he’s an even worse singer (often downright cacophonous). And when did semi-statist progressives like LaFollette, Feingold, and Reid become heroes to front-porchers?

    • How about when they started standing up for the people/places they came from? And who mentioned Reid, anyway? Is that some sort of red herring?

      As for Rob Z, find me a bard with a voice like silk, and I’ll find you a Rob who claims he’s a better poet, Rob! -Z

  5. Mystified by admiration for Dylan? Please. You don’t have to like him or think he’s a great poet or singer/songwriter, but mystified by his popularity?

    This is the kind of commentary that makes the Porch wearying at times, and only gives fuel to those writing it off as elitist. One can’t even profess admiration for To Kill A Mockingbird without some nitwit explaining its shortcomings.

    • Fine, but I’m asking a serious question here: when did statists become Front Porch approved? Maybe I’ve been dwelling under the proverbial rock for the past few months, or perhaps the trend was latent in the project from its origins, but I recently returned to FPR to find articles praising monarchy, coercive wealth-redistribution, subsidies of all kinds, and, again, statists. Am I missing something? Does this sort of statism actually harbor space for front porches?

      • In re Feingold, I think that BK has covered this ground ably:

        “Feingold had his flaws but he was the only member of the Senate with the guts to vote against the Patriot Act; as Jesse Walker of Reason writes, he also “voted against TARP, was decent on the Second Amendment, and was one of the rare liberals to reach out to the Tea Parties instead of demonizing them.” He was neither red nor blue—each a scoundrel hue.”

        I’m not as warm on Feingold as BK, but these are fair points all. I’m not enough of an expert on Kauffmanism to answer about his LaFollette-ism, but methinks that it has to do with LaFollette’s anti-imperialism and opposition to American entrance in to the Great War and his opposition to economic centralization.

        Obviously not everyone on the Porch is going to agree with everyone else on everything, as Mr. Médaille’s foray into monarchism has revealed, but I’m still not convinced that “statism” — that great bugbear — has really been granted an “XXX”-marked jug and a banjo.

        Either way, that such (seemingly) questionable ideas have been presented here strikes me not as some sort of treasonous attack on the spirit of Place. Limits. Liberty., but a necessary — even if painful — stage of exploration as we consider how front-porch-ism is to be enacted in our communities, regions, states, and nations. Monarchy, e.g., may have no place in these United States, but that doesn’t rule out the grounds for investigating the localism-friendly aspects of monarchy (c.f. Nisbet?) — both for what we can learn, and to consider how our friends in Britain, Luxembourg, and Jordan could invigorate localism in their nations.

        Just the same, while subsidies (I must have missed the specific suggestion to subsidize something in these parts in my regrettably less-frequent visiting of late.) are generally to viewed with suspicion, if not outright disdain, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that some sort of subsidization program to support and to encourage, say, small-scale/organic farming — You know, the things that were natural before government subsidies started to smash them to pieces in the name of monocultural, large-scale production.

        It’s an important question to ask, but I don’t think that throwing in the ‘s’-word is helpful. Part of both the beauty and the pain of localism is that what works varies from locality to another, from one nation to another, and nothing that has the potential to restore local control of our policy-making, our economies, and our civic and social organizations should be written off without deliberation simply because it smacks of “statism”.

    • Yes – I’m genuinely mystified by it. Why is that so hard to understand?

      And I’m wearied even more by the charge of “elitism” against those who call popular prejudices into question. I’m not saying there isn’t an argument to be made for Dylan. I’m saying I haven’t heard it, and there are all sorts of reasons to assume one can’t be made (for example: he can’t sing, his music is aesthetically uninteresting, and his lyrics are overrated). I’ve met a fair number of Dylan fans over the years, and I’ve asked them to make the case to me, and haven’t had one do so yet in a satisfactory manner. If that makes me an elitist, so be it.

      • Well I can’t stand artists such as Tupac, Katy Perry, or I don’t know, pick just about anyone on the top 40 charts… but I understand why they are popular.

  6. Another good issue of the A.C.. As to Dylan, he’s paid his dues, withstood some calls of being traitor and he’s an Alter kacker (for the civilian, this means “old shitter” in Yiddish). Fresh from a wired up and needle-poked stint on the cardiac floor myself, I like his croakings and of course, “the blood of the lamb” in his eyes.

    Would that a few more liberty-professing members of the so-called “conservative ” wing were as consistent in opposing the ongoing erosion of fruitless wars and privacy as was Senator Feingold.

    Some people like things and some people don’t. It aint mystery, its just human.

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