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BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY. I have never really given a damn about my own mongrel ethnicity—I care about place, not race—and besides, there are many mysteries to which I don’t particularly want to know the answer. I heed Dr. Zaius’s advice to Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes: “Don’t look for it, Taylor. You may not like what you find.”

But when a genetically tested family member on my wife’s side learned, quite to his surprise, that torrents of Basque blood course through his veins, I figured that I’d help my wife and daughter fit into their good shepherd heritage.

The first thing I did was order a bumpersticker featuring a menacing-looking Basque nationalist. Hey, Spain—hands off Euskal Herria!

Second thing I did was look up famous Basque-Americans. The bookends are Ted Williams and American Idol runner-up David Archuletta. The Armenians claim William Saroyan and Cher, so we’ll call that a draw.

Third and wisest act on my Basque list was a return to the novels of Robert Laxalt, whose literary acquaintance I had made shortly before he died with his hydrophobic novella Time of the Rabies (2000).

Robert Laxalt (1923-2001) grew up in a Carson City hotel run by his mother while his father was off in the mountains herding sheep. As a young Nevada newspaperman, Robert refused offers to helm United Press bureaus in Los Angeles and Mexico City, for as he explained, “I was a Nevadan to the core.”

In 1957, Robert published Sweet Promised Land, a widely praised account of his father’s return to the Basque village of his youth. The book’s success set him up for a literary celebrity that fleeted. For Laxalt’s people have never been Minority of the Month; his state’s image as a desert mottled by slot machines is crass and arid. So Robert Laxalt turned his back on the Manhattan publishing world, founded the University of Nevada Press, and wrote histories of Nevada, novels of ranch life, family portraits, and clear-eyed affectionate depictions of his neighbors, from Basque sheepherders to the lost souls of Las Vegas.

One Laxalt son stayed west, but another flew east: Robert’s brother Paul, who after serving as governor of Nevada did two terms in the U.S. Senate.

Robert fictionalized his brother’s rise in The Governor’s Mansion (1994), in which Leon Indart, the honest but canny son of a Basque family very much resembling the Laxalts, is elected governor of Nevada. (Typically, Leon, after having lunch with a mob hitman named “Icepick Willie,” pronounces him “the nicest man” who “wants to help.”) Leon tolerates organized crime in Las Vegas because “these are our people and gambling is what keeps the state alive.” The Governor’s Mansion is one of the very few political novels in which a conservative Republican is presented sympathetically, if unheroically.

A Carson City mintmark is a rarity to be desired, but the real Leon Indart must have mistranslated it as Crystal City. For upon retiring from the Senate, Paul Laxalt did not return home to Nevada, but instead traded on his name as a Washington lobbyist. Prostitution is legal in Nevada but mandatory in D.C.

I have no scunner against Paul Laxalt, Reagan confidant and a well-liked senator, but I measure such men against the standard of my late friend and landsman Barber Conable, who for two decades represented us in the House with an integrity and placefulness that almost makes me believe that Madison’s design once had a chance of succeeding. Upon his retirement, Mr. Conable was offered the usual 30 (million) pieces of silver to betray his homefolks and stay on as a D.C. lobbyist, but as he once told me, “There’s nothing deader than a dead politician. I recall my friends Wilbur Mills and Al Ullman coming to lobby me after they had gone to their rewards one way or another, and I would duck into doorways to avoid them because they would be asking for things that I knew they didn’t believe in. They were pure mercenaries.” So Conable came home. Most don’t. Whoring out is far more lucrative.

Robert Laxalt wrote of a recurring dream in which his fictive counterpart returns to Carson City and searches, vainly, for the house in which he grew up. “No house of that name was ever here,” an old man tells him. “No one by that name ever lived here.”

I don’t suppose lobbyists are troubled by such dreams.

One Laxalt brother’s name decorates public buildings in the Nevada he long ago abandoned, but it is the other brother, the one who stayed home, whose name is written in the desert sands and aspen groves of the Silver State. Wanna wager whose Nevada lasts longer?

—-

From The American Conservative—whaddaya mean you don’t subscribe? click here— my column on a rooted man from a state with so many nomads it makes Florida seem moored.

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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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. John,
    I’m glad you mentioned Mondragon. I have studied them as a cooperative, and a real unique model of how to run a business based on Stewardship Theory (as opposed to shareholder theory). One thing I have wondered is how much of the success of Mondragon is tied to the rootedness of the Basque culture, and the strength of the Basque identity. I think that must have a lot to do with their long view, and desire to build a cooperative based on distributive principles. I wonder if it would be possible to emulate the Mondragon model in a society without such a strong sense of community, and shared identity. What are your thoughts on this?
    Tom

  2. Thomas, that’s a shrewd observation. The large-scale successes of distributism–Mondragon, Emilia-Romagna, and the Land to the Tiller program of Taiwan, have all been in culturally mature and united places. This is not surprising since culture is foundational to anything that humans do, and a weak culture will lead to weak results, no matter how strong the theory. Of course, the culture makes possible the institutions, and the institutions sustain and develop the culture, so it is a reiterative process.

    On a smaller scale, an entrepreneur like Jack Stack who built the employee-owned Springfield Remanufacturing Company found that he had to develop a culture of entrepreneurship within the company in order to get employee-ownership to work to its full potential.

    But everybody has to start from where they are, and part of the task of rebuilding our broken culture is rebuilding our broken economic system.

  3. As a kid, we had the twice yearly pleasure of watching Basque sheep herders with their distinctive quonset-hut wagons move their herd between the flats out by the Great Salt Lake and the high mountain valleys to the east. They would camp for a few days in the sage flats below the house to gird for or recover from the trip over the ridgeline of the Wasatch Range. The grazing lands were developed to housing after I left . It always brought the west directly into ones sensibilities to see these twice annual drives and their wagon parked below.

    The culture is alive and kicking still in southern Idaho and northern Nevada and you can enjoy their fantastic food and salubrious company at an occasional festival from Elko to Boise or even a tad into southeast Oregon toward Steens Mtn.. They inhabit that starkly grand landscape that is the real Nevada from the Rubies to the Jarbridge…the aptly named GREAT Basin…some of the most spectacular mountain scenery and valley depositional geomorphology seen anywhere on the planet. To look at a Great Basin depositional bench fanning out from a box canyon and into the vanished depths of an ancient phantom lake is to contemplate a span of time that chastens you to a state of proper humility if the stark and harsh beauty or fleet-footed Antelope or coyote warble aint done the job enough already. Don’t know about the bomb throwing version in Spain, but the few Basque I had the pleasure of spending any time with were some fine and warm people.

    The Framers preferred a part time Washington where the politicians couldn’t wait to get out of there so they could attend to their living at home. This proper deal was queered way too long ago and now the Czars and Czarettes stay on after they “retire”…along with “retired” military….in order to reap the standard rewards of empire. The land…the States….. are becoming little more than lines on a map. The Apparatchiks will not be removed voluntarily.

  4. I thought Barber Conable became president of the World Bank after leaving Congress. Not quite the same thing as becoming a lobbyist, but not what I’d call the most noble calling, either.

  5. Barber Conable represented us in Congress for ten terms. Several times he was voted “most respected” member of the House in polls of his colleagues, staffers, and Congress-watchers. He refused any campaign contribution greater than $50, even when organized labor targeted him in the Watergate election of 1974. Conable retired to his home in Alexander, NY, after the 1984 election. He accepted the presidency of the World Bank in 1986 and served one five-year term. He came home for good in 1991. He was a man fully at home in his place. He gave terrific off-the-cuff lectures on local history, local culture, local art, local flora. I served with him for several years on the board of directors of our county historical society. (He manned the cashbox at our yard sales—the World Bank training had come in handy.) I devoted a chapter to Mr. Conable in Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. He was among the greatest men I have ever known.

  6. Bill, Don’t kid us about the race card. You are always bragging about the minoriest minorities in the whole of the US of A. I can’t even come close–had a Dutch uncle once, but otherwise only English, English, English. As my students used to say, boooooooorrrrrrrrring! Besides, right now it’s cool to claim Basques; can you imagine having to admit to, say, German? In the end I agree: Go Batavia! Go Phelps!

  7. I was struck by your, “I care about place, not race”. What I find interesting is that it’s generally white Americans who have no interest in race or heritage; the rest of us don’t really have that luxury as, like it or not, we’re tagged to some extent by our appearance. I’m half oriental(I still prefer this term to the currently accepted “Asian”), and, growing up overseas in the American diplomatic community, thought of myself primarily as American, even as white, and not Filipina-American. When I entered graduate school, however, I discovered that others tagged me very much as oriental, not even as mixed race–the old if you have a drop of black blood, you’re considered black. I was actually told in so many words that I would never be viewed just as Jane Doe; I’d always be seen first as an Asian woman. So I couldn’t very well ignore ethnicity. What also surpised me as I grew older, is that despite my never having much contact with my mother’s country or family, I feel a definite tie with the Philippines and other Filipinos. I don’t think that place and race are mutually exclusive; indeed, my feeling a tie with my mother’s people seems to me closely related to the tie I have with the Southern sense of place I inherited to some degree from my father.

  8. Hey Mr. Kauffman, I enjoyed Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette it taught me a lot about our area. I always wanted to know why Mr. Conable would take a job like President of the World Bank? That just sounds much worse then taking a lobbyist position. I am no big fan of lobbyists but World Bank, IMF or the Federal Reserve System are three organizations that I have come to believe, that they don’t do very much to help the local communities in our country or others around the world. I bet Dick Cheney’s close friends think he’s a great guy.
    Also, I recently just heard that our State Senators have introduced legislation for a vote on secession from the NYC area. Have you wrote any articles on this? If you haven’t what’s your opinion of the matter….do you think it’s just a distraction or do you believe they may be passionate about this?

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