Two porchers discuss Bill Kauffman’s latest book.
by Jeff Taylor
The subtitle of Bill Kauffman’s new book doesn’t reach Rod Dreheresque levels of mouthfulness but it comes close. The themes implied by the words ought to warm the hearts of Front Porchers. For good reason. As always with Bill’s writings, Bye Bye, Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Their Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map is an excellent read.
This is a book about secession. A little of the past, a lot of the present, a dash of hoped-for future. If nullification—the topic of Tom Woods’ new book—is a tough sell to the realistic-minded, secession is much more so. To his credit, Bill admits this: “Yeah, sure, I know: Breaking away is impossible. Quixotic. Hopeless. So was dancing on the Berlin Wall.” He’s got a point. No one saw that one coming. But one near-impossibility becoming reality is not necessarily the harbinger of another occurrence.
Still, the unsustainability of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may bode ill for our own imperial union. As Bill puts it, “You can’t bloat a modest republic into a crapulent empire without sparking one hell of a centrifugal reaction.” Yes, but don’t underestimate the power of bread and circuses. The Roman Empire lasted for 500 years. Perhaps the Kremlin paid too little attention to buying off the poor and entertaining the masses. In America, we have welfare for everyone—poor, middling, and wealthy. Financial dependence, and its attendant co-optation, is an equal opportunity federal project. Hollywood and Madison Avenue numb what can’t be bought.
So I don’t know about the prospects of secession. When decentralists begin to fill arenas and stadiums instead of hotel conference rooms and public library meeting rooms, then we will know that something major is afoot. One of the things I like about Bill Kauffman is his indefatigability in the face of stiff odds. He exudes a cheery optimism in regard to lost causes—which seem to be most of his causes. He, veteran of the Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader campaigns. The lover of small towns, obscure statesmen, and intellectual railway stations long abandoned by the mighty train of Progress.
From the perspective of political science and history, I am interested in the subject of secession, especially as related to the CSA and to the USA’s imperial acquisitions three decades later. As a Midwestern transplant to the Heart of Dixie, I find Bill’s chapter on the League of the South particularly fascinating.
I want to praise Bill as a writer. He’s a master stylist. He brings encyclopedic knowledge to each of his books. The breadth is often astonishing. It’s not just the unfamiliar, presumably antiquarian, words. (“This was once an active member of the English language?!”) It’s the pop culture allusions, the arcane biographical details, the rich political history. Coupled with an understanding of context. How things fit together. You also get a foundation of wisdom. The eternal and the temporal matters that really matter. Love. Justice. Peace. Place. Liberty. Family. Community.
It’s all wrapped up in a style that is fluid. Never labored. You don’t sense a thesaurus at work for the sake of being clever. There’s wit. There’s a little vulgarity in the service of righteous indignation. There’s good humor even when dealing with enemies. Individuals who come in for strong, well-deserved, excoriation are not dehumanized. You don’t sense hatred or bitterness. He has a bold yet good-natured stance, even weaving his own life experiences into the narrative.
It’s refreshing. Some of my favorite subjects, examined from a good perspective, with panache. I could see someone enjoying a Kauffman book even if he or she has little initial interest in the subject. It pulls the reader in. I suppose some may find his frequent asides and parenthetical detours annoying, but I don’t. It’s the way the human mind, and human heart, tend to work. In the age of hyperlinks, such moving from one subject to a related one is a familiar activity. As a political essayist, Bill Kauffman ranks right up there with Dwight Macdonald and Gore Vidal. I can see why Vidal is an admirer.
The subtitle of an earlier Kauffman book—Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists—inspired the name of our website, albeit in diluted form. Over at the left-wing CounterPunch site, Christopher Ketcham has recently given us a fine overview of efforts by liberal secessionists in Vermont. He even mentions the publisher of Bill’s book: Chelsea Green Publishing of White River Junction, Vermont. Of course, it takes more than a relative handful of thoughtful activists on the Right and the Left to make a majority, or even a sizeable enough minority to effect political change . . . especially of a dramatic nature. That’s the challenge for those of us who believe in grassroots democracy, political decentralization, and community-based economics.
by Katherine Dalton
Bill has been called (to his eternal delight) “the Sage of Batavia,” but really that’s too formal a title for a man who likes to be photographed holding a can of Genessee. I prefer to think of him as a much-needed dumpster-diver of American history. He is particularly willing to dig for those forgotten or thrown-away arguers for political liberty and limits, to his great credit.
As the book’s reason for being is to present the arguments for secession and dissolution, we hear from those who didn’t want to add states beyond the lower 48, who resisted the fiscally advantageous but politically impotent no-man’s-land of territorial status for Puerto Rico, and who grieved at the calls for secession in the 1840s and 50s but preferred divorce to invasion and pillage. Like a sand castle in the midst of the Bay of Fundy, their causes were flattened by the strong tide of “progess,” business opportunity and empire. But if the champions of these lost causes left no victories, they left a record, and Bill has done his best to remind us of it.
Bill profiles recent secessionist movements as well, small and oft-berated as they are. Jeff raises the question—and he will not be alone—that given the unlikelihood of any secession movement getting anywhere even in the polls, even in Vermont, why write about it? Why would Bill spend his limited time researching the topic, or why should we read about it? One must read to see; the book makes a strong case for the necessity of its subject. It is important to remember how undemocratically Hawaii and Alaska entered the union. Or how recently it was a jailable offense to fly the Puerto Rican flag in Puerto Rico. Or how many of the political arguments used against the South in the early and middle 19th century have justified expansionism and empire in the century and a half since.
While Bill is a rabid fissionist (he’d take two New Yorks in a heartbeat) he is not a willing secessionist, other than being happy to release the noncontinguous states 49 and 50. Like his relatives who fought on the winning side of the Civil War, Bill is a Unionist at heart, and forgetting that no state has a pristine record on racial matters, he cannot mention a Southern state or Southern man without reminding the reader of what is unforgiveable in our past. Every single time.
Still, Bill quotes the best arguers for Southern secession living and dead, and many of his best quotes on the right functions of statehood and the risks of empire come from Southerners. And that should be no surprise, because nullification and secession are the necessary outs in our political system for any state that finds the federal government all too willing to meddle and control what that state deems to be its own essential business and welfare. The fact that such arguments have been used to defend policies some of us greatly dislike does not make the arguments less justifiable. Without nullificiation and secession, federalism has no teeth. I’ve argued that before, and I’m glad to read a book that gives me occasion to argue it again.
Finally, I have to mention Bill’s love for a ten-dollar word. He didn’t ask me for a quote for his dustjacket, but if he had, here’s what I would have written:
“Out of the Cimmerian political fog in which we live, rising like an eidolon rived from the center of the gelid dark, this paen to the fissiparous sounds a tocsin of old, and contumaciously tossing aside the cerecloth of our not-dead-but-sleeping Republic, it disdains the mingy orts and crusts tossed to quiet us by the yeggs who offer us nothing but a Connecticut nutmeg in exchange for the auric freedoms our forefathers bequeathed us in this our virid and pleasant land–our United States (takes a plural).”
I value a writer who makes me read with a dictionary. Godspeed the man with a memory.
postscript by Jeff Taylor
In reading Kate’s fine contribution, I see that I may have left the impression that secession is not worth writing about because it’s unlikely. That wasn’t my intent. To quote Jefferson Smith, in one of my favorite movies, lost causes are “the only causes worth fighting for.” Theologically, we know this isn’t completely true because the Kingdom of God will eventually triumph once and for all. But, in the present age, noble causes are often on the losing side. There’s no waste in writing, thinking, and acting on good principle, in fair weather or foul. Bill Kauffman knows this, and this is why he likes underdog crusades.
I enjoyed this piece, which was complemented greatly by the structure of the post; could we do more in this format or something like it?
Thanks, Jeff and Kate, for these great reviews. Kauffman is an American treasure. Unlike some writers who temper (if not utterly alter) their views for the sake of publication and careerist ambition, Bill continues to remain faithful to his own internal compass. We should pray and strive to emulate some degree of his courage and strength of character.
Copies of this book make great Christmas presents for the unenlightened. I’m just sayin’
Secession??!! How over-the-top, and melodramatic. Can people really be serious? I think the explanation for this bit of conceptual waywardness is to be found in the fact that the State Department informs us that only about one in 4.5 Americans even owns a passport. What this tells you is that most Americans have little to compare the United States to. Thus, they have no real notion of what the alternatives are. Further, that life in a secessionist future outside of our great country would likely be more like one of those alternatives, which you can visit if you actually travel and check them out. Our culture may leave very much to be desired. And there may be a whole lot of reason behind those on this site that aver that our culture is in fact an anti-culture at this point. But the way out of this anti-culture can only possibly be found in real world options. To see what the realm of possibilities in the contemporary context looks like you have to look at actually existing other options. When one does that we realize, amazingly given how debased our culture already is, that there is still a lot that is still right about the union of the United States of America. To not admit this is , to my mind, nostalgic madness.
But instead of talking in the abstract, perhaps it is better to note a particular. Since a certain level of libertarian thinking seems popular on this site, perhaps blended with Catholic Social thinking -type valences, we can note a very peculiar instantiation which is highly apposite to this sort of discussion. A priest named Fr. Robert Sirico is involved in a “conservative” organization called the Acton Institute. From their headquarters in Grand Rapids this group tries to interpolate itself into just these sorts of discussions on culture and economies and attempts a rationale proposed that would improve them. The extremely libertarian vision of Sirico and his group would seem, by the lights of many scholars on Catholic Social teaching, to be pretty incompatible. But Fr. Sirico often appears on an EWTN show called The World Over trying his darnedest to articulate a rationale of how the culture and economy can be viewed that both embraces his peculiar laissez- faire views and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a performance that, I confess, seems to have little internal coherence. But the show on which it occurs is quite the same generally. However, the melange put forth would seem to be similar to some of the attempts at conflating diverse tendencies that appear on the pages of this site. With the notable exception that here there is a very real emphasis on matters of place, which a lot of people can sympathize with. But even there Sirico is somewhat on point because he constantly emphasizes the de riguer Catholic notion of the so called Principle of Subsidiarity.
What ties this all together is a certain level of conceptual desperation, technically speaking, not emotionally. That is that in the absence of a coherent way to meld diverse conservative elements (place and culture) and liberal ones (classical liberal in the form of laissez faire) one relies on a certain conceptual bereftness which must be filled with dogma. Of course, it is a free country, and people are welcome to their dogmas. But dogmas detached from realities, like the nostalgist hankering for “secession”, are based in other realities. Like the issue I first mentioned that a lot of people don’t have passports and don’t have much sense of what the world really looks like. In our particular example of Fr. Sirico that is probably not the issue. Rather his very colorful and saucy personal history, recently described by Michael Sean Winters, a real liberal of sorts, and Matt Abbott, a rather unpleasant conservative, explain the matter. What it points to, with such vexed and conflicted histories, is that the need to try to force such divergent notions of conservatism and liberalism require it seems a very contradictory way of thinking and even questionable personal history. Thus, I think that to the extent this can be discerned in such discussion of “secession”, a very cautionary note would seem to be struck.
I have friends or relatives with whom I keep in regular touch in the following states: Michigan (where I am from), Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Maryland (where I live now), Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona, Idaho and Washington state (oh, and just a few months ago I visited cousins in Alaska). Many people have similar far-flung personal connections. That, along with the economic inakges, is why secession is not going to happen. Just as the Germans in 1989 demanded to reunited with their kinsmen despite the practical problems of reunification, so too Americans will not want to be sundered from their loved ones now.
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