Reason‘s Jesse Walker on Benjamin Looker’s account of Karl Hess, Milton Kotler, and the power-to-the-neighborhoods movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s:

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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.


  1. Walker’s article reminds me of Norman Mailer’s ill-fated mayoral campaign. Outside of largely historical contingencies associated with race, I don’t see why the left should be opposed to movements toward local control. Local governance is more genuinely democratic than our “representative” corporate state. And what excites the left if not democratic revolution?

    Perhaps the bankruptcy of such cities as Detroit, and attempts by central authorities such as Lansing to manage these urban centers, will cause the left to see that central control actually dis empowers minorities. What could be a better way to incite leftward movements toward localism than Governor Snyder lecturing the citizens of Detroit about their recklessness and need to hand control of their finances over to more responsible leaders in Lansing?

    Are there any magazines or websites that picked up The New Left torch, or has the non-interventionist/local control sensibility fallen out of fashion among the young revolutionaries?

  2. Mr. Nagle writes : “what excites the left if not democratic revolution?”

    Centralized authority, because it gets the left wing establishment to where they really want to be.

    It may not be what the power to the neighborhood movement had in mind, but there do exist neighborhood quasi government entities such as neighborhood planning associations recognized by city council, gated communities and similar with limited power to enforce conformity.

  3. Neighborly solidarity can hardly be said to find full expression in the upper class writing landscape, noise, and architectural regulations. You have to admit though, to the credit of the suburban neighborhood boards, in your face participatory governance shatters all the illusions citizens might have about distant governments solving every problem. If your neighbors, who are accountable to you in a face to face kind of way, are willing to write pointless, offensive laws, how much more so should you question relatively unaccountable politicians who choose to leave family and friends to spend a good portion of the year legislating. Of course I don’t claim that neighborhood control would be as bad as the sort of thing that you’re talking about. Issues such as education, morality, and business draw a different sort of legislature than meddlesome arguments about aesthetics. And if Jefferson was correct, practicing self-governance makes citizens more worthy of democracy. The average citizen, in our political climate, doesn’t realize that he holds any real responsibility for the common good. If neighborhoods hold responsibility, members of the government either rise to the occasion or the failure is on display in front of all the neighbors.

    On the other hand, I suppose that you are correct about the left holding to centralization, at least for as long as they control the national and international institutions shaping culture. It does seem, however, as if the language of democracy is a weakness in their technocratic grip. Friends of diverse localities should beat that meaningful democracy drum so hard that the centralizers are left with no choice but to admit that they do not think that the people are capable of governing themselves. Similarly, populists preaching diversity and democracy could really embarrass state activists who preach both while pushing for elite rule and legal homogeneity.

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