Bye Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and Underdog Crusades to Redraw America’s Political Map
© 2010 Bill Kauffman
You say you want a devolution?
Far beyond the city across the river, this country is pregnant with happy auguries, with the delicious foretaste of sweet rebellion.
(Bill Kauffman, “Love is the Answer to Empire“)
Americans everywhere are angry, disappointed, and frustrated by their government. Politicians demand much, voters demand much, and much is attempted — but nothing virtually positive actually happens. Little wonder, when the scale of things is taken into account. The average member of the US House of Representatives now stands in for seven hundred thousand people, making him a representative in name only. Having written many a book hailing the local and particular — little America — against the big and abstract, Kauffman now turns his pen to celebrate those who have attempted and are currently laboring to restore truly representative democracy at various levels. They lobby for more autonomy for, or from, their state government — perhaps even the fission of cumbersome states into smaller, more responsive entities. Beneath the oil-glazed asphalt expanse of the Empire, hope is growing; dandelions are breaking through the crust — and in chapters dwelling on New York, Vermont, the South, Califorina, and a few other places, Kauffman explores opportunities for resurrection.
Bill Kauffman consistently refers to his home as Upstate New York, and heretofore I’d heard that as a direction — rather like central Alabama, or southern Idaho. But Upstate New York is more distinct than that, closer to “The South” — a place, not a direction. The rural folk of this region, particular the western rim of the state, feel dominated by the beast below: New York City, which has practically usurped the very name of New York. Who says those two words with the Adirondacks in mind? The city itself, a fusion of five once-distinct places, has its own internal dissent, boroughs that want their freedom back. Upstate New York’s resentment is shared by West Kansas, which cries exploitation at eastern Wichitia –and by northern California and ‘upper Michigan’, both of which feel ignored by their governments. The fault lines are reliably rural-urban splits, but there are special circumstances: in its Spanish beginnings, California was organized as Alta and Baja California, and might have settled into the Union as two states were it not for the unpleasantness of the 1860s. Even today ,there are persistent cries to subdivide the continent-sweeping state into more manageable polities. In every case, the parties that want to create their own city or state feel abused or ignored by those with perpetual power over them: Staten Island is used as a city dump for the other boroughs, while western Kansas bankrolls the rest of the state at the expense of its own needed services.
Kauffman addresses Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico from an altogether different perspective. He describes himself as an American sentimentalist with a strong attachment to the 48, who would be saddened to part ways with a seceding state like Vermont or Texas. But Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico have no geographic link to the rest of the United States; they were seized as objects of empire, and disrupt the contiguous integrity of the rest. If Hawaii — three thousand miles away from the rest of the country — can be claimed as a state, why not any place? Why not Corsica, the Canary Islands — “all of Creation, U.S.A!” ? Here Kauffman champions these places’ independence movements, something touched on lightly before with Vermont and California but never too much encouraged.
The South, of course, receives repeated mention — in part because it was the South’s failed war of independence that gave secession the odor of treason, its ruination used as an example anyone else who would dare break the Union asunder. The group Kauffman spends time with doesn’t champion secession, however, merely claims to defend Southern culture against the homogenizing force from without. That’s right up Kauffman’s alley, for as usual he’s not just writing politics. Kauffman’s books brim over with references to forgotten poetry and novels. Kauffman is forever the champion of local cultures, lionizing those who preserve, contribute, and spread their place’s literature, its songs, its stories, its beer. Bad enough that looking to the distant Capitol frustrates and alienates people; still worse is that local identities are falling away, the citizens of the States becoming nothing but little bricks in the wall, living frustrating lives in a geography of nowhere. (James Howard Kunstler, another upstate New Yorker, makes a cameo here.)
Kauffman’s message here is one of hope, hope that comes through in the tone of his voice during speeches, and his playful wordsmithing here. He is not an ideologue; indeed, he scorns ideology. He does not give any voice to race-separatists, declaring that life is too short to waste words on assholes. Although a ready fellow traveler of libertarians, Kauffman fires a shot across the bow at the Free State Project, which encourages libertarians to move to New Hampshire en masse so that it might be demographically converted into a haven. What’s important to Kauffman is local control, that people be allowed to live their own lives in peace, flourishing in their distinctiveness: let San Francisco be San Francisco, and Peoria, Peoria. Kauffman’s hope is connected not only to these political movements, moreover, but to other locally-oriented movements like community-supported agriculture and new urbanism.
In Kauffman is found a passionate defender of humane living — a man who breaks bread with leftists and reactionaries alike, who would be just at home at a punk rock club as in a bluegrass festival. His affection for little America, the joy he takes in savoring it and conveying it, are always worth experiencing.
“The camp guards of contemporary politics will tell you that secession is based in fear or isolation. I say it flows from love and from hopefulness, from the belief that ordinary people, living in cohesive communities, can govern themselves, without the heavy hand of distant experts and tank-and-bomb-wielding statesmen to guide their way. The secession of which I write with (sometimes qualified) admiration is Norman Mailer in love with Brooklyn, native Hawaiians hearing ancestral echoes, Vermonters who think Robert Frost and George Aiken are wiser men than Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
- “Empire Corrupts”, Kauffman interview about this book
- Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley. Argues that part of the problem of Congress is centralization, of it assuming too many of the States’ burdens and responsibilities.
- Ain’t my America: The Long and Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle Class Antiimperialism, Bill Kauffman
- Look Homeward, America! In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front Porch Anarchists, Bill Kauffman
- Bill Kauffman and James Howard Kunstler yakking about localism and NY literature
- Kauffman articles at TAC and the Front Porch Republic