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Look Homeward, America

Bill Kauffman (2006)


I cannot think of the libertarians without laughing, and yet, on the great issues of the day, they were dead right. They diagnosed the twentieth century's homicidal malady: the all-powerful state, which in the name of the workers of the world, the master race, and even making the world safe for democracy had slaughtered tens, nay, hundreds of millions of human beings whose misfortune it had been to run afoul of idealogues wielding state power. (xvi)

Robert Frost put his faith in the "insubordinate Americans," throaty dissenters and ornery traditionalists, and this book is for and about them—those Americans who reject Empire; who cherish the better America, the real America; who cannot be broken by the Department of Homeland Security, who will not submit to the PATRIOT Act, and who will make the land acrid and bright with the stench and flame of burnt national ID cards when we—should we—cross that Orwellian pass. This is still our country, you know. Don't let Big Brother and the imperialists take it from us. (xviii)

In March 1968, Eugene McCarthy earned the everlasting gratitude of American patriots when he came within a beagle's ear of defeating Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, thus forcing into retirement one of the more repulsive monograms ever to occupy the presidency. His 1968 campaign—an act of political suicide—gave voice to an incipient antiwar tendency in what had been an extremely hawkish Democratic Party. (Bob Dole's crack about the "Democrat wars" of the twentieth century had been true enough to earn him his fifteen minutes on the cross.) (1)

[McCarthy's] senectitude did not, to put it mildly, bring him honors. For in his eighty-ninth year, McCarthy was broadsided by a thirty-year-old Brit biographer named Dominic Sandbrook.
You know you're not in for a Doris Kearns Goodwin/David McCullough hagiography when your chronicler uses as an epigraph a character assessment by the thuggish Robert Kennedy. ("Gene just isn't a nice person," sneered RFK. And isn't the three-letter monogram usually a tipoff to a sinister force?) (3)

So what, you ask, should the civil libertarian do about communists in government jobs? "Abolish the jobs," replied the anarchist Frank Chodorov. (5)

In retirement, McCarthy wrote a book (The Ultimate Tyranny) warning of the accretion of power by alphabet-soup agencies, particularly the Internal Revenue Service. Like Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal, he viewed the tax collector as a lawless and arbitrary bureaucracy that feeds tyranny. McCarthy told me that "even the withholding of income tax was a bad idea. It made it easy for the government to collect and tended to have people be indifferent to their tax because they never got the money anyway." (13-14)

"I'm pretty skeptical of every amendment adopted after the anti-slavery amendments," McCarthy told me in a remark so reactionary as to utterly disqualify him from participation in the parties of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. (14)

[McCarthy] was alert to the manipulation of language by the state, telling me: "You could see the military-industrial complex developing . . . in the 1947 Defense Reorganization Act, and in the changing of the `War Department' into the `Department of Defense.' I called the Pentagon and asked, how did this happen? There must have been a meeting where somebody said look, we're gonna change the name of this damn thing, because if we call it the War Department people are gonna say, `Where's the war? And if there isn't one, where are you gonna have it?' And we don't want to answer that question. So let's call it the Department of Defense because defense is unlimited. And it's true: we never declare war anymore. We just declare national defense. (15)

Alack, we will have to be satisfied, or not, with the Moynihan we got. I have written elsewhere of his martinet qualities. He was a wretched boss, as I learned in my two-and-a-half-year stint (1981-83) as a research assistant and then legislative assistant to a man every bit as worthy as Webster had been of bearing the sobriquets "the Godlike Daniel" and "Black Dan." By the time my comet streaked across the Moyniverse, the Senate's only dairy farmer, as he absurdly called himself, was down to his last few drops of the milk of human kindness. He was the drunkenly petulant verification of Henry Adams's aphorism that "No man, however strong, can serve ten years as schoolmaster, priest, or Senator, and remain fit for anything else." (21)

And yet in the bibulous twilight of his career, his insights grew keen. He toyed with a radical decentralism, wondering aloud (though no one listened) whether or not most functions of the federal government ought to be turned back to the states and cities. He called for the abolition of the CIA, the return of American troops from Europe, and a foreign policy redolent of Oklahoma rather than Manhattan. (Moynihan would have been greatly amused a while back, when New York drivers received letters from the Department of Motor Vehicles advising us that our "Liberty plates" were to be replaced by "Empire plates." Symbolism weighs heavy, even from the bumper of an automobile.) (23)

My two-and-a-half years in the employ of Senator Moynihan were an anarchist-making experience. I came to Washington a memorizer of senatorial facts, a skeptically cheerful liberal, a first-time voter in the year past for Ted Kennedy and John Anderson for president, an awestruck walker through august halls of state; I left quoting the mid-century anarchist Frank Chodorov: "A government building you regard as a charnel house, which in fact it is; you enter it always under duress, and you never demean yourself by curtsying to its living or dead statuary. The stars on the general's shoulders merely signify that the man might have been a useful member of society; you pity the boy whose military garb identifies his servility. The dais on which the judge sits elevates the body but lowers the man, and the jury box is a place where three-dollar-a-day slaves enforce the law of slavery. You honor the tax dodger. You do not vote because you put too high a value on your vote." (33)

The Little Way. That is what we seek. That—contrary to the ethic of personal parking spaces, of the dollar-sign god—is the American way. Dorothy Day kept to that little way, and that is why we honor her. She understood that if small is not always beautiful, at least it is always human. (39)

What happens to our America when soccer rectangles replace baseball fields? Ask the Stepford Wife striding purposefully at the Million Moms March. (77)

. . . the soldier "lived inescapably hour after hour, day after day, killing as you were bidden to do, suffering as you were bidden to do, dying as you were bidden to do." It is no life for a man, as [Wendell] Berry makes clear in "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," wherein he counsels, "As soon as the generals and the politicos / can predict the motions of your mind, / lose it." (91)

Hannah Coulter refers to "the interstate highway that transformed everything within its reach." The people-scattering National Interstate and Defense (my italics) Highway System was conceived during World War II by top-down planner extraordinaire Rexford G. Tugwell and made concrete by an itinerant general named Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had admired Hitler's autobahn and got one of his own. (93)

Art Rowanberry "had been a man long before he had been a soldier, and a farmer long before he had been a man." The armed services had no use for farmers and little more for men. "From a man used to doing and thinking for himself, he became a man who did what he was told."
Appraising the "fine brick farmhouse" by the roadside, Art muses that the illusion of their permanence had been shattered by the army: "We wouldn't let one of them stand long in our way."
"Farms, houses, whole towns—things that people had made well and cared for a long time—you made nothing of."
Coming home from killing, from "the unending, unrelenting great noise and tumult" of death and the slaughter of strangers, from "little deaths that belonged to people one by one," Art is once more made whole by his gradual reabsorption into his Kentucky ground. . . .
Taking his leave of Uncle Sam, Art is the cussed independent, the "insubordinate American" in which Robert Frost placed his trust: "The government don't owe me, and I don't owe it. Except, I reckon, when I have something again that it wants, then I reckon I will owe it."
That due bill would come a generation later, when the government drafted the sons of Art Rowanberry's generation for a war that no one in power even bothered to declare.
Of Art, Berry writes, "It pleased him to think that the government owed him nothing, and that he needed nothing from it, and he was on his own. But the government seemed to think that it owed him praise. It wanted to speak of what he and the others had done as heroic and glorious. Now that the war was coming to an end, the government wanted to speak of their glorious victories."
Art Rowanberry, it appears, would never fall for any of the Greatest Generation hokum of a half-century later. One doubts his acquaintance with the Collected Works of Tom Brokaw's Ghost Writer.
"They talk about victory as if they know all them dead boys was glad to die. The dead boys ain't never been asked how glad they was," observes the veteran. Nor were the dead boys consulted beforehand. The Department of War requested their presence; they complied. (96-7)

But Berry's preponderant reason for opposing war—any war, not just Vietnam—is located in the innermost of those concentric rings of citizenship: his family.
"As a father, I must look at my son, and I must ask if there is anything I possess—any right, any piece of property, any comfort, any joy—that I would ask him to die to permit me to keep. I must ask if I believe that it would be meaningful—after his mother and I have loved each other and begotten him and loved him—for him to die in a lump with a number hanging around his neck. I must ask if his life would have come to meaning or nobility or any usefulness if he should sit—with his human hands and head and eyes—in the cockpit of a bomber, dealing out pain and grief and death to people unknown to him. And my answer to all these questions is one that I must attempt to live by: No. (99-100)

Still in the Thoreauvian vein, he [Berry] asserts: "I wish to testify that in my best moments I am not aware of the existence of the government. Though I respect and feel myself dignified by the principles of the Declaration and the Constitution, I do not remember a day when the thought of the government made me happy, and I never think of it without the wish that it might become wiser and truer and smaller than it is." (101)

Once more, Berry, as a patriot of his place, assays the domestic consequences of a foreign conflict. How will this war change life as it is lived in one's home place? (Not "homeland," an un-American locution foreign to our vernacular and which, prior to the ascendency of George W. Bush's speechwriters, was redolent of jackboots and hammers and sickles.) (106)

Carolyn Chute's return address includes the postscript "No Fax/No Phone/No Paved Road." The self-taught novelist of Maine's backwoods can add "No More Good Reviews," for in the late 1990s she did the unthinkable in post-McVeigh—not to mention post-9/11—America: she founded the 2nd Maine Militia and agitated for revolution. Carolyn calls the 2nd Maine "the militia of love," and while she is dead serious, her career is seriously dead. (111)

Lucine snaps photos of Gretel assuming martial poses before various militia flags. I half expect to see them used as evidence at our Thought Crimes trial. (112)

Carolyn Chute is . . . the real thing: a Maine girl who married a Maine boy and would no more betray Maine than she would turn over her guns to the Proper Authorities. (112)

No one is going to pull Carolyn out of the critical hole that Snow Man, her fourth novel, dug her. Since our visit in 1999 she has been buried under enough scorn and obloquy to suffocate a weaker woman. . . . Snow Man follows Robert Drummond . . . a Maine militiaman who is between assassinations, as it were. He has just executed one U.S. senator from Massachusetts and would be drawing a bead on the other were it not for the gunshot wound to his shoulder administered by Boston police. (113)

Is assassination—murder—really the answer? "Oppression is not nice," Carolyn replies. "Revolution is not nice. But revolution is a reflex to oppression." . . . She closes Snow Man with Geronimo's chilling plaint: "I think I am a good man, but . . . all over the world they say I am a bad man."
"That applied not only to Robert but also to the senators," she explains. "Many of us think of them as bad people. They're not—the system makes monsters out of people." (116)

If a rat deserts a sinking ship, what do we call those brave souls who climb aboard and start bailing? Carolyn launched the 2nd Maine after the Oklahoma City bombing, when "it started to look bad for militias. I wanted to give them a good name. I thought this was really cool, there was a lot of potential, and I wanna make sure this doesn't die. Don't hide. They're all shy, these were the people who sat in the corner in school. Get out and be proud, fly your flag."
So Carolyn and an activist from the leftist Labor Party organized the 2nd Maine Militia. Their early meetings were a true rainbow coalition. There were "guys in camo, hippies, bikers, old ladies, Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Marxists, Libertarians, John Birchers. It was so cute!" says Carolyn with delight. (117)

Among the 2nd Maine's first projects was a raid on the Maine statehouse. One hundred and fifty militia men and women converged in Augusta. "We're screaming, `We the People! We the People!'" recalls Carolyn. "It was so cool." (117)

"Schools are treacherous places to us old Yankees," she says. Her solution? "We need to blow up the schools and throw all the TVs into Boston Harbor. We do not want anybody in the schools when we blow them up. In fact, it would be rather nice if 80 percent of the population supported the effort. A great circle of people all holding hands will surround each brick flourescent-lit school building. Songs of liberty will be sung. Flags will be waved. A cute 99-year-old retired schoolteacher will toss the first stick of dynamite." (123)

Carolyn realizes that her bridge to the land of well-fed sheep, of the New Yorker and the grant pasture, is forever burned. Twenty years ago, she was hailed as one of the freshest voices in America fiction. The Beans of Egypt, Maine sold 350,000 copies. By 1999, she was imagining an interviewer asking, "Are you going to give up writing if no one buys your books anymore?" (123)

Mother Jones detested the middle-class reformers who sought to transfer household functions to the market or the state. She suspected that capitalists were scheming to force women into the paid labor force and children into daycare, and the prospect did not please her. . . . (Her suspicions had foundation. As the family scholar Allan C. Carlson has noted, the National Association of Manufacturers was the most powerful lobbying force behind the ushering of women into the industrial workplace. The NAM was widely believed to have subsidized the National Woman's Party, fountainhead of the Equal Rights Amendment and lair of the noxious Alice Paul, who demanded that "the State assume entire responsibility for the maintenance and education of children." Yes, those were her words. (125)

Contrast [Mother] Jones with the termagants of the National Organization for Women, who stroked Senator Clinton's randy husband as though they were silky hookers. Mother Jones once met with President Taft to ask that labor radicals be pardoned. "Now, Mother," said Taft, whom she rather liked, "the trouble lies here: if I put the pardoning power in your hands there would be no one left in the jails."
To which she answered, "I'm not so sure of that, Mr. President. A lot of those who are in would be out, but a lot of those who are out would be in."
That is speaking Truth to Power. (127)

In June 1918, [Eugene] Debs told a Canton, Ohio, audience, "The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles." After noting wryly that "it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world," Debs defiantly proclaimed, "I would a thousand times rather be a free soul in jail than be a sycophant and coward in the streets."
He got his wish. Convicted of violating Woodrow Wilson's Espionage and Sedition Acts, Eugene Debs became the most celebrated of the 15,000 Americans whom even Wilson called "political prisoners." Debs was confined to the federal prison at Atlanta; in 1920, he ran for president from his cell and won almost a million votes, many from decidedly bourgeois non-socialists who admired his courage. H. L. Mencken, after mocking Debs for "his naive belief in the Marxian rumble-bumble," praised him as "fair, polite, independent, brave, honest and a gentleman."
President Wilson, a Princeton intellectual, was vindictive in the manner typical of the theory class. "This man was a traitor to his country and he will never be pardoned during my administration," Wilson said of Debs. Chimed in the New York Times: "He is where he belongs. He should stay there." When Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, architect of Wilson's infamous Red Scare (it usually has been the liberals who persecute Reds), recommended a postwar pardon for the aged and ill Debs on Lincoln's birthday, Wilson's response was to scrawl a petulant "Denied" across the paper. (128-9)

Debs, Chute & Jones—my kind of lawless firm—raise the questions that organized labor is too ponderously overorganized to ask. For instance: Why work? (131)

Goldwater got swamped, and as we bogged down in the Big Muddy, Hess reassessed his Republican Party, his hireling status, his personal-parking-space life. "Vietnam," he said, "should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government, for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder." (134)

Funny thing. If baseball, the greatest of sports, is commonly regarded as the game of intellectuals—annoying eggheads wearing Red Sox and Cubs hats and throwing like girls—then football is the sport of the lunkhead, the lamebrain, the brawny illiterate. Poets and novelists—Donald Hall, Marianne Moore, Bernard Malamud—find beauty and metaphor in baseball; the football novel, by contrast, occupies less shelf space than hockey haiku. . . .
Yet football, however unpoetic, has been the sport of American politicians, and even the odd political intellectual. Why this should be is something of a mystery, for football is committee meetings punctuated by violence, while government is . . . well, perhaps it's not so mysterious. Henry Adams once defined politics as the systematic organization of hatreds; Vince Lombardi would have understood. (137-8)

The eulogists of Father Abraham . . . gloss over the extent to which the Civil War enshrined industrial capitalism, the subordination of the states to the federal behemoth, and such odiously statist innovations as conscription, the jailing of war critics, and the income tax. (152)

[Gerrit] Smith was so esteemed by his neighbors that he was elected to Congress in 1852 as an independent. He served but one truncated term, quitting partway through for no apparent reason other than that he felt like it. Yet in his brief career Rep. Gerrit Smith compiled a libertarian voting record that might be the envy of such legendary constitutionalist skinflints as the late H. R. Gross (R-IA) and the great Ron Paul (R-TX).
The voters knew what they were getting in Smith. A year before the election, he published The True Office of Civil Government, a pamphlet in which he denied that government had any role whatever in education, transportation, mail-carrying, moral regulation, and trade.
Investing in the future? Creating an infrastructure for growth? Nurturing children, our most valuable resource? The muzak of the modern progressive would not move Smith, who informed voters that "the building of railroads and canals and the care of schools and churches fall entirely outside" the limits of government.
Congressman Smith walked the walk. He proposed to abolish customs houses ("I am an absolute free-trade man"), West Point, and the Post Office. He voted against any and all subsidies to private enterprise and even opposed the federal distribution of seeds, for government's "sole legitimate office is to protect the persons and property of its subjects." (157)

I also honor the antiwar Democrats of the North, the execrated Copperheads who have long since been consigned to the snakepit of American history. If I would have voted Lincoln in 1860, won over by his courageous opposition to the Mexican War, I'd have cast my ballot for George McClellan in 1864. You see, I agree with the Peace Democrats that the war was a tragic mistake. No cause is worth 600,000 deaths. And the Copperheads' envenomed critique of Lincoln's assumption of dictatorial wartime powers—Old Abe made John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez look like Nat Hentoff—takes on a prescient luster in our age of discarded liberties and the War on Terror. (159)

If most visitors to reenactments have never heard of Clement L. Vallandigham, [Vallandigham impersonator] Dick Crozier gives them something to think about. "I say that someday, decisions will be made not by local people but by politicians in distant Washington. People look at me and say, `Oh, that's where it happened—that's how we ended up with this omnipotent government.'" (160)

The whiskers had barely curled on the president's new beard before Vallandigham was charging him with having launched "a terrible and bloody revolution" whose features were death, taxes, a swollen executive branch, and the erosion of personal liberties. (160)

On May 1, 1863, Vallandigham publicly denounced the "wicked and cruel" war by which "King Lincoln" was "crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism." As if to prove the speaker's point, General Burnside ordered the orator arrested on charges of disloyalty. (161)

The War on Terror, which we have been assured will haunt our lifetimes and those of our children, has intensified my reactionary radicalism, my anarchism—my patriotism—and may yet redefine American politics along a natural divide: the personal versus the abstract. (173)

Influential men, men of state, their days a blur of movement, retainers at beck and call, come to see others as toadies or supplicants (with the toothsome few laid aside as bed partners). In their eyes we are all expendable. Why was anyone surprised when Ted Kennedy swam away, leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to scream in her air pocket till the water rushed in? Kopechnes serve, and Kennedys are served; Vietnam was just Chappaquiddick with rice paddies. Shut up and die. (173)

There was a gem of a pop song in the late 1960s that defined the difference between Us and Them with stark clarity. Jimmy Webb wrote it; the title was "Galveston," and unlike most antiwar songs, which are full of high-minded claptrap about peace and universal brotherhood—empty platitudes by and for coked-up zombies—"Galveston" imagined a boy whose government had sent him far from home, God knows why, to kill or be killed by strangers, and this boy's only desire was to run once more with his girl on the beach of his hometown. (175)

The gap between rulers and ruled can be measured in a thousand anecdotal ways. My maternal great-grandmother, an immigrant from Northern Italy, cursed FDR for blackening the final years of her life. Two of her sons were conscripted into Mr. Roosevelt's Army, and though she well understood that Hitler was evil, Mussolini was a nasty fascist, and Tojo had bombed Pearl Harbor, she was unwilling to watch the boys she bore and raised die in the Pacific in an international quarrel to which she was not a party. Or as a great Kentucky pugilist once put it, "I ain't got no quarrel with no Viet Cong."
Do you call this selfish? Were Paulina Stella and Muhammad Ali pinched and ungenerous? Certainly the chickenhawks who want the U.S. to remake the world would say so, though as a Saturday Evening Post editorialist once put it, "Very few of those who maintain that it is sweet to die for one's country have ever done it."
In any war the dissenter is maligned (Millard Fillmore, 1864), mocked (Henry Adams, 1898), jailed (Eugene V. Debs, 1918), calumnied (Charles Lindbergh, 1941), shot (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968), or slandered as treasonous (take a look around). (180)

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