Libertarian Localism

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Dispatches from a Libertarian Localist

by James Ostrowski by James Ostrowski

Everyone is writing about Western New York, it seems. Tim Russert wrote a memoir about his hometown, Buffalo. I beat him to press by two weeks with my own anthology which includes a more realistic appraisal of Buffalo and its sordid political machine. Bill Kauffman, however, was first in this genre with his splendid tribute to life in Batavia, recently released in paperback.

Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette is the kind of book Tim Russert might have written about Buffalo had he been interested in telling the whole truth. Bill Kauffman tells that whole truth about his beloved hometown of Batavia like a good doctor will tell his patient the truth about his medical condition, even if it hurts.

Batavia is a small town halfway between Buffalo and Rochester. I know it mainly as signaling that I’m forty-five minutes from home on the New York State Trespassway. Oh, and there was that criminal case in County Court where the slightly scary country judge turned out to be a nice guy after all. (Watch out for the city slicker judges, though.)

After getting his fill of life in the big cities — Washington and L. A., Kauffman returns to Batavia to make a life. He runs into a formerly famous rock star who has returned home to flip pizzas. Kauffman’s reaction: "Would you like mushrooms on your mortification?"

Why live in a small town and eschew the glittering prizes of the big city?

"With shared memory and the mythicization of the everyday our lives take on layers of meaning. The alternative is existences lived on the edge of the abyss. We lose ourselves in crowds, yet a terrible fear of anonymity haunts many Americans: we want to be known, remembered, thought of, and except in the tawdriest sense this is only possible in small communities and networks of families. Those cut off from such possibilities are driven to freakish acts of exposure, such as flashing strangers on blue cable channels or running for president."

Or (un)reality TV.

Though life can be charming in a small town like Batavia, such communities have not gone untouched by city slicker machinations. Kauffman blames the New York State Thruway and urban renewal for savaging Batavia. Stephen Ambrose said the "Greatest Generation," having witnessed mass destruction overseas, had a compulsion to build once they returned home. Kauffman, however, explicitly counters this view. Is not the forcible taking of private property by eminent domain and the subsequent demolition of buildings and deracination of farms

also a form of destruction? But little protest came from the local media: "For this was Progress, the almightly god of the Greatest Generation, in the phrase of Tom Brokaw’s ghostwriter." So Brokaw and Russert had ghostwriters. They must surely envy Kauffman and Ostrowski.

Kauffman continues: "Progress was the idol of the cohort that gave us urban renewal and IBM and regarded long hair and pot smoking and Jefferson Airplane as sinful but sending your sons halfway around the globe to die for Robert McNamara as a supreme act of patriotism."

Prior to returning to Batavia, Kauffman, in his "irresponsible youth," worked for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. This he shares with Russert who called Moynihan his "intellectual father" who could do no wrong. Kauffman sees things much more clearly:

"Moynihan was capable of speaking truths: the CIA ought to be abolished; we should bring our troops home from Europe; the problems of urban American blacks are intractable with current rates family deformation. Alas, he was incapable of acting on them. He was a spearless leader, the cowardly lion of post-liberal Democrats."

Kauffman is a keen judge of character so I believe him when he heaps praise on Barber Conable, who I knew of mainly as a liberal Republican Congressman from the Batavia area. "Why did you retire to Alexander [near Batavia] rather than stick around Washington?", Kauffman asks Conable. u2018Because it’s my home,’ he replies, an excellent answer, if not the usual one, else Bob Dole would be calling Bingo at the Russell Volunteer Fire Department and Bill Clinton would be humping harlots in Hope."

About once-rising star Bill Paxon from my neck of the woods — "A well-scrubbed Erie County boy" with a "talent for shaking down corporate interests. . . ." His replacement, Tom Reynolds, who passes for the future of the stupid party, is "round and bland," a "carpetbagger," and also "talented at turning on the PAC spigot."

Bill Kauffman is a leading voice for libertarian decentralism, localism, or as he calls it, "placeism." There is another important difference between Kauffman and the pro-Union, inside the beltway, elitist libertarian centralists: a fabulous sense of humor.

How does Kauffman compare with the neocons? They think locally and act globally; he thinks locally and acts locally:

"Washington, Manhattan, Kabul, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Los Angeles: I haven’t the slightest desire to interfere with your worlds. Why don’t you vouchsafe the same benign neglect to mine?" June 18, 2004

James Ostrowski is an attorney in Buffalo, New York and author of Political Class Dismissed: Essays Against Politics, Including "What’s Wrong With Buffalo." See his website at

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