Bill Kauffman: American Anarchist

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“I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist.” ~ Bill Kauffman

I first became acquainted with Bill Kauffman’s writings when I came across his America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics (Prometheus Books, 1995). It was a riveting account of the men (and women) who failed to find virtue in U.S. interventionism and imperialism in the 20th century — including that “good” war, World War II. Kauffman’s skewering of Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR while recounting the life and times of those horrible American “isolationists” was not too popular with mainstream reviewers.

What piqued my interest in Kauffman’s new book, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists (ISI Books, 2006), are brief references to pacifism I read in reviews of his book. Caleb Stegall, who reviewed the book for The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2006), which is also published by ISI, writes: “Kauffman rattles the conservative cage in ways many will not appreciate. He is staunchly anti-war, verging on the pacifistic.” There were no quotes from Kauffman to substantiate the reviewer’s description, so I didn’t think about pursuing the matter any further. But then I read the review in The American Conservative by Rod Dreher, the author of that horrible Crunchy Con book. Dreher remarks: “Kauffman, like Berry, is a pacifist. I, like most people, am not, and despite the Iraq debacle, militant Islam does not grant us the luxury of being peaceable bystanders.” Dreher’s review is horrible — probably the worst book review that has ever appeared in The American Conservative (for one of the best, see the latest review by Tom Woods) — but it prompted me to examine Kauffman’s new book for myself.

How could the reviewers have overlooked it? Why did they not mention it?

Kauffman’s book is a radical anti-state, anti-war declaration. These twin themes are not just mentioned on a few pages; they are found throughout the book. And because they are combined with a fair amount of American history and biography (including more about President Millard Fillmore than one would ever care to know) that won’t be found in the typical American history book, it is both an interesting and informative read.

Kauffman introduces his readers to people like social activist Dorothy Day (“The anarchist Day practiced her Christianity so consistently that she smilingly explained to impatient socialists that she was u2018a pacifist even in the class war.’”) and the poet and novelist Wendell Berry (“I have come to the realization that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary.”).

It is hard to place Bill Kauffman on the political spectrum. In addition to the quote above about him being a patriot, a decentralist, a localist, and an anarchist, Kauffman states:

My wanderings had taken me from the populist flank of liberalism to the agrarian wing of Don’t Tread on Me Libertarianism to the peace-and-love left wing of paleoconservatism, which is to say that I had been always on the outside — an outsider even among outsiders — attracted to the spirit of these movements but never really comfortable within them, never willing even to call myself by their names. When asked, I was simply an Independent. A Jeffersonian. An anarchist. A (cheerful!) enemy of the state, a reactionary Friend of the Library, a peace-loving football fan. And here, as Gerry and the Pacemakers once sang, is where I’ll stay.

Kauffman’s politics is “a blend of Catholic Worker, Old Right libertarian, Yorker transcendentalist, and delirious localist.”

It is just a few pages into the introduction, while reflecting on the days he spent as an editor at Reason magazine, that we see Kauffman’s opinion of the state:

I cannot think of the libertarians without laughing, and yet, on the great issue 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 ideologues wielding state power.

He says of the new Department of Homeland Security: “Today that department is charged with the defense of the u2018homeland,’ a Nazi-Soviet term never used to denote the United States prior to the Age of Bush.” Those who deny the right of secession “set the tyrant’s plate.” Kauffman does not advocate violence against the government, believing that we should “leave murder as an instrument of policy to the governments of the world.”

Kauffman is an admirer of Wendell Berry, “the rural anarchist, the reactionary radical, the lover of his country and the contemner of its government” who “abhors militarism and foreign wars.” “The state,” according to Berry, “is deified, and men are its worshippers, obeying as compulsively and blindly as ants.” Berry says of his best moments:

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.

The opinion of the American state in 1951 by the editor of the Catholic Worker, Robert Ludlow, is also mentioned by Kauffman:

We are headed in this country towards a totalitarianism every bit as dangerous towards freedom as the other more forthright forms. We have our secret police, our thought control agencies, our over-powering bureaucracy. . . . The American State, like every other State, is governed by those who have a compulsion to power, to centralization, to the preservation of their gains.

Kauffman is no fan of the state-worship that is nowadays misidentified as patriotism. He holds to an “un-imperial patriotism” — a patriotism that “is not the sham patriotism of the couch-sitter who sings u2018God Bless America’ as the bombs light up his television, or the chickenhawk who loves little of his country beyond its military might.” His patriotism is a “fresh-air patriotism whose opposition to war and empire is based in simple love of country.” Kauffman criticizes Daniel Patrick Moynihan for mistaking “unconditional support for the projection of U.S. military might for authentic patriotism.”

Kauffman is not very kind to U.S. presidents — living or dead. He stands the usual ranking of great presidents on its head, remarking that “the bloodletters are great, the wagers of smaller wars are near-great, the fitful bombers are average, and the men of peace are below average or poor.” He favorably notes Gene McCarthy’s opinion of the biggest problem in government: “The concentration of power in the executive.”

Lyndon Johnson in particular incurs Kauffman’s wrathful prose. LBJ was “the homicidal Texan in the White House.” On Johnson’s radio ads imploring Americans to support the troops in Vietnam: “That Americans might best u2018support our troops’ by reuniting them with their families seems never to occur to those who would choke the country with their yellow ribbons.” And on the connection between Johnson’s war on poverty and Vietnam: “Johnson declared war on poverty, which he apparently intended to win by killing as many poor boys as possible in Vietnam.”

Kauffman has no use for “Nagasaki Harry” Truman either. He “ranks right down there with Woodrow Wilson and LBJ as a presidential enemy of liberty.” On the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Kauffman defers to Dorothy Day (1897—1980), founder of the Catholic Worker Movement:

Mr. Truman was jubilant. . . . True man. What a strange name, come to think of it. . . . Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did . . . jubilate deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese . . . they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers, scattered, men, women, and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton.

And then there is Lincoln. Kauffman honors “the antiwar Democrats of the North, the execrated Copperheads who have long since been consigned to the snakepit of American history.” He agrees “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 Gonzales look like Nat Hentoff — takes on a prescient luster in our age of discarded liberties and the War on Terror.” Kauffman introduces us to Ohio congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, who “publicly denounced the u2018wicked and cruel’ war by which u2018King Lincoln’ was u2018crushing out liberty and erecting a despotism,’” and to Lieutenant Governor Sanford Church, who “vilified the Lincoln administration for seeking to u2018absorb, centralize and consolidate the rights and powers of the loyal States in the general government.’”

Lincoln’s leading general, Ulysses S. Grant, according to the New York Tribune, was “the only man in America, perhaps, who could make the calculation of the multitude of lives necessary to blot out a multitude of other lives.”

Kauffman is not kind to the current administration either. For this he has more help from Wendell Berry, who “finds in the Bush strategy, with its assertion of the right to preemptive attacks, u2018a radical revision of the political character of our nation.’” Berry is “out of sympathy with Bush’s neo-Wilsonian plan to rescue the world for democratic global capitalism — whether the world wants rescue or not.” Bush and Cheney have no constitutional scruples “when it comes to honoring Article I, Section 8 of that forgotten document, which reserves to Congress the right to declare war, but then such hairsplitting is best left to epicene liberals.” And then there is Kauffman on Bush himself: “Facile contemners of President Bush deride him as a ‘Texas cowboy.’ If only he were. Alas, President of the World Bush is a deracinated preppie, an Andover yell leader who blamed his first defeat for public office, in a 1978 congressional race, on ‘provincialism.’”

Kauffman has no use for elites:

The most dangerous people — the ones who will kill you for your own good — are those who subordinate the individual to abstractions: the class, the master race, the efficient economy. They gain power because they are willing to perform the sleazy and degrading acts necessary to its achievement.

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.

Who are these creatures, capable of decreeing — with no more compunction than an acned scamp in a Metallica t-shirt displays whilst zapping foes in Mortal Kombat — the mass execution of, say, Iraqi children or Vietnamese peasants?

Do you really think Henry Kissinger gave a damn how many Joe Doakses and LeRoy Washingtons he inscribed on the Vietnam Wall? He didn’t know these men; he couldn’t imagine them. They hadn’t even the reality of a planchet on a Risk board.

Not only does Kauffman disdain elites and our “great” presidents, Congress as a whole does not impress him either. After recounting the annual ritual in the U.S. Senate of the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address (in which he quotes Washington’s warning against “overgrown military establishments,” “permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” and “excessive partiality for one foreign nation”), Kauffman remarks that “the Senate spends the next 364 days of the year repudiating the Father of Our Country.” There are a few individual members of Congress, however, that Kauffman does admire. The late Harold Gross (R-IA) and the contemporary Ron Paul (R-TX) are “legendary constitutionalist skinflints.” Kauffman quotes Congressman Howard Buffett excoriating the Truman Doctrine: “Our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns.”

There are others whom Kauffman admires as well. Foes of U.S. involvement in World War II “were slandered, most notably Charles Lindbergh, whom the Catholic Worker defended against the smears of the White House.” The father of the founder of the conservative Regnery Publishing, William Regnery, was “vice chairman of the National Council for Prevention of War, and an almoner for peace.” He was also the “u2018largest financial backer’ of the America First Committee.” Kauffman mentions how John T. Flynn was expelled by William F. Buckley from National Review for “submitting an essay lacerating the u2018racket’ of militarism.” He quotes Karl Hess on Vietnam: “Vietnam 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.” Kauffman has a whole chapter on Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. Day “practiced her Christianity so consistently that she smilingly explained to impatient socialists that she was u2018a pacifist even in the class war.’” She not only refused to participate in air-raid drills, “her idea of military reform was military abolition.” Day asked a good question that the makers of U.S. foreign policy ought to be answering: “What are all these Americans, so-called Christians, doing all over the world so far from our own shores?”

Kauffman also devotes an entire chapter to Wendell Berry. The reader must pay careful attention in this chapter to the quotation marks because it is often hard to distinguish whether one is reading the words of Berry or the words of Kauffman. Berry’s speech against the Vietnam War, delivered in 1968 to the Kentucky Conference on the War and Draft, is something that Kauffman quotes from and comments on:

Berry speaks only briefly to the particular case of Vietnam, finding it an Orwellian entanglement. “We seek to preserve peace by fighting a war, or to advance freedom by subsidizing dictatorships, or to u2018win the hearts and minds of the people’ by poisoning their crops and burning their villages and confining them in concentration camps; we seek to uphold the u2018truth’ of our cause with lies, or to answer conscientious dissent with threats and slurs and intimidations.” He asks where in the Gospels, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution the leaders of our ostensibly Christian and democratic nation find authorization for such actions.

In this speech, Berry reveals himself to be a pacifist, or very nearly so. “I have come to the realization that I can no longer imagine a war that I would believe to be either useful or necessary,” he says. Due in part to the technological enhancement of the weaponry of war, its unimaginably vast potential for slaughter, “I would be against any war.”

He recognizes war’s collateral damage: the curtailed civil liberties, the despoiling of the land and its bounty, the hypertrophied bureaucracy, the erosion of national character that is inevitable as we “become a militarist society” with “a vested interest in war.” He denies “absolutely the notion that a man may best serve his country by serving in the army.”

Berry is likewise against Bush’s war on terrorism. It is “endlessly costly and endlessly supportive of a thriving bureaucracy.” Berry wonders “to what extent the cost even of a successful war of national defense — in life, money, material goods, health, and (inevitably) freedom — may amount to a national defeat.” He believes that “militarization in defense of freedom reduces the freedom of the defenders. There is a fundamental inconsistency between war and freedom.”

Berry hates war for the simple reason that he loves 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.

And from Berry’s “The Failure of War,” he asks:

How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer pretty quickly: None. And I know that I am not the only one who would give that answer: Please. No children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.

It is in this same chapter that we see some of Kauffman’s most penetrating anti-war remarks:

War devastates the homefront as surely as it does the killing fields. Soldiers are conscripted, sent hither and yon to kill and maim or to be killed or maimed; their families relocate, following the jobs created by artificial wartime booms. War is the great scatterer, the merciless disperser.

The cost of war might be measured not only in body bags, in returning boys without legs, arms, eyes, faces, but also in divorce, dislocation, novels never written, children not fathered. During the Second World War, the divorce rate more than doubled, normal patters of courtship were disrupted, Daylight Saving Time was imposed nationwide over the objections of rural America, and the subsidized daycare industry was born via the Lanham Act, which sponsored 3,000 daycare centers in incarcerate the neglected children of Rosie the Riveter.

Almost every healthy manifestation of local culture was smothered — terminated — strangled — by U.S. entry into the Second World War.

War nationalizes culture; it exerts a centripetal force that shreds what it does not suck in.

There are, of course, more words of wisdom by Kauffman to be found elsewhere, like this blunt statement: “The best reason to oppose the military-industrial complex is the most intimate: because it can kill your son or brother or cousin, and its social and economic fallout can destroy your town.”

Kauffman does not offer criticism without proposing solutions. Here are two of them:

No statesman’s coercive power should ever extend over people he does not know. If Bush and Hillary, Lieberman and Rumsfeld, and the Democracy Geeks of M Street want to pull their brats our of Sidwell and ship then overseas to kill whatever dusky primitives are our enemy of the week, so be it, but they have no claim upon my kin or my neighbors (or yours).

Stay with your family. Your tribe. Your neighborhood. Your town. As Joe Strummer of The Clash hummed, “It’s up to you not to heed the call-up.” Don’t feed the war machine. You are not expendable, in your family’s eyes or in God’s. The soft young men in three-piece suits who write their little pamphlets proving that whatever slaughter our government is currently engaged in is a “just war” should be laughed back to the seminaries they quit. Thou shalt not kill means us, too.

There is no excuse for reviewers ignoring the anti-state, anti-war themes that pervade Kauffman’s book — a fast-paced, informative, and enjoyable read that shows us the madness that is the state, its politicians, and its wars.

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