Saturday, January 30, 2016

Ain't My America

Ain't My America:  The Long and Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism and Middle Class Antimperialism
©  2008 Bill Kauffman
304 pages

"You can have your hometown, or you can have the empire. You can't have both."

You don't have to be a punk kid to rage against war. In fact, for most of American history, waging war in foreign quarters was considered radical -- not protesting it. The student war protesters of the 1970s were johnny-come latelys compared to the steady  and historic denunciation of imperial adventures from more established quarters. Bill Kauffman's Ain't My America revisits a score of personalities -- politicians, poets, proles and potentates -- reviewing their stands against expansion, and warmongering from 1812 to the present, and concludes with a few arguments of his own. All the while he argues for a return to a homelier vision of America, a vision shared by this diverse multitude. The resulting narrative is a saucy challenge to today's conservatives, a reminder of a tradition which has been forgotten...and forgotten rather quickly.

The American Republic was a new thing, an experiment, and for its first century of life its citizens well appreciated the fragility of it. They saw in every legislative novelty a peril to what had been created by the transformation of colonies into a Republic, whether that was Jefferson's extralegal acquisition of the Louisiana Territory, or Madison's war and those which followed.   What unites the multitude of men here -- the speech-making politicians, the biting wits and mournful ballads of writers and poets -- is fear for the life of that Republic, imperiled by the prospect of expansion and war.  Campaigns of glory and idealism, so dear to the hearts of presidents like Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, threatened to corrupt a nation committed to harmony and peaceful discourse with all nations,into yet another state fallen from grace, forever  brawling with its neighbors in the Old World fashion.  America enjoys a providential situation, safeguarded from foreign invasion by ocean, with a continent bounding in resources. What need have we of wandering into other people's wars?  The only fights are those we go abroad and pick.. The greater danger is that the American dream will be destroyed by the demands of war itself, through the centralization of authority, the militarization of society.  The American constitution was written in part to check dreams of militarism, like the precautions against the power of a standing army.

The evidence bears their fears out. What have been the fruits of participating in foreign wars?  A president whose title of Commander in Chief expects to apply to all Americans, not simply those in the armed services;  the wastage of million of lives, and incalculable resources;  the intrusion of the central government into every aspect of American lives.  Many aspects of the Empire in which we live were born during wartime: the income tax, for instance, conscription, and automatic withholding. Some wartime abuses heal over time, like the archfiend Wilson's loyalty campaigns. Imagine the hypocrisy of a man who runs for office on the slogan that he kept us out of the war, who then has war declared and imprisons people for so much as applauding an anti-war speech!  War makes the nation itself a hypocrite, as it did in the late 19th century when the United States stretched its imperial wings over Cuba and the Phillipines, inciting a fight with Spain and pretending to be fighting for another people's liberation, and then waging war against those people when they declined acceptance into the "Empire of Liberty".  War's ravages have been worse diplomatically: a region like the middle east, which once admired the United States as an amicable partner far different than the imperial English and Russians, now boils over with loathing for it.  Every excursion, martial or secretively effected -- seems to lead to more, and the corruption of the military-industrial complex waxes worse and worse.

These are not leftist criticisms; the Democratic party is no less the Party of War than modern Republicans, and indeed presidents like Wilson, Truman, and Johnson have been responsible for as much if not more overseas mischief than their 'rivals'. These are the criticisms of prudent men who had studied history, who absorbed its lessons into their very bones, and knew the United States was not so exceptional that it could defy the rule of human nature.  Most of the criticism Kauffman collects focuses on war as a corrosive force, turning a Republic into an Empire, but in an additional section Kauffman throws his own punches.  The bulwark of conservatism is defense of the family, which the military state destroys -- not merely by keeping young men abroad for months and years at a time, but by constantly shuffling military families around and denying them roots.  The increase of men in uniform went hand in hand with rising divorce and juvenile delinquency, especially during World War 2.   Denied the opportunity to invest in a local community, the only loyalty that can be mustered up by the family is to an abstraction -- the State.   Imperialism bids the flag go where the Constitution cannot follow -- and, "severed from its staff, [waves] in any vagrant breeze".

Ain't My America rebuts foreign excursion as it champions the local.  Kauffman's America is a republic of front porches, a collection of intimate communities united by a common dream, but loyal firstly to their neighbors.  Kauffman's America is the town, the countryside where we grew up, the places that nurture and support us -- the places that gain our affection and love through time, as do our homes.  In the Republic, men and women are sustained by the connections, finding meaning in the work they do for and with their neighbors. Kauffman's America ain't the Empire. In the Empire, meaning is searched for from without --  embarking on crusades to "fight" terror or "make the world safe for democracy", each person and each community's character subsumed by the collective. It's a criticism not far from Chris Hedges' observation that "war is a force that gives us meaning".

All this history and scathing commentary is rendered in Bill Kauffman's singular style. If Wendell Berry's defense of the local is rendered in a grandfatherly fashion, in tones of warm comfort, Kauffman is more of a slightly rebellious uncle, the kind who is willing to stay up past three a.m. rattling off colorful stories. There is much color to be hand in Kauffman's vocabulary, not necessarily profanity. Kauffman is a colorful character himself, who describes himself as the lovechild of Dorothy Day and Henry David Thoreau, a wild spirit with the blood of Crazy Horse and Zora Neal Hurston in his veins. His expressions are his own, energetic and archaic, like  "fossicking about in tramontane sinkholes". He threatens the reader with his own poetry, and in a section hailing Grover Cleveland as the 19th century's sole classical liberal, begins "let us now praise corpulent men".  The book rebounds with an affectionate wit, often barbed. After recounting the life of a Congressional solon named Hoar, who a contemporary thought would be celebrated in statuary for standing against imperialism, Kauffman notes "Alas, the statues are all dedicated to Har's homonyms."

What a piece of work is Kauffman, and an eye-opening piece of work this is! Kauffman's style and championing of the little way  give him considerable appeal both in what he says and his delivery thereof.  He is funny and rebuking,  a man of no party and wholly genuine.  Ain't my America succeeds as a reminder of what the American experiment was -- is -- at its best, and as a scattering of  birdshot fired at our aviary of warhawks on the Potomac.



  1. Great review and essay. Good stuff. Now how do we decentralize everything? I'm all for it but how?

  2. Great review of an interesting book. Kauffman sounds like a modern day Robert A. Taft.

  3. @R.T. Enormous question. I'm not sure where to begin. I think subsidiary as a concept can have appeal across party lines, especially given the Greens' support for distributive power, and the eagerness of some advocacy groups like the ACLU to embrace bottom-up approaches when it suits them. (See their recent coordination with the Tenth Amendment Center to start tackling the surveilliance state from the state level.) As the central state continues to take on more challenges, it will become even more frustratingly incompetent, provoking people to look for other approaches. American culture is more feudal than republican now, but I think sheer necessity will provoke a return to finer-grained approaches.

    @ James: Taft features here! He's a figure I would have never heard of without the likes of Kauffman, redeeming him from the memory hole as it were.

    1. Stephen, somewhat related to all of this is my interest in a current grass-roots movement toward something like a states' rights constitutional convention; if it can happen, it might be transformative, but I fear that too much power is centered in D.C. and corporate interests for any sort of reassessment and realignment of states' rights v. federal/central powers. But I could be quite wrong about all of this. In any case, my life -- nearly over -- will not be severely affected, but I have concerns for generations that follow.

    2. Are you thinking along the lines of an Article V convention? I haven't heard anything about one lately. Honestly, I don't think many Americans are even aware of most of our elementary legal protections, beyond the first amendment.

  4. It is funny reading about the American 'Empire' from a perspective of physical and cultural difference. Plus, of course, we actually had an Empire than spanned at least 1/4 of the globe at one point. Certainly from my PoV America doesn't have an Empire and never really did. It might have have Imperial ambitions in the 19th century (didn't we all) but never made a serious attempt at it.

    Recently (post 19th century) you've been involved in plenty of wars (sometimes rather late but we - largely - forgive you for that [grin]) but that doesn't make you an Imperial power or even a wannabe. To be an Empire you need to rule other countries, not just invade them (or bomb them) and then leave with things largely unresolved. Sure you have bases across the world and plenty of influence - both culturally and through your military power - but that doesn't make you an Empire (or again a wannabe).

    Finally I do struggle with many American's attitude to their Government (of whatever colour). Fear, distrust etc... Sure, no one actually loves their government [OK some do but they're wacko's] but some of you actually don't want to have ANY government... on a NATIONAL level. That's.... weird [grin].

  5. From the earlier authors' perspective, the mere act of buying land from France and then compelling the people who lived there to behave or vamoose in the wake of westward settlement, was imperial. True, we never had anything like India, but at one point we did have Cuba, the Phillipines, and a smattering of smaller holdings like Puerto Rico, Guam, as well as outposts in places like Panama.

    As far as the national government goes, the US isn't France. It wasn't started as one nation-state with thirteen constituent departments. In the beginning, the national state was restricted to common defense, moderating interstate commerce, and a few other common-to-all things. The States did all of the work of governance. During the 20th century, though, the work of governance has been nearly monopolized by the national state, the bureaucracy of which is so big the only thing it does well is spend money crush things underfoot.

    It's partially akin to the EU, perhaps: imagine if a hundred years in the future, the EU was considered a nation-state, with the UK and Germany regarded as subordinate elements of it. Would Spainards be 'weird' for protesting that the EU used to be just a common market, and that common citizens shouldn't have to interact with a government in Brussels every day?

  6. I think that the US certainly had early Imperial ambitions - that really can't be denied - but I think you have to run (if not rule) other countries to be an Imperial Power (rather than a Super Power). If you administered Canada, Mexico and where expanding control into South America I'd certainly call that Imperial.

    I don't think most countries started out as Nation States - England didn't (as you know from Cornwell [grin]), nor did Germany - which only became a Nation in 1871 - nor Italy. France only slowly became a Nation after the English were kicked out after the Hundred Years War. I get the whole thing about State independence from the Federal government (although my knowledge of US history - and especially politics - is rather sketchy) but from this distance I don't see Washington annexing the rest of the US. Maybe that's because I'm geographically divorced from the day-to-day stuff?

    It's entirely possible that the future EU will be (in effect) a Nation State with a capital probably in Berlin. I imagine that it's governance will be something like the UK presently - with London as the Capital but with a limited amount of power devolved to the regions. The north of England still has it's own singular identity it just can't make laws or set taxes that conflict with national policy.

    Maybe its an issue of size? After all the US is more of a continent rather than a country. I guess that people in LA feel as divorced from Washington as people in Manchester feel divorced from what's going on in Lisbon?

  7. It's not so much a case of outright conquest as more subtle inversion. Take the income tax: before it became permanent in 1913, the federal government was dependent on the revenue the state governments sent it. If D.C. misbehaved, it was possible for states to simply..not pay. I don't know if they ever did, but it was an available option. After the income tax, though, D.C began exacting revenue from individuals directly, bypassing the states, and that turned out so effective that now a lot of states constantly dependent on Federal funding to pay for basic things -- like infrastructure grants. Not interstates, mind you, but infrastructure like municipal pipes. Now, not only is a potential brake against national-level abuse removed, but the fear of losing those grants silences a lot of griping. It's not a healthy balance of power.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.