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Reactionary Radicals, Unite

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Bill Kauffman, one of my favorite writers and a long-ago Reason staffer, has a new book out, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Activists, and a new temporary group blog discussing the issues it raises. (Our own Jesse Walker is among the bloggers there.) Check in there for defenses of radical localism when it comes to time, BBQing, political and musical heroes, and the SDS.

Kauffman explains his intentions better than I could, deracinated cosmopolite that I am. (I always believed, though, that my book, This is Burning Man, a celebration of one of my "home towns," arose from the same salubrious instinct as Kauffman's wonderful book Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette, his own account of his relationship with his real hometown of Batavia and its history, though he'd undoubtedly pish-tosh me, or the Batavian equivalent, on that point.) Here's some of what he has to say about himself:

I am an American patriot. A Jeffersonian decentralist. A fanatical localist. And I am an anarchist. Not a sallow garret-rat translating Proudhon by pirated kilowatt, nor a militiaman catechized by the Classic Comics version of The Turner Diaries; rather, I am the love child of Henry Thoreau and Dorothy Day, conceived amidst the asters and goldenrod of an Upstate New York autumn. Like so many of the subjects of this book, I am also a reactionary radical, which is to say I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge's test-tube baby.

And his new book:

In Look Homeward, America, Bill Kauffman introduces us to the reactionary radicals, front-porch anarchists, and traditionalist rebels who give American culture and politics its pith, vim, and life. Blending history, memoir, digressive literariness, and polemic, Kauffman provides fresh portaiture of such American originals as Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, regionalist painter Grant Wood, farmer-writer Wendell Berry, publisher Henry Regnery, maverick U.S. senators Eugene McCarthy and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and other Americans who can't–or shouldn't–be filed away in the usual boxes labeled "liberal" and "conservative." Ranging from Millard Fillmore to Easy Rider, from Robert Frost to Mother Jones, Kauffman limns an alternative America that draws its breath from local cultures, traditional liberties, small-scale institutions, and neighborliness. There is an America left that is worth saving: these are its paragons, its poets, its pantheon.

I've always been attracted to Kauffman's loving localism, though in a more intellectual sense than something I'm dedicated to living out–no, I wasn't born in L.A.–which from the true localist perspective is worth less than nothing. I do adore human variety, and loving and connected community, and the spirited and eccentric, but I don't hate modernity, don't mind whatever Melissa Etheridge does to herself, and am too attracted in that modern capitalist way to choosing my own communities to even come close to embracing his outlook in full–in fact, so far from it that my tendency to cheer most everything he writes is somewhat strange, and a sign of his overpowering intelligent passion for what he has to say.

Since many, if not most, of the blanderizing, standardizing aspects of modernity arise from the choices our compatriots make, there is sometimes a regrettable sniff of what you could even call putting on airs and placing oneself above others in the localist celebration of the quality of its ways vs. the sad semi-life that cosmopolite moderns live. But maybe that's just me being defensive. To the extent they represent the celebration of varied and unique human life as it is lived outside the fetid games of busybodying, national, international, or local, I wish reactionary radicals a long and fecund life and always enjoy what they have to say about themselves, their communities, their heroes, and their (our) country.

NEXT: EFFin' Good

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  1. I’ve seen “Easy Rider.”

    Didn’t the “radical localists” slaughter three innocent men in cold blood because they looked different?

  2. What a refreshing list of notables. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers’ movement deserve some reconginition. Irish Catholics of the world, unite!

  3. I’ve been following this blog for the last few days. I must say it has one of the most eclectic group of readers in the world, ranging from so-right-he’s-a-leftist Daniel Larison, of Eunomia blog to people like Jesse Walker. I actually grew up in small town of the type he celebrates, one which my family settled, but I left the nanosecond I could, so I suppose I’m worse than Brian — I’m a traitor as opposed to just unlucky. With that background I’m a lot more skeptical of the RR’s outlook. Still, the writing is good and interesting, and their discussions of books, music, and historical figures is much worth a visit.

  4. I was raised an Army brat whose family picked up and moved every two years or so, and to me the authentic voice of localism is a long chain of old farts saying, “You’re not from here — you wouldn’t understand,” a mantra that was used to justify everything from squalid poverty in Quito, Ecuador to hatred of black people (the word racism doesn’t begin to cover it) in Harrisburg, PA.
    Well, I understand a little, and there is a lot to be said for enlightened cosmopolitanism.

  5. I’d like to check out the book on Batavia. When he writes “‘Placeism’ might be described in the criminal code as the unreasoned love of a particular place, be it a neighborhood, village, city, or even state”, I know *exactly* what he’s talking about. Every once in a while I am struck by an unreasonable desire to “go home”, to Rochester, NY, even though I haven’t lived there in almost 20 years and by all accounts it’s become just an awful place to live, but hey – I grew up there.

  6. So he’s sort of a tinpot Heidegger.

  7. This sort of thing kind of reminds me of our old pal Kevin Carson. I don’t really understand ‘community’ as a value, and I don’t see particular advantages to making your world smaller than it needs to be.

  8. Jason Ligon,

    It is all about the heimat. 🙂

  9. Some Reason contributor (Jesse, I think) wrote a review of this in the current issue of the “American Conservative.” Pretty good write-up…

  10. “I believe in peace and justice but I do not believe in smart bombs, daycare centers, Wal-Mart, television, or Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby.”

    Oh no, what if Melissa Etheridge’s test-tube baby is in a daycare center at this very moment, watching television! The horror!

    Judging from this writing sample, the guy has his head up his own local behind.

  11. I take that back, perhaps it was Rod Dreher that did the write-up… Jesse wrote up something else… with all the cross-pollination between Reason, the American Conservative, National Review, and Regulation… I can’t keep my periodicals straight…

  12. But maybe that’s just me being defensive.

    No, that’s just you recognizing that people have an innate right to their own lifestyles, residences, jobs, and consumer purchases. Whether urban or rural, those who think that they and only they live a real or honest or valid existence are insufferable snobs. And roots are for plants – people get to go where they want, as often as they want.

    My folks are small town by birth, but if I have to drive more than 30 minutes to get to Target or Home Depot I start to hyperventilate and I think interstate highways are a gift from God (and Eisenhower) cos without them I might very well have grown up in Beaumont instead of Houston and if Kauffman had grown up in Beaumont he’d be more internationally cosmopolitan than Carmen Santiago.

    As for not “believing” in Melissa’s babies or television, that’s like not believing in plastic or furniture or gravity. He’d be more truthful to say that he doesn’t approve of tv and lesbian test tube mommies, but then he’d sound like a prig, and for good reason.

  13. K.: Dreher reviewed Bill’s book. I reviewed Jim Bovard’s book.

  14. Speak of the devil and he appears, Jason. I tried to post a comment yesterday, but apparently it didn’t take. The point I originally made was that joe’s first comment was beneath him: using the shotgun-wielding good ol’ boys from Easy Rider, or the toothless maniacs from Deliverance, as strawmen caricatures of “localism” is about as valid as dragging in Pol Pot every time somebody mentions the Left.

  15. Frankly, the Kaufman excerpt makes me think of that Molson “I am Canadian!” commercial. (You know, the one by the actor now living in California.)

  16. K.: Dreher reviewed Bill’s book. I reviewed Jim Bovard’s book.

    Ah yes, I am rereading it now. Well done.

    Book reviews… my favorite part of any periodical. Perhaps that is why I am drowning in unread book purchases.

  17. Kevin Carson: However, it was Kaufmann who brought up Easy Rider. Obviously he regards Fonda and Hopper as reactionary radicals, and Joe was joking that there was actually quite a different way to interpret the film. I don’t think Joe’s remark was meant the least bit seriously.

  18. Thanks, K.

    Read the book, James — his interpretation is more complicated than that.

  19. It was a very nice idea! Just wanna say thank you for the information you have shared. Just continue writing this kind of post. I will be your loyal reader. Thanks again.

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