Reading Journal

What I'm reading

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists, by Bill Kauffman

Whether you agree with him or not, this is a book worth reading. Kauffman contrasts local, small town America with the patriotic nationalism of the American Empire. The American Empire pursues world power as national policy, and sees people as game pieces in a larger strategy. Kauffman wants our priorities to flip the Empire's order: be concerned first with our families and small communities, and care less and less about what happens as the scale grows larger. For example, why should the people in New London, Iowa (for example) really care about Saddam Hussein? If New Londoners do want to bomb Baghdhad, it's because their focus has been diverted from what should be most important to them - New London, Iowa.

Kauffman, though not an Iowan, spends a lot of time talking about a renaissance in Iowa culture that happened before World War II. It really made me proud to be an Iowan -- this summer I want to see some things in Iowa that I've never seen before. Anyway, apparently in the 1930s Grant Wood and others created distinctive Iowa art, Iowa poetry, and so on. World War II wiped all that out.

Even "good" wars like the Civil War and World War II get harsh treatment from Kauffman.

"His sympathies were for race -- too lofty to descend to persons," a wit once said of the righteously abolitionist senator Charles Sumner. For how else could a man not merely countenance but positively rejoice in the slaughter of his countrymen, not only rebel southerners but noble Robert Gould Shaw and Berkshires boys, too?

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.

Who are these creatures, capable of decreeing... the mass execution of, say, Iraqi children or Vietnamese peasants?

That reminds of what Tolstoy said about Napoleon and the Tsar in War and Peace. Why do people obey when commanded to go kill strangers half a world away?

This was a pretty funny jab at Reagan.
The only compliment more glowing is that a president "made America believe in itself again," as Ronald of Bel Air was said to have done. Indeed, who among us will ever forget where she was at the moment she learned that Grenada had been liberated?

He quotes Nixon "Defending and promoting peace and freedom around the world is a great enterprise. Only by rededicating ourselves to that goal will we remain true to ourselves."

Kauffman's satirical comment on Nixon's words sum up the book:
True to ourselves. You might think you can be true to yourself by raising a family, planting a garden, participating in the life of a small and vital community, writing books about your people's history, building houses or farming land or simply studying with the birds, flowers, trees, God, and yourself, as Dvorak put it -- but you would be wrong. Worse, you would be small, meager, mean, niggardly. The measure of a man's greatness is his willingness to abandon his family and go abroad to murder strangers on behalf of... your guess is as good as mine. Mr. Nixon's "great enterprises," I guess.


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