Bye-Bye Miss American Empire: Neighborhood Patriots, Backcountry Rebels, and their Underdog Crusade to Redraw America’s Political Map Bill Kauffman (Chelsea Green) $17.95
Well, this is going to be a hard-sell, having you honor our awarding this for anything more than the season’s longest subtitle. And I’m not even sure how to explain the darn thing. A lot of this is history, all of it shaped by author’s quirky passion for localism, decentralization, and “front-porch anarchism.” (Not to mention his penchant for word-play, song allusions, and overall clever wittiness. His friend James Howard Kunstler says he writes with an “antic verve” which puts it mildly.) I’ve said before that I will read anything this guy writes, and find his crotchety, wacky, long-winded sentences to thrill my mind and fill my heart. That is, he is on to something, giving voice to a third way that is so far left, it is right (or so far right, it is left.) Or, better, he’s something then again, not concerning himself with being left or right. He seems even beyond communitarianism or libertarianism to a small-is-beautiful patriotic pacifism. Remember the 18th-century debate between the Federalists and the Jeffersonians? Bigger centralized government vs smaller local folk? Kauffman is way (way) on the side of the little guys. An earlier book of his which I couldn’t put down carried the torch of some outspoken prophets of the colonial era —especially one from Maryland named Luther Martin—who were against the ratification of the Constitution; they were in favor of the Articles of the Confederation, not wanting to give the Feds too much power. Tell that to the Christian right these days that some early founders opposed the Constitution! I Samuel 8 isn’t my favorite verse in the Bible for determining wise statecraft, but Kauffman gets it, and without the lingo of subsidiarity (Roman Catholic) or sphere sovereignty (Kuyperian/Calvinist) he sees to invoke the spirit of Wendell Berry and Dorothy Day and the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson and Luther Martin and wants everybody to do as they please in their own backyard, free from the colonization of unneighborly Empires. This, then, leads him to the topic of this can’t-put-down travelogue through the most fascinating counter-culture I’ve found in a long time. He’s reporting on his journeys to the various conventions, movements and efforts of those who want to secede from the Union. I’m telling you, this is one rock-n-roll road trip and he reports, argues with, argues for, and tells us about the history of folk who don’t want to be homogenized by Uncle Sam and Wal-Mart. The story of secession—from populists in West Kansas to the indigenous Lakota people—is much more interesting (and reasonable and plausible) than the scowling history books and mainstream media wants us to believe. Kauffman is our man to make it plain. And, as one reviewer said, make it “intensely enjoyable.” And Bye-Bye was certainly that for me. From those wanting independence for Hawaii to those who think that New York or California ought to each break into two states, from the neo-Confederates (some who are black, by the way) of the deep south to the freedom lovers of crunchy Vermont, from the First Nations peoples of the contiguous states to the Alaskan Inuits, each group makes a strong case for being left alone and argues the justice of their call for freedom. Why should Washington DC determine laws for people in the Middle of the Pacific? Why, for that matter, should people in Manhattan care one whit what local zoning rules are in, say, Kauffman’s beloved small home-town of Batavia NY? (He tells the story of his leaving big-time Beltway politics and returning home to fight Wal-Mart and coach a Little League team in the endearing Muckdog Gazette.) It will be hard to take, but Abe Lincoln is not a hero in this telling of the tale, and although Kauffman is a sentimental patriot (he’d rather sew another star on the flag than take one off) he thinks people, especially those bound by local traditions, faiths, and cultures, have the right of self-determination. Cheers for Tunisian independence? How about Texas? What is sacred about the Union, except the mythology of the importance of Lincoln keeping us together? This is one heckuva book, rollicking, wild, funny, and very, very informative, about people, beliefs and movements I have rarely considered. It deserves a couple of awards, but I don’t know in quite what. Trouble-making? Iconoclasm? Common sense? Crazy-long sentences? A cool title? Yep. All that and more. He’s a great writer, and amazingly aware historian, and a deep down good, good guy. Read the original review at Hearts and Minds Books. Bye Bye, Miss American Empire is available now.