Thursday, January 26, 2006

Thomas Frank and Kansas

What’s the Matter with Kansas?
How Conservatives Won the Heart of
America by Thomas Frank

I first heard about this book from Garrison Keillor. Keillor was in my home town, Hutchinson, Kansas for a live taping of his radio show The Prairie Home Companion. He worked the title into his opening monologue and got a good laugh. I had to ask my sister about the punch line. I haven't lived in Kansas since I was in high school and had missed the stir the book must have caused there when it was published in 2004.

Then a few weeks ago I was browsing at the Harvard Book Store and couldn’t resist adding the title to my small collection of purchases. If this book was about Kansas, then this native Sunflower State girl should see what Frank had to say.

Frank details Kansas political history and how it began as radical—fighting slavery and the evil of drink—but has turned reactionary. Kansans today look at American culture piped in by satellite and react with disgust. The country’s soul is perverted and those damn East Coasters/Hollywood types are trying to cram their perversions down their honestly parched throats.

Kansas’s have a history of fighting to protect their way of life on the prairie. The battles they choose today are still the stuff of moral righteousness: abortion, evolution, feminism as a curse on the family, etc. What they have lost (or perhaps never fully had?) is a concern with the economic forces that drive the cultural issues for which they wage life-or-death battles.

At times Frank’s narrative lost me, I have to admit. I couldn’t tell if he assumed his reader would be more of a political insider or if his logic went a bit askew here and there.

At any rate, I can say that his characterization of Kansas culture hit home with me. As a fairly self-reflective person, I have often tried to put together my own personal narrative. I often use the forces of family and faith as literary devices. Frank’s book, however, made me realize that I am a product of Kansas culture as well.

Even though I was the typical teenager wrapped up in my teenage issues, I was busy soaking up the special angst of Kansas as well. I was sixteen during the “Summer of Mercy” when abortion protesters descended on Wichita for a summer of civil protest and arrests. As I read Frank’s account of that summer, memories began to take form in a haze.

It’s no wonder that the “Summer of Mercy” is a blur. That was the same summer that I stepped out of Kansas and into the heart of Moscow, Sochi and St. Petersburg. With little trouble I can still roll the bubbles of caviar across my tongue and feel the slick butter slathered on the slightly sour bread of my host family’s breakfast table. Yet somehow the details of that summer of protest in Wichita and the role I played in it are suppressed. I know that I was pro-life. It was the moral high road. And in those days, it was only road worth traveling.

Even my trip to Russia on People to People was sanctified as by its diplomatic nature. I didn’t sit in my father’s bedroom and plead for him to send me “on this once-in-a-lifetime” trip because I planned to pleasure in exotic foods, foreign tongues and the liberty of being a Kansas girl of sixteen half-way around the world from her plains. I wasn’t doing it for my own pleasure. No, I was going as the Kansas Student Ambassador for the United States. I would be a peace-maker by virtue of my American youthful presence on Russia’s soil. I was trying to be a citizen, a very grown up thing to do, I thought.

I have no idea how deeply my father pondered my request. Did he worry about the cost? It was a significant sum. Did he worry about my safety? Would he miss me? In our household of six kids and a rotating cast of dogs, I never gave the latter a moment’s consideration. I don’t remember how much I bothered him about it. But I do know that I set my heart on it. I decided that it was possible for me to go. And that made it almost imperative in my mind. I still have that streak in me. If a thing can be done, and it is a worthy cause, then it should be done. I do remember using the “once-in-a-lifetime” logic. He gave his permission.

Suddenly I was part of something much bigger than the irregular rectangle of Kansas State. Students from across the country converged on Washington, DC, where we gathered at George Washington University before we flew out to Moscow. The few days we spent in DC were a whirlwind of new faces and accents. I was one of the youngest students in the program and I was thankful to have this excuse. The others were urbane and well-traveled for the most part. They had never been to Kansas. My sixteen years and Kansas roots, not to mention my perfect hair and blue eyes added up to a kind of self-assured glow. I was a Kansas girl, going places.

I was so caught up in the excitement of sleeping in a college dorm and joining forces with my fellow ambassadors that I barely had time to think of my family already so far away even though I had yet to leave the country. I did manage to call them just once before leaving for the three-week trip. In my exhilaration I had exhausted myself before we even arrived to Dulles airport. It is no wonder then that I somehow I got my hand pinched in the luggage conveyer belt as I tried to retrieve my things from the security screening. It must have smarted, and my pride must have been wounded too. Here I was about to embark on a world journey and I carelessly pinch my fingers. Suddenly I was lonely and I gave in to my tiredness. I cried as I dialed home. I cried as I left a garbled message about my hand getting pinched and goodbye and it really hurts. I did not call my parents again while I was abroad.

At the time, I didn’t find it strange that I never called. My friends took advantage of weekly or even more frequent opportunities to phone. I always refrained out of a kind of self-discipline. It was expensive to call. I would not indulge myself in such an extravagance. My parents had sacrificed to send me and I didn’t want to cost them any more than necessary. My parents never told me not to call. I am sure they assumed that I would. In my way I was trying to be grown up do the right thing by saving on the expensive call. I was trying to be frugal with their money. Now I see that my failure to call was really the product of a teen’s callous self-absorption. I only thought of their financial, not their emotional needs. Oddly, it made me feel “grown up” to restrain myself from calling.

The buildup and the experience of spending three weeks in Russia at the age of sixteen go a long way to explain why my memories of the “Summer of Mercy” in Kansas are vague. I do know this: I spent at least several hours on a busy thoroughfare near Dr. George Tiller’s clinic. I held a sign in my hand that was pro-life. I wanted the drivers to honk to show solidarity. I believed that it was honorable to stand up for the unborn. I do remember that I was scared. Their had been violence and protests all over Wichita that summer as legions of pro-lifers flocked there to rally for the cause. Dr. Tiller’s clinic was the center of the fray. He performed late-term abortions and thus earned a special place of hate in the pro-lifer’s quest to end abortion.

I was young. I had seen the world. I was eager to be grown up. Abortion was a grown up issue. The Pope condemned abortion; so did I. It was grown up to accept the teachings of the church. It was puerile and pathetic to rebel against the wisdom of the Holy Father. I did ask questions about abortion: but not the kind that ever considered a non-canonical viewpoint. I wanted to know more about what the church taught, not why they taught it or why other people (who were those people?) had different ideas. It wasn’t about ideas anyway. It was about babies being killed. I thought that I was being grown up by taking the moral high road. I thought that I was joining a noble fight, a fight that made my own life more worthwhile and more sophisticated. It gave me character. Instead of being a kid, I was a teen with a cause. Some kids drank beer and had sex to rebel against their parents; I never drank or had sex to rebel against a world that used such distractions to get young people like me to waste our lives.

I was a Kansas girl with blue eyes back from a trip around the world and ready to take on the world here in Kansas. I had been places and now I would step up into the world of adult issues with a voice that could clearly articulate: I am Pro-Life, and then punctuate that credo with a deftly executed toss of long honey blonde hair.

My memories of that summer are a tangle of Russian folk dancers, dark tea and fresh raspberries in the mountains of Georgia, all night gab, basketball games with kids from Spain (who drank red wine afterward!) and coming home to a Kansas on fire with a moral crusade.

Frank comments that his experience growing up in Kansas roughly the same time as me (though in the “big city” part of Kansas). “What mattered most were the ideals; everyday reality was too degraded to count” (145). I know that my ideals as a sixteen-year-old coursed through my veins. They still do. And I think this held true and holds true for many Kansans today. Yet the primary way Kansans know the world is through entertainment—movies and sitcoms. I have known the world on my intimate terms. For me, everyday reality has not been degraded. It is the stuff of life—in Kansas, on the shores of the Black Sea, in my steaming cup of tea on my desk—that can filter the bitterness that results from too much cable television and rap music. I can have my ideals and live with a world that doesn’t always conform to my standards, as long as that world is a democracy. And as long as people and not ideals remain at the center of the democracy.

(page numbers from paperback edition)

“The [conservative] movement’s basic premise is that culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern—that Values Matter Most, as a one backlash title has it.” (6)

“What divides Americans is authenticity, not something hard and ugly like economics.” (27)

Kansas is: “where Dorothy wants to return. It’s where Superman grows up.” (29)

Kansas may be the land of averageness, but is a freaky, militant, outraged averageness.” (34)

“The people who were once radical are now reactionary.” (76)

“All claims on the right, in other words, advance from victimhood.” (119)

“Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of the backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to have metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.” (122)

“Conservatives are only able to ignore economics the way they do because they live in a civilization whose highest cultural expressions—movies, advertisements, and sitcoms—have for decades insisted on downplaying the world of work.” (129)

On growing up in Kansas in the 80s and 90s: “What mattered most were the ideals; everyday reality was too degraded to count.”(145)

“Ignoring one’s own economic self-interest may seem like a suicidal move to you and me, but viewed a different way it is an act of self-denial; a sacrifice for a holier cause.”(168)

Colorful Vocabulary

deracinate (uproot)

patois (provincial speech, local dialect)

puissance (strength, power)

bonhomie (good-natured friendliness)

mulct (v. to defraud of money; swindle)

sedulous (accomplished with great perseverance; diligent)

calumniate (to utter maliciously false statements, charges)

quislings (traitor—Vidkun Quisling died 1945, Norwegian who collaborated with Nazis)

adulate (flatter excessively)

proles (proletarian)

breast-beating underdoggery


mansard (a type of roof:

doppelgängers (double, alter ego)

anomie (personal unrest, alienation comes from lack of purpose or ideals)

depredation (plunder, ravage)

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