Tuesday, April 04, 2006

What's the Matter With Kansas?

28. What’s The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank. Current Events, 3-24, pp. 251

I avoided this book for as long as I reasonably could.

There were many reasons for this avoidance, some book related (and that’s another post entirely), others having to do with the fact that I am a native Kansas. I know the people within these pages. Not just “know,” you understand, in some general sense that I “know” Kansans, but many of the people in this book are very, very specifically known to me.

Many of those who were interviewed are friends, others passing acquaintances. I worked for many years for Governor Bill Graves (and still like and admire him). Senator Sam Brownback, “God’s Senator,” frequently attended a Methodist church service led by my wife.

It’s a hell of an easier thing to read about people in a state that is removed from your life than it is your friends and acquaintances in your native state.

So what do I think . . . that what friends still living in Kansas want to know. And so here it is: Frank is largely right. At times, he rants, and that’s tiresome, but he’s taken a hard look at an important and disturbing issue, and I think that’s good. He gets most of it right, but not everything.

Frank contends that the good people of Kansas are acting against their own economic interests by abandoning the Democrat Party and electing conservative Republican state legislators and Congressmen. Not an unreasonable assertion, but what troubles me is that these people—his people, for Frank is also a native Kansan—are faceless enigmas to the author.

They are not faceless to me. I do know them. And I know this, their faith is important to them. Vastly important. More important than their economic interests. Most of these people would say they’re OK financially. Hey, they’re not getting rich, but they pay their bills on time and can afford a few of the niceties of life. And they would also say that any sacrifice they make is OK with them if it advances God’s kingdom. These people are willing foot soldiers in the culture wars. They don’t like the direction their country is headed and it’s the Conservatives who seem willing to do something about it even if, as Frank notes, that ain’t the case.

I reserve my scorn for the politicians—state and federal—who prey on these good people. Advancing their political careers and fattening their wallets, while promising some restoration of 1950s cultural values. I think there are many Conservatives who genuinely believe in the moral crusade they are advancing, but others are merely being expedient; they’re mouthing phrases and slogans that they’ve learned resonate with voters.

It’s a sad state of affairs. I’m embarrassed—very embarrassed—by all that’s unfolded in Kansas in the past several years . . . the debate over evolution, Fred Phelps and his miserable homophobic family, the abortion protests in Wichita . . . you name it.

My home state has become a small-minded, mean-spirited place. That's what’s the matter with Kansas.

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