Sunday, June 27, 2004

Cranks, conspiracists, and calamity howlers

If Kansas is the concentrated essence of normality, then here is where we can see the deranged gradually become normal, where we look into that handsome, confident, reassuring, all-American face - class president, quarterback, Rhodes scholar, bond trader, builder of industry - and realize that we are staring into the eyes of a lunatic. - Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank has written a book that, in only a few hundred short faces, has distilled the exact feelings and experiences I have had growing up, living, and visiting my folks in Kansas. The book in question is What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, and it has been one of the more interesting reading experiences I've had in the past few years. There is little in it that's new to me (though it may be to many if not most who read it and have never spent much time in Kansas) - I know from both fist-hand experience living and growing up there, as well as following my home state from afar over the course of the five years since I left it for good. For many others who read this book, I hope it serves as an eye opener for them.

I've always had to live and deal with the jokes and lack of understanding about my home state. For most of the people I know, I'm one of the only Kansans they've ever met (not a great surprise - the state has such a small population to begin with and what population it has tends to stay put and grow old there, or else move to Kansas City, Denver, Dallas, or St. Louis...few come this far east) and as a result, many are hesitant to believe the stories I tell about Kansas. About how odd a place it is. About how strange the inhabitants are. About all the various reasons why I left. I guess most people in America are conditioned to believe that all the weirdos live in places like California, Rhode Island, Florida and whatnot. But only Kansas produces characters like "Pope Michael of Kansas," Sam Brownback, Jim Ryun, and the other cast of bozos, charlatans, faith healers, snake eaters, frauds, criminals, liars and corrupt hypocritical conservatives in such quantities and in such absolute violation of what one would normally expect. The place is a mess. It is, thanks to its conservative fundamentalists and their tireless efforts, marching gaily into its own destruction and irrelevance.

Frank does an excellent job of laying out all of this in his relatively short book on my former home state (which was also his - though I suppose one part of me says that Kansas City and Johnson County can only barely be considered 'Kansas' - they're very different from most of the rest of the state...places like Topeka, where I grew up, or Salina, Junction City, Manhattan, Washington, Greenleaf, Frankfurt, etc.). I have no complaints about anything he's put forward in the book - no disagreements with just about anything he says. Oh, I'm sure plenty of conservatives will object to his portrait, but they're blind to the actual truth of the thing. No, my only complaint at all is that Frank doesn't really offer any ideas to resolve the problems he lays out. There's plenty of blame to spread around (and Frank does an excellent job of putting it on all sides), but little in the way of solutions. That isn't to say that he doesn't raise that issue - but his answer (that things will simply get worse, that nothing will change) is so depressing that I don't want to accept it. Perhaps that's my own attempts to be optimistic matter how long I'm away, Kansas will always be where I'm from. I can't escape it - its a matter of fact. And in its own odd way, Kansas continues to dominate who I am, who I've been, and my outlook on the world and the people within it. It will always be a sort of home...a place I lived for a long time...a place where most of my family is (for whatever reasons). Its where I'm from. And it has a pull over me. I appreciate the empty beauty of the lonesome prarie wind. And I don't want to think that it is doomed to be a place forever foreign to me. Unfortunately, I just don't have the answers anymore than Frank does.

And as one final note, this book is a stinging indictment of capitalism and our precious "free market," which we put so much faith in (despite its lack of results). Its something I need to put more thought into before I begin writing on it, though. My politcal-economic views have tended more and more towards socialism in recent years, but I need to find a way to put that into words. More later, I suppose...


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