With too many fooled and abused, plutocracy rules and ignorance subits in the heartland of America.
By William Marvel
Since January I have been composing a column that I intended to call “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” I stole the title from William Allen White’s 1896 editorial in the Emporia, Kansas, Gazette, in which he ridiculed the Populist Party effort to gain governmental concessions for the working class. Like most conservative Republicans since that time, White embraced the myth of trickle-down economics and characterized any legislation designed to benefit the common man as communist heresy. His simplistic satire helped to convince down-and-out Kansas farmers to vote against their only real hope for a serious political voice, just as similar demagoguery has kept plain folks voting against their own interests to this day.
While I pondered my column, a Kansas native by the name of Thomas Frank was turning the same idea into a book, and sure enough he called it What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. It came out this summer, and I may never have enough free time to read it, but a review suggests that I already share considerable concurrence with the author.
My own inspiration came last December, while driving out to my wife’s childhood home in Salina, Kansas, for a holiday visit with her family. The long, flat interstates of central Kansas bisect great seas of conquered prairie with but few farmhouses in sight. Most people seem to have sold out (or lost out) to agribusiness that thrives on the same economic policies that drove the family farmers into bankruptcy. The older of those former farmers now idle about town, while the younger ones have gone to Wichita, or farther, to beg work at another preferentially taxed corporation. The most coveted work in Salina is a job in the pizza factory, and the best neighborhoods in town have turned downright seedy. Even the bankers in Topeka look as doleful as basset hounds.
Since renouncing their populist saviors in 1896, Kansans have anesthetized themselves against the resulting blight by relentless religious indoctrination. In their curious world Jesus loves everyone except homosexuals and Democrats. Anything that happens is “God’s will,” thus logically absolving everyone from responsibility for their actions, yet somehow there remains a concept called sin, which requires the free will that no one is supposed to own. They believe that their god will protect them against any danger, yet they tremble in constant fear of the ungodly. In a decision that threw their state back a full century in intellectual development, creationist Kansas legislators banned the teaching of evolution a couple of years ago.
The preoccupation with religion is simply astounding. Oily, unemployed preachers slink about, looking for gigs among the myriad little congregations. Nieces and nephews constantly lobby for missionary money until rebuffed with abrupt finality, recoiling in horror to learn that their aunt has not only married a nonbeliever, but that she herself long ago rejected the fundamentalist dogma of the plains. It is almost as though apostasy equaled death, and those who visit the lost daughter now mourn as though at a gravesite.
The landscape itself reflects the endemic piety. Homemade billboards loom over the creeping vegetation in abandoned pastures, advertising obscure biblical passages. Electronic signs plead for the public to pray--perhaps for some of that wealth to trickle down from the corporate interests Kansans have been supporting for so long. Western Missouri is dotted with triple-X-rated video rental stores and “gentlemen’s clubs” offering live dancing, but those uncomfortable amenities disappear after the Kansas border. That was acceptable enough, but the bathroom doors of interstate rest areas disappear as well, at least on the men’s side: to discourage their potential use as gay trysting spots, a devout Department of Transportation has turned all of its rest areas into putrid peep shows.
As Thomas Frank apparently argues in his new book, the problem with Kansas seems to be the same as it is with the rest of the country. By means of catchy rhetoric, inventive mythology, and ludicrous logic, a self-interested plutocracy has played an unsophisticated majority against itself, persuading the most numerous class to approve its own defeat and then submit obediently. The Republican Party has long held power with this incongruous coalition of wealth and ignorance, and Kansas may stand as the best illustration of the dominance of ignorance in that alliance: I never saw a rich man while I was there.
William Marvel is a freelance writer in New Hampshire and served in the U.S. Army from 1968-1971. His many books include the award-winning Andersonville: The Last Depot and Lee's Last Retreat: The Flight to Appomattox. You can send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted Monday August 2, 2004