Sunday, August 28, 2005

Kansas--engaging crackpots and strange omissions

The many reviews and discussions I've read of What's the Matter with Kansas? failed to prepare me for what I found most attractive about this book: Thomas Frank actually likes Kansans. He seems to enjoy describing the peculiarities of his native state. Once an abolitionist and populist stronghold, Kansas is still home to "some of the most flamboyant cranks, conspiracists, and calamity howlers the Republic has ever seen." Frank marvels that these characters have enlisted in a crusade against abortion, gays, and above all, liberal elitism, while supporting the corporate capitalism that undermining their quality of life.

Political activists, both right and left face a similar problem: most people don't want to live a life of endless struggle. As we used to say on the left: "struggle is hard, that is why they call it struggle." Ordinary people can be roused to activism by something they feel as an immediate crisis (see mothers of US soldiers in Iraq today) but the object of their activism is usually to correct something so they don't have to continue being activists. Franks documents how the right has made permanent backlash activists out of masses of working Kansans by rousing them to a permanent state of fury with liberals.

Everything seems to piss conservatives off, and they react by documenting and cataloging their disgust. The result is what we will call the plen-T-plaint, a curious amassing of petty, unrelated beefs with the world. Its purpose is not really to evaluate the hated liberal culture that surrounds us; . . . The plen-T-plaint winds us up. It offers no resolution, simply reminding us that we can never win.

Clearly what Frank calls the "plen-T-plaint" is the contemporary form in which many Kansans respond to the reality that US society disrespects and derides working people. As long as they are pre-occupied with beefs against liberal elitists, they aren't going to notice the elephant in the living room: the encroachments of the rich are destroying their way of life.

Frank describes all this masterfully and artfully, and yet I came away from the book wondering whether, on some level, he really "gets it." The rightwing zealots he introduces us to in a chapter called "Happy Captives" have been hoodwinked into working against their economic interests, but they have also spent their lives being royally "dissed" by the culture they live in. Being despised doesn't make any of us clear thinkers; if we have spunk it usually makes us mad which, in the absence of countervailing contacts, can set us up to be manipulated. Frank is right of course that liberals have neglected these folks. (I think too Frank misses how normal these people can seem to a leftish "movement activist"; their willingness to persevere without material gain in hard political struggle is the norm for serious political activists of any stripe, setting them apart from ordinary folks who actually seek their own demobilization.)

And then there is race. . .

Where I definitely part company with Frank is his airy dismissal of white racism as underlying Kansans plen-T-plaint. "Kansas does not have Trent Lott's disease. . . .They glory in speaking of themselves as a new breed of abolitionists." According to Frank, Kansas is not following the trajectory of the old South that turned to Republicans in reaction to the civil rights revolution of the 1960s; Kansans are different. His evidence for this seems awfully thin. Sure, conservatives love to manipulate the symbols of civil rights, but do they do anything for equality with people of color?

What Frank is missing is that appropriation of the history and symbols of the Black struggle for justice is the ultimate in white racism, even more deeply offensive than outright, visible bigotry. Erasure trumps insults. Kansas conservatives have all the conventional hallmarks of racist reactionaries in the rest of the country; it would be very odd indeed if, as the non-white population grows, they don't display the more familiar signs of white reaction. (People of various non-white colors were only 10 percent of Kansas voters in 2004, confirming that at present it remains one of the politically whitest states.)

By dismissing race, Frank undermines the credibility of this otherwise very convincing book. Aside from one footnote, I had a hard time finding any evidence that he talked with any non-white Kansans. And he makes statements that leave me gasping when I fill in the unmentioned racial context. For example, he introduces us to a white working class man who supported McGovern in 1972; this man was converted to rightwing fanaticism because of he believes legal abortion is murder, even though Republican economic policy has devastated his town, leaving it looking like "a miniature Detroit." Now wait a minute -- Detroit may be a burned out post-industrial wreck, but its chief distinction today and for 30 years has been that it is a Black city. In fact, a recent study named Detroit the most liberal Democratic city in the country -- because it is so heavily African American. That progressive politics might be anchored in the communities of color is a possibility that seems to be inconceivable to Frank.

The ground Frank has covered so well in Kansas has been surveyed by other political observers who do take racial and sexual politics seriously, even if they do not write so engagingly. For a corrective to Frank's narrow focus, I would recommend taking a look at Jean Hardisty's Mobilizing Resentment.

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