Columnists > Voices

Tinted glasses

Red or blue eyewear will determine what the traveler sees in Oz

Issue: "An evolving debate," May 21, 2005

Most people think of Kansas as a place to get through on their way somewhere else. Even L. Frank Baum, who made Kansas the springboard to Oz, had no descriptive words for it beyond "dry," "brown," and "dusty." Some speculate that Mr. Baum was using this middlest of Midwestern states as a symbol for turn-of-the-century Populism. If so, it's interesting that another author named Frank, 100 years later, has also made Kansas symbolic of a political movement.

What's the Matter with Kansas? hit the nonfiction bestseller lists last summer, standing out among a flood of pre-election political books for its literary polish. After the election it stood out more for its analysis. To Democrats and left-leaners wondering what happened, the book appeared to explain everything.

The author, Thomas Frank, took his title from a famous editorial written by journalist William Allen White in 1893. Its title suited his theme, namely, that the Republican Party has hijacked state politics through its cynical manipulation of Christian fundamentalism-thereby tricking gullible Kansans into repeatedly voting against "their own economic self-interest"-a catch-phrase picked up by TV pundits, nodding sagely to each other over the studio-set coffee table. Meaning what? The specifics are unclear, beyond support for labor unions and estate taxes.

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But when you've got the big picture, who needs details? And the big picture is compelling: Remember the "Summer of Mercy" in 1990, when Operation Rescue staged a massive anti-abortion rally in Wichita? The event raised consciousness to a level that canny Republicans were able to exploit by positioning themselves as morality warriors. The party moderates, or "Mods," gave way to the conservatives, or "Cons" (an abbreviation whose double meaning is clearly intended by the author).

But here's the dirty little secret, according to Mr. Frank: The Cons have made no progress in abolishing or even limiting abortion, and their other anti-evolutionary, contra-liberal-elite crusades are just as hopeless. "[C]onservatives grandstand eloquently on cultural issues but almost never achieve real-world results. What they're after is cultural turmoil, which serves mainly to solidify their base." As long as the rubes have somebody in D.C. expressing outrage, they're satisfied.

Mr. Frank's methods of persuasion are less than rigorous: He makes his case through presupposition, insinuation, and guilt by association. His research is a pastiche of memory (he grew up in Shawnee, a suburb of Kansas City), interviews with colorful-if not downright nutty-local characters, and occasional drives through some formerly prosperous burg, noting how rundown it looks. All backed up with an impressive 53 pages of end notes. But numbers and statistics are lacking.

Perhaps that's because numbers and statistics do not back up Mr. Frank's thesis. Agriculture has changed over the last 20 years, but according to government records Kansas has kept pace overall, its farm economy growing by 10 percent since 1990. Shawnee, a dead-end town according to its native son, has expanded by 27 percent in population. Only 3 percent of its citizens live below the poverty line. Is something the matter with Kansas, or with those blue-tinted shades Mr. Frank is using?

I suspect the latter, and further suspect that it's useless to argue with him. The supposed "Great Backlash" of angry fundamentalism is spawning an even angrier secularism. Mr. Frank's tone is sometimes affectionate toward his home state, but more often the curl of a literary upper lip reveals fangs of contempt.

Funny how perceptions differ. I've lived in Shawnee, too-some of the happiest years of my life. Last summer I drove to the western half of the state, an area that can appear desolate or expansive depending on how you look at it. While I parked along a farm road one afternoon, taking notes for a book, a young teenager driving a pickup stopped to ask if I needed help. After chatting a bit, I asked what his father did. "Oh, we farm," he said. Notice: We farm. Peering through my red-tinted glasses, I saw good old American virtues-family loyalty, self-reliance, helpfulness to strangers.

This battle of perceptions will only get more intense. Pray for the Spirit to open blinded eyes-first, our own.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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