Once upon a time there was a dysfunctional state populated by simpletons, cretins, dolts, bumpkins and lunatics. That's a shorthand version of Thomas Frank's book, "What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America."
As Frank sees it, conservatives have "carefully cultivated (the) derangement of places like Kansas." Big Business interests have suckered Kansans into voting Republican by scaring them with hobgoblins of the culture wars. Kansas morons recite the Pledge of Allegiance while they "strangle their life chance."
"How could so many people get it so wrong?" Frank asks. Don't they know that their salvation lies in the Democratic party, the party of "the workers, of the poor, of the weak and the victimized?"
Mysterious relationships of cause and effect pop up in Frank's startling scenario. "Strip today's Kansans of their job security," he writes, "and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and the next thing you know, they're protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the C.E.O. and there's a good chance they'll join the John Birch Society." You won't find much empirical verification for these bizarre assertions.
Mission Hills mystery
Frank's take on Mission Hills, Kan., (where he grew up) is revealing. The way he remembers "my little town on the prairie," Mission Hills was a place where people drove Pontiacs and played basketball on driveway basketball courts. But with the triumph of conservative Republicans, gangster-capitalists have taken over and Mission Hills has become a haven for bankers, brokers, CEOs, along with "small scale thieves, embezzlers, tax evaders, real estate frauds and check forgers."
Frank sees great significance in the fact that someone down the street from his old home has installed "shiny new gutters made entirely of copper" and that plutocratic slate shingles have replaced virtuous, proletarian asphalt shingles on many Mission Hills roofs. He refers to the "gentrification" of Mission Hills, as if it were a run-down inner city enclave of the Gilded Age, reclaimed by yuppies who have driven salt-of-the-earth lunch bucket workers out.
"Nobody mows their own lawn in Mission Hills any more," he laments. Including his dad, apparently. In an embarrassing aside, Frank reveals that his father -- demoralized by the thought that his house is a "tear-down" -- has lost interest in maintaining it and has received threatening notices from the city to cut his grass.
Either hallucination or intellectual dishonesty is at work here. Mission Hills has always been a haven for the ultra-rich and to pretend that it had a more egalitarian character 40 years ago is the kind of truth-twisting typical of people who will say anything to win a point.
Frank's book is full of such reckless hyperbole and bald distortion. It would be enlightening to know on what basis he makes odd claims such as that denizens of Mission Hills "read books on empire." Moreover, if true, what's it supposed to mean?
Wealth, writes Frank, "has some secret bond with crime -- also with drug use, bullying, lying, adultery, and thundering, world-class megalomania." Isn't that in the same league as saying that the poor are all lazy, inferior louts? Some of Frank's statements are so absurd, they make me suspect his book is a cynical parody to cash in on the hot market for polemical bombast.
(An indication of his care with facts appears on page 126, where he refers to George Gurley as "a columnist for the New York Observer and a former columnist for the Kansas City Star." This is a flagrant, heinous, abominable error. I am the latter. The former is my son.)
A hatchet job
To adopt Frank's style of expression, what's the matter with "What's the Matter with Kansas" is that it's a mindless, sophomoric hatchet job, ridden with cliches, oversimplifications, misrepresentations and blatant inanities. Frank tosses out the same sort of trash he accuses conservatives of tossing out.
The disturbing thing is that there seems to be an insatiable appetite for this sort of screed these days. Partisans of the left and the right treat politics like professional wrestling, an occasion to vent and scream.
Frank's error was that he only tarred conservatives with his brush. Liberals are guilty of the same kind of unquestioning orthodoxy today. I recently heard Bill Moyers on NPR demonizing right-wing religious fanatics at the same time he avowed his "belief" in Social Security and public education. Social Security may be headed for bankruptcy, but it mustn't be reformed, because it's sacred. In spite of its problems and failures, public education ought not to be criticized, because it's sacred.
Bill Moyers, I submit, is a fundamentalist of the left, out in the same orbit with people who say the world was created in seven days. When Thomas Frank rants about the "borderline criminality of capitalism," he's a liberal Rush Limbaugh.
Today, "Anything but Bush" represents an article of faith for nearly half the country. Bush is the anti-Christ, worse than Hitler. He's like the kind of fertility god primitive societies believed they had to kill for the land to fructify. I heard someone blame Bush for the bad weather. A cartoon shows someone coming out of Michael Moore's Bush-bashing movie, saying, "I had no idea Bush flew the plane that hit the north tower."
Can we trust people who are filled with apocalyptic hysteria to elect someone better than Bush? Are we condemned to be a nation in which half the people are blissfully ignorant and the other half consumed with ignorant rage?
I suspect that all the ranting really comes down to the inexplicable fact that some of us sleep better with a Democrat in the White House, some with a Republican. But "Democrat" and "Republican" have become mere brand names like Coke and Pepsi. "Liberal" and "conservative" have no clear meanings any more. Bill Clinton was a better conservative than George Bush. In the primaries, Kerry promised to go after the "Benedict Arnold CEOs." Now he says he's not a "redistributing Democrat," and doesn't want to lead "a party that loves jobs and hates the people who create them." Is he really that different from George Bush?
Thomas Frank got it half-right. We're all deranged. We want a witch doctor for president, someone with good mojo. If we get Francis the Talking Mule, it would serve us right.