A bumper sticker I saw the other day arrested my attention. It read: "Lawrence: an island of reality - surrounded by Kansas." The implication, laden with heavy irony, was that the rest of Kansas is unreal. My first reaction was that it all depends on what you mean by "real." According to Bishop Berkeley, we can't be sure there's any reality outside of our hermetically sealed minds. But then, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone and proclaimed, "Thus I refute Berkeley."
I have kicked many a stone in the hinterlands of Kansas and can attest to their reality. I have been to Cawker City, observed the largest ball of twine and can report that it is not an empty chamber of commerce boast. I have eaten chicken fried steaks in far-flung Kansas towns and suffered indigestion that was real - real with a vengeance. I have driven past malodorous stock yards in Kansas whose actuality was beyond dispute. So I contest the assertion that Lawrence has a monopoly on reality in the state.
I suspect, of course, that the bumper sticker was really political in intent, a restatement of the time-worn claim that Lawrence is "an island of blue in a sea of red." Its subtext, no doubt, was the conceit that Lawrence is an island of intelligence and culture, surrounded by a sea of stupidity.
Again, I protest. I have met a number of flesh and blood Kansans outside of Lawrence who were sentient beings, capable of rational discourse. I encountered one in the western portion of the state who could chew gum and pat his tummy at the same time. I could name a handful of far flung Kansans whom you wouldn't call philistines or simpletons. Enough said. If you turned me loose in Lawrence like Diogenes with his lantern I bet I could discover a few citizens who were not lining up for a MacArthur "genius" grant
The truth is that we all like to think that we're special just because we live here rather than there. Like members of those tribes who refer to themselves as "the people," we discount the rest of humanity as nonentities or creatures belonging to a different species. The famous Steinberg drawing applies to Lawrence as well as New York City: Reality stops at the city limits. Beyond, there be dragons, chimeras, whirlpools, right wing Christian fundamentalists, Flat Earth anti-Darwinians. The bumper sticker expressed a universal prejudice: "we" are normal, superior. People who are different from "us" are aberrations.
For example: I read about a group of Iraqi soldiers who tore a live rabbit to pieces. The leader bit out the heart with a yell, "then passed around the blood-soaked remains to his comrades, each of whom took a bite. The group also bit the heads off frogs." According to the article, chewing on live animals is a traditional display of ferocity in Iraq. For the soldiers, it was as normal as opening a box of Cheerios is to us.
Since moving away from Lawrence five years ago and observing it from afar, I've come to the nearly opposite conclusion from the bumper sticker. Lawrence reminds me of T.S. Eliot's description of London: "Unreal city." When I visit Lawrence, I sometimes have to pinch myself. The people on the street look exotic by rural standards. It's Halloween every day. People in Lawrence are wound up about everything, from roundabouts to breastfeeding in public. Remember the "Hate Wall" that students broke down with sledge hammers and the proposed ordinance prohibiting balloon displays by auto dealerships as "dangerous distractions?" The word that comes to mind is "unreal." Of course, I mean unreal in the best sense of the word. Unreal as a refuge from the stifling norm, unreal as a liberation from the tedious burdens of common sense.
A former mayor of Lawrence once proclaimed International Dadaism Month to celebrate "nonsense, chance and randomness." He thought there was value in reminding people that "reason and anti-reason, sense and nonsense, design and chance, consciousness and unconsciousness, belong together as necessary parts of a whole." That perfectly expressed the spirit of Lawrence.
The late William Burroughs - an heir of the aesthetics of Dadaism - didn't settle in Lawrence because it was a paragon of middle class values, a great place to raise kids, an island of reality. The practitioner of shotgun art and cut and paste literature moved to Lawrence because it transcends reality.
A young woman recently stopped by the Lawrence police claimed she was not driving a car but "a private vessel on a religious mission." She and her companion - J.M. Sovereign: Godsent - claimed that the United States is not a country but a foreign corporation that has invaded America. They served the officer a "Sovereign Civilian Police Observation Task Force" card, obliging him to pay a $15,000 gold fee for each question he asked. Perfect! Lawrence! Unreal!
When I think of Lawrence's spectral bus line with its single passenger, its truncated circumferential trafficway, its woolgatherers, conspiracy theorists, latter day Druids, double-chinned hippies and prophets of doom (for whom the end of the world seems to be an exciting prospect), I celebrate its genius for the unreal. Lawrence, I hail thee. Long may you pursue the elusive butterflies of utopia and Platonic apparitions. Thus, I refute the malicious bumper sticker.
What's the matter with Kansas? The same stuff that's the matter with everywhere else. Kansas is imperfect. Kansans can be petty. Some of us are indolent. Sometimes we argue without listening. Occasionally, our politicians have bad ideas. Kansas probably has the same ratio of jerks to decent human beings as any other state.
But cosmopolitans who quote Dorothy's line, "Toto, We're not in Kansas any more," perversely misinterpret it as a harkening back to reality, a summons to "Wake up and smell the coffee." They err in debunking the state as a holding pen for rubes. They forget that Dorothy was speaking of the Land of Oz, not itself a paragon of reality, intelligence, or civilization, a place of witches, flying monkeys and fake wizards. On the other hand, Dorothy was addressing a dog, not exactly a sign of rationality, either.