By Bryan Newbury
October 5th, 2009
Thank a merciful Christ I live in Lawrence.
This affirmation begins the day for many residents of Lawrence, Kan., which, as the bumper stickers say, represents 27 miles of reality surrounded by Kansas. Not that Lawrencians head en masse to their numerous coffee shops reciting the phrase with their various other Bikram-related mantras; however, they will often be heard to say something like this after watching the state news or a film such as Laura Cohen & Joe Winston’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Judging from What’s the Matter, Kansas can be a pretty scary place. A scary place with a long and obscured history festooned with the better angels of progressivism, but a scary place nonetheless.
The film takes its lead from Thomas Frank’s book of the same title, and can be forgiven for lacking the depth of the written word. Unfortunately, the portrayal the viewer is provided can tend toward myopia to the point of farce. Where Frank provides a thoughtful analysis of what could be called the Kansas Problem… namely, the issue of white working class voters casting ballots against their own economic interests… Cohen and Winston appear content to show us a vision of an evangelical backwater obsessed with the holy fetus.
Frank isn’t blameless as a writer, and it is important to stress that the Chicagoans who made What’s the Matter take a considerable lead from the Prairie Village, Kan. product. (For the benefit of readers who aren’t from Kansas, Prairie Village is to the state of Kansas as Plano is to Houston’s Fifth Ward circa 1983.) Being an actual Kansan – that is, a product of a depressed rural area who went to school in a depressed urban area – it is the reviewer’s duty to suggest that both Frank and the filmmakers could’ve spent a little more time with people like M.T. Ligget.
Ligget, from Mullinville, provides a picture of the kind of Kansan most of us grew up with and around. The cantankerous septuagenarian delivers the most enjoyable lines in the film (“Gay marriage… who gives a shit?”) as well as a more accurate depiction of the attitudes of rural Kansans. If someone were inclined to plumb the depths of the flyover psyche, people like Ligget are the place to start, not the Barden family. The Bardens are the caricature that seems to comfort urban sophisticates the nation over. In one scene, we see the mother, called “mommy” even by her adolescent children, driving her brood to the bleeding Creation Museum in Kentucky. Brittany, the eldest daughter, eventually attends Patrick Henry College in Virginia, America’s leading educational outlet for folks uncomfortable with the whole “established science” thing. Throughout What’s the Matter, we’re inundated with people likely to TiVo The Colbert Report without thinking for a second that the program is satire, to say nothing of the terrorist splinter groups in and around Operation Rescue. One can just imagine Angelinos and Chicagoans moaning “Is this what is going on in Red America?” Well, is it?
The short answer, to borrow from Sarah Palin, is kinda’. It can’t be argued that these people aren’t out there in considerable number. They are. They’re in Wichita, Cleveland, Dallas, New York, even San Francisco. Do they represent a larger segment of Kansas’ population than that of Oregon or Massachusetts? Of course. To say that the megachurch-attending rube tips the electoral scales of our sylvan landscapes, however, does a disservice both to rural Americans and to our understanding of how our political realities are forged. After all, the year in which What’s The Matter was filmed saw the trouncing of the ultra-right’s favored candidates at the polls even in Kansas. Much is made of the candidacy of Phill Kline, still his loss in the AG’s race seems an inconvenient footnote, along with that of Jim Ryun and Kris Kobach.
Getting back to Ligget. The Frank formula, at the risk of oversimplification, is “God, guns and gays,” which is to say that social issues dominate the electoral map. Let it be submitted that one can safely omit God and gays from this calculation. One wonders what the producers made of Ligget’s take on Iraqi insurgents. The fellow, straight out of central casting, clad in overalls and baseball cap – the unofficial uniform of the rural Kansan – suggests that we reverse the rolls and imagine another country invading our own and dictating to us what our political system and cultural mores are to be. If you take up arms against that invading force, would you be an “insurgent”? “I know I would,” the man says without hesitation. Kansans, like most other small staters, are fiercely independent and mistrustful of anything resembling authoritarian or even official. Understanding this is paramount to getting past the bewilderment caused by analyzing the perceived cognitive dissonance of the rural voter. Credit where it’s due, the segments with Donn Teske go a long way in this direction. To an inattentive viewer, Teske’s stances seem like welcome bulwarks against a Christofascist uprising, when indeed he is representative of exactly the mindset that makes Kansas fundamentally conservative. He is a populist, true, but he introduces himself as a “populist without a party.” What does that mean? Could it be that the Kansan outlook recognizes that neither party represents the interests of the lower classes? In one instructive scene, Teske tours The Garden of Eden, Samuel Perry Dinsmoor’s eccentric artistic and philosophical statement in stone. The mass sculpture, located in Lucas, has a centerpiece depicting the worker on a cross, being crucified, or bled, by lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker. Teske opines that there’s a lot of truth to it. This doesn’t mean that he is running to the local Democratic Party call center. Quite the contrary. Teske’d likely see it how many Kansans do: if the banker and preacher represent a Republican point of view, what do we say of the lawyer and doctor? There’s the rub. Like Teske, Ligget proclaims a great hatred for George W. Bush. This doesn’t necessarily serve as an endorsement for Bush’s official opposition. It only conveys a cynicism that we can find one half hour before Stephen Colbert’s speaking satiric truth to crazy.
In the end, Kansas isn’t the creationist lunatic asylum the film might suggest any more than the radical utopian outpost of Frank’s history books and graveyards. It is much more akin to the film’s Garden City scenes: awash in the Christian ethos that brought us both free clinics and clinic bombings, beleaguered by economic inequality, profoundly untrusting of bureaucracy yet collectively susceptible to simple solutions to complex problems, the latter being possible largely because no major political entity represents (or is allowed to represent) reasonable solutions to the problems life in the American outback is rife with. Could it be that we’ve spent a few too many years wondering what’s the matter with Kansas? Imagine Ralph Nader getting his five per cent or Ross Perot expanding his Reform Party beyond a genital measuring contest with his fellow Texans. Possibly Ronn Teske would be a populist with a party then. It leads one to wonder what the matter might be with California, New York, or any of the 2000 election’s other “safe” states.
What’s the Matter with Kansas?
Produced by Laura Cohen and Joe Winston
Color, 90 Minutes, 2009