Monday, December 20, 2004

The Matter with Kansas

Part of the reason for the light blogging is that I spent the weekend reading a really worthwhile book, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas, a dissection of contemporary rightwing populism done by way of a cultural tour of his home state of Kansas.

What’s best about the book is its evocation of the details of the contemporary culture war, and the related personal resentment, that feeds contemporary rightwing politics. One of Frank’s main rhetorical methods for accomplishing this trick is to ventriloquize the language and sentiments of the wingjobs. I’ll be blogging later on the many big political things the book gets right (and a few of the things that I think it gets wrong), but I’ll note here merely that the book is worth reading both for its poignant evocation of the pathos at the root of contemporary wingnut politics, and also for its laugh-out-loud humor. Here’s a sample from p. 146, describing Frank’s youthful political awakening to Reaganism in the late 1970s, that had me rolling:

Our politics, I figured, had become as inauthentic as our culture, with its plastic and its refined sugar and its shoddy suburban buildings. The nation had departed from the course clearly indicated by God and nature, otherwise known as free-market capitalism. We had gotten above ourselves. We were prideful. We were playing God.

Amping up this adolescent political conviction was my feeling that we in the late seventies were living in some political equivalent of biblical end times. There was more to this presentiment than the millenarian religious stew in which Kansas City always simmers. Recall for a moment the distinct sense of terminal crisis, of things coming apart, in the culture of those years: the endless hostage situation, the powerless president with his somber pessimism, the gasoline shortage, the crumbling cities, and, of course, the deliberately apocalyptic imagery of punk rock, which we in KC knew only from scaremongering news items. In 1979, the bitter self-made men were hoarding gold and reading How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, a
personal-finance best seller as recklessly gloomy as the best sellers of the nineties were senselessly optimistic. For a kid who had been raised on tales of the GI generation’s heroic accomplishments, it was obvious that our civilization was in decay, that we had gotten too far away from the natural order of things. As anyone could see from the movies, America was rotten with sycophants and dope and processed foods and entire classes of public hangers-on. The tyranny of fashion required the city’s entire population of fifteen-year-old boys to dress like sexually troubled middle-aged swingers, carefully shaping the feathered hair-dos that made 90 percent of us look like fools. We were clearly approaching the end.

In this climate I undertook my first literary effort….

As someone who came into worldly consciousness around the same time as Frank, I can testify that this is as true a portrait of the way the world looked to a teenager of the time as anything you’ll find.

No comments: