Matter With Kansas?
Thomas Frank’s 2004 best seller What’s the Matter With Kansas? took
on an interesting conundrum in the shadow of the Bush election. The
political writer and native Kansan could not quite figure out how his home
state – which had been a bastion for radicals and liberals for generations –
had over time become a staunchly… even suffocatingly… conservative state.
He wondered how the Republican Party had been able to distract the average
Kansan with wedge issues that often did not even affect them – such as
religious differences, homosexuality, abortion and gun control – so that
they did not notice that they were voting against their own self-interests
as far as taxes, employment, health care and farm subsidies were concerned.
movie that was inspired by the book is a very different animal – though that
does not necessarily mean it is not extremely interesting in its own way.
It’s more like a mostly impartial dispatch from Tea Party nation – allowing
several of those Kansans to plead their cases… or in some cases spout their
not necessarily a “fair and balanced” view of the political discourse – in
the ironic words of most of these Kansans’ preferred “newsgathering”
organization, FOX News – simply because in the movie… as apparently in
Kansas in general… the more moderate or progressive voices are simply way
outnumbered by the conservatives. In fact, the most moderate – and most
interesting and likable – character here, a struggling farmer and through
necessity part-time lobbyist named Donn Teske seems to be not so much a lone
Democratic voice as a disillusioned former Republican.
Otherwise, the progressive sections of the film seem to be author Frank
taking the filmmakers on a tour of Kansan radical sites, some of the
co-workers of slain abortionist Dr. George Tiller and a moderate politician
who has to for political survival change his affiliation from Democratic to
Republican. (According to the DVD commentary, he went back to the
Democratic Party as part of the Obama wave in 2008 after the filming was
there is folk artist M.T. Liggett, a fascinating and cantankerous old
character who seems to not have any political affiliation – but makes it his
life’s work to piss off both sides of the debate.
of the conservatives are surprisingly thoughtful and reasoned. In
particular there is Angel Dillard, a religious singer, farmer, mother and
anti-abortion activist. Though I don’t necessarily agree with Angel’s
viewpoints she presented them with reason and passion and I do truly respect
her. She is a fascinating person with a much more diverse background than
you would imagine.
Other families though like the Bardens – a smug home-schooled girl and her
religious freak mother who spout their very questionable beliefs and false
statistics as if they were written in stone – point out the scariest aspects
of Palin Nation. This is particularly noticeable in a segment where the
family takes a trip to a pro-Creation theme park, where a fast-talking guide
tries glibly and shallowly to debunk such ideas as the Big Bang and
evolution. There is also an extremely annoying shot of one of the Barden
boys whining that the Democrats bought or stole the election during the 2006
midterm elections which briefly returned the Dems to control of the House
and the Senate.
also get to spend a lot of time with Pastor Terry Fox, a controversial
preacher who was eventually fired because he always used the pulpit as a
political soap box.
However, filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen try not to judge, simply
allowing their subjects to state their cases and letting life work itself
out as it does.
Sometimes their beliefs are tested – like when a joint Wild West Theme
Park/Super Church turns out to be a ponzi scheme, defrauding many of people
of thousands of dollars. However, for better or worse they all seem to
decide it was God’s will that they lose the money.
wish that the film spent a little more time looking at the theme of the book
and giving both sides of the story. There are two early scenes – a
Democratic candidate going door-to-door and being turned away for his party
beliefs and another of a lonely Democrat manning the Kansas Democrats booth
at the state fair – that I wish were expanded on as the film went on.
said, What’s the Matter With Kansas? does a fine job of giving a
political movement a face and a voice.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: January 18, 2011.