|Not in Kansas - rather, Kentucky -- but loved by Kansasans.|
I finally got to see What’s the Matter with Kansas this week, after waiting months for it to become available on my Netflix queue. Based on the book by Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas takes a look at the strange world of culture wars and the stage of economic deterioration they play out on. Like the book, What’s the Matter With Kansas approaches its human subjects with empathy and patience – we meet a young Christian activist, for example, who is clearly bright and blessed with confidence, but also completely sure that evolution is merely a (wrong) theory and that all the founding fathers intended America to be an (officially) Christian nation.
The film encourages you to view the opinions of these various Kansasans as reasons for sympathy, rather than accusation. It might, at times, even ask you to consider whether or not they have good reasons for their beliefs. This is in part because the film treats its subjects with respect, but it is also because, unlike the book it is based on, it is not nearly as explicit about its argument - or perhaps, it doesn't even pursue one.
In the book What’s the Matter with Kansas, Frank is right upfront with his main argument: the bloody flags of the culture wars have blinded the citizens of Kansas to the real divisions in America, which have less to do with pro-life versus pro-choice and more to do with poor versus wealthy. And while Republicans always pander to the culture war issues during the elections, once in office they largely ignore these initiatives and instead focus on doing what Republicans do best – making life easier for those who already have it the easiest.
In the film, however, this argument is hinted at but could easily be missed by someone not familiar with the book. We learn about the struggles of farmers from interviews with the head of the farmers' union, and we learn about the sadly hysterical attempt of an entrepreneur to put a theme park in the middle of a place no one lives and no one wants to drive to. But the connection between the downward economic trends and the packed fundamentalist churches is not explicitly made – and this ultimately makes for a less powerful, and less significant film.
Nonetheless, as an exercise in empathy, the film is worth seeing. Indeed, its virtue is that it is not hard to like many of the right wing activists we encounter. I didn’t like all of them, granted, but I liked a few of them. And in a time when my encounters with the Tea Party set tends to be in the form of reading horrifically homophobic, sexist, or racist comments on blogs, this is refreshing.
The question then becomes, of course, what do we do with this information? We know that those on the far right are by and large decent human beings, with the same hopes, fears, and struggles as all Americans. We know that they derive great meaning from their causes and their beliefs. But how, once we’ve built that bridge of empathy, do we then go on to make an argument to them that much of what they believe is, unfortunately, untrue? How do you gently inform someone that they are suffering from false consciousness? These are questions this film does not try to tackle, but we need to start trying to come up with some answers.