Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film review - What’s the Matter with Kansas: a good exercise in empathy, but not as significant as the book.

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. 


Coward in a Brave New World said...

Hi Robin Marie, I stumbled upon your 'blog after reading your comment to Herbert's opinion piece in the NYT this morning. I liked what you wrote. I just finished reading the above entry and also enjoyed that. I should note that I live within a stone's throw of The Creation Museum in Kentucky. It is the most popular tourist attraction in the Commonwealth, I believe. What a travesty. It is a complete mystery to me. Regarding your Herbert comments, I agree wholeheartedly. My own view is that Americans have this personal and worldview that blinds them to their own self-interest; they reflexively reject anyone that tells them what to do and when our government or anyone tells them what's good for them they do the opposite!
As an aside I'm jealous of your weather; as I type it's 33 but sunny 2 days ago it was 5. Best regards, Jude

Lynn said...

Jude found you the same way I did. And my thoughts mirror his.

Do you post on Facebook so that I could follow you?
If so, Lynn Marquardt the one with the golden retriever in her lap would like to hear from you.
Being from Wisconsin, I am suffering from the red state blues big time.
Thanks for your input on Herbert's column. Lynn

WRG said...

I had a "born again" experience some years ago and spent the better part of a decade in a Southern Baptist congregation. I have also seen this film and the mindset was very familiar to me. I had to leave the Baptists behind, not because I do not believe in God, but because I did not believe in their "lord" Bush. 9-11 was the turning point in American history. Whatever happened on that day (and it's still not clear to me exactly what happened at whose hands), that was the END of the American Republic. "Lord" Bush then attempted to start a "crusade" (he even used that term before his advisers reined him in). Ever since then, the Baptists have been eager to start so-called "preemptive" wars against various Muslim countries, all of whom are collectively guilty for not sufficiently loving the baby Jesus and for being presumed to be "Islamofascists" -- as is the script read on FOX News, which they watch "religiously." The so-called "Christians" are the segment of our population LEAST excited about the Egyptians attempting to gain their freedom, even though it was their "lord" Bush himself who said that was the goal. As a Texan, I knew what Bush was long before he usurped high office. It offended me to see someone that clueless basically WORSHIPPED by everyone in my church. It became too painful to witness by around 2005.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robbin, I too found your blog from Herbert's NY Times column. It is clear that, even though it is a pillar of the liberal establishment, the Times brings together many people of progressive leanings, making connections that could lead to action--who knows? Reading some of the comments on Herbert's piece gives me a new sense of hope for the possibility of real change in America. I also note that I am nearly 50 years older than you are yet share much of your worldview. Keep up the blogging!

Matthew said...

Also found your blog via your comment in the Times article. And I also first encountered McNamara via the "Fog of War" while a college student. And I, too, am mystified that there is no tinge or regret, no second thoughts, no concessions that even the smallest of details might have been wrong or could have possibly been done differently, from those in the Bush cadre. And sadly, despite a noticeable decline in rhetoric and vitriol, I see very little real difference with the current administration's dealings with the world. It is a ... distressing state of the world.

The redness of Alaska seems markedly different than the redness of other states in the lower 48. I'm relatively new here, and it'll be interesting to experience.

Anyway, I'd be interested in learning more about your graduate program. Keep up the blogging ... I'll come back for more.

larrycham said...

I wondered if, as a student of history and ideas, you have read David Korten's book, "The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community." The book, and his earlier "When Corporations Ruled the World," has much relevance to Bob Herbert's column.

Robin Marie said...

@ Lynn: I do not yet have a facebook page set up for my blogging, but once I do I will be sure to friend you!

@WRG: While we do not share the same religious views, I really admire believers who are brave enough to dissociate themselves with the conservative politics that often come with the territory. It takes a lot of courage to break away from the opinions of the people who share your faith.

@larrycham: I have not heard of that one before, but thanks for the recommendation.

Thanks to all for the encouragement!

Little Woolf said...

Well said Robin; i read your post on the NY Times and headed over to your blog. Stop by my blog and we can compare notes on similar issues, meaning the pesky Repubs and the threat to Democracy; Path to Well-Being.