Since the days of “Bleeding Kansas,” people from someplace else have been telling midwesterners how to live, how to vote, and what to believe. In Superior Nebraska, Denis Boyles explodes the myth that hapless Midwesterners have been duped into voting against their own economic interests in order to support right-wing crusades mounted by wily conservatives.
Every election cycle, the angry people who live on America’ s blue coasts smugly ridicule those who live in the mystifying heartland of their own country, an exotic, faraway place many of them have seen only from the window of an aircraft. From up there, those who live in so-called red states appear to be prisoners of desolation and failure, with their twisters and blizzards, their vanishing small towns, and their odd obsession with social values. Easterners look down upon “Jesusland” and pronounce it not only empty but ignorant.
In this leisurely exploration of civic life along the meandering course of the Republican River, Boyles argues that, in fact, the people living in those big, blue cities have a lot to learn from the Midwest's core values of industriousness, vigor, neighborliness, optimism, moderation, and, above all, self-reliance. Those strengths, Boyles points out, are what made it possible to settle the Great Plains in the first place and have sustained life there since.
Deftly demolishing the elitist portrait of rural Republican voters as religious zealots and misguided simpletons, Boyles shows how the interests of red and blue staters actually coincide. Like their coastal, mostly Democratic, cousins, they too want better schools, less intrusive bureaucracies, lower taxes, some moral common sense, a little respect for tradition and faith, some civility in public debate, and support for their belief that personal responsibility always trumps government programs.
For more than a century, writers and critics have been asking, “What’ s the matter with Kansas?” In this affecting love letter to Kansas, Nebraska, and the entire American Midwest, Denis Boyles responds by holding up the common-sense values of America’s heartland as a model for us all.
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DENIS BOYLES is the author of African Lives, Man Eaters Motel and A Man's Life, among others.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Although we’ve spent much of the past few years living in rural Europe, I happened to be at our home in rural America—in Pennsylvania’s corner of Appalachia, to be exact—sitting in an office repurposed (some say unconvincingly) from its previous use as a pig barn when I started this book. It was November 3, about four in the afternoon, the day after the 2004 election. I had spent a large part of the morning reading the news on the Internet and much of the afternoon talking on the phone about politics.
I had reluctantly voted for Bush. I thought that, like his father, he was deeply cynical, and I hated to hear him talk. I figured a president leading a nation into a very complicated war should be capable of a few Saint Crispin’s Day moments without needing a fire truck and a bullhorn as props. The trouble was, John Kerry was all props and no play. He thought the country should swallow his “reporting for duty” jive and fall in line behind him and his weird zillionaire wife while they pretended to relive the anti–war movement’s glory days and also, you know, save the poor and some seals. Every time Bush spoke, I and a thousand other apologists would immediately start trying to do his talking for him. But when Kerry opened his mouth, all I could hear was Country Joe and the Fish—except Country Joe was at least clear on the issues. It was stretching it, to me, to call Bush the best of a bad choice. But it seemed a snap to call Kerry the worst.
To most of rural America, however, including the Pennsylvania part, Bush was just fine. Aside from a brief conversation with Tom Morrall at the feed mill, there were no “moderate” phone calls. A magazine editor in Washington carefully prefaced his comments by saying, “I hope you’re not a Republican.” I told him I was an independent. He hesitated for a moment, probably calculating the difference between “independent” and “liar,” then began complaining about the “moronic” voters who’d been seduced by homophobia and lust for war. I reassured him that I feared nothing but war. Another guy, a New Yorker who worked at an entertainment magazine, told me that somebody ought to look into all that vote rigging in Ohio and maybe Florida. From NPR I heard a groan of grief and disbelief sweep across America’s blue states. The sorrowful incredulity raced across the water: A friend in Europe e–mailed me, demanding to know why the hell Americans had learned nothing from Farenheit 9/11.
But not everyone was depressed that day. Neighbors who’d long ago asked me to please stop making them into rural silage for “that crazy stuff” I write were in a good mood. The guy a couple of farms over called with an ag question but ended with a last–minute topic change: “Kicked butt yesterday, bud.” A dairy farmer stopped by to gloat: “Hey, that was fun!” One fish–out–of–water New York Republican gleefully informed me that he’d spent the morning after the election on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “soaking up the gloom.” My cousin Deb, an accountant, called from Mankato, a county seat in northern Kansas, just south of the Republican River. She had a question for me: “Hey, what happened to you guys in Pennsylvania?”
“Happened? Kerry got the Philly and Pittsburgh vote.” The margins there had been enough to push the commonwealth into the Kerry column. Pennsylvania had gone to the Democrats by 100,000 suspect votes from the big–city precincts—about the same suspicious margin by which Bush took Ohio, next door.
“Well, that’s no excuse,” she said. “We’ve got K.C. and all these newspapers out here—but, heck, we’re on top of the world!”
She obviously didn’t read those papers—or scan the ‘Net or watch TV—because, heck, it may have been the top of the world from where she sat in Kansas, but in 2004, Kansas—and Nebraska and Missouri and Oklahoma and the whole rest of the middle of the country, and the southern part, too, and also those mountainous regions, plus Alaska—looked a lot like the bottom of the barrel, especially to those perched along the nation’s edges.
But especially Kansas.
In fact, to a lot of easterners, the election defied comprehension. After all, for weeks, months, years, hadn’t the truth been obvious? Had all those thousands of big media reporters, editors, and columnists, the best writers in America, the best minds, just been wasting their time? Had they not worked tirelessly—almost selflessly, really—creating a simple narrative that was as easy to understand as the label on a bottle of Perrier? Left = tolerant. Right = cruel. Howard Dean? Dick Cheney?
By now everybody should have been on the same page! In fact, the whole effort had been brought to the level of art during the campaign. Even the Boss campaigned for Kerry.
So why hadn’t all those farmers gotten the message in 2004? Or, as one British newspaper’s headline whimsically pondered, “How can 59 million people be so dumb?” (1)
So at four in the afternoon I started typing this, what I hoped would be an explanation of why Kansans and Nebraskans voted as they do. My explanation wasn’t going to be the only one, that’s for sure: Over the next days and weeks, the 2004 election would be “analyzed”—to put it gently—by journalists, pundits, and ordinary left-wing types. Their incredulity blended with hysteria and spread until it was everywhere: cartoon maps of America with big inland seas of dumbness; Internet rants; sociological studies. I was on the phone again, this time talking to a New Yorker toiling in the sweatshops of the global lit biz. I mentioned the 59-million-dumb-people headline.
“Yes,” she enthusiastically agreed, “that’s what I’d like to know. Really, the only reason I can think of that all those people out there vote like they do is that they’re dumb. Can there be another reason? Isn’t what it comes down to is that they’re just stupid?” (2) By “out there,” she meant that big pile of red states filled with illiterates, Jesusland, the heart of political darkness.
As it happens, “out there” is a fairly precise measurement describing the distance from where you stand to where all knowledge disappears and all sense evaporates. A smart writer can double that distance: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ ” That’s the brilliant first sentence of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It locates Holcomb, Kansas, not only out there, from the viewpoint of a New Yorker writer, which Capote was at the time, but out there even to a Kansan. That places Holcomb on another planet in another solar system, since as everybody from everyplace else knows, Kansas itself is already out there.
Of course, “out there” has pretty much always described my idea of where I came from and who I think I am. For sure, I always considered out there to be more home than the little house in Garden Grove, California, where my parents eventually moved—or, for that matter, that ex–pig barn office in Pennsylvania.
And here’s something else: I’ve never thought of any of my relatives, all Out Thereites through and through, as stupid. In fact, when it came to the things that seemed to me to be useful measures of intelligence—putting stuff together, taking stuff apart, adapting one of these to improve one of those, knowing when to add some of that; really, all the lessons in applied physics a kid could drag out of a country workshop—I always assumed that a rural education, with daily life as its ongoing internship, was demonstrably superior to the one I received in crowded suburban schools.
That’s largely why, when I had kids of my own, I contrived to find a setting for their childhood that was as close to out there as I could get, without, of course, actually going out there. Hence, that farm in Pennsylvania—only hours from Washington and New York, where I did much of my work at the time, and bought with sudden urgency (and my new wife’s reluctant compliance) when we discovered we were going to be parents. Sixteen years later, I still hadn’t found an entirely reliable drinking buddy, but the best meals were caught from the ponds and the kids lived the way all kids should live when they’re young, with the big porch and the dock and without shoes, and acres of fields and woods, a pony, lots of sheep, a three–legged goat, a blind donkey named Jack, and the big empty pit out back where Daddy pours all his money.
Once, a magazine sent a photographer out to take a picture of me on a Ford 8N, a cute old tractor, along with some snapshots of my “farm” office. He marveled over its decor motif, best described here as the kind of rococo rustification you get if you don’t pick up after yourself. His story was about a writer living on a farm. No wonder the magazine went out of business. Almost every writer outside Manhattan lives on a farm of some kind. Writers love to romanticize agriculture, whether it’s wheat or petunias. I think it’s a way of associating a frankly passive, obviously self–indulgent occupation with something more redeeming, since farming is definitely work and requires a certain set of practical skills. Writing—well, it depends. This is not new, of course. I’m sure most of us know by now that “writer on farm” equates to at least one hoax, and often two. A bunch of straw in an old barn and chickens in the yard don’t make a farm, unless you’ve got the rural–philosophy beat for some big–city newspaper or magazine. You can’t dress platitudes in overalls and call it philosophy, as I may have just shown.
Real farmers run agricultural businesses that live or die according to how much education and common sense are applied to a chancy enterprise that requires very long hours, the proper paperwork, some sophisticated economics, and a decent iPod to help you get through the hottest days. Actual farmers use phenomenally expensive, distinctly uncute high–tech equipment to farm thousands of acres, often from an office where they sit phoning their brokers, reading about the weather in other places, complaining about the weather where they are, and cursing the government with the rest of us.
But for the angry Democrats I talked to on November 3, 2004, and in the weeks afterward, nothing about out there made any sense. They knew what they knew, and they knew it with a certainty that defied argument. It never occurred to any of them that Kansans and Nebraskans would have been happy to vote for a Democrat—just not for one like John Kerry, thanks. From what I read in the polls, most Democrats now feel the same way. But back then, the only reason not to vote for Kerry was a conservative midwestern failure to make what Thomas Frank, in his best–selling book What’s the Matter with Kansas?, called “certain mental connections about the world.” (3)
Then, a mere two years later, a miracle! In 2006, places like Kansas were suddenly filled with geniuses. In the wake of the midterm elections, the New York Times ran an editorial imaginatively called “What’s Right with Kansas.” (4) It was the paper’s celebration of “a major shift in the nation’s heartland”—a geologically frightening concept, but to the Times an awesome moment borrowed from Darwin: “Kansas—lately considered the reddest of red states—emerged from the election as a bastion of moderation.” Look at Kansas! Right out of the swamp primeval and into a new pair of shoes. There was more:
The Democratic Party posted major gains, including some by former Republicans who switched parties. The moderate Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius, received a whopping 58 percent of the vote to secure her re–election. Three moderate Republicans holding statewide jobs also won easy re–election, two of them after beating back conservative challengers in the primary. And two of the four people elected to the House of Representatives were Democrats, a result that would have seemed inconceivable not too long ago.
Only if you believe what you read in the New York papers. Kansas may be filled with Republicans, but there’s a reason why God put Kansas in the middle of the country. It’s a political waterbed, sloshing one way then another, just enough to make everybody uncomfortable. Kansas already had one Democrat congressman, and until not long ago, it had had two, just like now. The place is filled with “moderate” Republicans who would be liberal Democrats anyplace else; Democrats who would be reviled anywhere east of the Mississippi or west of the Rockies; and libertarians galore, all of whom vote with cavalier disregard for party loyalty. The governor of Kansas has been a Democrat for thirty–three of the last fifty years—each time elected with the hefty support of liberal Republicans who’d much rather a Democrat than a conservative Republican. As a result, the state’s supreme court, chosen by the governor without any approval process by the state senate or any other elected body, is populated only by liberal Republicans and Democrats. The subtitle of Frank’s book is “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.” That may be true elsewhere, but not in Kansas. It’s true that a mildly liberal Republican fought off an Oxford–educated conservative Republican challenger for the all–important post of state insurance commissioner, but then Kansas almost never elects a conservative Republican to any statewide office. “It’s impossible for a conservative,” former Kansas state representative Kathe Decker told me. “If you run a conservative [for statewide office], Democrats will vote for their candidate and ‘moderate’ Republicans will all stay home—or vote for the Democrat.”
One of the rare exceptions (Senator Sam Brownback is the only other) came in 2002, when a pro–life candidate, Phill Kline, barely defeated a little-known Democratic opponent to become the state’s attorney general. But Kline then spent his four–year term fighting with an antagonistic press and the state’s “moderate” judiciary over abortion–related issues, and when his term was up, he was voted out and Kansas once again had an avidly pro–choice attorney general, as it always has. Of course, it was Kline’s defeat that was the real inspiration for the Times’ discovery of Kansans’ sudden political savvy. The Times may not know much about Kansas, but they know what they like.
In 2008, there’s a fifty–fifty chance that the editors of the Times will once again find something the matter with Kansas—as there certainly must be with Nebraska, where 2006 didn’t do much to change the political landscape. If the Democrats run another John Kerry, Kansas will glow a brighter shade of red and the editorialists at the Times will once again look down upon Jesusland and see signs of a certain type of renewal they will call “disturbing.”
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