What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

Karl Marx got a few things right — when history repeats itself again, it’s a farce.  Our Guys are Thomas Frank now.

For the benefit of younger readers, Frank’s 2004 tome What’s the Matter with Kansas? was one of those Wild Kingdom-style political documentaries, in which the intrepid Liberal leaves his deep blue enclave and disappears into the Midwestern mists, bringing back strange tales of feral savages who drive pickups, shop at WalMart, and go to church on Sundays.  You know, the kind of thing only a guy who looks like this could write:

It’s a master class in point-missing.  Pay attention, this will be on the midterm:

Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower….

The larger interests that the [Democratic Party] wants desperately to court are corporations, capable of generating campaign contributions far outweighing anything raised by organized labor. The way to collect the votes and — more important — the money of these coveted constituencies, “New Democrats” think, is to stand rock-solid on, say, the pro-choice position while making endless concessions on economic issues, on welfare, NAFTA, Social Security, labor law, privatization, deregulation and the rest of it.

Would those corporations that the Democrats are so desperate to court be the same corporations that stripped Kansans of their job security, blew their life savings on CEO manicures, etc.?  The ones the Democrats are bending over and lubing up for, on every issue except abortion?  Or are they different ones?

To me, this sounds like Kansans are just getting on the winning team under the terms of Frank’s own “logic.” I mean, ya know, if “corporations” are going to fuck you over no matter what party you vote for, shouldn’t we salt-of-the-earth types at least vote for the party that isn’t all-in on wholesale baby murder?  But hey, that’s just me; I don’t get paid to write for Harper’s Magazine or get interviewed on NPR.

Whatever, point is, the folks in Our Thing now find ourselves in a very Thomas Frankish position vis a vis places like Kansas.  Like all pantywaist ivory tower soybois who’ve never worked a day in their lives (BIRM at least 3x, I know), Frank assumes that economic issues should always trump cultural ones.  That the eeeeeevil GOP he’s forever railing against also assumes this is so ironic my toes are starting to rust just typing this, but that’s where we are.  The core problem Our Thing faces is: He’s right.  Provided that the latest iCrap has a slightly wider screen, White folks will continue to enable their own extermination.

In fact, economics-over-culture is forcing us to make the same arguments loony Leftists made half a century ago.  I love quoting Orwell on imperialism:

The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes. That is the very last thing that any left-winger wants. Yet the left-winger continues to feel that he has no moral responsibility for imperialism. He is perfectly ready to accept the products of Empire and to save his soul by sneering at the people who hold the Empire together.

It’s fun to sneer at people like Frank and Orwell — I plead guilty — but we’re on the flipside of the same coin.  Orwell thought his fellow Englishmen would throw over the Empire and go back to shivering, potato-chomping irrelevance if only they knew how bad folks had it in Bangladesh.  We “alt-right” (or whatever the hell we’re calling it this week) seem to think our fellow Americans will happily embrace a 1950s standard of living — in which a whole hell of a lot of homes didn’t even have air conditioning — because Doris Day just shut up and sang.

“No a/c” beats genocide, I’ll cheerfully admit, but what do you think will have to happen before people start thinking those are their choices… IF those are their choices at all?

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13 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

  1. MBlanc

    Another thing that Marx got right was the revolutionary nature of capitalism. That’s surely one reason that many of us of a naturally conservative bent aren’t entirely comfortable with it. The question, of course, is, what is to be done? How do we keep the “free enterprise” bit while getting rid of the “your boss can fire you anytime he wants and replace you with Subcontinentals because it’s his company” bit?

  2. Al from da Nort

    Re life in the ’50s: I was there as a youth. Biggest differences between then and now are not pure want but only less choices of stuff, a harder but completely bearable life and more chances of earlier death and dangerous accidents, particularly in agriculture.

    Re choices: Coffee, for example, was available everywhere but it tasted more bland when fresh and terrible when stale (and it often was). There were only a few brands available (store grind + Hill’s Bros, Folgers, Sanka decaf, etc.). Food was more seasonal and less tasty: No exotic fruits or fresh veggies were available in the winter outside of the big cities. But canned veggies were inexpensive and available everywhere.

    Important things like cars were more dangerous and far less reliable but you could fix them yourself – men took pride in this. You mowed your own lawn and fixed your own mower (or hired a neighbor kid – whom you knew). You and your buddies exchanged favors in home maintenance, like painting your houses.

    Whole house A/C was rare for the masses but middle class homes all had window vent fans or A/C window units for the bedroom (only) so sleeping at night was OK. Urban workers slept in the parks or on the fire escapes during heat waves and were completely safe doing so.

    Almost everybody, even in the cities, had a garden and time to work on it. Home canning of that garden’s produce was widespread (and dangerous if not done properly).

    Unofficial charity for the truly needy was widely available on a personal (hence more accountable but more shaming) basis through intermediary institutions which are now largely gone, most particularly churches. Charity was therefor more discrete and uneven. For a secular example, animal-named men’s groups functioned as insurance against catastrophe for middle class guys and tradesmen: If you were a Moose and died in the much more prevalent industrial accidents, your orphans could be raised at Mooseheart. Life insurance was provided only by you; the prudent had it. Poor elderly relatives typically lived with their working families, providing daycare in exchange for room and board.

    Civic improvements like parks and playgrounds were provided by local benefactors, either individuals or by charitable associations, like Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions Clubs, etc. Social pressure was a large factor. Local worthy’s didn’t want a reputation of being stingy.

    Outside of the late cities everybody knew everybody else’s business and talked about it: Good news, you could expect to get a ride to work if your car broke down (just so it didn’t last too long. Bad news, if you became known as a sponger, local help was rare or cash-up-front.

    Re healthcare: Every MD was expected by his peers in the local medical association to cover his share of the charity caseload. Etc. So there were three tiers: Concierge care for the wealthy, ordinary care, including house calls, for the middle classes and charity care for the poor. But, compared to now, there was not a lot doctors could do for diseases then other than give you an antibiotic shot. The reason retirement payments started at age 65 was that not very many lived that long. And if you did, you were likely worn out if you did physical work, which was most of it.

    Life was more local. International travel was limited to the 1% and was done mainly by ship due to the cost and dangers of air travel. Vacations usually involved car travel and camping out or staying in a resort cabin (usually with an outhouse).

    MOST IMPORTANTLY: A man could support a family and a stay-at-home wife on his pay alone, even working at a factory after a couple raises. This was largely due to vastly lower taxes and, it must be admitted, unions. Unions then were locally run by mostly unpaid local officers and added real value to a worker’s life: Safety, pension, higher pay, etc. Now, they mostly make life difficult for management so their well-paid bosses can feel useful.

    1. MBlanc

      That’s pretty much the world that I grew up in in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s. Of course, when you’re a child everything seems wondrous and when you’re a wrinkly everything gets worse every day. But even accounting for that epistemological bias, and despite my love for all my electronic gadgets, I’d take the social and material world of 1958 over 2018 in a heartbeat.

      1. Severian

        The difference being, of course, that you all were there. For anyone younger, it might as well be the Middle Ages….

        No offense meant. But seriously, having been around LOTS of college kids, I can say with complete confidence that the world you describe — two kinds of coffee in a can! — might as well be Auschwitz to these people. It’s just inconceivable that most people would give up iCrap for two channels of black-and-white tv.

        If we’re going to sell this thing, we need to get started on The New Stoicism, pronto.

        1. Skedastic Racket

          At least in the Middle Ages you could walk around with a cool sword. The 1950’s really just seems like a worse now. For a while there were a few girls who liked to pretend they were 1950’s housewives, you know, the “I’m going to wear a skirt while baking bread” type. But none of us guys were into that. And the girls only did it on weekends, or when they were skipping class.

        2. Al from da Nort

          Well, if the fishing tackle faced Commies get their way, we’ll be luck to have The New Stoicism available in the future. Right now I’d bet that the average Venezuelan would give anything to have their 1950s back.

          1. Severian


            I’m with you! You’re making my point for me, in fact. I wasn’t there, but I can work the google machine, so I can tell you with complete confidence that I’d trade the material world of 1958 for the cultural world of 2018 in a heartbeat. Two kinds of coffee in a can and three channels on TV, vs. your kids being able to play outside and not having to lock your doors at night? Where do I sign up?

            The problem is, I’m not most people. Neither are you, or anyone who reads a site like this. We can take the long view… hell, we can work the google machine, which, all evidence to the contrary, the fishing tackle fascists apparently can’t. Everything they’d ever need to know about life in the USSR is right there on Google images. And it’s not like this is ancient history; there are LOTS of people around with extensive firsthand experience of life behind the Iron Curtain. Are any of them nostalgic for Gorbachev and Ceaucescu? Again, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, it’s child’s play to just ASK them. If you don’t, it’s because you already know the answer, but can’t handle hearing it.

            Ditto Zimbabwe, Venezuela, pick any Workers’ Paradise. Airfare’s cheap — pretty much anyone who wants to could schlepp his ass down to Caracas right now and see how Socialism is working out. Thanks to The People’s Inflation, you’re a Venezuelan billionaire just looking under your couch cushions; a whole lot of Americans wouldn’t even change time zones, for pete’s sake. We know this. THEY know this, but they’re out there agitating for Socialism anyway, because that’s just who they are.

            The problem, though, isn’t that Socialism sucks. I don’t think anyone remotely sympathetic to Our Thing would deny that. The problem is, you can’t get the culture of the 1950s without the material circumstances of the 1950s. Marx was right about that, too — there really IS an economic “base” to culture’s “superstructure.” Just as a slight rise in freedom and prosperity for the Russians resulted in the fall of the Soviet Union, so a huge rise in material comfort has resulted in the fall of American culture.

            Give society iCrap, and you’ll have an iCrappy society. Most people can’t make that connection consciously, though they know it’s true in their hearts…. and even the ones who can consciously acknowledge it aren’t willing to follow through, and can you blame them? I like Starbucks, satellite TV, and Amazon Prime. I’m as #based as they come, and I’m not writing this from a survivalist compound in Idaho, powering my computer with a mechanical treadmill and my own burning sense of self-righteousness….

  3. Contrariandutchman

    I think you are making a Marxist mistake when you assume thta to have the culture of the `1950s you must have 1950s tech and industrial base. Marx was dead wrong, its ot the economy that drives the culture but the culture that drives the economy. And yes, that means we must have an unhealthy economy now, having an unhealthy culture. (its also why the cultmarxists ae right on a key issue and succesful) And have you looked at the economic news of the past 15 years? Entirely unhealthy and unsustainable, just as you would expect. Inevitable. We (Western civilization) are coasting on the achievements and accumulated capital of the past. It will not last and the resulting crisis will open the door to change. And you will be able to have more icrap then you could hopeto ever use along with a culture as healthy or better then the 1950s since a healthy culture will produce a healthy economy (so tons of icrap if thats what people still want)

    Do I need to say this? maybe ?I do. Chins up, you can and will have propsperity and a healthy culture. Just need to win that culture war.

    1. Severian Post author

      I didn’t say “1950s tech and economic base;” I said “1950s standard of living.

      Technology — 3 tv channels and the like — is a good proxy for that, but I don’t think we need to outlaw transistors and microprocessors to get American culture back online. BUT: So much of our current standard of living depends on cheap imported crap. A cell phone made in America, by Americans, using all American-made parts, would cost $5000. (I’m just pulling these figures out of my butt, but I trust you see the point). So, yeah, 2018-level tech would still exist, but it would go back to being a luxury good. Instead of everyone being able to watch Netflix on a cheap little burner phone, we’d have to go back to one TV in the family room, as the TV is now a serious capital investment

      Again, I am more than ok with this… but I don’t watch TV anyway. For your average American, 2018 edition, not being able to keep up with the Kardashians is something akin to the Bataan Death March. We need to recognize that.

      1. Contrariandutchman

        Standard of living depends on industrial capacity, which depends on tecnology and its implementation. You dont need cheap imported labour to have a high standard of living. If anything, the cheap imported labour drives average standard of living doen as it is relatively low productivity. Look at the European countries with the highest gdp/capita, or look at Japan or South Korea, there are either no imported workers (and hardly any imported goods) or the importe “workers “are on welfare. An iphone would cost maybe 20% more, and higher average wages would make that liken10% in real terms. The pain would be in industries that use lots of cheap labour, no illeagal imiigration means no chap nannies and gardeners, but in Europe we do ok without that, and South Korea and Japan dont seem to miss those too much either.

        With a 2030 technological and industrial base you will have a 2030 standard of material living, even as you implement 1950s (or 1200s, much better imo) culture. And consider that culture drives economy, not the other way around, with a good culture your industrial base will grow much faster then with a bad one, you may have the cheap nannies and gardeners yet, they will just be ai-based.

        1. Severian

          1200s? I like that! Though as a Dutchman I thought for sure you’d go with the 1500s….

          (Admittedly I’ve only been to Amsterdam — and I wasn’t there long — but what a city! I had to be dragged out of the Rijksmuseum. I’d love to see the rest of the country someday).

          1. Contrariandutchman

            The 1500s may have been when the Netherlands formed as a nation, but the good bit about the revolt (imo anyway) harks back to the 1200s and before: the rights of free people in their communities not to have a way of life imposed on them by a ruler. And its that part that has later been culturally overwhelmed by the bad parts: protestantism (pre-Marx leftism) and the notion that people must submit, not to a ruler but to an ideology.

            So yes, I think 1200s culture would be fine, updated at the edges for tech and in combination with a 2030 industrial base, I do like the material side of the modern world.

  4. Al from da Nort

    One thing my rather enjoyable reverie about the 1950’s brought to my attention was not so much the technological or economic differences (and tradeoffs) between then and now but the social and cultural ones. Then there were many voluntary, intermediating institutions connecting people locally, both helping and also exerting social control. Now they are either gone or have little social or cultural influence. It is now much more a selfish, social atomization with attitudes directed from on high.

    In theory, these intermediary institutions could work even better with current travel and communication technologies. E.g., ‘New social media announcement: We’re having our next Moose Lodge meeting in Aruba_!’ But no such thing happened. Why_?

    I’d say that there was a sustained, multi-faceted attack on them from the 1960s onwards by forces seeing them as obstacles to their power or preferences. AND THOSE INSTITUTIONS DIDN’T FIGHT BACK, at least not effectively. In part, those institutions lost confidence in themselves or allowed themselves to be shamed and bullied. In part, their value-added was taken over by Govt. Etc.

    One thing that occurs to me is if there is to be any return from the brink, new local intermediary institutions will be needed. An after-action analysis if what happened to the Tea Party Movement would be a good start as to how to avoid a similar fate.

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