Ah, Kansas, the home of hard working, god-fearing, regular average Americans. You would never know that if you read Thomas Frank’s bestselling book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Frank paints the picture of the plains state as a land of conservative morons who self abuse themselves by following evil Republicans, who use trickery to create a backlash effect to past liberal doctrines. As a Kansan who read Frank’s book cover to cover, and had been besmirched by the demeaning description of Kansas conservatives therein, my preliminary critique of his book was that it was of the same quality as what comes off my boots after a terrible misstep in the cattle pasture. However, I saved my final critique until I had actually watched Frank in person lecture on his “famed” book, and it was then that I could say without any doubt that “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” was, indeed, a giant pile of you-know-what.
Now, Frank’s book creation has been made into a documentary in which filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen will attempt to take his negative propaganda message about conservatives to the next level. The usual Hollywood embrace was given to the film by movie critics, such as Roger Ebert (who defended the movie as having no axe to grind), with a glowing review that starts with the obvious words of detached professionalism in Ebert saying, “As a liberal, I…” For most thinking people, it’s time to scrape your boots again.
Despite the fact that this documentary will most likely be a film more accurately depicting the image of Michael Moore than the people of Kansas, I defend its creation and dissemination as I do its inspiration in Thomas Frank’s book. Why? Because, the ultimate value in this case, beyond the necessity of free speech in a free country, is that the educated viewer has the opportunity to learn important insights into the people that create books and movies on sensitive subjects for the purposes of advancing personal agendas.
I must admit that it is hard to get beyond the frustration that a book like “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” brings to the majority of Kansans, let alone Christians, capitalists, free market lovers, and the list goes on and on. I am with those that share anger for people who would attack American values in this way; however, simply rejecting a radical propagandist will do little to understand and identify others down the road. In other words, there is much more we can learn by taking a deeper look at these individuals. First and foremost, to the beginning of this educational journey we must learn to humanize the radical propagandists. This takes away the false mystic aura we often place around those who do and believe things we can’t fathom. In the case of Frank, he tells readers that he was not always the way he is today - that is, a liberal socialist. His book tells a very common, self described, story of liberal transformation.
For Frank, he describes in various ways how he came from a conservative Republican family and, after attending one of the most liberal colleges in the state at Kansas University, discovered that Ronald Reagan was the equivalent of the ‘devil’ and that the Republican Party was the mechanism by which all bad things come. As former leftist radical David Horowitz has chronicled in so many works, this is not a novel transformation. As well, the liberal socialistic equation that Frank applies to all aspects of the state of Kansas - where liberals are considered moderates, pro-lifers are considered radicals, socialists considered mainstream, Christians considered fire-worshipers, and Kansans in general considered self flagellating sheep, while it boils the blood of the majority in this nation, is all but common place from the modern day liberal. Yes, from a topical observation, Thomas Frank is nothing more than a typical liberal of our time. The question is, should we just stop there and move on? I would say no. I believe that the extension of Frank’s attack on Kansas in the new documentary film offer additional fruitful grounds for analysis. Historical precedence of the value of such work is abundant.
Through historical study and observation, we can now see the interesting relationship between Joseph Goebbels and documentary film director Leni Riefenstahl in the Nazi propaganda film, “Triumph of the Will.” The Frank-Winston/Cohen combination may very well offer more historical observations of the usage of indirect and direct propaganda applications and their overlap from book to movie form. This is the fruitful learning not intended from the Moores, Goebbels, Franks, et al. of the world that is available to those truly hungry for knowledge. It may very well also be the spring board to understanding better why some work so diligently to frame reality in false ways.
Paul A. Ibbetson is a former Chief of Police of Cherryvale, Kansas, and member of the Montgomery County Drug Task Force. Paul received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Criminal Justice at Wichita State University, and is currently completing his PhD. in sociology at Kansas State University. Paul is the author of the books Living Under The Patriot Act: Educating A Society and Feeding Lions: Sharing The Conservative Philosophy In A Politically Hostile World. Paul is also the radio host of the Kansas Broadcasting Association’s 2008 and 2009 Entertainment Program of the Year, Conscience of Kansas airing on KSDB Manhattan 91.9 f.m. www.ibbetsonusa.com. For interviews or questions, please contact [email protected]