What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Angel Dillard is one of the principal characters in What’s the Matter with Kansas? a straight-to-DVD movie documentary which has had a brief run in cinemas in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. Based on the liberal polemic of the same name by Thomas Frank, who appears on screen here, it presumably shares his view that Republican-leaning Kansans are blind to their own economic self-interest because they have been distracted by such “social issues” as abortion and gay marriage. Yet the film does not say this in so many words. Instead, it allows its portraits of the Dillards and another conservative family, the Bardens, to speak for themselves — as they do, though perhaps not to the same effect as the authors intend.

Mrs Dillard is now the respectable wife of an ER doctor who, with her, farms on the side when he is not zooming off to the hospital on his motorcycle. She is now the mother of two daughters, one of whom is named Reagan, after the late president, but we learn that she has had a rough time of it in her earlier life. After a wild and (I infer) promiscuous youth, she was briefly married to an abusive husband with whom she had a seriously handicapped son, Deacon, who has since died. At one point in the movie, Angel is reminiscing with her mother about her teenage years. “You pretty much threw me out of the house,” she says to her. “I can’t believe you don’t remember that.”

Mom replies: “As far as I can remember, you were perfect.”

I remember my own mother saying frankly incredible things like that about me too, and I have no reason to suppose she was lying. We remember what we want to remember, what makes us feel good, and Thomas Frank and the film-maker of this documentary, Joe Winston, are themselves doing the same thing by harking back to what they see as the golden age of Kansan radicalism around the turn of the last century. Then, we are told, Julius Augustus Wayland’s socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, published in Girard, Kansas, had a larger circulation than The New York Times — over half a million nationwide. Pamphlets of a socialist-populist (and, though he does not mention it, atheist) tendency were products of the same presses and issued in carloads.

Today, as the movie tiresomely demonstrates, Kansas is full of religious nuts, creationists, pro-lifers, Republicans and other primitives who, to these progressives, would almost seem to deny the very idea of progress as they understand it. How could the Kansans of a hundred years ago have been so advanced while those of today are so retrograde or even — in another bit of socialist jargon that the film self-consciously eschews, “reactionary”? That is the real meaning of the question, “What’s the matter with Kansas?” The socialist model of “history”-making progress — lately so much beloved by our President and his fellow Democrats in pitching their health-care insurance “reform” — has been seemingly thrown into reverse in Kansas.

In the movie, Mr Frank offers no explanation as to why this might be, but we sense the unmistakable presence of Marxist “false consciousness” in its portrait of the Dillards and the Bardens, fellow conservatives who have home-schooled their daughter, Brittany, who is just beginning her freshman year at Patrick Henry College in Virginia. That institution was founded specifically for the home-schooled who are, of course, mostly conservative. The Barden family is followed on a trip to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, and both the Bardens and the Dillards are part of a conservative Southern Baptist congregation which splits in two for political reasons. Both families follow the conservative pastor, Rev. Terry Fox, to found a new church that holds its worship service in the auditorium of a theme-park, Wild West World.

Insofar as there is any narrative, it has mainly to with Brittany’s transition from home to college, an ultimately unsuccessful campaign, in which the Bardens are involved, by one Phill Kline to be the Republican attorney general of Kansas in 2006 and the church’s move to the theme park, courtesy of the park’s entrepreneur, Thomas Etheredge, who is a member of the congregation. But when Wild West World goes belly-up, Mr Etheredge is suddenly not to be found. Has he taken it on the lam? It’s rather touching that the families, who have both lost a lot of money — the figure of $300,000 is mentioned at one point — are unwilling to condemn him out of hand. The “Summer of Mercy” in 1991 and the continuing pro-life campaign against the Wichita “abortion-provider” Dr. George Tiller are mentioned, but the murder of Dr. Tiller by a pro-life fanatic took place after the film was completed and only gets a written mention on a screen card at the end.

There is another family, that of Donn Teske, the head of the Kansas Farmer’s Union, but they get nothing like the screen time of the Dillards and the Bardens. We are introduced to Donn in his pickup truck as he talks of his loathing for George W. Bush — oh, that again — and his quaint belief that the country under President Bush’s administration was becoming a society of aristocrats and peasants like that of Germany, from which his ancestors had fled thither. It might have been interesting if the film had added a postscript about his presumptive relief and joy at the election of President Obama, but for some reason it doesn’t. Likewise, though the Teskes appear to be as happy a family as the conservative ones, they are not given speaking parts. Instead, we follow Donn to Washington where he testifies about the plight of the farmer.

Mr Frank’s rhapsodic account of Kansan radicalism a century ago is only a small part of the film and sits very oddly with the rest of it until you realize that the point must be merely to protest that, in the swirls and eddies of the mighty flux of Marxist “history,” Kansas has become a backwater. It’s a rather touchingly nostalgic essay in regret by a Kansas patriot mourning that his fellow Kansans have been left behind by that same wonderful “history” which has lately brought us (sort of) universal health care — and that there are so few of them to share his regret. Meanwhile, Angel Dillard describes for the camera the moment when she hit bottom, which was also when her life turned around. She was sitting on a railroad bridge, she says, presumably contemplating suicide, when she cried out to the heavens: “God, this is my last chance; if you can’t do something, I’m done.” After a pause she adds, simply, “And He did.”

That’s all she says about it, but it is the kind of moment of what the Greeks would call peripeteia or reversal that many believers describe as having brought them to believe and that some describe in the words of scripture as being “born again.” Next to her simple testimony about this once-and-for-all reversal in her life, you wonder if even Thomas Frank can avoid the feeling that the magnificent progress of “history” towards an inevitable utopian future seems but a pretty poor thing in comparison. Still, there will doubtless be some who see this movie who remain unimpressed, and who see Angel Dillard’s religious faith as nothing but the delusion preventing her from seeing those progressive truths whose compelling nature inspired this film in the first place. Everybody else won’t bother with it.

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