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Pain in the Heartland

August 29, 2004

Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” is generally reasonable, moderate in tone, and very exasperated. The source of the exasperation is his fellow Kansans, who keep voting on social issues (therefore Republican and conservative) when Frank thinks they should be voting on their economic plight (therefore Democratic and liberal).

Like most of the Great Plains, Kansas is falling behind economically. Frank is stupefied that abortion, evolution and gay marriage are major political issues, and that 80 percent of the state’s voters backed George W. Bush in 2000. Why are they wasting their voting power on cultural and social issues instead of pursuing their own self-interest?

Part of the problem is that liberals who focus sharply on economics tend to have no feel for non-economic issues that so many of us care deeply about. Right at the start of his book, Frank cites the controversy (which he apparently considers stupid) over Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”: “Because some artist decides to shock the hicks by dunking Jesus in urine, the entire planet must remake itself along the lines preferred by the Republican Party, U.S.A.”

But “the hicks” had a point: Alleged art that traduces religion was now supported and often funded by the same sensitive people who quickly took down or painted over works of art that offended the sensibilities of blacks, American Indians or women. A new value system was descending on the culture. And under that system, not only were prayers disappearing from the schools (a good idea, in my opinion), but student valedictory speeches that included a line of praise for God were being censored, and small schoolchildren, asked to draw a picture of anyone they admired, were being reprimanded if they drew Jesus.

The impact of this cultural shift was profound. John O’Sullivan, an exceptional commentator on the culture, wrote that one morality was being replaced by another, though most of us were only dimly aware of it as it occurred. None of this was voted on or directly approved by the people (an indicator of how other dramatic change would arrive). What appeared to be a countercultural upsurge mostly confined to sex spread out to cover family, work, public affairs, welfare policies, crime, and almost the whole range of human experience.

O’Sullivan describes the combat between new vs. traditional (get ready for two laundry lists here): “Traditional morality was religious, duty-based, rooted in individual responsibility, governed by objective rules, self-controlled, ascetic, guilt-forgiving, repentant, hierarchical, patriotic and stern. The new morality was secular, rights-based, rooted in social causes, governed by subjective interpretation, self-asserting, hedonistic, guilt-denying, therapeutic, egalitarian, universalist and indulgent.”

The new morality has mostly carried the day, taking over the bureaucracies, the schools, the universities, the big-time media, most legal judgment, Hollywood, and the leadership of the Democratic Party. Traditional morality still holds sway in most of the churches, small-town media, the working class, talk radio, police and firefighters, and much of the Republican Party.

Republican political dominance, however, has had amazingly little impact on the invasion. President Bush was mostly a noncombatant. But the resistance is doing better now, partly because new media now give the traditionalists heavy aid, most notably in the devastating daily eviscerations of the deeply biased and increasingly shameful big-time press.

Unsurprisingly, many Kansans, like many Americans everywhere, feel the pain of the takeover by the new morality. The left usually chalks this up to fear of change, hardening arteries, racism, or some other insulting cause. But the real reason is that ordinary Americans no longer feel that they can transmit their culture to their young — the schools and media make that almost impossible now. (One indicator is the home-schooling movement, which includes 1.1 million children, a number sure to keep rising.)

The multicultural and universalist side of the new morality undercuts community and mocks patriotism. America and the West, we are told, are nothing to be proud of, merely entrenched systems of domination. The courts increasingly reflect the law-school culture, which is nearly as one-sided as the campus culture. And few of the issues that traditionalists care about ever seem to come up for democratic vote. Major change is imposed by courts or manipulated behind the scenes by bureaucrats loyal to the new moralists and the Democratic Party.

The late critic Christopher Lasch, who is best described as a Marxist with conservative leanings, got it right in his 1995 book, “The Revolt of the Elites.” He wrote that the elites are contemptuous of ordinary Americans, are dangerously isolated from them, and are “deeply indifferent” to the prospect of national decline. He found the elites dismissive of religion and supportive of a therapeutic culture and an “analytic attitude” that developed into “an all-out assault on ideals of every kind.”

Most of this has become totally obvious since Lasch wrote. The wonder is that liberals like Thomas Frank think it’s weird that people would use their votes to do anything about it.

From → Politics

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