Josh Chafetz on Oxblog links to his review of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (published by Metropolitan Books). While his take is quite interesting (and I think true), Ken’s posting on Chicagoboyz on June 2 took specific aim at the economic thesis; he pragmatically points to variables Frank leaves out. These writers share a generousity of spirit lacking in Frank. I appreciate their assumptions that those of us in flyover country are rational; we make decisions based on real values even if they differ from those of Lewis Lapham—who published an article based on the book in the April 2004 Harper’s–and Thomas Frank. (I am inclined to say “real and so different from” but that is uncharitable.)
Since Ken’s posting, I’ve thought of some examples that argue against Frank’s thesis. This is probably from guilt and nostalgia – but I don’t think it ignores the tough core.
My brother, a real flyover person if there ever was one, complained that when the local family company for which he worked was taken over by a national one (owned, of course, by a Democrat) the budget for research and development was dramatically cut. Although the take-over brought high salaries (he rapidly rose in a much larger corporation and while his dissenting opinions led to his dismissal, it was with a multi-million dollar payment), he was not happy. Living in a small town, keeping his roots in that small town long after his professional life was more urban, he saw in terms of the future. But that is the perspective of rural America and family firms. Of coure, Frank is right; that company did pull out and hurt the town in which my brother had placed a factory.
But one of the virtues of the life to which Frank condescends is good capitalism –milking cash cows is unattractive to those who prepare for the future. (A party that opposes the death tax attracts those with such a vision, no matter how small the income.) Frank would blame the company and equate it with Republicans. I think there is little doubt that my brother, a staunch Republican, would blame the company and equate it with Democrats. Certainly, he finds his values mirrored in the party he supports.
What is often treasured in flyover country is the purposeful nature, the entanglement in the web of generations and history. Since I left that life (embedding myself in a similar region 800 miles away) and was often restive, I realize a price is sometimes exacted by that choice and both costs and rewards are seldom monetary. But we make our choice, dictated by a variety of variables. Our village had around 500 people, but knowledge of one another led to an early recognition that what was important to one man was not to another. Diversity of choice in defining the values by which you live is the most important diversity of all. And, for many of us, a choice to live in such a region offers rewards in terms of identity, faith, family, cohesiveness. Most of all, I would argue, in terms of a purpose that is not abstract but real.
Part of what I think the critics of Frank understand is described by Saul Bellow (not exactly a fly-over writer except as Chicago is urban fly-over). In his short story, “Looking for Mr. Green”, Grebe describes a powerful need: “And then, too, the clients would be waiting for their money. That was not the most important consideration, though it certainly mattered to him. No, but he wanted to do well, simply for doing well’s sake, to acquit himself decently of a job because he so rarely had a job to do that required just this sort of energy. Of this peculiar energy he now had a superabundance; once it had started to flow, it flowed all too heavily.” Looking at the ruined buildings of urban blight, he thinks “it wasn’t desolation that this made you feel, but rather a faltering of organization that set free a huge energy, an escaped, unattached, unregulated power from the giant place.” Remebering his parents’ work as servants in an earlier Chicago, he realizes “that they had never done any service like this, which no one visible asked for, and probably flesh and blood could not even perform. Nor could anyone show why it should be performed; or see where the performance would lead.” There is a certain grim satisfaction to farm work, to working until you drop; in Hanson, we see that pride. The rewardes aren’t as important as feeling “used” – and that is positive, is fulfillment. Our energy had been challenged, used, harnessed.
These are not sentimental people nor sentimental choices. When a crop can be wiped out with one hail storm, nature isn’t sweet. Natural law has more power when nature proves itself unconquerable, when a black front move across those wide plains skies followed by tornadoes. Blizzards are not sweet. That power leads to a sense of community but also an unsentimental view of nature’s power. New crops, new ways of dealing with the soil are important tools in this love/hate relation. A more sentimental picture of nature may lead to greater catastrophes. The death toll in Paris last summer seems incredible to people who know how fierce nature can be and take precautions. Of course, to a people who unconsciously and continuously feel responsibility for one another, it is also incredible. Air-conditioned combines may be comfortable, but the driver never forgets he is moving through billowing waves of heat. Men die shoveling snow but the neighbor rushes out.
In flyover territory, the farmers but also the workers in factories and stores that surround the courthouses in small towns connect their work to their lives and their lives to the lives around them, before them, and after them. They also know life is tough, but it could be tougher. They are thankful for the tractors and combines; they hate the mortgage on the land; they live in an uncertain world. But they are not people to whom Frank (or anyone) should condescend. And, I doubt very much that they would condescend to him; instead, they would be curious and respectful, as I have found, transplanted to another place in flyover territory, those communities to be. As they were, indeed, curious and respectful to numerous immigrant groups who blended into the plains a century ago and as those now-blended communities often are to immigrants today.