(Continued from a previous post)
When I met Claire, at my own birthday party in 1999, I learned almost immediately that she had grown up on a farm in Kansas. It left me cold. I seemed far removed from anything to do with Kansas. The Midwest was the far-right flyover.
A couple years later, I started exploring my family tree. Strangely, it seems that my family has had an alarming amount to do with Kansas over the decades.
John H. Groves moved there in 1878 because he couldn’t stand the bigotry in Missouri after the Civil War.
His son Charles moved to Hutchinson, which was exactly where Claire’s sister Becky lives. When we flew there in 2006 to visit her family, we stayed only five miles from where my own grandfather grew up.
It was strange. She could have been from anywhere, but she was from the glittery line that my family snail had left behind 85 years ago. It’s coincidences like this that make me wonder if maybe there is a What Happens to Us, after all. (Then something happens like a child dying and I know there isn’t one.)
In my recent genealogical trip to Kansas, I wasn’t just in search of ancestors, but also, in search of Kansas itself. Reading What’s the Matter with Kansas, Thomas Frank writes that Kansas wasn’t always the apotheosis of averageness and conventionality that it seems to be today.
“A century ago, the favorite stereotype of Kansas was…the freak state,” Frank writes. “The place crawled with religious fanatics, crackpot demagogues, and alarming hybrids of the two, such as the murderous abolitionist John Brown, who is generally regarded as the state’s patron saint, and the rabid prohibitionist Carry A. Nation, who expressed her distaste for liquor by smashing saloons with a hatchet.
“Kansas was a violent and a radical and maybe even a crazy place both by nature and by the circumstances of its founding. The state was initially settled by Eastern abolitionists and free-soilers who came there to block Missourians from moving westward–in other words, to contain the ‘slave power’ by armed force….In the thirties, the state almost elected as its governor a beloved radio doctor who claimed to restore virility by transplanting goat testicles into humans.” (p. 31)
Politically, Kansas had a lot of far-left elements.
In the 1880s, when my great-great-grandfather John H. Groves moved from Missouri to Kansas, Kansas’ socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands. In 1912, the socialist nominee Eugene Debs actually carried Crawford County, Kansas. Homegrown radicals like Mary Elizabeth Lease urged farmers to “raise less corn and more hell.”
In the decades since, however, Kansans have flocked to the conservative side. They haven’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932. Their radical right is so wacko that one anti-abortion psycho shot abortion doctor George Tiller five times in 1993, and then another finished the job in 2009, shooting him in the head while he was attending his own Lutheran church in Wichita.
Along with this ideology, the right has brought an anti-union, anti-worker philosophy that has caused jobs and money to hemorrhage out of bleeding Kansas.
“…What they are demanding is more power for Wall Street, more privatization, and the end of Progressive Era reforms like the estate tax,” writes Frank.
What Frank is saying, in the end, is that in recent decades, Kansas has begun working against its own self-interest. And man, that was a trait that I could see that in Kansas at every turn.
Coming back from researching my great-great-grandfather in Reading, Kansas, I made a wrong turn and drove onto I-135 south, which is a toll road. Within a mile or two, I realized my mistake, that I should have taken Highway 50, and began looking for a turnoff. But oh no, this was a toll road, run by a private company whose only purpose was to suck as much money out of its customers as possible. This road, I was astonished to discover, had no exits! It was as if Franz Kafka had designed a freeway. I drove and drove, searching for an offramp, but there were none! I contemplated making a U-turn, but there was a cleverly solid center divider that rose up three feet high. To veer off on the right, I’d have to drive through pasture.
Somebody in government, I realized, had told the legislature that private companies always do things better than government.
“Privatize the roads,” he surely said. “It’s the only way to bring competition back into the Kansas economy.”
The I-135 toll road was the result. I didn’t encounter another exit for 35 more miles, when I reached Cassoday, which proudly calls itself “the prairie chicken capital of the world.”
Working against their own self-interest was also in evidence in the houses you see throughout the state. In searching for my great-grandfather Charles Groves’ old house, which he moved into in 1915, I discovered block after block of old historic edifices. In Los Angeles, you never would have seen such neighborhoods fully intact. Ninety percent of the old houses would have been torn down to make way for apartment buildings, strip malls, and more modern stucco structures.
At first, I was puzzled at the profusion of old, dilapidated houses. Gradually, though, it dawned on me. They didn’t tear the houses down because they couldn’t afford to. The money had been steadily draining of this state for decades. People were taking shit jobs, living out their lives in old houses, dying in them, and selling them to other people who worked shit jobs, lived out their lives in them, and died in them, and on and on ad infinitum. Nobody had the money to tear the houses down and build an apartment building or even just a bigger, more modern house.
Today, over 14% of Kansans live below the poverty line. Stated differently, 19% of Kansas children live in poverty. At the same time, however, Governor Sam Brownback has cut 15,000 people off the welfare rolls, slashed tax credits aimed at the working poor, and cut taxes for the rich and raised them for the poor. In September, he announced that he will kick 20,000 unemployed Kansans off of food stamps.
Somehow, government officials have been allowed to let corporations such as Boeing, Iowa Beef Packers, Monfort, and others to push their workers around, outsource jobs at will to China, and keep the lid on minimum wage. They turned Garden City into a giant cattle sewer that slaughters 30,000 cattle a day. Taxes have been perilously low, so the schools have been poor, and so in turn, there hasn’t been a sufficiently educated workforce to support high-tech corporations or other more lucrative industries. I mean, can you imagine Apple relocating in Kansas?
“The single most important element…is, as always, the demand for cheap labor,” Frank writes. “From that simple imperative springs nearly everything that has happened here over the last 25 years. Beginning in the 1960s, the big thinkers of the meat biz figured out ways to routinize and de-skill their operations from beginning to end. Not only would this allow them to undercut the skilled, unionized butchers who were then employed by grocery stores, but it would also let them move their plants to the remotest part of the Great Plains, where they could ditch their unionized big-city workers and save on rent….
“…Take a drive through the countryside here, and you will see…trailer-park cities, dilapidated and unpaved and rubbish-strewn, that house a large part of Garden City’s workforce. Confronted with some of the most advanced union-avoidance strategies ever conceived by the mind of business man, these people receive mediocre wages for doing what is statistically the most dangerous work in industrial America.
“Thanks to the rapid turnover at the slaughterhouses, few of them receive health or retirement benefits. The ‘social costs’ of supporting them–education, health care, law enforcement–are ‘externalized,’ as the scholarly types put it, pushed off onto the towns themselves, or onto church groups and welfare agencies, or onto the countries from which the workers come….
“One angry [feedlot] worker told me, ‘After ten years, people walk like they’re 60 or 70 years old.'” (pp. 52 – 54)
It’s an old story: the corporation devouring the individual and spitting out the bones. All over Kansas, people think that workers deserve nothing and corporations can do whatever the hell they want. It’s been that way for decades.
It happened to my great-grandfather Charles Groves. In 1910, Charles had a farm in tiny Greenwood County, Kansas. He wanted his three young sons to help him work the farm, but they rebelled. By 1923, my 18-year-old grandfather Roy was working at a paper mill that manufactured a type of cardboard made from straw called strawboard. By 1926, all three sons had fled Kansas. Roy found a job in a Los Angeles paper mill working the graveyard shift, and spent his entire career there.
Good thing, too, because soon afterwards, Kansas’ ecologically destructive farming methods caused the Dirty Thirties, aka the Dust Bowl. By 1931, they must have read the newspapers and thought, “Whew, glad I’m not back there.”
The severe drought forced people to move and look for work. Over half a million were left homeless. Millions of farms were foreclosed on by the banks. Thousands died. By 1940, 2 1/2 million had left the plains states, hitting the road to try their luck elsewhere. The Grapes of Wrath summarized their plight poignantly.
Charles Groves and his wife Dora hunkered down in Hutchinson and he eked out a living working as a carpenter.
Thirty years later, my girlfriend grew up on a farm in western Kansas. It had become the kind of place where she could grow up, earn her Master’s Degree there, and get married there, and still not realize how banks and huge corporations had screwed the farmers.
Last month, while Claire and I were visiting, headlines blared the news of continuing abuse by the big corporations:
Layoffs Leave Wichita with Smaller Workforce
Fewer Are Working or Looking for Work
There are only 2.9 people left in Kansas–only 70% of the population of Los Angeles, where I live, spread out over 160 times as much land. It’s an absolute null in national politics. Still, I’m interested in what has happened there, if only to know what my long-ago relatives went through, if only to know what Claire went through, and if only to know what her network of relatives are currently going through.
“You know, in my family, we don’t talk about politics,” Claire told me today. “It’s considered impolite.”
“Then why did your mother talk to me about Ted Cruz sticking it to Obama when we were preparing to take her to the hospital?” I asked. “I wasn’t about to argue back. After all, it looked she was having a stroke and they were preparing to take her to the hospital. I didn’t want to be blamed for killing her.”
“Except my mother.”
If there’s one idea that has helped me to understand Kansas, really understand it, it’s this: Arguing against their own self-interest is the state sport.
[To be continued]