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What's the Matter with Kansas? Screening in Manhattan

By Christopher Renner
Review | October 22, 2009

MANHATTAN, Kan. - What is the matter with Kansas? Ever since William Allen White posed the question in 1896, many people have tried to answer it. More recently Thomas Frank took on the question in his 2004 book in which he answered the question by saying that the state's political discourse had dramatically shifted from the class animus of traditional leftist thought which once was the hallmark of the state to one in which hot button cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are used to redirect anger towards electing individuals who work against Kansans' own best interests.

Now two directors from Chicago, Joe Winston and Laura Coen, have taken on the question and tried to answer it through the lens of a camera.

On Tuesday October 13th, 130 people filled the Manhattan Public Library Auditorium for only the second screening of What's the Matter with Kansas? to occur in the state to date. It premiered at the 2008 Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita. The film was part of the Manhattan Alliance for Peace and Justice's Monthly Film Series.

The content of Frank's book isn't really the material of a spellbinding blockbuster Hollywood movie, but it does have a story to tell. Faced with this reality the directors focus primarily on three everyday Kansans, who each in their own way tell the viewer the content Frank tries to get across in his writing.

A life-long Republican and mother of two, we first meet Angel Dillard at the Kansas State Fair, where she is volunteering at the Kansans For Life booth - a booth that does a lively trade in anti-abortion paraphernalia including little plastic aborted fetuses

Brittany Barden is a tireless veteran of several rounds of Republican campaigns, even if she is only a senior in high school. Her parents - as does Dillard - attend Emmanuel Baptist Church headed then by the Rev. Terry Fox. Her goal in life is to return America to its roots as "a Christian nation" and is armed with a home school education that emphasizes this fact.

We also meet Donn Teske, a farmer from Wheaton and the president of the Kansas Farmers Union. Teske describes himself as "a red-neck Kansas farmer" who has left the Republican Party and calls himself a populist independent. Teske was on hand to comment about the film following the Manhattan showing.

In addition to these primary characters, we also meet others who are searching out Kansas' historical radical roots as well as meet M.T. Liggett - a Kansas folk artist - who embodies Kansas' radical past in the present day.

From these individuals is woven the story of Kansas leading up to the 2006 election - you know the one that featured Radical Right candidates like Phil Klein and Ken Canfield, founder of the National Center for Fathering. The film explores the motives behind why people hold the beliefs they do, but does not make conclusions about the characters and their futures.

Some of their statements drew laughs from the viewing audience; others obviously made people feel uncomfortable. For most of the audience, the blending of religious ideology with political activism is a real cause for concern and because the film does not directly condemn this as un-American, several viewers felt the film didn't go far enough to reflect the core content of Frank's thinking.

Also in the audience was a contingent of Right Wing supporters who fled as soon as the credits began to roll. As moderator of the film series, I was looking forward to hearing their reactions to the film in a public setting, since one of their bloggers had condemn the film without seeing it. Maybe they were afraid of what they saw and realized they could not approach the topic with the same evenhandedness as Coen and Wintson do in the film.

The audience thoroughly enjoyed the commentary offer by Don Teske about being part of the project, like the only pay he got was a bottle of whiskey. He shared that he did not really know what was going on until he got to see the finished project at Tallgrass last year. He said that Coen and Winston had come out to visit him a couple of times on his ranch in Pottawatomie County, shot some footage and were off.

As a lapsed Republican, Teske embodies an ethos of compassion and respect that the Right Wing has left in the dust in their pursuit of the culture of greed. He also embodies what true Populism is all about. We see him eloquently address Congress on the crisis facing farmers and offers real alternatives to the business as usual approach government takes to the production of our food.

While What's the Matter with Kansas? earnestly tries to speak to conservatives and offer an alternative to the delusional, inflammatory answers they are getting from faux-populist pundits like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, it plays it straight in order to attempt to create an honest dialogue. This left some progressives in the audience wanting something more. However, given the political landscape in Kansas, an honest dialogue about who we are is a rare commodity to be sure and that is what the film provides.

If you want to hear Coen and Winston's take on making the film, check out the interview I conducted with them last April 2nd on Community Bridge. The podcast is located in the right hand column about half way down the page.

A DVD of the film is available for check out through the Manhattan Public Library.

Postscript 24 October 2009
The Right-Wing blogger mentioned in the article apparently did attend the screening in Manhattan and he wrote another review after seeing the film -- not much different than his first review before he even saw the film. However Winston and Coen have posted a response to his inability to think outside his ideological box. Good reading.


Christopher, thanks for the review. I'm pleased that the film is now available for limited screenings. It's listed on NetFlix, and should soon be available there also.

As Frank has made clear numerous times, those of us in the Progressive movement must learn to listen to the fears and concerns of those who've succumbed to the corporate lies generated by the current Republican party. I don't believe any normal-thinking individual would denigrate someone for being conservative--I certainly don't. There's much that needs to be conserved, and that's where the listening and respect by Progressives has to start.

There's real fear among the financial elites that bankroll both political parties that Capitalism as we know it is on the verge of collapse. They want to get every last advantage that they can muster before that happens. For more, take a look at Paul Farrell's article. Many, if not most, of those conservative readers who post on MarketWatch (a Rupert Murdoch/NewsCorp rag), disagree vehemently with Farrell most of the time. This time, however (read the comments), you'll see that the majority seem to agree with his analysis. What Farrell's thesis portends--supported by Jack Bogle, Marc Faber, Michael Moore, and others--is anyone's guess. But it won't be pretty. That's even more reason for Progressives and Conservatives--real conservatives who aren't in thrall to corporate greed--must learn to listen to each other, respect each other, and work together for what looks to be a tumultuous time.

Years ago now, when the Berlin Wall fell, I had the opportunity to talk with Augusto Graziani - the dissident Italian economist - after an article of his appeared in The Economist in which he warned the gleeful capitalists that they had been learn from communism's mistakes. To paraphrase he said: If I were a capitalist I wouldn't be rejoicing for the same weaknesses that led to communism's fall will bring down capitalism as well. It might not be tomorrow, it might take 20 - 30 ears, but capitalism will fall just as surely as did communism.

I think that was a real warning to the West that we have never really listened to.

Christopher, what were those mistakes made by the communists that are similar to the mistakes made by the capitalists. Which mistakes do they share?

I don't remember the details... too many years ago, sorry. But Grazaini was very critical of the "free" market and globalization.

I tried to search for the article, but The Economist's archive only goes back to 1997.

If you want to read something about his ideas, check out: A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists, by Philip Arestis, Malcolm C. Sawyer,

I guess the takeaway is the glasshouse thing. IN other words, there's more similarity between the two systems (people in power; other people whose rights are denied or who are oppressed; those in power tend to grab for more and more power, etc.) and they are not polar opposites as we were brainwashed to believe during the Cold War.

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