by carl wilson

What's the Matter with
(the Son of that Mom from) Kansas?

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Baby Barack with his feminist-anthropologist mother, Stanley Ann Durham:
I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.

I'll get to that post-EMP Pop Con report (I discussed it this afternoon on CBC radio's show Q - the podcast should be posted here eventually) but first, I want to talk about the current Obama flap - because it raises some questions I really wanted to address in my book, but dropped for lack of space. (Maybe if I had, and if it's true that Obama's read some of it, all this could have been prevented!)

Obama's remarks are being overanalyzed, exploited, exaggerated and spun by the Clinton campaign and opportunistic pundits, but it really is a problem that the segment of the population that connects worst with Obama is older working-class white (and Latino) voters. It's not a question of policy - it's more credible to me that Obama would actively pursue policies that favour the disadvantaged than that Clinton would turn her back on her Wall Street and multinational business connections. (Though both of them are bullshitting on Nafta.) But Obama is the child not just of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya but also the child of a white bohemian feminist intellectual agnostic from Kansas (after all what other kind of white woman from Kansas married a black man from Kenya in 1961?). While she didn't come from wealthy stock, she wasn't exactly the meat-and-potatoes type - and her son is about as much from Kansas as he is from Oz.

Thankfully Obama doesn't pander and playact the way Wesleyan/Yale girl Hillary Clinton does, insecurely taking on phony accents, dropping her G's and pretending to be a gun-toting, God-fearing country gal, if that's the local atmosphere. I don't think anybody wants that. But Obama hasn't found an entirely effective alternative.

As several pundits have noted, his remarks are reminiscent of Tom Frank's thesis in What's the Matter with Kansas? - that the right wing has taken advantage of economic suffering in the "heartland" to encourage those voters to blame their problems on liberals and city people and immigrants and homosexuals, etc., rather than on the corporate and political elites who put them out of work. There's no doubt that Republicans and neo-con media do that. But the reason it works is not because they've brainwashed the public into acting against "their own interests." Overall, I suspect white working-class voters in deindustrializing areas are skeptical any politician is going to act in their economic interest. (On top of that, they are Americans, and they believe in individualism and capitalism.) However, their cultural interests weren't just imposed on them - they are long-standing parts of many people's identities and communities, and if they become more defensive and "cling" to them in hard times, that's an act of strength rather than simply weakness and "bitterness." That is to say, cultural interests are real interests, and any way of thinking that doesn't recognize them as such is a vulgar materialism you'd expect from some naive Marxist-Leninist groupuscule.

I thought a lot about these questions with regard to Celine Dion. There was a time when I would have figured that listening to Celine, like going to big blockbuster Hollywood movies, was a kind of false consciousness - being seduced by a materialistic Disneyland escapism that says nothing about real people's lives. I could have written a "What's the Matter with Celine Dion?" critique parallel to Frank's, claiming that people were being duped into listening to fairy-tale fantasy music sold to them by the very people who were strip-malling and outsourcing their communities' cultures out of existence.

But when I listened to Celine's music more and talked to her fans, I realized that she did, in fact, reflect her audience's values and concerns back to them in complicated ways - how to be at once strong, modern and feminine, for example, or the fate of tradition and family and community in an era of globalization and mass media - and that the more "rebellious" music that I used to think superior to the mainstream is often indifferent or hostile to those values and concerns. So why should they want it?

I came to think that everybody has a "false consciousness" of one kind or another, because everybody's cultural tastes are the product of their social experiences and position (including critics and rebels and radicals, seeking affirmation in the beliefs and culture they approve). Which is the same thing as saying no one has false consciousness. It's not that all beliefs are equally valid, but you won't get anywhere by assuming or claiming that other peoples' beliefs are inauthentic.

As the late, great feminist rock writer and social critic Ellen Willis (who probably would have had a lot to discuss with Obama's mother) said in her brilliant rebuttal to Tom Frank (which remains very, very worth reading), those of us who care about culture can only betray ourselves by dismissing other people's cultural interest as trivia that arises because of structural misalignments. If we want to assert the importance of multiculturalism, adventurous art, minority cultures, reproductive freedom, then we have to recognize that some other people are equally attached to and serious about their religions, their social values, their leisure activities, their "American" culture.

You might want to change some of those things - for instance, to convince people that American culture has always been built by immigrants and won't be "lost" by accepting and welcoming new people; to get people to think differently about abortion; etc. - but you can't do that if your starting premise is that their positions are just pathological hallucinations or side effects. The social-conservative surge in some areas in the past two decades has also been a backlash against genuine "progressive" success on many fronts (in social attitudes to sex, gender, race and sexual identity), and it seems quite likely that the backlash will be temporary - even in rural Pennsylvania, I'll bet many, many young white people are much more comfortable with diversity than their parents, irrespective of whether they are doing as well economically.

In his follow-up statements so far, Obama has elaborated very compassionately and thoughtfully on how he thinks the government has failed people like working-class Pennsylvanians, and what has to change. But he still seems unable to speak directly to the class-cultural question, much in contrast with the eloquence with which he addressed race after the Pastor Wright controversy.

Then again, no one else has been able to have that kind of "grownup conversation" about class culture in America lately either.The faux-populist news anchors go into an orgy of tut-tutting about Obama's "elitism" that, however justified, still erases and conceals everything he was really saying about prying government from the clutches of corporate interests and making it respond to human needs. It's grim to see that the pattern Tom Frank points out in his book is being re-enacted in the response to Obama - the media talking as if what really matters is not whether there's been decades of economic decline in your community but that some latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, fancy Harvard lawyer thinks he's better than you.

General | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, April 15 at 4:09 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)

 

COMMENTS

Kevin,

Your observation that Obama's success in the polls with young evangelicals is related to Frank's analysis in "The Matter with Kansas" is the first thing I've read that makes me want to give Frank's book a chance.

I understand your moral vision that one should feel compassion and empathy toward everybody, but the "Urban Archipelago" article you link to was a howl in the face of an election which was won largely on the basis of anti-gay agenda. I feel empathy for that howl of outrage.

Carl and Kevin,
The Frank book kicks up painful memories of '00 and '04 elections; '00, when Nader voters reveled in the lie that "there's not a dime's worth of difference between Bush and Gore"; '04, when Bush's re-election was, like, a total bummer. I apologize that some of my comments have dipped into the anger of those memories. Specifically, Carl, I was wrong to read your comment, "Culturally, true believers on all sides feel aggrieved," as an echo of the mainstream media's mantra that "if both sides are pissed, we must be doing something right," or as an appeal to the idea that Bush is some sort of centrist. My apologies.

Posted by john on April 20, 2008 2:05 PM

 

 

I'm sorry about "putative" -- an aspersion that is more wrong than right -- and for being so bilious in general.

And -- duh! -- Connecticut's electoral votes went for Gore and for Kerry.

And, Carl, you're right that Bush hasn't delivered on the Creationist agenda; you may also be right that voters expecting him to have delivered on it may not vote Republican next time. That we're even discussing one of the 2 major parties having a Creationist agenda is . . . wow!

But still and all, being empathetic with Creationists is an admirable human trait. I'll take your word for it, Kevin, that Frank possesses it.

Posted by john on April 20, 2008 3:35 AM

 

 

Sorry about being so grouchy about this -- it's just that Frank's great catchy line, "Vote to end abortion, receive a cut in the capital gains tax" (and forgive me if my memory misquotes) both got the facts wrong (per Willis and Pollitt) *and* played into Rove's "compassionate conservative" electoral strategy. Maybe having heard it over and over from the putative left, that Bush's differences with the Democrats on social issues aren't significant, distorted my perception, but I can't help but think that painting Bush as insincere on cultural issues helped him with socially moderate voters who got suckered by lower taxes and/or the "good on security" myth.

Subject for further research: Bush kept appointing people "critical of contraception" to the Health Dept. leadership roles in charge of contraception policy, but that may have been a dog-whistle move designed to piss my ilk off *and* assuage the anti-contraceptavists. I trust the anti-contraceptivists' political instincts, though, and I'm guessing that it wasn't mere dog-whistling and that they got things they really wanted. Perhaps my trust is misplaced here though.

Posted by john on April 19, 2008 9:38 PM

 

 

The matter with Suburban Connecticut, the matter with Frank, the matter with Frank fans, is that they really downplay how radically Bush's policies lean toward a Medievalist view of culture. Type "contraception funding Bush" into Google, and you get things like this:

"Bush in January 2001 banned funding to groups that provided or promoted abortion services overseas. The policy affected Family Health Options Kenya and Marie Stopes Kenya -- two of the largest distributors of birth control in Kenya -- which did not provide abortions but were affiliated with London-based organizations whose members helped provide them in other countries. The two groups were forced to close five family planning clinics after losing the U.S. funding."

http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/92091.php

The real-world wickedness of that policy -- mind-boggling.

I will be pleasantly surprised if the Roberts Court does not "throw abortion back to the states." In the meantime, they've been rolling back affirmative action for minority students (explicitly leaving in place affirmative action for children of large donors to universities and children of graduates), as well as peeling back the underlying law guaranteeing a right to an abortion. The Kansas voters may or may not care about affirmative action for minority students, and if Frank doesn't, he can join me in hell.

That Bush hasn't been *as bad* on the culture war as he has on the economy and the hot war is poor comfort -- he's still been atrocious. Some true believers may be disappointed, but positing this ridiculous "people on both sides are disappointed" fantasy of centrism is balderdash. Funding for faith-based abstinence-only sex-ed programs, anybody? If the Christianists stay home in November, it won't be out of disappointment on these issues, it will be because of economic realism, and war realism. In other words -- again -- the Christianists have a more realistic, more accurate view of Where Things Are At than Frank or his fans.

I thought of Brooks after posting my comment. His pop anthropology has been widely discredited, and while it has been popular, his popularity only modifies my point. His books don't start with a title that insults their subjects. "What's the Matter With Kansas?" plays in New York because it sounds like an insult. But, like I said, the Kansas voters got what they voted for. The social moderate security voters did not. Who's the fool?

"Commodified dissent" is an interesting notion and good for Frank making it widespread. The English poet Thom Gunn, in his late '50s poem "Elvis Presley," prefigured that critique with his awesome line, "He turned revolt into a style." Good stuff. Thanks.

Posted by john on April 19, 2008 8:53 PM

 

 

I guess where I fundamentally read Frank differently than Carl is where Frank lands on a prescriptive course of action. I don't think his call for the Democrats to return to economic populism necessitates any backing away from our convictions on other issues, and I think Obama's campaign is solid evidence of that (he's polling incredibly well among young white evangelicals despite a solidly liberal record/platform on abortion/gay marriage/etc). Forefronting economics won't totally neutralize anti-choice and anti-gay sentiments, but it will at least partially defuse them. Returning class to the forefront of the discussion doesn't mean shutting up about everything else as Willis weirdly argues. It will affect how we talk about other issues, but developing more class consciousness in feminist, environmental & queer politics, for example, is healthy for those movements anyway.

It's also worth considering context; here Frank's description of the amount of respect/attention issues of production (basically ignored both in academic-level cultural studies and in popular media's treatment of electoral politics) is a lot more believable than Willis's fantasy of a discourse dominated by some Marxist boys' club intent on silencing cultural radicals. On the spectrum of lefty writers figuring out what was up with red-state white voters circa 2004, Frank strikes me as one of the least condescending, one of the most genuinely empathetic. Compare him to say, http://urbanarchipelago.com to get a sense of the context of liberal opinion at that time.

Posted by Kevin Erickson on April 19, 2008 7:56 PM

 

 

A couple of things on that, John:

1. Frank argues that the social conservatives never do really get what they want from the Republicans and that's basically true. Liberals really have lost ground on abortion, and you're right about why. But for all that's been terrible about them, the Bush years have not really been so firey on the culture-war side, compared to the economics-and-foreign-policy debacles. Culturally, true believers on all sides feel aggrieved. Conservatives are not pleased with getting no real action on creationism, gay rights, vulgarity in the media and so forth. Liberals have mostly just faced a slowdown in gains. (The one big exception to this aside from abortion is the related debacle in research science, esp. the stem-cell issue etc.) Conservatives understandably now feel that they may have missed their whole moment by backing Bush - which is producing an interesting combination of retreat from politics and reconsideration of priorities among the religious, including a resurgence of the more anti-poverty, compassionate side of faith-based activism.

What the Bush crew are is less bigoted than callous - I think of the Legendary K.O.'s transformation of Kanye's "George Bush doesn't care about black people" into "George Bush don't like black people." They're two different things, as Kanye, as "the college graduate," knows. George Bush doesn't give a shit what happens, in the end, to people who have no power, to anyone who can't hurt him as a result. That makes him racist by default but not by ideology. As an ideologue, he's merely an opportunist. (The one thing he does believe in is the righteousness of his own/American power.)

2. That Harper's article of Frank's is so horrible and so beneath the level of the rest of his work that I didn't want to bring it up. It seems unfair. I wouldn't want the worst piece I've ever written to be held up as exemplary. But it does, again, hint at some of the tone-deafness to artistic/cultural issues that I find in Frank - he's much, much better when he's analyzing business/political culture, because that's the kind of nerd he really is. His connection to alt-/punk seems to have had more to do with political-critical sympathies, and just being young in the early '90s, than with having an ear for music or poetics etc. At the same time he's smart about counter-counter-culturalism, usually, given his whole critique of "commodified dissent," which influenced me and a lot of other folk. (Read "Rebel Nation" by Joe Heath and Andrew Potter, which I cite in my book, for a very grounded, if occasionally laboured, elaboration of his ideas.)

I can only assume that the Harper's piece was an expression of friendship, of wishing well to and empathizing with his friend, and thus getting irrationally exercised about something he doesn't understand very well... I'm willing to cut him slack on that. Maybe 'cuz I've been there.

3. Where do you think David Brooks's "Bobos in Paradise" falls into your thesis on anthropology? It *is* about suburban Connecticut, no? And it sold well? Perhaps the key is that it's half-critical and half-flattering. I know the words "David Brooks" set us all off in fits of exasperation, but I think he did a good job of naming a phenomenon there (even if it could have been done in one magazine article rather than a book, but that's a common syndrome at the moment).

Posted by zoilus on April 19, 2008 4:49 PM

 

 

About 10 years ago Frank wrote a piece in Harper’s about the stupidity of the pop music market, as exemplified by the story of his friend, a brilliant musician who couldn’t even get rich doing an “intellectual” parody of pop! Perhaps the worst article on music that I’ve ever read.

In the Kansas case, Willis has the goods on him. Cold. Frank was wrong about abortion. Not only Willis, but Katha Pollitt in The Nation nailed him on that.

Frank’s case isn’t merely wrong; it’s upside down from the crucial one. A key constituency in Bush’s “close-enough-to-steal” election in 2000 and apparently legitimate victory in 2004 has been suburban, socially moderate-to-liberal voters who went for Bush because they perceived him as fiscally conservative and/or better on security. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” lie reassured social moderates that Bush didn’t really mean it about abortion and gay rights; Frank’s book helped Bush with this.

Cheney’s lesbian daughter worked on their campaign, but plutocrats can afford to sacrifice personal preference to political expediency. Bush has delivered anti-abortion jurists to the courts, shut down funding for contraception, and opposed gay rights. If the Roberts court “throws abortion back to the states,” the Bushes can afford to have the problem taken care of if a daughter gets pregnant.

If anti-abortionists meant what they said, contraception would be their friend. But most anti-abortionists oppose contraception or collaborate with those who do. The abortion war is a war against female sexuality. Witness: The Bush administration cut funding to African clinics that provide contraception. If abortions increase thereby, so be it. An abortion is preferable to sex without consequence, to the anti-contraceptivist mindset, because abortion punishes the woman.

By delivering on the anti-contraception agenda and screwing the country on fiscal and security issues, Bush has shown that the question is not, What’s the Matter With Kansas?, it’s, What’s the Matter With Suburban Connecticut? The socially moderate security voters are the real rubes. The Kansas voters got what they voted for while the social moderates did not; Bush has been terrible on security.

If a writer were to take an anthropological look at “What’s the Matter with Suburban Connecticut,” it wouldn’t sell. Anthropology is for “other people” -- not for the elite. Frank knows his market. Condescension to rural America sells. It’s also infuriating -- and woefully misplaced.

Posted by john on April 18, 2008 12:08 AM

 

 

Frank deserves much respect, but I don't think anyone can truly front on Willis' criticism! She nails a lot of the problematic things about his writing that no one else has been able to. Only thing is, her solutions aren't much better... um, whose are?

Posted by malstain on April 17, 2008 5:59 PM

 

 

Small correction. Clinton is Wellesley College/Yale girl. Not a Wesleyan College/Yale girl.

While both of these schools are expensive, private, and hard to get into, Wellesley is an all woman's college with much a less bohemian reputation than Wesleyan.

So while it it certainly true that Clinton, like Obama, is at this point a member of the educated power elite in the US, she probably does has a more credible claim to a connection with the white working class than Obama (if only based on family history). She also lived much of her adult life in Arkansas, a smaller, more rural state, where I suspect even the power elite on the Walmart board are more likely to hunt, own firearms, and go to church regularly.

That doesn't mean her playacting isn't a bit ridiculous (at least from my perspective). But even if Obama didn't look and identify as a black man, I think his history and life experience would make it more difficult for him to connect with this segment (much as it did for Kerry).

Be that as it may, I like that he's been willing to put some of this stuff on the table. And I'd have to agree with some other commenters. His words were taken somewhat out of context, and this obscures his actual message, which is about exactly what you are talking about: having empathy and taking seriously the concerns and frustrations of all people who have come to feel disenfranchised from the political discourse in the US.

Posted by j-lon on April 17, 2008 10:45 AM

 

 

I could have been clearer in my description of Obama's speech, it's true, Garrett. Partly I think the trouble is that when he spoke he mixed at least two categories of things: one, "guns or religion," and two, "anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment," and said that they're all "a way to explain their frustrations." It's fair enough to say that scapegoating immigrants or blaming trade deals may serve as a misguided "explanation" - but it's a mistake to align "guns or religion" (and by implication the other social-issues beliefs people have) with that. This is where the overtone of inauthenticity comes in. I agree that Obama wasn't saying this in a harshly condemnatory way and I certainly agree that Obama knows and cares about class issues - his community-organizing background is, to me, the aspect that's made him different than every other candidate. I didn't bring this discussion up to dis Obama but because the class/culture perplex is interesting to me. I do think he went awry there, but as I said in the post, I agree that it's a molehill being mountaineered.

Kevin, on Tom Frank - I probably should have said up but I'm a great admirer of Frank's work in general, and have been influenced by his thinking and his prose ever since the early days of The Baffler. He's a great observer of cultural patterns. However much he denies it, though, there does tend to be a lurking bottom line in each of Frank's projects in which economics trumps culture, plain and simple. His implication in What's the Matter with Kansas is that, in fact, the Democrats ought to play down social issues that divide them from working people, distance themselves from coastal "elites" (he doesn't simply buy the stereotype about liberal elitists, but he's quite hostile to liberal pop culture which he dismisses as corporate), and generally put aside non-economic matters.

It's this tendency in Frank's writing - and in general it's always been there, and when it comes to things like music he's very short-sighted - that I dislike. I was going a little far in calling it vulgar Marxism - he certainly is a more subtle writer and thinker than that, and much too contrarian - but it is his limitation. If the charge were as laughable as he claims, I don't think he would be finding himself in a position where he needs to deny it.

It's still true that Frank does tons of great reporting and analysis in that book, but I do think his other books are better.

Posted by zoilus on April 16, 2008 5:45 PM

 

 

Wilson's comment contains some genuine thought, but I think he should locate a more complete version of Senator Obama's original commentary (which he misrepresents). Obama articulated much of the concerns Wilson acknowledges and he did not claim anyone's cultural beliefs were inauthentic -- he did say that they are disillusioned by politicians, blame people who aren't to blame such as immigrants(which is quite true). Obama has been more honest and specific (and insightful) about class than any other candidate but for John Edwards. The furor that has erupted is nothing more than Clinton-stoked pandering, desperate pandering.

Posted by Garrett on April 16, 2008 1:24 PM

 

 

Carl, it was good to meet you briefly this weekend!

I’m a unabashed Frankophile, having used Frank as a theoretical grounding for much of my own academic work (on evangelical Christian hipsterdom). Unfortunately, it appears that you (perhaps under the influence of Willis) might be seriously misreading the guy. I suspect that you probably have a lot in common, especially viewing WTMWK in the context of his other works.

Frank’s overarching project is not to dismiss cultural interests as illusory and advocate a single-minded focus on economics. Rather, he’s trying to articulate the real relationship between cultural politics and material politics. He’s convinced that our conventional understandings, both at the popular level and the academic level are far off the mark, which explains the incapacity for coherent discourse on class in America. While he argues, convincingly, that cultural politics have largely displaced substantive discussion of class matters, he doesn’t subscribe to some vulgar Marxism that summarily dismiss socially conservative views on cultural issues as “pathological hallucinations or side effects.” After all, What’s The Matter With Kansas, is notable for its deep empathy as much as its incisive wit.

Frank himself explained: "I have no time for the famous 'vulgar Marxist' conception of culture in which the relationship between the two is simple and, again, mechanical: The overclass makes culture to flatter itself and keep the workers down; every cultural product encodes the relations of production. In my view this theory is so laughable that it doesn’t merit consideration: Obviously the relationship between culture and economy is extremely complicated, with all sorts of false steps and ironies and small victories for the good guys and a million acts of genius that cannot be predicted or categorized by any 'scientific' scheme. Indeed, if I really believed in such a mechanical view of culture, I wouldn’t spend my life studying it. It wouldn’t be interesting.”

Willis, whose work am interested in exploring deeper after hearing Georgia Christgau’s very moving paper this weekend, was pretty sloppy in associating Frank with an anticulturalist school of thinkers that he doesn’t share much with. Frank would have no problem with your premise that left and right alike are vulnerable to “false consciousness”; heck, he spent his first book, The Conquest of Cool, debunking some of the left’s favorite fantasies and forever earning the ire of all those who fetishize sixties-style counterculture.

Posted by Kevin Erickson on April 15, 2008 8:26 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson