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FDL Movie Night: What’s the Matter with Kansas?

I used to visit my grandmother every summer in the small town of Hiawatha Kansas, population 5,000, and county seat of Brown County. There was a lot of pride in being from Kansas in that small town. My grandmother would tell me Kansas’s history could be summed up in “needing, bleeding, leading”: How the territory needed help from the government to fight the Indians, the bleeding referred to John Brown and the fight to become a free state before the Civil War, and how Kansas was now leading in grain production. She would say:

We are the breadbasket of the world

then fret about the price of soybeans and corn dropping, and worry if there was hail, or no rain. My grandfather had been a farmer, and though she moved to town when he died in a tractor accident, she still owned land, which was farmed.

There was a lot of pride in Eisenhower having come from Kansas, and everyone my grandmother knew of all ages was Republican and went to church. There were many churches, and for some reason she didn’t go to the one across the street because it wasn’t her church… hey isn’t God everywhere? That baffled me.

What’s the Matter with Kansas — based on the best-selling book by Thomas Frank–fascinated me because it showed a deeper side than I had seen in my visits–which concluded when I was 15 when my grandmother moved into a rest home. My grandmother never touched on the radical history of Kansas, how Eugene Debs carried Crawford County; how the largest newspaper in the country in the early 1900s was a socialist paper published in southeast Kansas; about the radicals. Though in all fairness, she was pretty thrilled about the suffragette movement getting a toehold in Kansas–along with being thrilled that Kansas never repealed Prohibition.

Filmmakers Joe Winston and Laura Cohen take us on journey through modern Kansas where faith is foremost and evolution is a gospel truth. We meet Angel Dillard who sings her local church and volunteers for a pro-life group. Her anti-gay, anti-choice pastor Terry Fox is forced to resign from his mega church and starts holding services in Wild West World, “the only church in America holding services in a theme park” until the park goes bankrupt–the park itself was an investment opportunity for church members, and many members, including Angel, were left broke.

There’s also a trip to a different theme park the Creation Museum in Kentucky which high school senior and rabid conservative takes with her mom and siblings. Home schooled Brittany Barden wants to return America to its Christian roots, and there trip to the Creation Museum is an eye opener for me, though for the Bardens it simply reinforces their faith. Brittany and her family, like many others, support Phill Kine for attorney general in the 2006 elections and are shocked when he looses.

But Kansas hasn’t completely succumbed to hard line right wing values. Curmudgeonly sculptor M. T. Ligget (below in a semi-NSFW interview) declares Bush “an asshole” and doesn’t care one way or the other about gay marriage or abortion because they are not his business as he makes art that challenges the entire spectrum of political views. Framer Donn Teske– a self describes “a red-neck Kansas farmer” –says corporate greed is “not very Christian.” Teske fights to save his family farm and others like it, traveling to Washington DC to speak to Congress, letting them know that family farmers care about the environment and global warming–and that they want to stay in business. There is also a strong immigrants rights movement in Kansas based around the meat packing industry, and also a pro-choice movement that manages to help defeat Pill Kine.

Wilson and Cohen let the subjects speak for themselves and tell their own stories, without commentary or narrative. I found myself feeling warmth and compassion for Angel as her backstory unfolded, though I completely disagree with her social views. And Brittany’s younger sister has no interest in her family’s obsessive Jesus-ing–expect a rebellion from this child. Plus we see how locals react to FEMA’s arrival after a huge tornado.

Geographically Kansas is at the heart of our country, and while Jell-O is a still a salad there (especially the orange flavored one with carrots), What’s the Matter With Kansas shows that the politics are changing, that not all Republicans agreed with the war, and that Bush mislead his voting block when it came to focusing on moral issues–and that these people know that. As the movie shows, it is possible to swing back from being ultra-conservative to electing Democrats, and maybe one day college students like Brittany will learn we were not founded as Christian nation but as a free thinking one.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.