Step outside your frame of reference…

12 Apr

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

That poem by Yehuda Amichai appeals to me. I have mentioned it before. Originally I quoted the poem on Blogspot soon after finding it in Doubts and Loves (2001) by Bishop Richard Holloway. Careful readers will know this to some uncomfortable position of mine — but for me the most honest position — colours, however imperfect my expression of it, what I often write here — a positive but conditional relativism, somewhat pomo but not quite, which is where head and heart lead me. It may well make me a frustrating commentator I know. Thus do I enjoy the Kashmiri Nomad because he takes us into uncomfortable territory, yet no-one can accuse him of aiding and abetting the more violent kinds of extremism that some call Islamism or Islamofascism, neither term escaping highly problematic category confusions. By the same token I would urge the Nomad to step outside his frames of reference as well… We all should. Very beneficial in my view.

So just when you think you have the US sorted into a goodies and baddies game of fundy theocrats versus secular liberal good guys and gals, along comes Thomas Frank to upset the apple cart. His close study of his home state of Kansas, where he no longer lives, has morphed into What’s the Matter with America? The Resistable Rise of the American Right in its UK/Australian version (Vintage 2004 with an update 2005). He finds in the Great Backlash, as he calls it, much scope for irony. Here are extracts from pages 67 to 109:

One thing unites all these different groups of Kansans, these millionaires and trailer-park dwellers, these farmers and thrift-store managers and slaughterhouse workers and utility executives: they are almost all Republicans…

Not too long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay. This would have been a political certainty, as predictable as what happens when you touch a match to a puddle of gasoline. When business screwed the farmers and workers…, when it ripped off shareholders and casually tossed thousands out of work — you could be damned sure about what would follow.

Not these days. Out here the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction, to the right, farther to the right. Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics. Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society. But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower.

The ills described here — depopulation, the rise of the food trust, the general reorganization of life to favor the wealthy — have been going on for ten to twenty years now. Nobody denies that they have happened, that they’re still happening. Yet Kansas, that famous warrior for justice, how does it react? Why, Kansas looks its problems straight in the eye, sets its jaw, rolls up its sleeves — and charges off in exactly the wrong direction.

It’s not that Kansas isn’t angry; rage is a bumper crop here, and Kansas has produced enough fury to give every man, woman, and child in the country apoplexy. The state is up in arms. It’s just that the arms are all pointed away from the culprit.

Kansans just don’t care about economic issues, gloats Republican senator Sam Brownback, a man who believes the cause of poverty is spiritual rather than “mechanistic.” Kansans have set their sights on grander things, like the purity of the nation. Good wages, fair play in farm country, the fate of the small town, even the one we live in– all these are a distant second to evolution, which we will strike from the books, and public education, which we will undermine in a hundred inventive ways.

…The state erupts in revolt, making headlines around the world with its bold defiance of convention. But what do its rebels demand? More of the very measures that have brought ruination on them and their neighbours in the first place.

This is not just the mystery of Kansas; this is the mystery of America, the historical shift that has made it all possible.

In Kansas the shift is more staggering than elsewhere, simply because it has been so decisive, so extreme. The people who were once radical are now reactionary. Though they speak today in the same aggrieved language of victimization, and though they face the same array of economic forces as their hard-bitten ancestors, today’s populists make demands that are precisely the opposite. Tear down the federal farm programs, they cry. Privatise the utilities. Repeal the progressive taxes. All that Kansas asks today is a little help nailing itself to that cross of gold…


…The Kansas conservatives like to think of moderate Republicans as “liberals,” and in their struggle with the Mods for control of the Republican Party the Cons imagine that they are confronting a local arm of the fabled “establishment.” For them the war is a set piece right out of the works of Ann Coulter or the monologues of Rush Limbaugh: the common people versus a haughty, know-it-all liberal power structure…

But such people aren’t liberal. What they are is corporate… And as corporate types, these Mods are the primary beneficiaries of the class war that rages against them… The Mods even win when they lose.

The situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. [NOTE: “universal” here seems to mean “American”. Hmmm.] For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

You will find links to many related essays on Tom Frank’s site, for example The America that will vote for Bush (2004). It is all simultaneously only too familiar in Howard Land and only too alien: another paradox. If we seem unsure at times just how relevant or otherwise the dominant American discourse is here in Australia how much more so in countries where the the values and cultures are even further from what seems “natural” to an American. Some of Frank’s concerns do seem relevant to last Monday’s Four Corners though. But here I am straying into Jim Belshaw territory, I feel.

What I can say is that re-visioning faith as Sojourners has been doing makes a lot of sense in an American context, and is likely to have more solid outcomes in social policy than purely secular projects, though the two may work comfortably together on most of the critical issues of foreign policy and social justice. Sojourners also has a lot to say that is relevant here, as Kevin Rudd seems well aware.

More evangelical than I am, but interesting nonetheless in respect of the above, is Signposts, an Australian site. I found the site because a recent comment there points here. I will add this to my links.

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Posted by on April 12, 2007 in Aussie interest, Cultural and other, Current affairs, Faith and philosophy, Jim Belshaw, Kevin Rudd, poets and poetry, Politics, Reading, Religion


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