Follow me down the Yellow Brick Road, through the forests of Michigan, past the fields of Indiana and Illinois, over the Mississippi River and the hills of Missouri and into my hometown of Lawrence, Kan.
In a column last semester (What’s the matter with Kansas, 02/04/2005), I suggested that the social and political tides were changing in Kansas. I was wrong.
Let’s venture 30 miles west of my home to Topeka, the capital of the Sunflower State. Here, Kansas Board of Education members voted last week to pass standards that question evolution and redefine science. In 1999, the board shocked the world by striking all references to evolution from the standards. Although those standards were quickly overturned, conservative members of the current board are once again chipping away at evolution and science. The “teach the controversy” approach, which has been adopted in Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, is a thinly veiled attempt to teach religion in science classrooms.
While we’re in Topeka, let’s visit the Westboro Baptist Church, where Fred Phelps preaches his hateful gospel. As a child, I went to a Willie Nelson concert with my mom and was confronted by Phelps’s crew in front of the concert hall, brandishing signs like “Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” and “God Hates Fags.” I don’t remember a single song that Willie Nelson played, but I remember vividly the confusing emotions I felt toward the protesters, which included young children. Now, I am downright pissed that Phelps’s crew will be spreading its bigotry in Ann Arbor this weekend. I’m more disillusioned by the similarity between Phelps’s beliefs and the majority opinions in 19 states that have passed constitutional bans on gay marriage. On the national level, conservatives, led by Kansas’s Sen. Sam Brownback (R), are pushing for a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Sick of what we found in Topeka? Follow me northwest of Topeka for about an hour on I-70, and suddenly the big green Flint Hills will rise up around you. There will be no farmhouses, no trees, no wheat fields – only a rolling carpet of bright green grass speckled with wildflowers. Looking out over these hills, with the endless blue sky above you, you can almost forget about the rest of the world. But follow me to the edge of these hills and you will find Fort Riley, the place where young men and women have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan from. In case we forgot, the war is still going on and our fellow men and women are still dying and being funneled through bases like Fort Riley to a war that has not been justified.
I wish I could say that Kansas does not reflect the rest of the country. I wish I could turn my back on my home and chuckle, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” But in addition to being the geographical heart of America, Kansas may also be the social and political heart. What’s going on in Kansas with evolution, the anti-gay efforts and the support for the war epitomize what’s going on around the country.
Recently, the mainstream values in this country have been defined by a cowboy image: the tough, masculine, straight-shooting, God-loving American. This image is popular in red states, especially former frontier states like Kansas and Texas which participated heavily in the cattle trade. President Bush has manipulated America’s fondness for these frontier values to promote his backward-looking policies. When he talks about smoking out terrorists, he might as well be starring in an old western movie with a straw hanging out of his mouth. His positions on evolution and gay marriage also hark back to an earlier, less civilized era.
How does one debunk the cowboy, expose the Wizard of U.S., oppose the Fred Phelpses in the world? I am proud to hear that groups are organizing to peacefully counterprotest the Phelps supporters. The members of the Dover, Penn. school district which recently supported the teaching of Intelligent Design have been thrown out of office. Four of the seven board members who supported the Kansas standards will be up for re-election next year. There is no easy solution to these problems, no magic red slippers, but decent people are joining the struggle. And if you need an image from Kansas to counter the cowboy, I propose the Jayhawkers, the courageous-yet-compassionate anti-slavers that founded my town. Jayhawkers often get mixed up with the violent tactics of abolitionists like John Brown, but most of them were brave men and women in trying times who stood up for what was right.
Cravens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.