Kansas, the Wild Kingdom



Kansas City :




By Jack Cashill

A short time back, an eye-popping documentary about the Moinjang tribe of the White Nile stopped me dead in my channel-surfing tracks.

For about a half hour, I watched in awe as several hugely tubby guys wandered around town stark naked, covered in dust, eating everything in sight. As I learned, the men were participating an ancient tribal custom, roughly translated as “the fattest man in the land competition.” Apparently, the competitors eat all they can for about a year, and at the end of the year the biggest lard butt wins.


This was billed as “a high stakes contest” and with good reason: at least one unlucky contestant fell over dead when his stomach exploded. Still, the narrator described the whole phenomenon in the kind of hushed and reverential tones one reserves for incomprehensible third world rituals and/or major golf tournaments.


Oh, that such a respectful documentary crew would come to Kansas! Instead, in the wake of Thomas Frank’s surprise best-seller, What’s the Matter with Kansas, we get smarmy know-it-alls from either coast who are here not to learn about our humble customs but rather to tell us what’s wrong with the customs we have.

I say “our” reservedly. I am the first to admit that I live and work in Missouri. In fact, I have never lived in Kansas, and I was born and raised more than a thousand miles away. Yet now, there is so much interest in Kansas that the media no longer scruple about minor issues like where the subject of the interview lives.

In the last week alone, CNN interviewed me on camera, and so did a Bay-area crew doing a feature length documentary on Kansas. I have handled any number of other interviews over the phone and referred other would-be interviewers to more authentic Kansans than I, which is every sentient human in the state.

No matter the crew, the questioners come back to the same question, “What is the matter with Kansas?” To be fair, the CNN people were merely late and patronizing. The Bay area crew was much more entertaining. In the faux documentary fashion pioneered by Michael Moore, these guys were not asking questions to get answers—they “knew” those already—but to show the local boobs being flummoxed by the questions.

My crew consisted of four middle-aged men, openly “progressive” to a man. They had just driven in from an interview in Alma, Kansas and were on their way to KCI and the bliss of their left coast homes. So openly Bolshevik was the one producer that he thought the Democrat Party “disgusting” in its moderation. You can imagine what he thought of Republicans.

During the two-hour, two-camera interview, these fellows stood around me in a semi-circle and peppered me with loaded questions. I kind of enjoyed it. As it happens, I was preposterously well prepared to handle their goofy economic agitprop. There are serious limits to my knowledge, but in writing for Ingram’s for twenty years I have learned something about the local economy.

In the last five years alone we have moderated and reported on no fewer seventy highly informative industry and economic development assemblies. In addition, I have written any number of local corporate histories, a few in book form, including one on which I am working right now that proved to be entirely relevant.

At the root of the filmmakers’ questions was their belief that the largely Republican Kansas peasantry had foolishly allowed itself to be exploited by global capitalism. Like Thomas Frank, they were working from a kind of a perversely romantic Marxist perspective, namely that everything was wonderful in Kansas before big business in general, and the Walmart-Bush cabal in particular, deep-sixed the state’s economy.

“Why,” asked one fellow and I exaggerate not a whit, “do Kansans vote for a man who would destroy America with his tax cuts just to line the pockets of his billionaire Republican friends?”

“Billionaire Republicans?” I answered. “Like George Soros? Warren Buffet? Bill Gates?” I paused, then picked up again. Ted Turner? Donald Trump? Marc Rich? Stop me now when I get to a Republican.” They looked at each other confused. No, Toto, they weren’t in Alma anymore.

“How about Walmart?” one asked, picking up a still viable thread. “Doesn’t it bother you that that six of the richest people in the world are Waltons and that they’ve decimated small town America to get that rich.”

“Actually only five,” I answered. Serendipitously, I had just researched the Walmart history minutes before they arrived for a book I am writing on the centennial of the Lenexa-based Westlake Hardware. Given an opening, I walked them through the extraordinary history of American progress, so much of which has flowed from small, Midwest towns

I told them how John Charter invented the first liquid fuel tractor in Sterling, Illinois in 1880. From that moment on, farming grew progressively less labor intensive with regional farm population peaking in 1900 and declining slowly thereafter.

Progress, however, caused dislocation as it always does. Many farm families had to move to the small towns throughout the Midwest, but they brought their skills and their enterprise with them. From Thomas Edison to Henry Ford to the Wright Brothers to Charles Lindbergh to Robert Noyce, the godfather of Silicon Valley, they introduced one dramatic innovation after another.

These innovations in turn transformed rural life. As I explained to my new friends, just a century ago rural Kansans lived a life span of about forty years in a house with no telephone, electricity, indoor plumbing, or central heating, let alone high speed Internet access. Parents almost inevitably buried a child or two or three. Free enterprise expanded the horizons of these people and doubled their life spans.

Admittedly, every innovation has meant still more change. In this regard, Henry Ford had a much more powerful impact on small town America than Sam Walton. With the automobile, rural Kansans could shop in suburban Kansas City or Topeka or Wichita almost as easily—and much more economically—than they could in their towns. The golden age of small town Kansas lasted an historic eye-blink and ended well before Sam Walton opened his first Walmart in Rogers, Arkansas forty years ago.

If anything, Walmart allowed people to shop competitively in small towns. It has kept hundreds of thousands of jobs in rural America and has probably saved thousands of lives in car accidents alone. Nor did the “big boxes” drive out all competition. Westlake Hardware, for instance, has found a profitable niche throughout the Midwest serving customers in ways that the Lowes and Home Depots cannot. And Westlake’s strategy is not unique. Any number of small town entrepreneurs prosper despite Walmart or even because of it.

I was on a roll. I was sure I was making headway with the filmmakers. But then I caught them looking at each other with eyebrows raised and then looking back at me as if I were one of those naked fat men on the White Nile. They had never heard any of this stuff on NPR or read it in The San Francisco Chronicle.

It couldn’t be true. What strange things these Kansans believed. When, they wondered, would my brain explode?



Posted: July 8, 2005
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Editor's note: Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 25 years. He can be reached at jcashill@aol.com.


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