Some Questions Should Be Asked Again

Some Questions Should Be Asked Again

What's the matter with Kansas? William Allen White once penned a column asking that very question. He observed that population growth had stagnated, the state economy had lost wealth, and there was "no substantial city in the state." Any number of us might have made those observations in 2018, but White noted those conditions in 1896. We Kansans take our time with progress because it's tradition I suppose. 

Not all traditions should be retained. White asked "What's the matter?" and poked at the sore spots of Kansas. He knew that to find solutions we first had to come to terms with our shortcomings; get them out in the open, be honest about our faults, and begin to remedy. This too is true today.

Go east and you hear them laugh at Kansas; go west and they sneer at her; go south and they "cuss" her; go north and they have forgotten her. Go into any crowd of intelligent people gathered anywhere on the globe, and you will find the Kansas man on the defensive. The newspaper columns and magazines once devoted to praise of her, to boastful facts and startling figures concerning her resources, are now filled with cartoons, jibes and Pefferian speeches. Kansas just naturally isn't in it. She has traded places with Arkansas and Timbuctoo. - William Allen White

White saw Kansans on the defensive in 1896, and that stance hasn't changed either. A natural first question when meeting someone is to ask where they are from. Point of origin provides a context for life experiences and perspective. Everywhere I go in this country I'm asked my home, and when I proudly respond "Kansas" I'm almost immediately barraged by jeers, jokes and insults; the most common of which is the snarky "I'm sorry." Naturally this churns up some vitriol. I'm well prepared to argue and pitch the grand history and qualities of our state, but the whole scenario could be avoided if Kansas had graces that were already widely known and the envy of our fellow Americans.  

Of course, the significant point of contention behind White's column is a political one that continues today. In 1896, populists of the Bernie Sanders William Jennings Bryan variety were seizing power from Republicans in Kansas. The Populists' argument was that titans of capital were evil, and money should be spread more evenly among the people. "What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment, and more of those fellows who boast that they are 'just ordinary clodhoppers,'" White satirized. "We don't need population, we don't need wealth, we don't need well-dressed men on the streets, we don't need standing in the nation, we don't need cities on the fertile prairies; you bet we don't! What we are after is the money power."

"we have become poorer and ornerier and meaner than a spavined, distempered mule, we, the people of Kansas, propose to kick; we don't care to build up, we wish to tear down." - William Allen White

Now wherever you stand on tickle down, trickle up, or trickle sideways economics, it should be noted that White's critique of the populist was in part due to the victim mindset that he saw coinciding with it. It was a mindset of expected dependence on others, rather than self-initiated prosperity. Mocked White: "That's the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens! Legislate the thriftless man into ease, whack the stuffings out of the creditors and tell debtors who borrowed the money five years ago when money 'per capita' was greater than it is now, that the contraction of currency gives him a right to repudiate. Whoop it up for the ragged trousers; put the lazy, greasy fizzle, who can't pay his debts, on an altar, and bow down and worship him. Let the state ideal be high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing"

Incredibly, White could get away with such a critique and still be remembered as a national treasure; one of those great Kansans we've memorialized as a statue in our statehouse. I can't help but flinch and duck behind my keyboard, as I suggest we engage in similar introspection. 

If Kansans are to reverse 130 years of malaise and gain in prominence, we must dream bigger dreams, labor, sweat, and build, seeing them through with perseverance. Our state motto expects this - Ad Astra Per Aspera (To the Stars Through Adversity) - yet we've only seen those words taken to heart and fulfilled by scattered individuals (many of them who leave Kansas to do so), not in a collective push by our populace. 

So, continue to argue about the economics of sharing resources, but let's at least agree to share in the toil that brings this state to greatness. And before we get to haphazardly fixing, we should first take a look at our shortcomings to chart a purposeful direction to head in. Along those lines, you can expect a series of "What's the matter" columns published by Free State Kansas. 

"What's the matter with Kansas? Nothing under the shining sun. She is losing wealth, population and standing. She has got her statesmen, and the money power is afraid of her. Kansas is all right. She has started in to raise hell, as Mrs. Lease advised, and she seems to have an over-production. But that doesn't matter. Kansas never did believe in diversified crops. Kansas is all right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Kansas." - William Allen White


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