The Kansas Legislature’s majority suffers from a poverty of imagination and humility

May 15, 2021 3:33 am

Rebecca Otte’s photo of downtown Buffalo, Kansas. Otte’s photos were featured in a Kansas Reflector photo essay on Jan. 2, 2021, headlined “Our trips around Kansas gave us a portrait of decay.” (Rebecca Otte)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. David Norlin is a retired Cloud County Community College teacher, where he was department chairman of Communications/English, specializing in media. 

Kansans are stereotyped as people growing wheat and dodging tornadoes.

Despite Kansas’ vaunted reputation as wheat farmer to the world, however, darn few people actually grow wheat these days. Dozens of Kansas’s rural counties now average fewer than 10 people per square mile, while towns like the one I grew up in are shadowed skeletons of their former selves.

Tornadoes are certainly still dangerous, but the most dangerous months for Kansans are not tornado season but the legislative session. A blinding damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead, wind-force gale blows under the dome, not out on the prairie.

The Legislature contains some thoughtful, caring folks. How to explain, then, its piling onto, rather than relieving, the travails of Kansas’ needy citizens, rural and urban?

A narrowly focused answer spotlights a few sullen tropes of disdainful individual legislators. One, in his role as substitute teacher, has even declared his open channel to God’s revelation (allegedly permitting him to groin-kick a student). Such self-important declarations of omniscience and omnipotence are self-inflicted wounds — not only on them, but their constituents.

A wider-focused answer sees the greater damage done. Individual misbehaviors pale in comparison to hammer-blow legislation done beneath the dome daily. Unhinged, off-duty actions are tabby curtain-climbing kittens compared to the on-duty lion that’s escaped the zoo. How to explain such collective irresponsibility?

It’s poverty. Of dollars, of imagination and, especially, of humility.

Poverty has been on full display for some time in scattered shells of small hometowns like mine. For that reason, many of their residents escaped to more prosperous larger towns, small suburbs and midsize cities — the state’s urban centers comprised 71% of the population in 2000, up from 52% in 1950. But this poverty is not so easily escaped.

Rich city mouse and poor country cousin are both un-riched. As we saw in Rebecca Otte’s January photo essay, “Our trips around Kansas gave us a portrait of decay,” our hallowed rural culture has been hollowed out. Everyday citizens everywhere suck it up while the corporate class sucks it out.

Buildings we once learned in, took letters to or shopped at are often gone completely or now shelter trees and bushes pushing up once-firm floorboards.

This was an act of God. The God of Big-Business Market Fundamentalism, that is. Longview Institute’s Ruth Rosen describes it as “the exaggerated and irrational belief in the ability of markets to solve all problems.”

Its simple and simplistic Gospel is, “If they’d worked hard enough, they’d have money. But they didn’t — so they don’t.”

“To regard oneself as self-made and self-sufficient … exerts a powerful attraction because it (is) empowering,” Michael Sandel wrote in “The Tyranny of Merit.”

“We can make it on our own. … It’s a certain picture of freedom, but it’s flawed,” he wrote, adding this idea “deepens divides and corrodes solidarity.”

Sandel, a popular philosopher, says “humility is a civic virtue essential to this moment because it’s a necessary antidote to the meritocratic hubris that has driven us apart.”

The humility Sandel describes is an essential ingredient of the other Gospel, the one espoused by the man named Jesus — and others.

Market fundamentalism, by contrast, is a not-so-distant cousin of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, adds writer John Freeman.

Where Manifest Destiny “called on early American citizens and settlers to claim their right to land … (and) depended on the notions that white Americans were morally superior, that these white Americans had a mission to spread our institutions as far across the continent as possible,” Freeman writes, many civilizations thousands of years old “were wiped out or widely subdued in a brutal 40-year period.”

Anyone outside our closely drawn circle of wagons is therefore rendered invisible. We can all be infected by this delusion. But the unmasked party in power seems to have a pandemic of this virus loose in their ranks.

As Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes said of the anti-trans, sports-fairness-for-fragile-female-athletes bill, “The extremists pushing this legislation are so clouded by their own self-righteousness that they cannot see the long-term consequences this legislation will have on our state.”

The Republican meritocracy are very uncomfortable with government overreach when it might take their money. But when it comes to illogical drug wars, keeping masses incarcerated, depriving trans people of their rights, or preventing their dollars’ use for living wages or assisting economic victims, they are just fine with using the government’s clammy hand to slap away those changes.

Thus does blind faith rob us blind. It’s time to open our eyes.

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David Norlin
David Norlin

David Norlin of Salina is a retired teacher at Cloud County Community College, where he was department chair of Communications/English, specializing in media. He has twice run for the Kansas Legislature and has served on and chaired Salina’s Human Relations Commission, Planning Commission, and Access TV. He is an occasional columnist for the Salina Journal.