What’s the matter? Consumerism and complacency threaten both Kansas and country

July 7, 2022 3:33 am
The Kansas Flint Hills stretch out near Matfield Green. For the purposes of the proposed North American Grasslands Conservation Act, “grasslands” includes tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass, native prairie, sagebrush shrub-steppe, savanna grasslands, glades, and other related grassland ecosystems. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Flint Hills stretch out near Matfield Green. Despite its gorgeous landscape, the state has suffered from distorted and distracted politics. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)

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.

“What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Thomas Frank made William Allen White’s question a nationally recognized book title in 2004. But before and after publication, its title captures not just a state, but a state of mind. In many states across the country, that question points to a spreading cancer within the republic. So much so that Frank’s book was published in Britain and Australia as “What’s the Matter with America?

What’s the cause of that cancer? An incisive May column in Kansas Reflector by former legislator J.C. Moore points to two clear villains: The Kansas Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity.

“In the next election, the Kansas Chamber and AFP ran a smear campaign against many of the moderate Republicans who had voted to sustain (Gov. Laura Kelly’s) veto (of a tax bill costing the state about $600 million over the next three years, much of that going to large corporations). They sent out dozens of postcards demonizing them, distorting their positions, misquoting them, and using misleading Photoshopped pictures.”

The result: “The number of moderate Republicans in the Legislature dropped from about 30 to just five.”

The result is that Kansans are reeling from a deluge of bad legislation. A victory is avoiding the worst, not achieving the best.

Examples? Kansas remains one of four states without a comprehensive medical or recreational marijuana program.

Kansas, after 10 years wandering in the wilderness, has refused to expand Medicaid, despite “38 states and the District of Columbia (implementing) Medicaid expansion, securing access to crucial health care services for millions of previously uninsured Americans,” wrote Craig Kennedy, president and CEO of Medicaid Health Plans of America, in the Topeka Capital-Journal.

So critical is this lapse that even the medical community decries us.

The Legislature even put a constitutional amendment about the ability of lawmakers to restrict or even ban abortion into a primary election. Kansas primaries are primarily dominated by the most ideological, kneejerk party loyalists, most of them Republican.

What is the matter? With them? With us?

Understanding the cynical, dollar-driven entities that influence public opinion is critical. But when their misleading postcards and ads arrive on-air or in-mailbox, why do we buy them? Short answer: We’ve become consumers, not citizens.

– David Norlin

Understanding the cynical, dollar-driven entities that influence public opinion is critical. But when their misleading postcards and ads arrive on-air or in-mailbox, why do we buy them? Short answer: We’ve become consumers, not citizens.

I have friends, good people otherwise, who illustrate this vividly. One tells me the Biden administration is not doing enough. Biden’s age-impaired, and inflation is too high. So, he’ll vote Republican, for Trump or a Trump clone.

He votes as if he were buying a refrigerator, boat, or smartphone. What’s the best deal available? How many gigabytes? Is it 3G, 4G, or 5G? 

Such voters consider themselves kings (or queens). I’ll give my sacred vote to whomever doesn’t raise my taxes. Leave me tucked in and snug in my bubble. Keep the wolves at bay. Don’t disturb me. I’m gonna stay here, comfortable in my recliner, watching TV, cellphone, or laptop. I’m an American, by golly!

In 1985, Neil Postman, media theorist and cultural critic, wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Television, he said, reduces news and politics to entertainment. Public discourse becomes a circus, undermining “serious and rational public conversation.”

Nearly 40 years later, he’s more on target than ever. Take, for example, Rudy Giuliani’s untalented April appearance on “The Masked Singer,” singing “Bad to the Bone.”

Judge Ken Jeong walked off the set in protest. But the two remaining female hosts yucked it up with the rest of the audience. We need not recite all the ways Giuliani helped incite the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Yet, rather than appear in prison stripes, he takes the stage as just another lovable celebrity.

Postman wrote that the threat to humanity comes less from a totalitarian state than from addiction to amusement, much like the “soma” happiness drug given out in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“When a population becomes distracted by trivia,” Postman wrote, “and cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, then, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act. The Nation finds itself at risk.”

The public at large now seems like a bunch of Trump’s apprentices.

What’s the matter with Kansas? Complacent, celebrity-based consumerism. If we are to have the real drama of Democracy played out in real life, we are the actors we’ve been waiting for.

Democracy does not just happen. We have to work for it.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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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.