In a post-session funk, your Kansas Reflector opinion editor looks outward for answers
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Kansas shows the wild expanses of our state untouched by the wrangling of legislators in Topeka. (AvatarKnowmad/Getty Images)
I have a confession to make to you all. The Kansas Legislature wrapped up work on April 28, and I’ve been a bit adrift since.
Sure, I had anthology columns to write and think pieces to generate. But as I wandered Tuesday afternoon under an overcast sky in Lawrence, the emptiness of life without the Legislature overtook me.
No random lawmaker was making outrageous statements about disabled people or those who follow faiths other than Christianity. No bill hearings about the imaginary shortcomings of public education were being held. No backroom deals were being made in exchange for lawmakers’ votes on one vexatious policy or another.
What’s a sad and lonely opinion editor supposed to do?
This all stems from a change in my approach.
During the 2022 session, I kept the Legislature at a bit of a distance while working for Kansas Reflector. I had just spent four years at Kansas Action for Children, an advocacy group that tracked policy closely during the session, and I wanted to take a more holistic view. Plus, you might recall the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was burning though Kansas at the time.
This year, I tried something different. I followed a handful of issues closely — the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases, lack of transparency, unparalleled attacks on transgender folks — and visited the Statehouse regularly. I didn’t necessarily hang out for hours on end like the revered reporters who file from that building, but I thought it important to be physically present.
Don’t misunderstand me. This session did real harm to people. It showed that legislative leaders have an immense appetite for destructive policy that could leave our state reeling for decades.
As famed Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White wrote in “What’s the Matter with Kansas“: “Because we have become poorer and ornerier all 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.”
Not much has changed since 1896, although I would suggest it’s the Legislature that wants to tear down our state these days, not the people of Kansas. The opportunity to tell you all about it, through these columns, and through sharing the reporting of my Kansas Reflector colleagues, gave me purpose. The emails I’ve received from readers and the conversations I’ve had at our stops throughout Kansas showed me that you all appreciate it too.
The session and I were caught in a codependent relationship, one that only a gavel could sever.
Now our trusty state legislators have scattered to the winds.
A few will return for interim committees. The governor and executive branch staff will do their best to deal with the fallout of implementing the session’s mandates. I’m going to figure out where to go next and what to write about.
I have a lot of ideas. I plan to continue visiting small Kansas towns as part of the Roving series of columns. I’m also researching those revered Kansas editorialists and opinion writers who wrote during the 1920-1970 timeframe. Stories about these men and women might be included too. Their work serves as models for mine today.
Most importantly, I want to tell at least a few stories of hope and positivity.
The negativity of the session can overwhelm even the most hardened observer. You can smile and joke and write what’s required, but the overflow of toxic legislative sludge can be difficult to comprehend intellectually or emotionally. I know it can eat away at journalists. I can only imagine how moderate Republicans or the Democrats at the Statehouse must feel.
Folks throughout Kansas do great work in their communities, no matter the political or social climate. These real-life saints have sacrificed to do good for others. We should know their names.
The story impulse
Humanity is a storytelling species.
We make sense of the world through narrative. We translate the experiences of our daily lives, the random drips and drabs of existence, into polished histories. They have tranquil beginnings, tumultuous middles and celebratory ends. Any one of us imagines himself or herself the star of their particular epic quest.
“Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world,” Cody C. Delistraty wrote for the Atlantic back in 2014. “They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives — a form of existential problem-solving.”
Sometimes, this impulse can lead us astray. Moments of triumph, far from being a conclusion, may carry seeds of future tumult. The most dire consequence can turn on a dime into an auspicious beginning.
Journalists, because we write the first draft of history, do our best to depict only part of a story.
What that moment means, however, may change.
Perhaps this session marked an end of one kind of politics and the beginning of another. Perhaps it signified further backsliding into the worst kind of reactionary conservatism. Perhaps it signified more of the same. We don’t know now, and we likely won’t know for some time.
In the meantime, I will gather myself up from this funk and find motivation in people and places outside Topeka. At least until the 2024 session.
If you have ideas, or a story you think needs telling from your community, please send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.
Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, 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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