Sunday, June 13, 2004

Thomas Frank in Wichita

Thomas Frank gave a talk and book signing at Watermark Books in Wichita Saturday night promoting his new book What's the Matter with Kansas?. George Scialabbas warm and perceptive review in The Nation predicted that the book "should at last make Frank a national figure." He's certainly become a Kansas figure The independent bookstore, which has survived the onslaught of two Borders and two Barners & Nobles, was packed. I din't make a head count, but there could have been 200.

Frank could be the poster child for the button I once ordered from Northern Lights--"Not as convervative as I appear."

What Frank sets out to analyze is the unlikely alliance of blue-collar populist with what Franklin Roosevelt called the economic royalists. He does a masterful job.

But what is the solution? Frank was asked after his reading. "The only way to stop backlash populism is economic populism. The labor movement," he said, "is the place where the good populism is possible."

For more of Frank's view see his article in Le Monde Diplomatique where he scores not only the right-wing but certain leftists.

Why aren’t these contradictions crippling for the right? Partly because liberals refuse to take backlash populism seriously. They simply don’t bother to answer the stereotype of themselves as a tasteful elite, seeing it as a treacherous and obvious deceit mounted by the puppetmasters of the right. A smaller coterie of liberals don’t bother with it because they believe that conservative populism is merely camouflage for racism, which they believe to be epidemic in the US...

Leftists of these tendencies aren’t really interested in the catastrophic decline of the American left as a social force, in the drying up and blowing away of leftist social movements. If anything, this decline makes sense to them: the left is people in sympathy with the downtrodden, not the downtrodden themselves. It is a charity operation.

For them, having fewer people on the left isn’t a problem that might one day affect their material well-being, cost them their healthcare or their power in the workplace. Those things aren’t on the line for this species of liberal. Quite the contrary: having fewer people on the left makes the left more alluring to them. Superficial nonconformity is what the creative white-collar class values above all else, and the lonelier you are in political righteousness the more nonconformist, the more rebellious you are. Standing up against the flag-waving masses is the goal for this variety of liberal. Being on the left is not about building common cause with others: it’s about correcting others, about pointing out their shortcomings.

Kevin Canfield has a good review in the New York Observer "Cashing In on Culture Wars, The Right Marches On"

Frank is an entertaining and witty writer. Buy his book, subscribe to his magazine The Baffler, check out his website at

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