Tuesday, March 13, 2007

BOOK REVIEWS: Thomas Frank’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? (Owl Books) and Blanchard & Cathy’s THE GENEROSITY FACTOR (Zondervan)

By Kevin A. Stoda



With this writing, I am simultaneously reviewing these two books—[1] Thomas Frank’s (2005) bestseller, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS ? and [2] Ken Blanchard and S. Truett Cathy’s (2002) THE GENEROSITY FACTOR. I am doing this because they compliment each other. That is, they correct each other’s shortfalls into how to approach Christian America and shine a more progressive path in the 21st Century.

Combined, these authors provide two important starting points for concerned justice-oriented Christians to begin to attack from two opposite sides the anti-justice path of the current political and this global regime—a regime which is hyper-focused on taking from the poor (and making them more left out and isolated) while allowing the real elites, wealthy and powerful (both liberal and conservative) to get away with highway robbery across America and the globe for over the past 40 years.

Thomas Frank’s writing on Kansas oer recent decades provides a classic attack on the misdirected mind-frame in the U.S.A that single issues can matter more than the commonwealth of its entire citizenship. Frank targets specifically the Biggest of Lies in America.

This Big Lie is namely that “class doesn’t matter in America”. Frank properly shames both the left and right, i.e. the Republicans (conservatives and moderates) and Democrats (supposedly liberals), the many misdirected scholars, researchers and economists—as well as most other citizens of his home state of Kansas--for falling for this Biggest Lie and propagating the lie without looking at the demographic facts about poverty, power, and wealth distribution in the land..

Coming from Kansas myself, I have to concur that far too many of my own brethren indigenous to that state have fallen for the unexamined cliché that class doesn’t matter in our lives. This penchant for voters to ignore the truth led to their ignoring their own class interests which led many Americans to begin to abandon the Democratic party in the 1960s. Eventually, by the 1990s when neo-liberals like Bill Clinton had taken over the party of America’s disenfranchised and poor labor, the abandonment of our Democrat Party heritage across America had come to full hemorrhage.


AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: IT’S EDUCATION STUPID

As a teacher , I would say that this lack of self-analysis by Kansas voters and others is partly due to poor education practices. Sadly, this is something that neither Frank nor the other two authors, Blanchard and Cathy, deal with.

For example, there is a tremendous lack of critical thinking being practiced in schools and there is a keep failure to require proper geography and demographic skills in citizenship courses—all which would immensely to aid our Kansas’ youth to be able to interpret the reality of class and power around them. These needed studies in demographics and geography should include ethnic, social, economic, and class geography, e.g. learning where products are produced or services provided and why.

This neglect in geographic and demographic citizenship skills is as a great national shame as there are currently so many programs, diagrams, charts and authentic material available for students on the internet to become so much better than their parents in understanding how their own country is populated and how the world functions. If curricula developers and test designers would recognize this need “to stop winging it” when it comes to geography and knowledge of cultures—as the neo-cons under Bush and Cheney have tried to do for seven years--, America could really enter the 21st Century prepared for the global economy as the Europeans are doing.


FRANK’S KANSAS AND AMERICA

Getting back to Frank’s book, the author also does make a good case that liberals and moderates have not done a great job of building up any national network of think tanks and support systems for good critical education and the development of better studies of economics than currently are financed by giants, like the Heritage Foundation or America’s Free Enterprise Institute. However, he never linked it to support for specific think tanks, like those already running such Ben (of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream) who is running the TRUE MAJORITY campaign.

Moreover, in observing how easy it was for the neo-cons to raise cash for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 elections—despite so many of Bush & Cheney’s obvious shortfalls [as leaders and decision makers]—, it is clear that the Democrat Party can never catch up unless it either (1) buys up a majority of the nation’s media already-owned by elitist conservative and radical conservative types or (2) goes out and organizes the masses in a good old campaign focusing labor needs and the needs of all disenfranchised.

As Frank notes in his 2005 “New Afterword”, in most of the previous four or five presidential elections, the Democratic Party chose not to gather voters to battle for their historical interests. In short, the fact is that as long as the new Democrats fail to start talking about labor issues, poverty, and other class issues, the party will never get out the vote in Kansas (or around America) like the Republicans do on single issue voting campaigns, like abortion, homosexuality, or against gun-control.



SPIRIT OF THE OLD KANSAS VERSUS THE NEW

A main focus of Frank’s book is targeted at raising or re-raising Kansas’ resident’s consciousness that it was once populated by nation’s leaders in progressive and social change politics. He succeeds in doing this in a fairly fair handed manner.

All in all, Frank’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? is an excellent read, insightful and fun. For example, as I read the following tale about the town of Ulysses, Kansas dug up by Frank from old WPA brochures, I burst out in a laughter and literally shook the café where I was reading Frank’s well-researched book.

Frank began this tale with the statement that this particular anecdote on Ulysses’ citizens contrasts well with the action of residents in the first decade of the 21st century. Throughout his book, Frank lifts up the tenacity, political acumen and gumption revealed in more radical and older Kansas tradition. This sort of fringe leadership on progressive issues of social justice is totally missing from the modern breed of rebellion in Kansas that finds the state being run over by greater and stronger economic interests as each decade passes.

Here is one of Frank’s tales:

“In 1888 the town of Ulysses, in far western Kansas was engaged in a bitter contest with a nearby hamlet to become the seat of government for Grant County. In order to secure this prize, believed in those days to guarantee eternal prosperity, Ulysses issued $36,000 [in bonds]. The official story was that the money would go for capital improvements ….” [p. 85] However, there are stories of gunmen being hired to scare off the competition.

In order to make a long story short, long after winning the capital seat, those bonds came due in 1908. By that time, the town of Ulysses had fallen from fifteen-hundred residents to about forty. So, rather than try and come up with the $84,000 now due on the town’s debt, the citizens threw the debt collector from the collecting bank from out east in jail, i.e. a single bank out east had bought up all of the municipal bonds. Then the “[i]mpoverished and resourceful … citizens of Ulysses cut the town’s building into pieces and dragged them across the prairie to a new location….”

That eastern bank was simply left with 40 empty acres to foreclose on. The end!

Using the story of Ullyses in 1908 as a contrasting metaphor for mobility in the age of globalism, Frank points out in his book time-and-again: “The only social actor capable of that kind of defiance today is the corporation. Corporations are mobile; cities are not.” Frank points out the fact that all across America, corporations extort billions of dollarsin tax credits, loans, and other financial gimmicks from local communities. For example, in Kansas, companies like Boeing, Sprint, ConAgra, and meatpacking firms are prime examples of recipients of public largess. Frank makes very clear through his research that these big firms constantly “socialize debt and privatize profit.” They run whole counties throughout the state.

Frank warns Kansas and America that until local citizens once again perceive that they are living in an economic and social climate that is equivalent to “war on the masses” of poor and weak by the nations’ most wealthy and elite public corporations and private companies, Kansans and other Americans will continue to be run over in the global political-economy.


KANSAS AS AN ARAB STATE

At the same time I was reading Frank’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS ? , I traveled in several Arab countries; therefore, I have to agree with Frank when he indicates that the similarity between Arab states and Kansas are great. The areas of similarity I am referring to include:

-how politics functions
-how the right wing fundamentalist religious have tilted societies and skewed peoples understanding of their self interests, and
-how the economies function mainly for the elite while debt needs to be written off by the state.

In his book on Kansas, Frank was specifically referring to an article in the Wall Street Journal that discusses a location in the world “where hatred trumps bread”. [p. 219] Frank went ahead to paraphrase the article as follows. This is a land where:

“. . . a manipulative ruling class has for decades exploited an impoverished people while simultaneously fostering in them a culture of victimization that steers this people’s fury back persistently toward a shadowy, cosmopolitan Other. In this tragic land unassuageable cultural grievances are elevated inexplicably over solid material ones, and basic economic self-interest is eclipsed by juicy myths of national authenticity and righteousness wronged.”

The Journal writer was writing about Arab states—but Frank and I had to read: Kansas, Kansas, Kansas.While the Journal writer’s analysis does strike me as similar to the actual living world of Egypt and many neighboring Arab nations today, his essay’s description definitely describes Kansas in 2007.

Frank makes this statement accurate by painting clearly how the conservative intellectual elite has successfully framed many Kansan worldviews to include the perception of themselves as victims who are suffering under a snobbish liberal elite. These Radical Republicans of today “invite us to take our place among a humble middle-American volk, virtuous and yet suffering under a[n] . . . elite who press their alien philosophy on the heartland.” They do this even theough their wacky leaders, like Senator Brownback of Kansas, are some of the wealthiest and most privileged folk around.

However, in any Arab country in this Third Millennium the cosmopolitan Other is the West. Meanwhile, in Kansas the mythical Other is a supposed Eastern God-hating establishment. In the Middle East, voters ignore the sins of the homegrown supposedly-honest religious-oriented folk in the name of a battle against of a supposed out-of-control Liberal West dominating their social milieu in the global economy. Whereas, in America, even though the biggest media conglomerates are run by conservative bastards, like Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, only a tiny liberal establishment is ever held responsible for sins of popular culture in the “red state” Heartland of America.



VALUES HELD VS. VALUES OPERATIONALIZED

Aside from Frank’s neglect of identifying more specifically what is behind the educational decline in America, especially in the area of critical thinking exhibited by Kansans and American’s in the post GI-Bill era, an other weakness in his writing is related to his failure to dig in and identify which Kansans or progressive groups nationwide might be most willing to lead or help grow a .progressive movement focused on issues of social justice real and quality of life at this time or in the near future.

This is where business and public speaking professionals like Blanchard and Cathy fill in some gaps on religious America and Americans desire to live not only successful live but significant generous life-enhancing ones.

In reading through Ken Blanchard and S. Truett Cathy’s (2002) THE GENEROSITY FACTOR, I would have to say that among readers of this sort of literature, which is targeted at Christians who want to make a difference and really help others, networks can be created where progressive movements can prosper. In contrast to Frank’s book, FACTOR is a book targeted at liberal, moderate and conservative elites—rather than to the poorest classes; nevertheless, it brings insight for all readers as to who could be asked to join, support, and sustain a long term progressive movement in Kansas, in the USA, or around the globe.

How does THE GENEROSITY FACTOR approach its target audience? Well, it does so by providing a lengthy metaphor of people who are seeking a new way to deal with the world in which they find themselves.

Most of these are wealthy elites, but most of these elite characters have experienced a lot of hard-knocks and rejection as youth. Although, they have become wealthy through playing the great free market game, they are not satisfied by how the rules of behavior in the free market fail to support basic human concepts, such as love and living a significant life.

More importantly, these elites aren’t satisfied with traditional standards for measuring performance in one’s life activities. That is, being a Christian-oriented work, THE GENEROSITY FACTOR, rejects measuring success by using concepts or goals, like wealth, achievement, and status.

Instead, these authors steadfastly recommend that all leaders be more concerned with living out a life of significance measured by terms related to love and not achievement or acquisition. The authors define these three criteria as the most important ones for a businessman or manager to focus on in order to live a life of significance:

(1) generosity,
(2) service, and
(3) relationships.

If Thomas Frank would ponder these three foci a bit, he might concur that the last two criteria for focusing on living a significant life are exactly the areas where radical conservatives are successful carrying out their get-out-the vote one-issue campaigns in Kansas and other the nation.

These religious and conservative groups have created great supporting relationships—including online discussion lists and listservs. One issue campaign groups maintain these service relationships and march out to canvas neighborhoods in joy that they are doing a service and helping others.

This hyper focus on what is common by keeping campaigns at a simple OUR-WAY-OF-LIFE vs. THEM—whoever the fantasy “them” is-- keeps even the poorest of the organizers motivated. In this way, poor folk are, therefore, motivated to vote against their economic interests, i.e. providing tax breaks to the wealthy and putting tax burdens on the local community. These poorer American give generously of their own time and provide a service. Fulfillment or significance in life is discovered in the struggle—not in the victory for self or cause.

Frank contrasts the highly motivated approach to canvassers and organizers by right wing religious-mouthing candidates to the old schools of conservatives, moderates, and liberals in Kansas, particularly in Johnson County where the author grew up. The older generation of elites—liberal or not—prior to 2005 had appeared to just NOT get it.

Generosity in terms of wealth is not enough to run a campaign, especially when is facing off against a movement in the get-out the vote campaign led by the Religious-mouthing Right political leadership in the 21st Century.


TALENT, TIME, TREASURE, AND TOUCH

According to the authors of THE GENEROSITY FACTOR, there are always at least four ways in which an individual can be generous. They define these as in terms of 4Ts:

(1) time,
(2) talent,
(3) treasure, and
4) touch.

One of the main protagonist in Blanchard and Cathy’s novelette explains the secret to the generosity factor.

“Time. Talent. Treasure. Touch. Nothing more than these four. The beauty of it is, there are so many ways to give them. The tragedy is that so few people discover ways to give even one—let alone four!” [p.42] Nonetheless, using all four is considered important for the reader of the book to implement in his or her life. In other words, he or she will probably not feel significant in his/her life if he or she doesn’t use each of these four ways to show generosity with regularity.

In short, if a progressive movement is to be reignited in the heartland of America, it will need to be a movement that calls not only upon wealth, famous people, or status. It needs people touching and working face-to-face in a struggle. It does need money but it also needs peoples times and talents

Any significant movement will have to be a movement that asks people to give in all four ways: in terms of time, money, talent and person-to-person contacts. Without such giving, no movement can be sustained. Just as Kansas’ right wingers have learned from the civil rights movement to give ever-more of themselves in order to achievement some long term goals, Kansas progressives and other Americans need to make changes in all four directions of giving-of-themselves simultaneously if a significant movement is ever going to get America back where it should be.

Finally, there is one more concept from the writers of the GENEROSITY FACTOR which should be put in any progressive campaign. That is, Blanchard and Cathy tell the reader very clearly that the generosity factor only works when one comes to be able to distinguish between values that are held by them and values that are operationalizing.

These authors’ goal for the readers are to empower the reader to live a life whereby the values that the reader holds are in line with how they live out their lives. This is a very important self-cleansing activity that enables a movement to be sustained by idealistic individual participants who are committed to work together over the long-haul. (Again, this is something that the right wing radicals with their focus on either single issues or fantasy liberal demagogic monsters have done far better than the moderates or the liberals have done over the last half century in Kansas and across America.)


NO MORE VICTIMS

In both WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? and THE GENEROSITY FACTOR, the authors discuss the issues related to victimhood.

In Thomas Frank’s work, he portrays the radical right as playing the victim card—which they copied from the left and from participants in the civil rights movements in years gone by. For example, the Radical Right creates myths that Christians are widely persecuted in the liberal media and all around the United States. In this way, everyone who is Christian becomes a victim. Likewise, if Michael Moore or others right about “angry white men”, then all people who perceive themselves as angry or disgruntled white men become a repressed minority—ad nauseam.

It behooves Frank and his readers to note that Blanchard and Cathy, writing for a mostly Christian elitist or managerial level audience, have also indicated in their concept of living a “significant life” that in their movement there are places for victims. That is because people who see themselves as victims don’t really feel they have time or will to be generous. In other words, Blanchard and Cathy expect good Christian leaders not to fall-back on feeling persecuted because being generous is an extension of love—love and giving leave one with no time to wallow in one’s own sense of victimhood.

One the main protagonist explains this concept succinctly to his protégé: “A thankful heart tends to be a generous heart. A selfish person always asks, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ That leads to a victim mindset, and victims are never generous. They don’t want to give. They just want to get even somehow.”

In general, the class of readers that THE GENEROSITY FACTOR focuses on include both large and small business owners as well as managers. However, it would be a shame not to recruit these generous individuals in a progressive movement to get America back on its feet.

Moreover, by doing the opposite of what victim-politics does, such a movement will be able to gain many new voters who go out their canvassing for the things that can better the commonwealth of all Americans. Such a movement does not focus primarily only on what can divide the population and create a greater sense of victomhood—as do the radical extreme movements—but focuses on giving it all to better all.


WHICH IS THE BETTER (OR MORE IMPORTANT) BOOK?

To tell the truth, the similarities of these two books may not be very evident at first read; partially this has to do with their target audiences being different. Moreover, Thomas Frank’s bestseller WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS? has a lot more meat on it and demonstrates much more intellectual rigor. In contrast, THE GENEROSITY FACTOR focuses on a person’s relationship to God and how love empowers one to give time, money, talents, and in face-to-face relationships.

Further, whereas Ken Blanchard and S. Truett Cathy’s target the THE GENEROSITY FACTOR towards individuals who are elite, i.e. they run their own businesses, Frank is more interested in a general but less-elitist audience.

Nonetheless, both books focus on people who are not happy with the status quo lasses faire world in which individual identity is measured by wealth, achievement and status—not by what one can give to others.

In this unfair world, people need to look out for each other. This is where readership of both books can (and do) merge, i.e. in a general dissatisfaction in the status quo. Both readerships can also unite in seeking solutions to the mess of lasses faire capitalism as we now face a very great mess in our current generation.

Finally, two criticisms need to be leveled at Blanchard’s and Cathy’s work. The first has to do with the perpetuation of the New Yorker as a money grubbing status-seeking atheist and the Midwesterner as the hard-as-a-rock family faithful Bible thumper. This was a very shallow thing to put in the novelette. It unnecessarily entangled and unwanted myth or ideaology in an otherwise illustrative parable.

Secondly, FACTOR seems a bit superficial in its concern with the poor or poorer off. The poor are only just stock characters with no depth.

Finally, I wonder if a poor person who never will likely never become rich could every benefit much from the gist of a work that seems so far fetched from them. In a way, Blanchard and Cathy’s characters seem very much to have just walked out of a set of Horatio Algiers novel.

Nonetheless, with its almost total focus on generosity and its lack of stress on free market achievement makes THE GENEROSITY FACTOR a positive and highly recommended fable for all (not just for Christians) because positive change is good for us all and that book provides an avenue for individual self-reflection and growth.

For those readers, who really want to dig into what is happening in status quo Kansas (America), definitely get to know the state’s history and read Frank Thomas’ analysis.

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