Thomas Frank v. Sarah Palin

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It doesn’t
surprise me that historian/social critic Thomas Frank attacks Sarah
Palin from his perch at the The Wall Street Journal. Palin
deserves some criticism, of course, but I wish that Frank would
not pile on in such a predictable fashion through such a thoroughly
establishment outlet.

I have some
respect for Tom Frank. I think he has good instincts and is well
intentioned. His book The
Conquest of Cool
is well worth reading. It's reminiscent
of the great Christopher Lasch. What’s
the Matter with Kansas?
is an important book. Despite its
interesting stories and real insight, it does have one unfortunate
flaw: it tends to blame the victim. Frank recognizes that the Republican
Party exploits grassroots conservatives, but he does not assign
blame equally. It is not just cynical GOP powermongers and gullible
GOP populists who are responsible for the situation. The Democratic
Party provides no credible alternative for citizens who care about
democracy and freedom since it is elitist in every way (both politically-economically
and socially-culturally). On one level, Frank, as a populist himself,
knows this to be true, but he is a committed liberal Democrat who
sees FDR as the acme of liberalism so he can go only so far in his
criticism.

For a brief
time in his youth, back in Kansas, Frank was a conservative Republican.
While that experience allows him to sympathize with Heartland conservatives
who are bamboozled by the Karl Roves and Rupert Murdochs of our
world, it has not helped him to fully understand the situation.
Instead, he praises the statist solutions of the Democrats. His
early conservatism inoculated him against more nuanced and bona
fide versions of conservatism later in life. That's regrettable.

With the publication
of What's the Matter with Kansas?, a one-sided but insightful
book, Tom Frank became nationally known and widely acclaimed. He
achieved pundit status and deservedly so. But his association with
The Wall Street Journal, a consistently plutocratic and neoconservative
organ now owned by Murdoch, is interesting. Frank is left of center.
The Journal would never allow Ralph Nader, Gore Vidal, or
Seymour Hersh to be a weekly columnist. Any notable moralistic or
libertarian conservative would be way beyond the pale. So why Tom
Frank? Because he is safe. He is a domesticated liberal populist.
Through a pithy aphorism and a mammoth novel, respectively, Lord
Acton and J.R.R. Tolkien summed up the corrupting nature of power.
Fame is a type of power. For an intellectual, it can bestow the
power to influence others. Corruption almost invariably follows
power, and this is true of fame.

This has always
been the case. Jesus warned his disciples, “Beware when all men
speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets”
(Luke 6:26). The context tells us that when He said “all men,” he
meant respectable society – the rich and powerful. The statement
comes right after the beatitudes, both positive and negative (Woe
to the rich, woe to the full, woe to those who laugh now.). The
world is not hospitable to the truth. As C.I. Scofield, a good unrespectable,
low-church Protestant wrote a century ago, the New Testament concept
of kosmos entails a deceptive world system organized on the
basis of the "cosmic principles of force, greed, selfishness,
ambition, and pleasure." That about sums up Washington, Hollywood,
and Wall Street.

Hence, mainstream
media and academia paid, and continue to pay, friendly attention
to the respectable Woodrow Wilson but not to the more radical and
authentic William Jennings Bryan. It is Theodore Roosevelt over
Robert La Follette. The official environmentalist of the 1990s was
Al Gore, not Jerry Brown or David Brower. Faux News boosts Rudy
Giuliani, not Ron Paul. Elihu Root, Henry Kissinger, and Barack
Obama win the Nobel Peace Prize; Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and
Harold Hughes do not.

Marcus Borg
writes about Christianity for the online Washington Post precisely
because he is not a Christian (in any traditional sense of the word).
Borg is part of an academic movement of affluent white men who issue
manifestos on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Strangely enough,
the poor and oppressed are not aware of the existence of modernists
like Borg. If they were, they would likely view the apostate eggheads
as deluded agents of the Devil! Like Thomas Frank, Marcus Borg has
traveled far from his humble roots in North Dakota. Sadly, it has
been in the wrong direction. Such men now have a place of privilege
to spout their views, but instead of receiving genuine populism
or spirituality from them, we receive a politically-correct, Power
Elite–approved message.

We can still
appreciate the true things that Tom Frank writes. They comprise
a considerable amount. He's no Thomas Jefferson but at least he's
not Thomas Friedman. It could be even worse: we could be reading
an op-ed by Richard Cheney. Still, if we’re looking for wisdom from
a contemporary Kansas populist, we’re better off reading Caleb Stegall
than Thomas Frank.

Sarah Palin
deserves some criticism and at least a little praise, but I don't
think the house populist at The Wall Street Journal is the
place to look for a perspective on Palin coming from a place of
purity or consistency. I feel the same way about the Democratic
Party's house evangelical, Jim Wallis, critiquing Pat Robertson.
Ironically, the counterintuitive truth-telling that brings hinterland
writers like Frank and Wallis to national attention eventually gives
way to co-optation by elites far more interested in power and money
than truth. So now the "prophet" is famous, but he is
no longer prophetic.

Someone who
claims to be a truth teller fearlessly evaluating the Kansans, Palins,
and Robertsons should be able to do so without holding hands with
phony politicians and greedy journalists. Also, it doesn't take
much courage to pick on someone who's already down, already an object
of widespread ridicule. Will Tom write an equally frank portrayal
of Barack Obama's self-absorption, dishonesty, and inconsistencies?
It seems unlikely, but we can hope.

I'm not that
concerned about the alleged deficiencies of the Sunflower State.
Who has Kansas bombed lately? Does Kansas trash our culture or rob
us blind? I wonder, What's the Matter with Georgetown? With Beverly
Hills? With Manhattan?

November
21, 2009

Jeff
Taylor [send him mail] is
a political scientist at Jacksonville State University. He is working
on a book about the Republican Party called The Triumph of Liberalism.
Visit his website.

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