Thursday, April 12, 2007

Hicks, Kansas and New England

This will be a bit of a funny mixed up post.

In my last post on Kipling, the Mufti and the Clash of Values I discussed (among other things) the need to defend free speech or risk loss of the very things we value.

I have now had a chance to read the transcript of the Four Corners Program on David Hicks. Back in January in what was to have been my final post on the Hicks matter, I concluded:

The problem with the Hicks case, at least as I see it, is that the treatment of David Hicks has increasingly breached these principles (rule of law, equality before the law). It is easy to uphold the principles of the rule of law and equality before the law when a matter is popular, much harder when the matter is unpopular. Yet it is how we handle the second that determines the longer term strength of the principles and of our freedom.

This was a very similar point to that I was trying to make in my last post. Reading the Four Corners transcript did nothing to allay my fears. Maybe I am wrong. Do read it and form your own views. As an aside, Geoff Robinson had an interesting post, On Trials, that provides further context.

I found the Thomas Frank's description of Kansas quoted by Neil(Ninglun) depressing. Essentially Frank argues that in the face of economic decline people in Kansas have moved to the right, adopting more extreme positions not related to their real problems or to their solutions. David Anderson, too, worries about and is depressed by changes in the US.

I have not read Frank's book nor do I fully understand all the complexities of the US experience, although I understand enough to know that there are profound cultural differences between the US and Australia despite the apparent similarities. However, I did read the Kansas material from a different frame to Neil.

A few facts, first.

Kansas is a mid-west US agricultural state with an area a bit more than 82,000 square miles (this makes it a bit bigger than New England's 75,000 square miles) and a population of 2.7 million. Like many parts of Australia including New England, Kansas along with nearby states has been suffering rural depopulation. To quote Wikipedia:

Kansas, as well as five other Midwest states (Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa), is feeling the brunt of a falling population. Out of all the cities in these states, 89% have fewer than 3000 people, and hundreds of those have fewer than 1000. In Kansas alone, there are more than 6,000 ghost towns, according to Kansas historian Daniel Fitzgerald. And between 1996 and 2004, almost half a million people (nearly half of those having college degrees) left the six states surveyed. This "Rural flight," as it is called, has led to offers of free land and tax breaks as enticements to newcomers.

Kansas's history is very different from that of any Australian state or region, far bloodier and more complicated, but this pattern of regional decline is replicated in Australia.

If we take New England as an example, in some ways a worse case because we lack self-government and hence have a reduced capacity to respond in a proactive fashion, we too have suffered from rural decline, loss of locally owned businesses, loss of the middle ranking jobs, migration of our young and the better educated. I dealt with some of the outcomes in my post NewEngland's Poor Towns.

Like Kansas, New England has a rural populist tradition, a tradition that has helped form my own political views. Unlike Kansas where this tradition was absorbed by the major political parties, New England developed regional political responses that stood outside the Liberal/Labor divide. But again like Kansas, we have seen a decline in the creative power of the populist stream, an increase in conservative responses.

The problem in both areas is that those who leave are younger and better educated, the very people who should provide future leadership. At the local level, it becomes harder to do new things simply because there a fewer people able and willing to take activist roles. This feeds into further declines in the economic and social infrastructure.

Those living in these areas can see the problems, but struggle to define effective responses. It is very easy in these circumstances to go for more extreme views.


Anonymous said...

Franks writes from a somewhat nostalgic stance, obviously being an admirer of the populism (US historical sense)/agrarian socialism which characterised much Kansas politics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is stuck by the way today Kansas Republicans have been sidetracked into identifying with what he sees as their "class enemies" by taking on the agenda of the extreme Christian Right. It is a very lively and original book, but I couldn't help thinking Franks's nostalgia also is a touch unrealistic, a bit like a Labor supporter wanting to revive the policies of Curtin and Chifley, or a National Party person wanting to revert to the ideas of the Country Party circa 1955... Though in the light of recent developments part of me well understands why people would wish to revisit both! One aspect I could not communicate through my brief extract is the fascinating detail and the personal profiles of the various leading players in the politics of the place. You may get much of the flavour by reading other articles of Thomas Franks's site. The book itself is in the remainder shop at Central Station. I think you would find it very interesting.

It does break down the easy assumptions we so often see about "red" and "blue" states; that is the book's greatest virtue. It is rooted more in an empathic understanding of the problems regional areas there and here face than many a more party-political analysis usually is. Franks is not patronising about his Kansans, in fact he clearly loves them, though he despairs at the direction they have chosen.

The differences between there and here emerge strongly as well, as I said when I said it was simultaneously familiar and alien.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, thanks very much indeed for this comment. I did not have time to research Franks, so did not realise how much we have in common.

I agree we cannot go back in time and indeed would not want to recreate the CP of 1955. It may be better than many aspects today, indeed it was, but I hark back to an even earlier period.

I think that any political philosophy needs constant refreshment, modification, extension.

The establishment of UNE meant a burst of academic writing, but this has vanished since the early 1980. Entire fields of Australian human experience have vanished from the light as a consequence, while the associated political philosophies connected with the regional movements have stailed and attenuated.

I very much feel another post coming on.