Monday, June 19, 2006

An ad in Times Square can’t cure Kansas’ problems

By Diane Silver
Kansas is not nearly as reactionary as most people probably believe. However, today's news that the state has spent $40,000 on a Times Square ad to spiff up our image is an occasion for anger, a bit of despair and yes, when I think about it more, even a smidgen of hope. But that hope doesn't have a darn thing to do with the state's new commercial.

The Lawrence Journal-World reports that a 30-second commercial will begin running Thursday on the 26-foot-tall CBS Super Screen in New York City. The newspaper notes:
State tourism and business development officials said today they hope the ad will dispel some of the negative news that has come out of Kansas in recent months, citing coverage of the BTK serial murders, the political fight over evolution and military funeral picketing by a Kansas church family.
I am not a native Kansan, and I’m not certain whether that makes my view of my adopted state more objective or more jaded. After more than 20 years of living in the Sunflower State, though, my first reaction to this news is anger.

Despite the fact that people think spin and advertising can cure any problem, no amount of spin can turn garbage into a rose. The truth is that Kansas has been wallowing in garbage for years.

The problem isn’t a lack of decent TV commercials, or even one serial killer. (Note to government officials in Topeka: Other states have had serial killers and survived with their reputations intact.)

The real problem is far deeper and more complex.

The first part of our predicament comes from a tightly organized minority of mega-churches and religious radicals. They don’t appear to believe in freedom of religion, democracy, the Golden Rule or the ideals of the Enlightenment. Actually, they don’t seem to have noticed that we now live in the 21st Century.

What these folks do believe in, though, is good, old-fashioned, precinct-by-precinct politics. They’ve done something we, their opposition, haven’t: They’ve worked like mad, and they’ve figured out how to tell their story and win elections.

But the work of the religious right isn’t the only difficulty this state faces. We -- the moderate and progressive people of Kansas -- have failed, and we’ve done it in a big way.

Many moderate Republicans, for example, once colluded, and some still do, with the radical right in the mistaken idea that the radicals would help them keep power. For their efforts, most GOP moderates have been booted out of positions of authority in the state party. Many moderates also can’t get past the religious radicals who run against them in Republican primaries.

Meanwhile, some (many?) progressive Democrats and independents have decided, unwisely, that winning in Kansas is impossible. Perhaps, we have simply forgotten how to do the hard work of political organizing.

Progressive ideals and approaches are seldom discussed around this state, while the far right seems to have a continuously droning megaphone. If the public is not educated about our ideas and policies, how can we possibly win an argument, let alone an election?

Kansans are fine people.

Many of us work hard for our ideals, but many more fail to stand up to bullies like Topeka’s Fred Phelps and his clan. (Those infamous church-family picketers mentioned in the news story.) Far too many appear to have suffered a catastrophic failure of courage in the face of the constant onslaught of hate from people like Phelps.

I witnessed that first hand last year when I was communications chair of the Kansans For Fairness campaign to defeat a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Our group struggled to find an office to rent in Topeka, the traditional home of statewide campaigns.

No one would rent to us because no one was willing to have our name up in their window. The concern, as I understood it, was that Phelps and his kids would show up with their nasty signs. After a long search, we finally found an office, and yes, it was in Topeka. However, we were only allowed to use that office on one condition – that we would tell no one about our location or who had rented to us.

I won’t break that confidence today. However, the fact that no one had the courage to openly rent to us is merely one sign of an insidious cowardice that has infected Kansas for too long. No television commercial – no matter how brilliant – can change that.

The good news is that every day there are signs that Kansans are waking up from their long sojourn in the land of fear.

The signs include Republican leaders jumping to the Democratic Party, new organizations like the Mainstream Voices of Faith and the snowballing effort to defeat the religious radicals on the state Board of Education. Western Kansas farmers Don and Betsy Hineman, their Kansas Alliance for Education along with Kansas Families United for Public Education are working beside the MAINstream Coalition to overthrow the radicals on the state board.

One of the signs I find most encouraging is the health of the fledgling Kansas Equality Coalition. (I’m not objective. I helped create the coalition.) Pushing for fair laws for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Kansans, the Equality Coalition has organized chapters in more liberal college towns like Lawrence and Manhattan, but it has also organized in Johnson County, Wichita and even in the cowboy country around Dodge City.

I know I’m missing some of the progressive work that’s going on in Kansas right now, but you get the idea.

The good news for our state is that transformation is possible. Even more important is the fact that as individual Kansans, we are not helpless. The power to change the reality and with it, to change the image of Kansas is in our hands. No TV commercial, no matter how big or beautiful, can do that.

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