Iris DeMent Sings Thomas Frank’s Missing Chapter


By Tom Smucker

Lifeline, Iris DeMent, Flariella Records
The Way I Should, Iris DeMent, Warner Brothers
What’s The Matter With Kansas, Thomas Frank, Metropolitan Books
Spirit and Flesh, James M Ault Jr, Knopf
American Jesus, Stephen Prothero, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

What’s The Matter With Kansas is one of those books passed around and recommended by friends to explain the continuing rightward lurch of the USA, and Thomas Frank himself, funny in person as well as in print, appears to be the keynote speaker at all conferences to the left of the DLC.   Besides the fact that what he’s saying is true, Frank’s thesis gains traction because he comes across as having genuine affection for the working class pro-life, creationist activists he profiles.  Briefly put, Frank sees his native Kansas as the prototype for a nationwide right wing forged by the corporate class accommodating itself to anti-elite culture-issue voters kept at a boil since the Democratic Party abandoned economic issues that matter to working people.  Kansans lose ground while taxes are cut, the rich grow richer, and ambitious politicians take the corporate cash and learn to use God-centric lingo.  

I think it’s a great book, short and entertaining enough to loan to a friend; not the kind of book that should be scrutinized for a tightly reasoned academic argument.   But it does leave itself open to one line of attack: isn’t this just a fancy new version of the old left “false consciousness” line?  Isn’t Frank saying that if the anti-evolution school board activists really knew what they really really wanted, they’d be joining the Communist Party, oops, er, um, reading The Nation

Actually, Frank believes the working class of Kansas has been abandoned by the left, with nowhere to turn but activism drained of any economic interpretation, and suggests the anti-evolution activists may be Pentecostal Abbie Hoffmans, cooking up new ways to freak out the snobs.  Still, there is a whiff of the false consciousness argument here, because Frank leaves the impression that religion is something people turn to when the role of business is removed from their politics.  So right-wingers can dismiss him as just another secularist trying to reimpose his atheistic world-view on the faithful.  Kansas is too good a book to allow that attack to succeed.  In defense, I would offer the following CDs and books to elaborate beyond Frank’s basic argument.     

Iris DeMent occupies the same musical space between country and folk as her occasional touring and singing partner John Prine.  Sometimes this is called Americana, or Roots music, and DeMent can out-rootsy anyone, but she has irked the taste police of this tasteful genre by lurching from old-timey backed confessional insight to folk-rock social critiques to a whole pile of old hymns (and one self-penned song about Jesus) on her latest album Lifeline.  Folkies may recognize a couple of these from the Joan Baez repertoire; some are songs we sing with the words changed at my liberal Protestant church on Sunday.  But DeMent achieves a kind of miracle.  She skips the smug satisfaction and washed-out enervation of much white Christianity as well as the hats-off-to-mama obligatory nod of country stars occasional sacred albums.  Instead, she sings like her life depends on it, the Okie Aretha, with a desperation we usually attribute to black gospel music, as if the music is indeed a lifeline. 

What’s this got to do with Thomas Frank?   Iris is on the left; check out “Wasteland of the Free” on her CD The Way I Should.  Sample stanza: “We got CEO’s makin’ 200 times the workers’ pay/ But they’ll fight like hell against raisin’ the minimum wage/ And if you don’t like it mister/ They’ll ship your job to some third world country ‘cross the sea/ And it feels like I’m living in the wasteland of the free.”  But she inhabits the same secular, well, wasteland as those anti-evolution activists in Kansas, with many of the same cultural reference points.  As Iris sings it, the quest for meaning and personal grounding  in a de-industrialized, globalized, brutalized consumer culture can turn to tradition without turning towards intolerance.  “These songs aren’t about religion,” she writes in the liner notes.  “At least for me they aren’t.  They’re about something bigger than that.”

 This is doubly important because the secular white left sometimes “allows” African-Americans a spirituality considered out of date or out of bounds for Euro-Americans.  Everyone from John Kerry to Alexander Cockburn practices this weird double standard, where a political position intertwined with religion is tolerated from blacks but not from whites.  That’s the open playing field George W Bush runs in for his frequent touchdowns.  If only Blacks can mix politics and traditional religion on the left, then when a white person works that angle, they must be on the right.  Not true, sings Iris.

This is dangerous terrain.  With that cat out of that bag, we might have something in common with those anti-abortion activists out in Wichita.  James M. Ault Jr. explores this possibility in Spirit and Flesh, a description of his time spent researching a right-wing born-again Christian church down the Turnpike from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts.

There are a number of things to like about the book, besides the fact that it takes everyone seriously as human beings.  For one, these Falwellites live and worship in ultra-liberal western Massachusetts; this red state is in the next town.  For another, Ault lets you watch him shuffle between them and his post-modern academic buddies over at Brown.  (Guess who comes across as the more intolerant?)  By book’s end, Ault, a lapsed Methodist has even been inspired by his born-again friends and becomes . . .a liberal Episcopalian!   Holy connection!

Ault parses out how the religion actually works in the working class lives of the congregation.  For instance, the sex role differences backed up by Bible verses that seem retrograde to outsiders in the professions are used within the community to increase interactions between husband and wife.   The emphasis on family sustains extended families that are the crucial safety net; the sexual morality is applied with more elasticity than the rhetoric suggests. 

Taking this one last step in American Jesus, Stephen Prothero shows us the salesman Jesus, the Black radical Jesus, the reform Jew Jesus, the biker Jesus, the sexually ambiguous Jesus, the Muslim Jesus and suggests that something in our culture or political structure, (maybe the absence of a state religion),  requires a mediating metaphor.  If true, Thomas Frank’s fellow Kansans are onto something, and it might be better to acknowledge that and work out the differences from there rather than jumping off from an a priori “Are you out of your f. . . . . . . mind?”   Those of us lucky enough to experience inspiring political movements know that engagement can be fulfilling without being, to use the current phrase, faith-based.  But trying to re-establish some sacred space in a world drained of meaning by corporate culture shouldn’t be left to those who can only pull towards reaction.

 Iris DeMent knows it isn’t easy, but show’s that it’s possible, even necessary.  The art of her singing manages to locate and highlight the psychological payoff inside the idiom of traditional southern white Gospel music.   But the urgency in her voice leaves an open question.  Is this the sound of someone reclaiming a tradition, or the sound of a tradition being ripped away from the Left for good?  Thomas Frank lays out what happened in Kansas.  Is Ohio next?

First of the Month 2005