Sunday, April 09, 2006

What's the Matter with Kansas? Its not University Press of Kansas

I have good friends in Kansas, and one of my favorite things is to find some news story about the latest 13th century discovery by the state's political leaders and to zip a quick e-mail to them congratulating them on their location. (Very little to say about the egregious Pat Roberts as he plays Igor to the destruction of the Constitution, but, in some other country, he'd be very funny, and more comfortable. I recommend Pakistan.) So, when What's the Matter with Kansas? came out a while back, and having grown up in the Southwest myself, there wasn't much there that surprised me. It's hard to feel sorry for a state whose southwest portion persistently wants to secede (it's about as unhospitable part of the planet as you can imagine and it's draining out its water faster than we as a nation suck oil so good luck on the establishing your economy thing) but the state won't let it (overall state intelligence would leap into the double digits).

However, that said, Kansas does surprise in one way. Its university press (although it apparently got semi-dyslexic on how these things are named), the University Press of Kansas, consistently puts out more insightful material pound for pound than practically any other publisher in America. In a time when these presses are supposed to be concerned about their futures and finding it hard to operate, making playing it safe a common strategy, the UPK (as I affectionately call them) have put out some high quality treatises on how government operates that explain a great deal about how we got into the mess we call modern American "democracy."

As a recovering academic, I knew of the UPK from the booths it would occasionally have at conferences and saw that its offerings were usually interesting, something not always true of book booths at conferences. But my first notice of the different approach UPK frequently takes came from a book I picked up at the National Archives, believe it or not. It was by the best-known political scientist in Kansas (his name is on the tip of your tongue) and was the first one I'd seen to do an in-depth analysis of how timing alone had such a major impact on the actual policies and cases he studied. Nothing profound but, for those of us who had done state government policy from the inside, it had as much or more relevance as the more general and theoretical analyses usually found. (Okay, Burdett A. Loomis, Time, Politics, & Policies.)

So it hasn't been surprising to find that two of the more disturbing but most valuable explanations of the reasons why the US Constitution is facing the situation it faces today came from UPK. Everything going on right now was spelled out five years ago in Augustus B. Cochran III's (a good Kansas name) Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie. Cochran understood that the shameful capitulation of the rest of the nation to the South after Reconstruction and "Gone with the Wind" had favored the peculiar conditions necessary for a takeover of our national government by the single party, pseudo-Christian, anti-democratic genetics of that region. While leading non-Southerners insist that Southern leaders and voters really, really, really do believe in the Constitution and the system that it has created, Cochran looks at how they have run their states (direct evidence, imagine that), both when single-party Democrats or then single-party Republicans, and sees the same thing happening to the nation as a whole. Anyone wanting to understand how Bush II has accomplished the Texas-ification of our government and what is down the path if the Southern Republicans aren't stopped should read this as soon as possible. (Of course, a similar book by better known Michael Lind, Made in Texas, died on the sales charts, so you'd probably be better off learning to say "y'all" and what dry rub is.)

More recently, UPK came out with Gerald D. McKnight's Breach of Trust: How the Warren Commission Failed the Nation and Why. It would be interesting to see how well the Warren Commission would have been received now after all the national commissions that we have recognized as being formed solely for PR and whitewashing purposes. But the Warren Commission was created in a time of national credulity for elected leaders and their appointees and benefited from a willingness to suspend suspicion. McKnight documents why that was a mistake.

Imagine the story of the Kennedy Assassination being instead the story of the Benitez Assassination or the Orkov Assassination. We hear from Mexico or Russia that their president, almost daily pissing off their right-wing business and political establishment, not to mention zealots in the underground criminal and intelligence communities, with treaties and negotiations with enemies, with hints of pulling out of a needless, heedless war, with convicting their national Mafia types, with overtures to despised minority group leaders, had been shot dead while campaigning. Fortunately, the killer, who broke tradition with other pasts assassins by taking the worst possible rather than best possible shots at a moving and speeding up target (although with the help of magic bullets), had almost immediately been caught. And, glories, he had ties to one of the enemies, but maybe not, because he later proved to have ties with the criminal and intelligence communities. But there was no trial because he was unfortunately killed by a third-rate member of the criminal community to which the new killer owed a lot of money but the public wasn't made aware of any of this until years later. Neither, it turns out, was the "special commission" created to "investigate" the assassination, which was started with the explicit operating assumption that the Mexican/Russian/whatever public needed to be assured that there was only one killer and that he had been caught.

Do you think we might smile and roll our eyes a bit? But because it happened in America and because people in power or wanting power would never take illegal action to remove elected leaders or undermine the Constitution in the name of national security here and because credentialed intellectuals assure us that only crazy people believe in conspiracies like Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc., we accept the official version, at least politically. The bulk of the public hasn't bought that nonsense for a long time, but CBS can still be counted on to run the "you're all idiots" special periodically on the anniversary of Kennedy's death.

Well, McKnight will give CBS fits. He doesn't claim to have the answers about who killed JFK, but he does show how the Warren Commission was a hack job, improperly informed both intentionally and unintentionally, which fulfilled its actual purpose, to deny Americans the cold truth about their country at that time in our history, a truth that since has become more and more conspicuous. Our leaders had us accept a third-rate prosecutor's brief as a true verdict on what happened. While Cochran gives us the underlying foundation of the cancer upon which the Constitution and our democracy now wobble, McKnight shows us that it's not new. 9/11 didn't change everything, 11/22 did. Very few publishers will tell you that. UPK does, and God bless 'em. If Kansas does nothing else right in your lifetime, and a state with Pat Roberts as a senator probably can't, be thankful at least for that.