ALAN JS DE ROCHEFORT-REYNOLDS
Volume 10, Issue 6
Wikipedia tells me that I’m not one of the ‘notable people from Concordia, Kansas’. Harsh. But probably fair. I’d also bet that I’m far from the most interesting person — my money is on Boston Corbett, the guy-who-shot-the-guy-who-shot-Abraham-Lincoln. He lived in a dugout cabin (otherwise known as a hole in the ground) outside town back in the 1880s. He was also a self-made eunuch. Because he was a weirdo.
The sting of unremarkableness is soothed somewhat by the realisation that no one in Melbourne, or the US for that matter, has really heard of Concordia or Kansas anyway. Or at least not beyond The Wizard of Oz and maybe In Cold Blood. But being known for murder, sparkly red shoes and a yapping dog is sub-optimal, so allow me to reintroduce myself … er … Kansas and tell you what growing up in a little town with a funny name is like.
The Kansas Tourism Department (I swear it’s real) alternately calls Kansas ‘the Sunflower State’, ‘the Wheat State’ and ‘the Central State’. So, yeah, they’re probably not the people to call if you need a rousing company slogan. But they’re descriptive as hell. People with a passion for the literal.
If you picture the US in your mind’s eye and put a pin in the middle of the country east-west and north-south, you’ve found Kansas. Smack dab in the middle of the Great Plains. Now guess what the main industry is. Farming, you say? Farming wheat and sunflowers? Yep, you nailed it. Honestly, the only thing they’re missing is ‘the Flat State’. Because Kansas is … wait for it … flat. Flatter than a pancake according to science.
Anyway, the point is that Kansas is overwhelmingly rural – physically it’s the size of NSW, but has a population less than half of Melbourne. One result is plenty of tiny towns: places like Tonganoxie, Wamego and Liberal. One of these is Concordia.
A tick over 5000 people call Concordia home. Its main claim to fame is being the seat of Cloud County, which means we have the courthouse, the library, a high school and a brand-new (but leaky) jail. Main Street’s called ‘6th Street’ but it’s got the requisite couple of restaurants, a bank, and sporting goods store. We have a rodeo in July. There’s even a Super Wal-Mart now. It has a grocery section and a deli. So, yeah, we’re kind of a big deal. Literally. It’s the biggest town for nearly 100 kilometres in all directions. We’re also 360 kilometres from the nearest city and airport.
By now you’ve probably noticed that this sounds a bit different from most accounts of ‘America’. And it should. See, here’s the thing — as JD Vance articulates in Hillbilly Elegy, there are multiple ‘Americas’; divided not only by geography but, more importantly, by cultural histories, access to social capital and economics. Perhaps this is an obvious point. But these divergences shape how individuals view the world and their place in it.
Full disclosure: as my terrible tattoo attests, my love for Kansas runs more than skin deep. And the longer I am away, the more I find that a rural upbringing moulded me – from my preferred music (country) to food (chicken-fried steak) to politics (I’ll let you guess). There were great perks: a small high school means that kids can be polymaths – in the band, playing sports and involved in plays and debate. We get to drive at 14. Plus, you can buy beer at the gas station. There’s open space and exciting weather: tornadoes, dust storms and blizzards. Folks there can be unbelievably kind and will always ask strangers ‘hey, how are ya?’
But Concordia, like many rural areas, is far from halcyon. The detritus of rural decay is all around: increasing poverty, unemployment and drug use coupled with population decline. The population has decreased by 20% since 1990. Houses are boarded up and stores downtown are empty. Childhood friends are in and out of jail, battling meth. The reasons for these shifts are complex and are just now beginning to be examined. But the changes have changed us — maybe for the worse.
Increasingly there’s a perceived lack of agency. I say ‘perceived’ because it’s not that locals lack the innate capacity to find and excel in jobs or education elsewhere, or that opportunities are absent. Instead, too often, rural people do not a) even know these opportunities exist or b) have access to social capital that would make grasping the chance by the horns more possible or c) have the funds to sustain it or d) believe they can achieve.
This is partly the result of geography (we’re a long way from major cities, 1500 miles from either coast) and partly being buffeted by far-off economic decisions. Wheat, Concordia’s main industry, is tied to the widely unstable global commodities market. Our one factory, Alstom, was shut down last month by its headquarters in Copenhagen; 200 people lost their jobs. We are those mentioned-in-passing losers of globalisation. Since 2008, Concordia’s per capita individual income has dropped to just over half the national average.
This isn’t to say that we can’t do more, you know, accept some accountability. Too often local problems are cast as the machinations of nefarious outsiders doing things to us. And heck, if we can’t control it, why even try, right? Wrong. Turns out, not everything is the fault of someone else (drunk driving, anyone?) and even things that are can be mitigated by pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. See, there’s a social element too. A prevailing view of rural people, particularly from the South and Great Plains is that of dim, backwards bumpkins. And while this view is not held by many Kansans, it has several effects. First, and this is less acute in Melbourne, there can be a stigma attached with coming from Kansas -- a presumption that you are overly-religious, intolerant and uncultured. It’s a fun reputation to have proceed you, particularly when it doesn’t jive with your self-perception. Second, it normalises underachievement. Finally, there is the enduring and well-utilised stereotype of ‘rednecks’, ‘hicks’ and ‘white-trash’. For many rural people, the fact that we can still be mocked in polite society without opprobrium reinforces geographic/socially-based limitations.
An unfortunate effect of these economic, social and self-imposed factors is that it spurs pride in insularity. For some of us this arises subconsciously, for others overtly. But it is manifest in many ways – from Facebook pages like ‘F*ck You, I’m from Kansas’ to religious conservatism, to support for Donny Trump. Frankly, I don’t think those last two are healthy (understatement). However, I would suggest that their impetus is generally not found in some local predilection for bigotry or inherent stupidity. Rather, they’re a response to environmental factors that are as ‘Kansas’ as wheat, tornadoes and (shudder) Toto. And, really, is it surprising?
So, I can only tell you what coming from one America – rural America – is like. The simple answer is that it is complicated. And, like fellow Kansan Amelia Earhart, some of us might get lost. But, with some luck and effort, we can do great things – two members of Obama’s cabinet were from Kansas. So is Erin Brockovich. Then again, so are (ugh) Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle and Paul Rudd.
Alan JS de Rochefort-Reynolds is a third-year JD student
The rest of this week's issue: