By Kelsey Murrell
Nov 13, 2012
Tuesday night I watched the election from Oxford with people from all over the world. One of the best parts of watching the election from here was having the opportunity to listen to my friends from other nations give their perspective on the American elections. Studying topics like citizenship, nationalism, and sovereignty in my course, Refugee and Forced Migration, forces me to question some of the assumptions I have about belonging, membership, identity, and the concept of home. Even while I question what these concepts mean and even while I very much identify as a world citizen and I can relate to and identify with my friends from other nations on a human level, I have to admit that I’ve never before felt more American. More than that, I’ve never felt more Midwestern. I’ve never been more certain that I am a Kansan.
That is why Kansas’s Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s words featured in this Kansas City Star article offended me and prompted this response. Here’s an excerpt:
More broadly, Kobach says Kansans who disagree with the state’s tilt are free to leave
“Americans can vote with their feet,” he said, “and choose a state that reflects their values and the way of life they’d like to enjoy.
“If a person wants to live in a San Francisco lifestyle, they can go there. If they want to live a Kansas lifestyle, they can come here.”
First, I want to address what it means to be a Kansan. There is not a single Kansas identity just like there is not a single American identity. With that said, I have as much of a right to define what it means to be a Kansan as Kris Kobach does. Every Kansan has this right. His words suggest that if someone doesn’t agree with the dominant views at the time, then he or she is less of a Kansan and should therefore leave.
Let’s apply this to a family structure. If I were the only Democrat in my family would that mean that I do not belong in my family? That perhaps I should look for a new one somewhere else? No. The bonds of family transcend political differences even if those differences create tension. In my family even when those differences create screaming fights or disdainful silence during election years, we are still family. I’m not suggesting that politics or even religion or culture do not matter. They absolutely matter and they have profound impacts on our lives. It is the case that sometimes there are breaks in family ties over these factors. Those breaks are painful and if it were ever to happen to me I would long for my family to accept and love me. Even if I could see how different I was than my family, I would still feel at the core of my being a longing to belong. Why? Because I should belong with them. Put simply, they are my people no matter how different we become. When conflict arises, I do not isolate myself from my family, but instead we work through our problems together. When conflict cannot be resolved, we agree to disagree. Overcoming differences and conflict within a family to reach a point of love and respect is not always easy. It is far more work than walking away and it takes far greater integrity of character. But it is the right thing to do. That is how I feel about Kansas.
Kansas is not just a state that provides certain services that I can get elsewhere. It is much more than simply a location to reside in. It is my community and it is my home. I did not choose Kansas. I was born there and it has profoundly shaped who I am. I do not believe there is one right way to conceptualize Kansas-ness, but I do believe such a thing as Kansas identity exists. A recent example is the “F*ck You I’m From Kansas” Facebook page dedicated to “Kansas art, artists, culture, and character” that has close to 20,000 likes. Residents from all over Kansas send in pictures and stories. There are photos and stories from rural western Kansas and shout outs to Lawrence, Topeka, Wichita, and Kansas City. There are photos of Kansas landscapes and Kansas-specific jokes and history. There are photos celebrating both KU basketball and K-State football. Even if one considers this page inappropriate for its “potty-mouthed” nature, as this article in the Pitch refers to it, it is a place where Kansans are coming together in celebration of our great state even as we experience that state differently.
Secondly, Kansas has not always been a red state like we see today. The article in the Kansas City Star referenced Thomas Frank’s Whats the Matter with Kansas: How conservatives won the heart of America which in addition to examining the conservative ideals that permeate Kansas also discusses the progressive movements in Kansas’s history. Sarah Smarsh also discusses Kansas as a “battleground of sorts.” In her introduction she references Kansas’s progressive beginnings:
Wedged between the abolitionist North and the pro-slavery South, Kansas saw many bloody battles during its formative years as a free state. True to their progressive origins, Kansans in later decades would provide a new home for former slaves fleeing the South; lend considerable momentum to the women’s suffrage movement; organize historic labor strikes; invent the modern mental health hospital; lead the aircraft industry; help spearhead the lawsuit that led to desegregation; and turn a tornado-ravaged town into a world-class prototype of eco-friendly building.
Sarah Smarsh. It Happened in Kansas: Remarkable Events that Shaped History (Kindle Locations 19-21). Kindle Edition.
My point here is that there is not one set of Kansas values. There is not one “Kansas lifestyle” as I’m sure you would discover if you sat down with both someone from Johnson County and someone from Colby, Kansas and let’s not even get so crazy as to include Lawrence. Kansas is made up of Kansans and each one of us has our own views and our own voices and this is true even if we set politics aside. We are different from each other because we are all individuals shaped by different experiences and world views.
Finally, using the phrase “vote with their feet” has a lot of connotations and I will touch on two of them. The first one that springs to mind is people fleeing communist countries and therefore “voting with their feet” as President Carter said of the Cubans fleeing Castro’s regime in the Mariel boat lift. Because I don’t think that Kobach was trying to compare the Kansas state government to Fidel Castro (however much liberals would love to run with this comparison), I will entertain the idea that he was referring more to Milton Friedman’s idea of foot voting. That is, under smaller government Americans could have the advantage of choosing a new community if they did not like the way services or resources were provided in their current one. While this might seem logical at first glance, it suggests that states and local communities are no more than what services and resources they provide. It also does not acknowledge the power that the members of communities have. What is beautiful about America is not that we can choose to leave a place if we do not like something about it, but instead that we have the power and the right to change it. We do not have to vote with our feet because we can vote with our ballots and with our voices. I have never been more aware of the beauty of that than I am now.
I study refugee and forced migration. Everyday I read about people who have to leave their homes behind. Refugees are persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion per the definition in the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a definition which the United States has adopted. Every day I study people who have been forced from their communities because of how they differ from the current regimes in control. We are so unbelievably lucky that we do not have to vote with our feet. Our country and our states cannot make us leave because we are our country and we are our states. Kris Kobach, you alone are not Kansas. Every Kansas voice is just as important as yours. Even if the majority of Kansans vote Republican or support certain views at this time in history, it does not mean that the rest of us are any less Kansan just as republicans are no less American because a democrat was re-elected president last Tuesday.
I was born in Kansas and I’ve lived there for most of my life. I find myself very influenced by the “battleground” history outlined by Smarsh. I come from a place of warring ideals. Smarsh points out that even the weather fights in Kansas. But it is also a place of love and acceptance. It is a place where I learned to love and respect my home even as I recognized problems in it. I learned about duty to one’s community. I can never walk away from the place that invested so much in me. It is a place of strength and it is place of neighborliness. In Kansas I learned a strong work ethic and a sense of duty to others. I learned not to simply profess big ideas and values but to live them in the every day with every interaction. Someone told me once that it’s easier to fight the world’s fight on a bigger stage but much more difficult to live out those same ideals in your own actions. Yes, it is. And my dad would call professing those ideals without living them “plastic” as in not real, not genuine, or down-to-earth. Kansans are not plastic. The landscape is important to me. Although the architecture here in Oxford is beautiful and majestic, it is still confining. I long for open spaces. Here, everywhere I look there are buildings and walls and twisting roads. I miss looking out over long stretches of fields or neighborhoods. There’s a sense of possibility in those moments. Kansas is a place for dreamers. Of course, the University of Kansas and the city of Lawrence will always be one of my homes. That community invested so much in me–I would not be who I am today and I most certainly would not be studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar with out those people.
Kansas should not be defined by exclusion. It should not be defined by who we keep out and who does not belong. It should be defined instead by what all of its members do and believe and contribute. In that spirit I want to know what it means to others to be a Kansan. Is it the land? Is it the values and if so, what values? Is it your communities, your churches, your schools? What does Kansas mean to you?