Tuesday, March 15, 2011

About Virgil Peck, Southeast Kansas, and state legislatures

A friend, knowing that I was born in Southeast Kansas and spent a couple of years working there, asks me about Virgil Peck. He's the state legislator who advocated shooting illegal immigrants like feral swine, then semi-apologized for it by saying: “I was just speaking like a southeast Kansas person."

Is that the way a Southeast Kansas person talks?

Yes. No. Kind of.

Southeast Kansas isn't really what most people think of when they think "Kansas." (I assume most people think flat, full of wheat fields, etc.) It's hilly country, with more trees than the rest of the state, and lots of abandoned mines that flourished a half-century or more ago. It is relatively poor, relatively uneducated, and a fairly depressing place to be. (At least, that's how I saw it during the two years I worked at the Parsons Sun, right after college.) In some ways, it has more in common with Arkansas and the Ozarks—which are relatively nearby—than with any other conception of "Kansas" I've ever held.

There are good people there. There are also a fair number of hillbillies. And there are more than a few people—the ones who remain—who have seen their livelihoods in the mining and railroad industries crumble (almost literally in some cases) from beneath them. And yes, I've heard the occasional suggestion that illegal immigrants be slaughtered by sharpshooters.

I've also heard it outside Southeast Kansas, for that matter. I had one relationship end, in part, because of a similar comment. (It wasn't the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was one of them.) So Virgil Peck wasn't really speaking "like a southeast Kansas person"—he was speaking like a hick. Hicks are everywhere. In Kansas, a lot of them get elected to the Legislature.

This, I gather, is a problem with state legislatures everywhere. There's a certain type of gregarious backslapping dummy who has no real viable skill except to get himself (it's usually men) elected to a low-level job that most locals don't really pay close attention to. They know they hate the "legislature" but they're pretty sure they like Virgil Peck. And the Pecks of the world, despite their all-pervading mediocrity, are convinced they're the smartest people in the world. It's an ugly mix, made more visible by the fact that there's often a reporter or two on the statehouse beat to publicize the more egregious gaffes.

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