The myth of an eastern Kansas

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If you’ve spent much time in Kansas, you know that denizens of the Sunflower State are wont to divide their state into western and eastern regions. If you are reading this column in print, you likely believe that you are standing in the latter. But just where does eastern Kansas end and western Kansas begin?

Ask two Kansans, and you’ll get three different answers. A new arrival might suspect that the dividing line would be in the geographic center of the state, but that’s about the only place I’ve never seen a Kansan draw it.

Kansas City residents often think of western Kansas as everything beyond Lawrence. If they come to K-State, they’ll move the dividing line past Manhattan. In Salina, however, I’ve met people who I think would sooner draw blood than a partition to their east. I’ve never had the privilege of visiting Dodge City, but I’d be surprised if none of its residents insisted that western Kansas begins somewhere around Kansas’ western border.

The answers you’ll receive will share only one thing in common: they are given based on where a person lives in Kansas. Many Kansans, you’ll discover, share a desire to anoint themselves as residents of eastern Kansas and dismiss as many people as they can as natives of the west.

In truth, the distinction has little to do with cartography and everything to do with class identity. In our popular consciousness, eastern Kansas is a bastion of enlightenment, and western Kansas, in turn, the wilderness of a primitive caste.

What sounds like the separation of physical halves is often an abstract division between superiors and inferiors: a way for Kansans to dissociate themselves from the hayseeds that they imagine populate the rest of the state. It is an expression of a timeless desire to look down one’s nose at other people.

I don’t think much of the dichotomy. Yet I find it untenable not because we are all eastern Kansans, but because we are all western Kansans. That is to say, we are all objects of precisely the contempt that defines “western Kansas.”

This phenomenon, after all, is not unique to our state. Like Kansans writ large, Americans everywhere are eager to write off vast swaths of the nation as retrograde backwaters.

Throughout the Midwest, disparaging the entire American South and its tens of millions of residents is acceptable public discourse. This scorn is outmatched only in the coastal megalopoleis, whose residents often seem to hold most of the states that sit between them in equally low regard. I once heard a D.C. commuter say something to the effect that he would sooner visit Chechnya than Missouri.

Western Kansans, it seems, don’t always live in Kansas — but they are everywhere the same. They are always those people who indulge in such savage practices as churchgoing, learning their neighbors’ names and starting families before the age of 40.

Anyone below oneself on the modern hierarchy can be said to belong to this low caste. Then-Senator Barack Obama is often quoted as saying, as he did in 2008, that working-class voters “cling to guns or religion.” What is often forgotten is that Obama was not explaining his difficulties with southern Republicans in the general election, but with Pennsylvanian supporters of Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primary.

Ultimately, then, our desire to disassociate ourselves from our fellow Kansans amounts to a futile sort of Stockholm syndrome. No matter how secular and cosmopolitan you may be, you still live in a flyover state — and thus may as well be a western Kansan to someone a rung higher on the derision ladder.

For some perspective, imagine meeting a student from Arkansas who assured you that, though he physically hails from the state of Arkansas, he isn’t from that Arkansas. At best, your perceptions would be unchanged. At worst, you might lose respect both for the state of Arkansas and the groveling student.

Rather than trying to appease this hierarchy, Kansans should challenge it. We might ask ourselves whether entertainment is really more valuable than agriculture, or the periphery really more valuable than the center. Moreover, we might ask whether a drive from Boston to New York is more beautiful than a drive through the Flint Hills. To use a timely illustration, I don’t think it’s incidental that the character of Superman is a Kansan; there is something in the very archetype of Superman that requires he be from Kansas.

No matter where its western half begins, I like Kansas just fine. The longer I’ve lived in it, in fact, the less I want to disassociate myself from my flyover state. When I travel, I don’t assure people that I am from the best part of Kansas. I say that I’m from Kansas.

Ian Huyett is a senior in political science and anthropology. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.

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