Thursday, June 30, 2005

RTT: "Welcome to the Jungle" by Avian

(About RTT.)

In the Old West, Wichita was the destination of cattlemen as they drove their herds up through Texas and Oklahoma on the Chisholm Trail to waiting railroad cars. It’s a place that grew a nasty reputation for conflict and violence, as it made names like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson famous. The muddy thoroughfares have been paved over and the horses replaced by pickup trucks, but this city of 400,000+ is the battleground for another type of conflict – the so-called culture wars. Unlike what other areas of Kansas may experience, the opposing forces in this battle are pretty evenly matched here.

The aircraft industry that sprung up in the early part of the 20th century has brought an unusually large number of wealthy and/or educated individuals from all over the world. I suspect that the numerous local universities like Wichita State and the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita have also had a positive contribution to the seeding of intelligent, reasonable people in the area over the decades. A recent study reported that Wichita’s kids have a very high rate of college graduation compared to similar cities.

But it’s still Kansas, and the homegrown bigotry, hatred, and ignorance that have made the state famous for the past several years are in full force in Wichita. Like other cities, they are well mobilized by the national and regional “Christian”-based forces that have become prominent,

I’ve lived in Wichita for almost six years now, moving here from Boston. My hometown is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I’m the proud product of an inner-city public education. I grew up next to some of the worst projects and neighborhoods a major U.S. city has to offer. How I ended up in the field of astronomy education is a stroke of luck I’ll have to tell on another day.

To make things even stranger, my wife and I bought a farm 50 miles outside of town (right on the old Chisholm Trail no less) not long after I got here. Nothing but wheat fields as far as the eye can see. So now I live in rural Kansas – which might as well be in a different solar system compared to “the big city” where I work and spend a lot of time. When some people from this area head into Wichita, they make sure their windows are rolled up, and have that crowbar under the seat handy. Adorable!

If there’s a larger discharge of cultural potential energy in one’s life, I can’t imagine it.

I don’t mean that in a negative way entirely by any means. Most people in Kansas are hardworking, levelheaded, and the friendliest people you’re likely to meet on the planet. I don’t know where I’d be without the support of my neighbors (by neighbors, I mean anyone living in a 3 mile radius – which is only a few people!) I quickly had to readjust my city habits of avoiding eye contact while walking down the street, and ignoring the checker at the supermarket. Yes, there is a place in America where people still care about each other, and who reach out to meet and help others. It’s Kansas.

That’s why it makes me so angry to see these good people being led down the path of stupidity and hate that make all the national headlines: amending the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage, taking science out of the classroom and replacing it with religious-based garbage, and preaching intolerance, hate and fear over the airwaves and in church every Sunday. It doesn’t help that most of these good folk have no idea how their actions are being ridiculed around the world. Kansans are better than that – they shouldn’t be made to play the fool.

In my future posts, I aim to fight this. Not just by whining and complaining about it here, but by taking positive action. Getting people involved is the only way to help turn the tide. Get Kansans involved in science – if they actually understand what it is by getting involved and excited by it, they’ll be less likely to throw it out of the classroom. Let them personally get to know gays and lesbians who are the patriotic Americans living next door. Talk is cheap. Engage their hearts and minds from a positive direction.

I’m an optimist living in an air bubble on the Kansas pancake. Next week: A lay of the land.


P.S. Props to Josh for letting me have the keys once in awhile. He’s really made his blog something special.