Is Texas America?
Well, sheesh. I don't know whether to warn you that because George Dubya Bush is President the whole damn country is about to be turned into Texas (a singularly horrible fate: as the country song has it: "Lubbock on Everythang") or if I should try to stand up for us and convince the rest of the country we're not all that insane.
Truth is, I've spent much of my life trying, unsuccessfully, to explode the myths about Texas. One attempts to explain--with all good will, historical evidence, nasty statistics and just a bow of recognition to our racism--that Texas is not The Alamo starring John Wayne. We're not Giant, we ain't a John Ford western. The first real Texan I ever saw on TV was King of the Hill's Boomhauer, the guy who's always drinking beer and you can't understand a word he says.
So, how come trying to explode myths about Texas always winds up reinforcing them? After all these years, I do not think it is my fault. The fact is, it's a damned peculiar place. Given all the horseshit, there's bound to be a pony in here somewhere. Just by trying to be honest about it, one accidentally underlines its sheer strangeness.
Here's the deal on Texas. It's big. So big there's about five distinct and different places here, separated from one another geologically, topographically, botanically, ethnically, culturally and climatically. Hence our boring habit of specifying East, West and South Texas, plus the Panhandle and the Hill Country. The majority of the state's blacks live in East Texas, making it more like the Old South than the Old South is anymore. West Texas is, more or less, like Giant, except, like every place else in the state, it has an incurable tendency toward the tacky and all the cowboys are brown. South Texas is 80 percent Hispanic and a weird amalgam of cultures. You get names now like Shannon Rodriguez, Hannah Gonzalez and Tiffany Ruiz. Even the Anglos speak English with a Spanish accent. The Panhandle, which sticks up to damn near Kansas, is High Plains, like one of those square states, Nebraska or the Dakotas, except more brown folks. The Hill Country, smack dab in the middle, resembles nothing else in the state.
Plus, plopped on top of all this, we have three huge cities, all among the ten largest in the country. Houston is Los Angeles with the climate of Calcutta, Dallas is Dutch (clean, orderly and conformist), while San Antonio is Monterrey North. Many years ago I wrote of this state: "The reason the sky is bigger here is because there aren't any trees. The reason folks here eat grits is because they ain't got no taste. Cowboys mostly stink and it's hot, oh God, is it hot.... Texas is a mosaic of cultures, which overlap in several parts of the state, with the darker layers on the bottom. The cultures are black, Chicano, Southern, freak, suburban and shitkicker. (Shitkicker is dominant.) They are all rotten for women." All that's changed in thirty years is that suburban is now dominant, shitkicker isn't so ugly as it once was and the freaks are now Goths or something. So it could be argued we're becoming more civilized.
In fact, it was always easy to argue that: Texas has symphony orchestras and great universities and perfect jewels of art museums (mostly in Fort Worth, of all places). It has lots of people who birdwatch, write PhD theses on esoteric subjects and speak French, for chrissake. But what still makes Texas Texas is that it's ignorant, cantankerous and ridiculously friendly. Texas is still resistant to Howard Johnsons, Interstate highways and some forms of phoniness. It is the place least likely to become a replica of everyplace else. It's authentically awful, comic and weirdly charming, all at the same time.
Culturally, Texans rather resemble both Alaskans (hunt, fish, hate government) and Australians (drink beer, hate snobs). The food is quite good--Mexican, barbecue, chili, shrimp and chicken-fried steak, an acquired taste. The music is country, blues, folk mariachi, rockabilly and everything else you can think of. Mexican music--norteño, ranchero--is poised to cross over, as black music did in the 1950s.
If you want to understand George W. Bush--unlike his daddy, an unfortunate example of a truly Texas-identified citizen--you have to stretch your imagination around a weird Texas amalgam: religion, anti-intellectualism and machismo. All big, deep strains here, but still an odd combination. Then add that Bush is just another li'l upper-class white boy out trying to prove he's tough.