EDITOR’S NOTE: In the 1920s The Nation published a series of articles by prominent writers about their home states. We have recently commissioned a number of contemporary writers to do the same. The result is the just-published These United States (Nation Books), several articles from which have appeared in these pages. This is the last.
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.
The politics are probably the weirdest thing about Texas. The state has gone from one-party Democrat to one-party Republican in thirty years. Lyndon said when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that it would take two generations and cost the Democrats the South. Right on both counts. We like to think we’re “past race” in Texas, but of course East Texas remains an ugly, glaring exception. After James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death near Jasper, only one prominent white politician attended his funeral–US Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Dubya, then governor, put the kibosh on the anti-hate crimes bill named in Byrd’s memory. (The deal-breaker for Bush was including gays and lesbians. At a meeting last year of the Texas Civil Liberties Union board, vicious hate crimes against gays in both Dallas and Houston were discussed. I asked the board member from Midland if they’d been having any trouble with gay-bashing out there. “Hell, honey,” she said, with that disastrous frankness one can grow so fond of, “there’s not a gay in Midland would come out of the closet for fear people would think they’re a Democrat.”)
Among the various strains of Texas right-wingism (it is factually incorrect to call it conservatism) is some leftover loony John Birchism, now morphed into militias; country-club economic conservatism, à la George Bush père; and the usual batty antigovernment strain. Of course Texas grew on the tender mercies of the federal government–rural electrification, dams, generations of master pork-barrel politicians and vast subsidies to the oil and gas industry. But that has never interfered with Texans’ touching but entirely erroneous belief that this is the Frontier, and that in the Old West every man pulled his own weight and depended on no one else. The myth of rugged individualism continues to afflict a generation raised entirely in suburbs with names like “Flowering Forest Hills of Lubbock.”
The Populist movement was born in the Texas Hill Country, as genuinely democratic an uprising as this country has ever known. It produced legendary politicians for generations, including Ralph Yarborough, Sam Rayburn, Lyndon and even into the 1990s, with Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. I think it is not gone, but only sleeping.
Texans retain an exaggerated sense of state identification, routinely identifying themselves when abroad as Texans, rather than Americans or from the United States. That aggravated provincialism has three sources. First, the state is so big (though not so big as Alaska, as they are sure to remind us) that it can take a couple of days hard travel just to get out of it. Second, we reinforce the sense of difference by requiring kids to study Texas history, including roughly ten years as an independent country. In state colleges, the course in Texas government is mandatory. Third, even national advertising campaigns pitch brands with a Texas accent here and certain products, like the pickup truck, are almost invariably sold with a Texas pitch. (Makes sense: Texas leads the nation with more than four million registered pickups.)
The founding myth is the Alamo. I was raised on the Revised Standard Version, which holds that while it was stupid of Travis and the gang to be there at all (Sam Houston told them to get the hell out), it was still an amazing last stand. Stephen Harrigan in The Gates of the Alamo is closer to reality, but even he admits in the end there was something romantic and even noble about the episode, like having served in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.
According to the demographers at Texas A&M (itself a source of much Texas lore), Texas will become “majority minority” in 2008. Unfortunately, we won’t see it in the voting patterns for at least a generation, and by then the Republicans will have the state so tied up by redistricting (recently the subject of a massive standoff, now over, in the legislature), it’s unlikely to shift for another generation beyond that. The Christian right is heavily dominant in the Texas Republican Party. It was the genius of Karl Rove/George W. Bush to straddle the divide between the Christian right and the country club conservatives, which is actually a significant class split. The politics of resentment plays a large role on the Christian right: Fundamentalists are perfectly aware that they are held in contempt by “the intellectuals.” (William Brann of Waco once observed, “The trouble with our Texas Baptists is that we do not hold them under water long enough.” He was shot to death by an irate Baptist.) In Texas, “intellectual” is often used as a synonym for “snob.” George W. Bush perfectly exemplifies that attitude.
Here in the National Laboratory for Bad Government, we have an antiquated and regressive tax structure–high property, high sales, no income tax. We consistently rank near the bottom by every measure of social service, education and quality of life (leading to one of our state mottoes, “Thank God for Mississippi”). Yet the state is incredibly rich in more than natural resources. The economy is now fully diversified, so plunges in the oil market can no longer throw the state into the bust cycle.
It is widely believed in Texas that the highest purpose of government is to create “a healthy bidness climate.” The legislature is so dominated by special interests that the gallery where the lobbyists sit is called “the owners’ box.” The consequences of unregulated capitalism, of special interests being able to buy government through campaign contributions, are more evident here because Texas is “first and worst” in this area. That Enron was a Texas company is no accident: Texas was also Ground Zero in the savings-and-loan scandals, is continually the site of major ripoffs by the insurance industry and has a rich history of gigantic chicanery going way back. Leland Beatty, an agricultural consultant, calls Enron “Billie Sol Estes Goes to College.” Economists call it “control fraud” when a corporation is rotten from the head down. I sometimes think Texas government is a case of control fraud too.
We are currently saddled with a right-wing ideologue sugar daddy, James Leininger out of San Antonio, who gives immense campaign contributions and wants school vouchers, abstinence education and the like in return. The result is a crew of breathtakingly right-wing legislators. This session, Representative Debbie Riddle of Houston said during a hearing, “Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves free education, free medical care, free whatever? It comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.”
Texans for Lawsuit Reform, aka the bidness lobby, is a major player and has effectively eviscerated the judiciary with a two-pronged attack. While round after round of “tort reform” was shoved through the legislature, closing off access to the courts and protecting corporations from liability for their misdeeds, Karl Rove was busy electing all nine state Supreme Court justices. So even if you should somehow manage to get into court, you are faced with a bench noted for its canine fidelity to corporate special interests.
Here’s how we make progress in Texas. Two summers ago, Governor Goodhair Perry (the man has a head of hair every Texan can be proud of, regardless of party) appointed an Enron executive to the Public Utilities Commission. The next day, Governor Goodhair got a $25,000 check from Ken Lay. Some thought there might be a connection. The guv was forced to hold a press conference, at which he explained that the whole thing was “totally coincidental.” So that was a big relief.
We don’t have a sunshine law in Texas; it’s more like a partly cloudy law. But even here a major state appointee has to fill out a bunch of forms that are then public record. When the governor’s office put out the forms on the Enron guy, members of the press, that alert guardian watchdog of democracy, noticed that the question about any unfortunate involvement with law enforcement looked funny. The governor’s office had whited out the answers. A sophisticated cover-up. The alert guardian watchdogs were on the trail. We soon uncovered a couple of minor traffic violations and the following item: While out hunting a few years earlier, the Enron guy accidentally shot a whooping crane. As a result he had to pay a $15,000 fine under what is known in Texas as the In Danger Species Act. We print this. A state full of sympathetic hunters reacted with, “Hell, anybody could accidentally shoot a whooper.” But the press stayed on the story and was able to report that the guy shot the whooper while on a goose hunt. Now the whooper is a large bird–runs up to five feet tall. The goose–short. Now we have a state full of hunters saying, “Hell, if this boy is too dumb to tell a whooper from a goose, maybe he shouldn’t be regulatin’ public utilities.” He was forced to resign.
As Willie Nelson sings, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane. This is our redeeming social value and perhaps our one gift to progressives outside our borders. We do laugh. We have no choice. We have to have fun while trying to stave off the forces of darkness because we hardly ever win, so it’s the only fun we get to have. We find beer and imagination helpful. The Billion Bubba March, the Spam-o-rama, the time we mooned the Klan, being embedded with the troops at the Holiday Inn in Ardmore, Oklahoma, singing “I’m Just an Asshole from El Paso” with Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, and “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” with Ray Wylie Hubbard laughing at the loonies in the lege–does it get better than this? The late Bill Kugle of Athens is buried in the Texas State Cemetery. On the front of his stone are listed his service in the Marines in World War II, his years in the legislature, other titles and honors. On the back of the stone is, “He never voted for a Republican and never had much to do with them either.”
We have lost some great freedom fighters in Texas during the past year. Billie Carr, the great Houston political organizer (you’d’ve loved her: She got invited to the White House during the middle of the Monica mess, sashayed through the receiving line, looked Bill Clinton in the eye and said, “You dumb son of a bitch”), always said she wanted her funeral to be like her whole life in politics: It should start half an hour late, she wanted a balanced delegation of pallbearers–one black, one brown, two women–and she wanted an open casket and a name tag stuck over her left tit that said, “Hi there! My name is Billie Carr.” We did it all for her.
At the funeral of Malcolm McGregor, the beloved legislator and bibliophile from El Paso, we heard “The Eyes of Texas” and the Aggie War Hymn played on the bagpipes. At the service for Maury Maverick Jr. of San Antonio, and at his request, J. Frank Dobie’s poem “The Mustangs” was read by the poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The last stanza is:
So sometimes yet, in the realities of silence and solitude,
For a few people unhampered a while by things,
The mustangs walk out with dawn, stand high, then
Sweep away, wild with sheer life, and free, free, free–
Free of all confines of time and flesh.