Friday, June 8, 2012

As Texas Goes So Goes the Nation

I used to live in Texas. In the late 1960's and early 1970's I lived in Dallas, well really Oak Cliff, where I attended the segregated T.W. Browne Junior High School. I returned to Dallas in the 1980s--I worked at the Science/Engineering Library at Southern Methodist University, SMU, and at the Cokesbury on Preston (I stupidly left SMU to go to graduate school which turned out to be a big waste of time, effort, and money). Between 2004 and 2006 I lived and worked in Austin, a city I, like many others of a more progressive persuasion who grew up in the Lone Star state romanticised and in which I had long wanted to live. Living in Austin over those two years cured me of any remaining romanticism I had for that city and so for that reason I am glad I lived in weird Austin, the city that moves to the rhythm of the automobile.

Given that I lived in Texas as a kid and as an adult and took a graduate level seminar on Texas once upon a time, I have long had more than a passing interest in the Lone Star state. So when I learned that New York Times columnist and author Gail Collins, the same Gail Colins who had just written a book on the influence of Texas on the American political and cultural landscape, As Texas Goes...How the Lone Star State has Hijacked the American Agenda, was going to be on Tavis Smiley on PBS, I made sure to watch.

On Tavis Smiley Collins talked about a range of things from Texas nationalism to Texas exceptionalism to the impact the Lone Star state has on school textbooks, to Texans beliefs about the freedom of wide open spaces. During her interview with Tavis Collins noted that Texans have a sense of self, an almost national identity, that few other states in the US have. She noted that while Texans likes to wax romanitically about the freedom of the Lone Star state's wide open spaces most Texans live in cities like Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso. She noted how Texas's ever increasing population density has given the state what is essentially a veto power over textbooks the Texas State Board of Education, a school board sometimes dominated by religious conservatives, deems politically and culturally incorrect, and an economic power that has allowed the Board to demand specific content in approved public school textbooks, nationally. Collins talked about how sex education in Texas is an abstinence only sex education curriculum in which the only mention of condoms is to claim that they don't work. Collins noted that despite the abstinence only sex education curriculum Texas has the third highest percentage of teen pregnancies in the United States and the second highest number of repeat teen pregnancies. Despite these numbers, however claimed Collins, Rick Perry, governor of the Lone Star state, continues to maintain that an abstinence only sex education in Texas is working because it worked for him. Speaking of Perry, Collins noted that just because a politician is successful in Texas doesn't mean that he or she will be successful nationally. LBJ, she points out, only became president because he was vice-president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated while the two Bush's were Northeastern interlopers rather than real Texas politicians. In fact, claimed Collins, Perry's unsuccessful run for president in 2011 and 2012 shows that politicians who play well in Texas don't necessarily play well on the national political stage.

This observation allows me to segue in to the claim Collins made that I found most interesting, that the Lone Star state more than any other American state today including California, is driving America's national political agenda. Though I haven't read Collins's book I have read an excerpt from the book on the MSNBC website ( And in this exerpt Collins's claims that the reasons Texas has become the state having the biggest impact on American political culture and American political rhetoric are Texas's size, Texas's population growth, the impact of the Texas State Board of Education on American public school textbooks, the impact of a Texas Supreme Court ruling which held that school districts in Texas didn't have to be funded equally, and the importance and influence of Texas's politicians like Dick Armey and Tom DeLay in the US House of Representatives, Phil Gramm, the man who played a leading role in deregulating America's financial sector and, I would add, in overturning Glass-Steagall, in the Senate, and the two Bush's in the White House.

Collins's argument is interesting and I do think there is something to be said for her claim that as Texas goes so goes the nation. I am not sure, however, that I entirely agree with Collins's argument. It has long seemed to me that the Civil War between North and South, the Union and Dixie, really never ended. And while the North seemed in 1865 to have won the Civil War, it seems, in retrospect, that the North's victory in the Civil War was just one win in one battle in a culture war that has raged in the United States since before it was even a nation and continues today.

There are a number of things about Texas that have interested me for years. There's Texas nationalism, a product, in part, of the fact that Texas was a nation before it became part of the United States. There's Texas exceptionalism, the belief that Texas is special and unique. There's Texas geography, a geography that had important consequences for the state, a geography that essentially divides Texas between a humid Texas and a dry Texas, into Texas South and Texas West, into slave Texas and cowboy Texas (though Texas's slaves were sometimes used on the wide open ranges of West Texas and its ranches). There's the cultural geography of Texas, a cultural geography consisting of Hispanic Texas, Anglo, particularly White Southern, Texas, European, particularly German Texas, African American Texas, and, increasingly in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, immigrants Texas as people flock to the Lone Star state from other parts of US, particularly from the Northeast and Midwest, and the world, most of whom become Texasified in short order (the I wasn't born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could syndrome). There's the fact that Texas is the place where the American South, the American West, the American Plains, and the American Southwest meet and the fact that Texas has often served as a a conduit between these various and sundry regions of the United States. There's the fact that Texas was one of the states that made up the Confederate States of America. And that reason is why I want to take this discussion back to the division between North and South again.

Texas, for all its claims of being a special and unique place, has long seemed to me to be, at least in large part, culturally part of the American South, part of the American South of slavery, of slavery by another name, Jim Crow, of White Supremacy, of White domination, of state's rights, of resistance to the social insurance liberalism of American Progressivism and the New Deal, of right to work laws, of Methodist and Southern Baptist domination, evangelicalism, and the religion of the lost cause, and of domination by a single political party, the Democrats from the 1870's until the 1980's and the Republicans since the 1980's. Texas may seem unique, and it is a bit unique, and uniquely influential but that is because it is the Southern state that is, geographically, population wise, economically, politically, and culturally, the biggest and hence more influential and powerful of the Southern states. In reality, however, Teas was and is the part of the South through which Southern ideas spread, at least in part, have been spread from the South into the West, the Plains, and the Southwest.

Texasification is, thus for me, really part of the continuing dixification or dixiefornication of America. Since the second reconstruction in the 1960s and 1970s, the era when slavery and its apartheid system was finally ended in the South, Dallas's public schools, by the way, only started to desegregate in the early 1970's, dixiefornication proceeded apace all across America. The 1970s and 1980s saw the dixiefornication of the Republican Party after a Dixiecrat passed civil rights and voting rights legislation becoming a traitor to the states rights cause. Today Dixie is as solid Republican as it was once solid Democrat. Today evangelicals are solid Republicans as they once were solid Dixiecrats. In the West, which has long had its own myths of individualism, wide open spaces and anti-federalist notions (but who do they think built the reservoirs they get their water from and the interstate highways most of them drive on?), Western myths have hooked up and onto dixiefied states rights mantras. In today's Southwest anti-immigration fervour has met dixiefied states rights ideologies to produce an Arizona which recently passed harsh anti-immigrant laws and outlawed ethnic studies (in order to eliminate the LaRaza Mexican Studies programmes in Tucson) in its public high schools. In today's Midwest, the state of Indiana, which has always had its own dixiefied South (Hoosiers were originally poor white trash from Kentucky and Tennessee who couldn't compete with slave labour) south of Indianapolis, is becoming even more Southern, even in its historically more German and ethnic North, thanks to legislation in the Hoosier state making Indiana a right to work state, and Wisconsin, which like Indiana has always had its own Dixie, the rural areas of state, is becoming more dixiefied thanks to legislation ending some of the bargaining rights of public employees. Democracy RIP?! This is particularly sad in a state which pioneered in progressive legislation like unemployment insurance and union rights legislation thanks to Republican progressives.

I want to close with a story. When I was living in Dallas in the early and mid-1980's I was waiting for a bus one day. As I was standing at the bus stop I saw a rusty car go by. Following it closely was another car, this one not rusted out, with a bloke hanging out the window. He was yelling at the occupent of rusty car in front of him, "you god damn yankee get the hell out of Texas and go back to New York City?" This little story is, I think, symbolic of just how much Texas is, despite its differences from the South, not to mention other parts of the US, very American, very Southern American. And to tell you the truth I sometimes wish Texas and the South would just get the hell out of the United States because I don't like Southern mean spirited, social Darwinist, bah humbug, messianic, self-righteous, hypocritical dixiefornication and texasification (sounds a bit like the US in general doesn't it?). Before you go can you send me some of those HEB Texas shaped corn chips, several of those HEB Texas awash in bluebonnet tissue boxes, and one of those Texas, the bluebonnet state license plate (oops, forgot, the last one never came to pass)? One more thing can we in the US keep Bill Moyers, Jim Hightower, and the spirit of Molly Ivins and the Texas Observer?

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