My goal is to give an account of what Texas circa 2012 is about--not the myths or the hype or the horror stories, but the reality--with a bit of historical explanation about how it got to be that way, and a few arguments about what that means for the future of the state and for the country. So there's a lot more to come on that, of course.
In the meantime, I'll offer a comment on how Texas is perceived from the outside, which is why I wanted to write this book in the first place.
From my view, which is to some extent that of an insider and an outsider, Americans have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the state, or maybe a Freudian attraction-repulsion thing. That was real clear when Perry joined the presidential race late this summer. There was this immediate po-faced chorus: Texas is a backwater. Just a lot of rednecks, plus some oil barons and their cronies. Sure, Texas may have created a lot of jobs in the past few years, but they’re just oil jobs, or McJobs, or jobs for illegal immigrants, or Border-Patrol jobs, or drug-war jobs. And Texas is an ugly place. It sends people to the electric chair as a form of recreation. Pretty hypocritical for a bunch of Bible-thumpers. They tear up the brushy forest to build highways and megachurches. No wonder God is punishing them with drought and fire. Ha-ha, etc.
And one of the most obnoxious things about the state, the critics continue, is its sheer stupid self-confidence and hubris. Texans are always talking about how Texas is the biggest and the best. Americans want Texans to know that all the states are equal, except for Texas.
Some of these criticisms hit home. And some of the frustration is a lingering response to the last president from Texas. But it goes a little deeper than that; Texas is without question America's most controversial state. And that strikes me as misplaced. Three million people have moved to Texas in the past ten years, two million of them Americans, and most of them aren't crazy. For that matter, you often see skeptics journey down as cultural-disaster tourists and quickly soften their stance. Within 48 hours, they're excited to tell you that barbecue is great, and “y’all” is quite a useful expression.
At work here are a couple of beliefs about Texas: first, that it's weird, and second, that it's horrible. I don't think either of these is quite correct, for reasons the book will describe.
The idea that Texas is like a different country may stem partly from the fact that the state promotes itself as being "like a whole other country." Culturally, maybe. And Texas is bigger than France. But on the going political, economic, and social issues, Texas is a more or less comprehensible American state with a cool hat. On religion, for example. There's this idea that Texans are always cracking down on teenagers having sex and gays having sex at all, and trying to foist their Bible-based textbooks on American children like Perry tried to foist the HPV vaccine on little girls. It's true that the biggest church in America is Lakewood, in Houston (America's fourth-largest city, and its biggest city with an openly gay mayor, incidentally). Still, if you're scared of Lakewood's pastor, Joel Osteen, you're a chicken. There are some conservative religious groups, of course. That doesn't make it a theocracy.
Similarly, when Texans talk about the tenth amendment, they're picking up a debate about federalism that dates to the beginning of the country. When the entrepreneurs argue against taxes and regulations, they’re throwing in with generations of American business. When voters rail about government spending, they’re invoking the frontier spirit of self-reliance, a more recent experience for this state than for most. These are all American norms, if not held by all Americans.
Where Texas is clearly sui generis is in matters of culture and style. This is a product of the state's unusually rich and resonant history--one of the features of Texan culture, of course, is that the state cares about its history more than any other. State pride, accordingly, is as accepted in Texas as it is scorned in the rest of the country, just as American patriotism strikes some Europeans as hubristic, dangerous, or gauche. An important point here is that if Texans don’t realize that they’re giving offense, it’s often because they don’t intend to (this is arguably in contrast to its critics, who may intend to draw more blood than they actually do). Texas may be too cavalier about this; when Perry was talking about secession, for example, a lot of Americans saw it as a neo-confederate thing, which really would have been a thuggish thing to say. But that interpretation never occurred to most Texans, who equably took the comment as such allusions are traditionally meant, to evoke the state’s brief spell as an independent republic.
As for the second belief about Texas, as is probably clear from the preceding, I don't think it's a horrible place. In his memoirs, the late Christopher Hitchens recalls that his first experience with Americans came when a couple at an airport called him cute and gave him a dollar. “That was Americans for you,” he writes, “wanting to be friendly all right, but so loud, and inclined to flash the cash.” He continues:
I was brought up, at home and at school, with an ambivalent view of ‘our American cousins.’ Like many poor relations, we consoled ourselves Englishly with the thought that we made up in good taste and refinement for what we increasingly lacked in money and influence. Americanism in all its forms seemed to be trashy and wasteful and crude, even brutal.
That wouldn't be a bad summary of how many Americans think about Texas. For now, suffice it to say that I suspect the old world is wrong and I think they know it, which may be why they're so prickly. I'm already on the record as being against the Manichean strain in American political discourse. With regard to Texas, it is pretty fun but it's neither healthy or necessary.
So that's just a little bit of what I'll be working on next year. I hope that it'll provide some comfort and insight to those of you who are annoyed or anxious about Texas, and I'll give you a travel appendix online.
Thanks for reading this year, and hope to see you here in 2012.