Lead book review

Texas: the myriad contradictions of the Lone Star state

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

The subtitle of Lawrence Wright’s splendid God Save Texas (‘A Journey into the Future of America’) would be alarming if I found it entirely convincing. It’s hard to imagine a future where the Catholic Texan spirit of individualism would seriously overwhelm Yankee Puritanism, however mutated. In New England it’s about hard-earned old money shrewdly invested. In Texas it’s about striking it rich on a hunch, and new money rashly spent.

There are contradictions in Texas which allow you to select almost any argument you like from her. She is beautiful and she is barren; corrupt and honourable. Whatever you want to say about her, she will supply abundant evidence.

Texans are proud of their immigrant heritage, which includes indigenous, African, British, German, Czech, Central and South American and Vietnamese people. They have the largest Muslim population in the US. Texas census rightly classifies Mexican as white, though many are clearly of pre-Columbian descent. There is plenty of racism in parts of the state, but, when crossing the border from Louisiana, Oklahoma or Arkansas, relations between whites and minorities improve noticeably. It’s no surprise that so many thousands of New Orleans Katrina victims, invited in by Houston, decided to stay rather than go back. Sophisticated black friends of mine were shocked to find far more prejudice in Boston than they ever experienced in Austin. They returned in some relief. ‘Welcome home,’ says the immigration officer in Dallas. ‘Why are you here?’ they ask in New York.

A quarter of a century ago, when I first moved to Texas, I sat drinking in a crowded cowboy bar in our small town when talk turned to politics and healthcare. Foolishly, knowing the reaction this would have in most rural US communities, I found myself asserting that I’d voted socialist in the last British election. I guessed immediately I’d made a mistake. A silence fell. The juke box went quiet. Had there been a piano it would have stopped playing. Then a huge man in a black stetson got up and strode slowly towards me. My heart sank. I didn’t really expect a fist fight but I wasn’t looking forward to the almost inevitable in-your-face go-back-where-you-came-from bluster. The big cowboy stopped in front of me, looked me over for a moment, grinned and stuck out his hand. ‘Machael,’ he said, ‘yore a true Texan.’ It was a serious compliment.

Later, I learned that, early in the 20th century, Texan socialists defeated Republicans statewide before they slowly mutated into Democrats. My nearest neighbour, Bubba, tells me he’s a socialist. The Houston Socialist Party sports a hammer-and-sickle flag and its members openly carry AK-47s. Most Texan socialists are milder social democrats. This year, 17 of them are running for high state office. Wright notes the growing number of Democrats, a majority in the big cities. He calls Texas a red (Republican) state with a blue majority.

Wright has observed most of the changes in his state since the 1950s. A native Texan journalist, he writes plays and film scripts and travels widely. He and his wife live in Austin, where he plays keyboard with a local blues band. In God Save Texas he tells the tale of modern Texas through personal anecdote and his own family’s history. He argues it might be a matter of time before the whole USA becomes a Trumpian oligarchy but his evidence makes me wonder if it could as easily turn into a modern California. That’s the fear of many Republicans. Is it significant that liberal Austin is second, after New York, on Kim Jong-un’s list of nuclear targets?

For all that his argument suggests the inspiration of a New Yorker editor, Wright’s book is a critical, affectionate account of modern Texas, matched only by Larry McMurtry’s great essay Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999). Wright, whose The Looming Tower tells how Islamic terrorism culminated in 9/11, also wrote one of the very best investigations into scientology, Going Clear. He admits his ambivalence concerning cavalier Texan politics, as through personal and family reminiscence he traces the peculiar nature of the state’s history and how it got that way since Steven Austin and Sam Houston ignored laws forbidding slavery, wrested the territory from Mexico, and founded an independent republic.

With an economy the size of Australia’s, Texas exports oil and gas but encourages ‘clean’ business, such as banking, healthcare, IT and insurance. Large retail businesses, notably Whole Foods, began here, and of course she is linked with the aerospace industry. Solar and wind power flourish. Her major cities are increasingly associated with electronics. Dallas is nicknamed Silicon Prairie; Austin is Silicon Gulch. They attract sophisticated professionals from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, California, South and Central America and the Indian sub-continent. This phenomenon has changed her cultural mix and her politics. A glorious building in Pearland, about 25 miles outside Houston, is only one of her many Hindu temples. Texas has America’s largest number of mosques. Fort Worth has first-class art galleries. Houston has the remarkable Rothko Chapel, and an outstanding philharmonic.

In his well argued, ironic discussion of Dallas’s recovery from national disgrace after Kennedy’s murder, Wright remembers how tourists refused further conversation with his family after learning they came from there. He thinks collective guilt played a big part in Dallas’s flourishing cultural renaissance.

Texas has no income tax but supports her public amenities, such as they are, through VAT and increasingly unfair property taxes. Her legislature meets once every two years for five months and divides between practical, ‘business’ Republicans and finger-wagging, right-wing Bible Belters, who support ‘toilet laws’, anti-abortion and other ‘morality’-based legislation. Since the 1990s, the gerrymandering of voting districts, the triumph of its chief architect Tom DeLay, Texas’s since disgraced congressman, has kept Republicans permanently in power,

Most Texas voters support stricter gun control, but her laws allow people to carry assault rifles on city streets. She spends the least money of any state per capita on education; environmental laws of her ‘grandfathers’ allow dirty industries to flourish; she sanctions dangerous fracking; resists checks on industrial expansion; and her lack of zoning regulation creates eyesores everywhere. She elects some of the most corrupt, ignorant Bible Belt politicians in the South who close down Planned Parenthood offices and regard seat belts, motorcycle helmets, texting-while-driving laws and Medicare as infringements of personal liberty. Wright sees all these negatives as providing a vision of what a Trump-ed American future will be like.

An admirer of the Texan political humorist the late Molly Ivens, Wright thinks she would have loved Mary Lou Bruner: a 70-year-old retired schoolteacher from Mineola who in 2016 ran as a Republican for an open seat on the Texas Board of Education. Because ten per cent of the public school students in the nation live in Texas, the state exerts a great influence on the textbook publishing industry. During her campaign, Bruner posted on Facebook that Barack Obama had worked as a male prostitute in his twenties. ‘That is how he paid for his drugs,’ she reasoned. Bruner went on to assert that climate change is a ridiculous hoax; that school shootings are caused by students being taught about evolution; and ‘dinosaurs are extinct because the ones on Noah’s Ark were too young to reproduce’.

Wright describes the Texas legislature as ‘more functional than the US Congress, and more genteel than the House of Commons, but a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics.’ Yet Texans are amongst the most tolerant people in the nation, with a tradition of taking others on their own terms, living and letting live.

For all Wright’s warnings, Austin, where the legislature sits, is not just ‘the live music capital of the world’; it is one of the most humane and civilised places in the US, frequently topping lists of best cities in which to live.

Could Texas completely redefine WASP-land? I think not. The New England myth is one of civilising the world through expanding trade, religious and cultural purity and the establishment of universal laws. For Texas, it’s about unselfconscious populism and absorbing local culture; hard-drinking freebooters battling at the Alamo; Indian fighting; rowdy cowboys driving trails; wildcatting; sudden wealth and sudden death. The two are better co-existing. In my opinion, therefore, Lonesome Dove will always make Rabbit Run.

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