There were two uplifting stories out of Texas last week. Both began badly. After the mosque in Victoria, Texas, burned down, Jews from the town’s temple went around to one of the mosque’s founders and handed him the keys to the synagogue. (The fire’s cause has since been ruled arson.)
The second story came out of Austin. Every other year since 2003, the Texas Legislature (in session only every odd year) has held “Texas Muslim Capitol Day” for Muslim adults and high school students. In 2015, while participants made speeches and sang the national anthem on the building’s steps, Christian demonstrators disrupted them. One woman grabbed the microphone and shrieked out Jesus’s praises. (In fairness to Texas, she was from Michigan!) This year, hundreds of people showed up in support of Muslims and drowned out with applause the sole hostile demonstrator.
Texas is a complicated, independent-minded state that I grow to appreciate more with time and visits. The first time I flew to Houston, I was bemused when the United Airlines pilot welcomed us to “the Republic of Texas.” I imagine he thought he was being jingoistic in a light-hearted way, but in context it wasn’t really funny. Texas has had several secessionist movements in the past three decades, with Rick Perry (Donald Trump’s choice for custodian of America’s nuclear arsenal) among those who flirted with the notion. To me, the pilot’s words were an invitation: Okay, Texas, go ahead and secede. I, for one, would vote in favor. The United States doesn’t need the drag of far-out Texas conservatism, pretentious cowboy hats and boots, militant Christianity, mind-numbing miles of highway through scrubland. We don’t need your history of slavery and the long aftermath of racial violence.
In November, 1963, I was a boy of nine in England with no idea that four years later we’d emigrate to the United States. Lyndon Baines Johnson became the epitome of America for me, not just Texas, and I was repelled. Later, as I looked back from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, he was the vulgar man with the stupid drawl—that Texan. Yet ever since settling in the U.S., I’ve been intrigued by the South. The psychological side was dark, tainted by racism—the darkness not in skin color, but in spirit. But there was also a luminescence: magnolia and mimosa trees (I didn’t know what they were, but I loved the names), bluegrass folk music, mountains whose altitude moderated the hot sun, oddly alluring habits of speech.
Part of my fascination with the south was due, I had to admit, to its relatively recent history of slavery. I’d ask myself, supposing I’d been born in the South in, say, the 1790s, how I would have coped living in a slave society. It’s in my nature to be aware of other people. (I was going to write ‘sensitive to,” but that’s another matter.) Awareness breeds sympathy, if not empathy. Empathy for a slave would have been impossible because my circumstances would always have been exponentially better. But I would have felt for their physical suffering. I might even have thought their subjugation unjust. But I had to concede to myself that I probably would have been seduced by the prevailing view that this was the way of the world; that the white man was superior to the black man.
Reading such novels as Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) that portray the conditions of slavery from the slaves’ point of view, I’m repelled and sickened. But what was it like for white people living in a society that sanctioned slavery? Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1992) depicts the slavery business from the point of view of people employed to carry it out. It tells the story of a slave ship’s crew sailing from Liverpool in the mid-eighteenth century down to Africa to pick up its human cargo for the “Middle Passage.” The opening sections depict the mostly civil, even charming, lives led by the people of Lancashire, including individual members of the crew. None of it portends the terrible tasks they will be required to carry out as the crew of a slave ship. Unsworth goes on to narrate a story of a mutiny and its aftermath, but in reality, ship discipline in the eighteenth century meant there’d almost never be an opportunity for conscience-stricken crew members to resist the treatment of the Africans. Physical force was there as a backup in the event moral misgivings overcame business exigency. Funny thing about societies that demean and exploit entire populations: They claim moral justification, but always need to back it up with brute force.
In the American South, conviction in the inevitability of African inferiority and the virtues of enslavement was in the atmosphere. No wonder it took a savage civil war to begin the process of breaking it down, and still the repercussions went on and on.
In the North, while those prejudices are alive and well, they aren’t in the atmosphere. Northern bigots know their views are suspect, which is why they tend to express themselves quietly, even slyly. Often when they don’t, they pay a price.
Curiosity about the South, past and present, led me to work for a community action agency in northwestern North Carolina between my college junior and senior years. Some told me North Carolina isn’t really the South. Well, it wasn’t Northern, and the people spoke with lovely Southern-tinged accents. Near the Blue Ridge, where our main office was located, the accent is softer and less pronounced than it gets as you move east toward the coast.
It’s in the nature of community action agencies that I encountered mostly people of a liberal disposition. Afterwards, back North, I’d tell friends that liberals in the South are more liberal than those in the North. No one I knew in the North ever mentioned William O. Douglas, the former Supreme Court justice as complacent in his left-wing world as Scalia, Thomas et al. have lately been in their right-wing worlds, but my friends at the community action agency glorified him. Southerners have so much more to oppose.
Two decades later, I took that first flight to Texas, a state I used to say I’d avoid by a thousand miles, and I’ve had occasion to fly there several times since. Even though I stay pretty much in a town dominated by Northerners, I meet Texan wait staff, Texan shop assistants and even Texans in their homes. Texan courtesy has to be a cultivated art. People don’t come out of the womb with that politeness gene. Of course, my Northern instinct is to distrust it. Behind the smile is surely the unspoken words, “Got your number, son.” But cynicism is uncalled for. Politeness is as good as money at making the world go round.
Acquainted now with Texas, I set about reading Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The section that comes immediately to mind is the hilarious yet beautiful description in The Passage of Power (2012) of Johnson’s “Yellow Rose of Texas” whistle-stop tour during the 1960 presidential campaign. The indefatigable Johnson, not yet the LBJ of history, rode through eight states in five days all around the South. He’d been picked as the vice presidential candidate by the Kennedy brothers, even though they despised him, to help them carry Texas. An acute observer of people, Johnson had to have known, but it didn’t deter him. Sadly, considering the circumstances, he would be rewarded three years later for his effort by being appointed President in his own right. It had been the events of that November, perhaps significantly in Texas, that gave me my first vivid awareness of America.
Caro’s so-far-four-volume biography changed my entire perception of the man. For me, LBJ has come to stand for Texas’s contradictions. Earlier, while in the U.S. Senate, as Caro vividly depicts in Master of the Senate (2002), Johnson fought with political knuckledusters for the oil industry. He did get some liberal legislation passed, such as his eponymous amendment barring religious and other charitable organizations from political advocacy, a law that is under attack today from the Trump administration. But his entire political life was subservient to oil. Then he fell into the presidency, and suddenly he was no longer beholden to oil. His rural West Texas egalitarianism took over, and he pushed previously inconceivable civil and voting rights legislation through Congress. That generosity of neighborly spirit would be as Texan as oil if it weren’t that, as everyone knows, when oil isn’t doing well, Texas isn’t, either.
But there was a third Texan strain that was to undo LBJ: deference to calls for the use of force. Hence his escalation of American involvement in Vietnam and the consequent corruption of so much of LBJ’s legacy. (I will have a better understanding of this part of the story when Caro releases his fifth and final volume.)
I remember an evening in a Texan backyard, sitting in a circle presided over by a retired Texan oil executive. Northerners can be friendly, funny, considerate, but no one embodies all those qualities and more than a contented Texan. He told us he was reading a book by conservative provocateur Bill O’Reilly. I don’t remember which, but one of O’Reilly’s titles, Pinheads and Patriots: Where You Stand in the Age of Obama, (2010) tells me that the tenor of his writing is no different from his aggressive television personality. I kept quiet, partly because I was a guest, partly because I saw no point in picking a fight. The retired executive was too charming and sure of himself to brook disagreement.
The stolidity of a comfortable Texan is unique. Arrogance might be a word for it, except it comes with so much genuine warmth. It has the aura of a fortress. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985) suggests that the roots of this self-confidence go back to the nineteenth century when every Texan had to be a fortress, between the hostile climate, the difficult terrain, and the isolation stemming from a sparse population. Such a history makes an indelible impact on the generations that follow, just as the spirit of the Sabras lives on in today’s Israel and Afrikaner victories over terrain, climate and the British Empire still infuse even a post-apartheid South Africa.
Another reason I held back from engaging in debate was that to the Northerner I mostly am now, Texas feels like a foreign country. Whenever I’m abroad, I assume my grasp of local issues is superficial, and I do a lot more listening than talking. Yet Texas and New York share the same cable broadcast networks, the same currency, the same phone system, roughly the same language, the same federal government. Despite all that commonality, reconciliation of our attitudes at a social occasion was out of the question. He would surely cast me aside the way any Texan brushes aside rattlesnakes. Isn’t that what Texans do with rattlesnakes? Or else they shoot them.
In another context, I might have asked the retired oil executive about Texas’s prison statistics, though I doubt I would have been satisfied with the answer. Presumably, Texans are no more inherently violent than any other group, and yet Texas has the highest incarceration rate of any state in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These two shameful statistics are at odds with Texas’s justly famed neighborliness, but they follow a striking pattern. The rate of state-sanctioned executions appears to be highest where lynchings once occurred, and the majority of lynchings were carried out in former slave states. (468 people were lynched in Texas between 1885 and 1942.) States founded on slavery persist in trying to solve social problems with violence. What other word than “violence” is there for mass incarceration?
In the face of this past and present, Texas vindicates my long-ago claim for Southern liberals. No one has demonstrated more concern for ordinary people than former Governor Ann Richards, her daughter Cecile Richards (President of Planned Parenthood), Molly Ivins (needling columnist), Julian Castro (former Mayor of San Antonio and former HUD Secretary), his twin brother Congressman Joaquin Castro, or Wendy Davis (queen of the filibuster). I doubt any city is more liberal than Austin, Texas’s capital.
On the other hand, many of the people I encounter in Texas are Mexican or descendants of Mexicans, and many Latinos hold conservative-leaning views. I’m a self-confessed superficial foreigner when it comes to Texas, but it seems to me that Mexican-Texans share many of the values espoused by the white Texans who currently dominate the state’s politics. Take both groups’ reputation for friendliness. On the face of it, friendliness isn’t a political factor, but it makes me think that separating the conservative out of a Caucasian or Mexican Texan would leave an empty shell. The conservative stolidity that so attracted me in the retired oil executive might, paradoxically, also be an essential part of Texan liberalism.
Lust for power and the urge toward moderation—the polar opposites symbolized by 1984 and Don Quixote—always compete. It was the fundamental understanding that guided the framers of the United States Constitution. The Orwellian compulsion of tyrants to single out enemies is strong in today’s Texas, as it is throughout America. However, I have a quixotic fantasy that it could be neutralized if only Texan conservative neighborliness and Texan liberal idealism would recognize in each other the soulmates they ought to be. The synagogue congregation in Victoria and the people who came out to support Muslim-Americans in Austin hold out the possibility that this recognition just might be emerging. Hope for Texas is hope for America.