Thursday, January 19, 2012

Malice Towards All and Charity Towards None: The Texas Way

In honor of Rick Perry dropping out of the presidential race, here's something I wrote when I still lived in Texas about its political culture.  It seems like I wasn't the only person north of the Red River who didn't want to endure the "Texas Way" of government.

This post has spent a long time a-brewin', but the local reaction to the election has gotten me angry enough to write it. I want to preface this post by saying that there are a lot of things about my new state of residence that I appreciate: barbeque, good Mexican food, roadside flea markets, and a general attitude of politeness. That being said, I find the social conservatism and political culture here to be absolutely repugnant. In a twist on some famous words from Lincoln's second inaugural address, the "Texas way" in politics can best be summarized as "malice towards all and charity towards none."

In the first place, a large number of Texans are double nationalists. They jingoistically say "America right or wrong" while aggressively holding to the belief that Texas is the greatest place in America. When I've mentioned my trips out of state to my students, they often say "why the Hell would you go there for?" During my new faculty orientation, one of the coordinators actually said "we welcome people from Texas and from lesser states," and it was not meant jokingly. Many Texas homes sport wrought-iron lone stars above their garages, and some of my students have even said that they think of themselves as "Texans first, and Americans second." I consider nationalism to be a mental disease and probably the biggest murderer of humanity in the last century, and an affliction that is more pronounced here than anywhere else that I've lived.

And I say this as someone born and raised in Nebraska, a state that is about as conservative as they come.  However, Nebraska's conservatism is a more literal, "small c" version that sprouts from a desire to keep things as they are and for change to be as minute as possible. For example, while people in my home state tend to be pious, they tend to think of religion as a private matter not to be aired publically out of politeness.

Texas conservativism, on the other hand, has a much more in-your-face and even authoritarian bent to it. Although Texans claim to dislike government intervention in their lives, their state incarcerates its citizens at a rate over 40% higher than the national average. Its prison system is famously corrupt and violent to boot. The state of Texas also has a penchant for capital punishment, even if it means putting the mentally retarded to death. (Former governor Dubya also famously mocked the pleas for clemency from one of the women he executed.)

As far as I can tell, the social contract is practially non-existent here. The state government might spend resources on prisons, but doesn't seem to care all that much about the health of its citizens. Case in point, the state has almost six million uninsured, and the highest rate of uninsured in the nation. When I started my job, I soon realized that the state of Texas is actively responsible for some of that number. At my orientation I was informed that I would not get my health insurance until I had been working for three months, which is a rule for all Texas state employees. This rule even applied to one of my colleagues, who is only on a year contract and will thus not get benefits for a quarter of the time he is working (he also happened to get injured in a basketball game and had to pay the expenses out of pocket.)

As is evident from the quality of my students, the schools are pretty rotten, too. They at least try harder than my students in Michigan did, but I am at a comparable university, and a good chunk of my students don't even have basic writing or note taking skills. Since there is no income tax and a high sales tax here, the shitty services are funded in a much more regressive manner than most other states. Speaking of services, the city of Houston is the nation's fourth largest, yet still has no real recycling program.

In some sense, contemporary Texas owes a lot to its history. The Republic of Texas so sentimentally praised by (white) Texans was founded by a gang of marauders who wanted the "freedom" to own slaves and carve out their own piece of land after they'd killed or displaced its inhabitants. The selfish, asocial, rapacious character of the state's founders lives on in the form of modern politicians who wear cowboy drag, like current Senator "Big John" Cornyn, and our "brush clearing" disgrace of a president.

This last week has made the political climate here almost unbearable for me. The same people who built up W's political career are now braying on about Obama being a socialist, never stopping to think about where the "Texas way" has taken our country. God help us if another one of its proponents ever occupies the White House again.

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