Texas Political Guidebook — Chapter Two

Gretings from Texas

Gretings from TexasTexas is a place bursting at the stock-pens with proud and determined individualists who live by the motto:  conform, or I shoot.

To those not fortunate enough to have lived in Texas, there is in this a mild suggestion of hypocrisy. A visitor from back East might be shrewd enough to put it gently, especially if he is still here. “Texans are a paradoxical people,” he might say.

In response, I’d resort to the Bible – “Let he who is without sin…” – except the phrase makes me edgy as the preacher whose eyes dart nervously about the sanctuary when he comes to that “without sin” part. The good pastor is well aware that his congregants, in their innocence, believe he’s been qualified by Jesus Himself to throw stones. They have come, he’s certain, to watch him hurl a few. In his dilemma is the origin of the phrase, “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

The thing is the congregants know they’ve got the preacher in a tight, and they know he’s going to have to put some lumps on a few heads to get out of it. It’s how they guarantee a Sunday’s salvific entertainment.

The orthodox spiritual practice of intolerance is a path chosen by too many Texans. And they can be particularly noisy. Of late, they’re grabbing more attention than usual because 1) Gov. Rick Perry is pandering to them to help him get through a tough Republican primary; 2) the presence of a person of color in the infelicitously named White House has challenged a fundamental tenet of their faith.

The rest of us are a lot more like that preacher than we might want to think, though. A few years ago, state Rep. Warren Chisum sent around a pamphlet claiming that Copernican science was a Jewish conspiracy. The sun, it said, revolves around the earth. Believing otherwise buys a certain ticket to Hell. Many of us fell back on the motto mentioned above. We pulled our rhetorical pistols, aimed for the dirt at Chisum’s feet and said, “Dance, sucker.” He did, in an awkward jig of an apology for the error of his ways. Such is the spirit of the range.

Texas, like the rest of the Southwest and West, ceased to be a frontier more than a century ago. Family farmers and ranchers were bought out by agribusiness. Hitchin’ posts gave way to speed bumps. Corporations imposed a new feudalism, the old feudalism being the very thing our individualist ancestors fled. The mind, however, is a powerful thing, and the popular myth of rugged individualism lives on. “The tendency to practice symbolic frontiersmanship might almost be said to characterize the twentieth century Texan, whether he be an intellectual, a cowboy, a businessman, or a politician,” Larry McMurtry wrote some years ago. The turning of the millennium changed nothing in this regard.

Ann Richards used her humor and her country naturalness to embody the role of a frontierswoman, albeit a tolerant and sophisticated one. She was elected governor. Once in office, she seemed to challenge the cherished myth, though, and a certified city boy and corporate lackey, George W. Bush, took advantage and ran her out of town. Subsequent events proved the skirmish to be of some significance to the rest of the world.

What’s behind the conformist contradiction of our individualism? Texans know the modern world took away something close to their hearts. Still, we pretend it’s still here, just under threat. The more extreme and devoted believers say eternal vigilance is required if the individual is to survive. They believe their uniqueness can survive only by sacrificing the uniqueness of others. That people who hate Darwin practice this brand of social Darwinism is, well, unlucky.

Tragedy arises from such thinking, of course, because exactly the opposite is true.  The uniqueness of others is all we’ve got to guarantee we might ourselves make a good and unique mark upon the world.

Until we understand that, duck and dance.

Author: Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith has spent the past 30 years in journalism and politics, where he’s made a name for himself as a writer, campaign manager, activist, think tank analyst and, as Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas says, a “legendary political consultant and all-around good guy.” “There’s no one like him,” says author George Lakoff. CNN commentator Paul Begala says, “He has unmatched experience, a graceful pen (or pixel nowadays) and deep insight into the best and worst of us.” Novelist Sarah Bird speaks of his “lucid and lyrical” prose. And, she says, he’s fun. Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington says Glenn writes with “grace and abundant humor” and “uses his colorful experiences in Texas to enlighten us all.”

Smith led Ann Richards’ successful 1990 campaign for Governor of Texas. He worked for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and U.S. Senator Lloyd Bentsen. Earlier, Smith was a political reporter for the Houston Chronicle and the Houston Post. He’s coordinated national campaigns for groups such as MoveOn.org. In 2004, he authored the highly acclaimed book, The Politics of Deceit: Saving Freedom and Democracy from Extinction. He also wrote Unfit Commander, a book that detailed George W. Bush’s mysterious disappearance from military service.

In 2004, Smith was featured in the film, Bush’s Brain, a documentary about Karl Rove. Smith provided commentary on Rove’s role as then-President Bush’s senior advisor. He has made numerous media appearances with Chris Mathews on Hardball, Joe Scarborough, Brit Hume, and many others. He writes a regularly for top national web sites, including FireDogLake and Huffington Post.

As a senior fellow at George Lakoff’s prestigious Rockridge Institute in Berkeley he studied, wrote and taught on the power of metaphor and narrative in political communications. He also lectured on religion and politics at the Starr King School for Ministry in Berkeley. As a sponsor and organizer, he has pulled together numerous national events with progressive religious leaders. He also organized a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King at Riverside Church in New York City as well as “Freedom and Faith” bus tours, which was a nationwide campaign for social justice and progressive values.

Smith’s play, Double Play, which explored American Western myths and legends, was held over to sold-out audiences. He’s even written and performed songs in the Americana tradition, such as his best-known song, “Helping Marty Robbins,” a tribute to his hometown, Houston.

Most recently, Smith is the creator of DogCanyon, a political and cultural web site covering state, national and global issues from a Texas perspective. DogCanyon is an exhilarating and unique site that gets the connections between politics and culture and explores both the personal side of politics and the ups, down, craziness and beauty of “life its ownself,” as humorist Dan Jenkins would say. DogCanyon offers heartfelt personal essays, hard-hitting political analysis, and, most importantly, laughs.

As Paul Begala said, Smith writes in “the finest, firmest, fearless tradition of Texas essayists like Molly Ivins.”

3 thoughts on “Texas Political Guidebook — Chapter Two”

  1. Thanks, Glenn. As usual, you’ve given me something to ponder on a Sunday morning. This particular subject has confounded me for years!

    “The uniqueness of others is all we’ve got to guarantee we might ourselves make a good and unique mark upon the world.”

    Time to take a breath — and try to figure out how I apply this to those “rugged individualists” in my world.

  2. While in the UK awhile back I discovered that it made friends almost instantaneously when I told people that I was from Texas but did not vote for George W. Bush, nor did any of my friends or immediate family. Sadly, I’ve found that many Texans who have had a decent education and some who’d even consider themselves progressive subscribe to the “Conform or I’ll shoot!” philosophy.

    There was a time some years back when I offered a defense of Texas — the fact that we were a frontier state which had had less time to evolve public cultural life — to an upeast critic who found the lack of culture and anti-intellectualism disturbing. Her reply was classic: “Just how long does it take a group of people to grow up?” Many subsequent events took me over to her side.

    This blog along with a few brave enterprises like The Texas Observer and The Hightower Lowdown may have given me a few reasons to have hope. I haven’t had many of those in a long time.

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