Texas 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.