Here Be Deplorables

A few years ago I was at a wedding in Delaware when the father of the bride, on learning that I lived in Austin, asked whether Texans still wore spurs and had guns holstered at their hips. I assumed he was joking: this successful businessman had to know that Texas is home to NASA, Dell computers and the oil-metropolis of Houston. But he was sincere. I assured him that in twenty-first-century Texas, nobody wear spurs to the mall. Perhaps, however, I got off lightly. As Lawrence Wright observes in God Save Texas: A journey into the future of America, “One can’t be from Texas and fail to have encountered the liberal loathing for Texanness, even among people who have never visited the place”. This is true also of some residents. I know people who arrived in Austin years ago, but have never ventured outside the city limits, through fear of what lies beyond: here be deplorables.

Surely no other US state is so defined by its stereotype; yet as Wright demonstrates repeatedly in this work of memoir-cum-reportage, Texas is about much more than guns, small government radicalism and unfettered individualism.  It is, rather, a political and economic force of ever increasing significance: not only does Texas’ growing population mean that it has a powerful voice in US politics, but, were it an independent nation, its economy, worth $1.6 trillion, would be the tenth largest in the world. And as Texas’ population continues to grow, the state’s influence will only increase, with repercussions far beyond the state’s borders.

Wright has harsh words for Texas’ “immature political culture”, which he thinks “has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation”. Thankfully, his disdain is not so strong that it scrambles all perspective, and he avoids falling prey to the apocalyptic gloom and Manichaean simplifications that are an occupational hazard among political reporters in the US today. Instead, in a sequence of chapters, loosely structured around major Texan cities and current controversies, he delivers nuanced, informed takes on the culture, politics and history. The book begins with a visit to the Alamo, which successfully synthesizes reflections on the gift shop (”a Lourdes of Texas kitsch”) with references to Ozzy Osbourne and Phil Collins and a meditation on the state’s “original sin” of slavery; from there Wright travels to Houston, Dallas, El Paso and Austin, to report on fracking, mass shootings, gun culture, migration, Black Lives Matter and transgender bathroom bills, as well as giving an account of a visit to the state cemetery to pick out his burial plot.

Wright does battle with clichés throughout, pointing out that Texas is not only  the birthplace of Willie Nelson but also of Beyoncé Knowles; the state of Lyndon B. Johnson and the Civil Rights Act as well as George W. Bush and the Iraq War; and far more diverse than you might think, having the largest Muslim population in the US (422,000 out of a total of 2.35 million). A supreme networker, Wright seems to know everybody who is anybody in Texas: want to hear what president-elect Bush chatted about  at the Christmas party in the governor’s mansion? Wright’s got you covered. But the evident pleasure Wright takes in the company of famous people also results in a surprisingly slight chapter on Austin, wherein he reveals that he was once neighbour-but-one of the film director Terrence Malick and that the actor Matthew McConaughey is a nice guy. Readers of the TLS may have forgotten McConaughey’s naked bongo incident in 1999 which ended with his arrest for marijuana possession, but Wright, who lived across the street and once attended a cookout in the actor’s yard, has not. No drugs were found and McConaughey only paid a $50 fine for disturbing the peace, yet the damage was done: “what Matthew wanted was what I already had: a quiet existence on a pretty street, with nice neighbors and a degree of anonymity.” Tragically, the subsequent media attention made this dream impossible.

Missing from this account, though,  is the detail that Tarrytown, where Wright and McConaughey were living, is the most elite neighborhood in Austin. This somewhat undercuts the “ordinary guy” aspect of the narrative. And there are other lacunae. Most strikingly, aside from a few brief mentions of Wright’s Methodist upbringing and an anecdote about a scandalous Dallas preacher, we learn nothing about Texan religiosity. Nor is there any detail on the large military presence in Texas, or the death penalty (although Texas has executed nearly five times as many inmates as its closest competitor, Virginia, since the Supreme Court lifted the prohibition on capital punishment in 1976), and scant information about the people who live outside the metropolises, in cities such as Waco or Lubbock or Midlothian or Garland. And we learn very little about the Texans living in conservative rural communities. He does, however, treat us to a few outrageous quotes from particularly berserk ultraconservatives such as Dr. Steven Hotze, (not only a sworn foe of “homofascists” but also the man behind the song “God Fearing Texans Stop Obamacare”)  as well as several choice cuts from Rob Morrow, onetime chair of the Republican party in Travis County (“I am a proponent of boobyliciousness…I am for having bikini contests at the Alamo every 4th of July.”)

Sometimes deep roots are a disadvantage; they can blind you to things. God Save Texas is a fine, engaging account of the Texas inhabited by an urbane, well-connected gentleman journalist. But there are other, more alien Texases out there that are not revealed in this book.

Originally published in the TLS, October 31, 2018

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