Some Thoughts on Being Texan

(Disclaimer: This essay includes much discussion of political philosophy. I have many friends and acquaintances, in Texas and elsewhere, who are significantly more conservative than I. Though I have strong disagreements on multiple issues with the politics and philosophies of the right, the present essay is not directed against those people: any discussions or debates I might have over differences with my conservative friends can wait for another day. Where the following words are directed against anyone, it is generally aimed at [many of] my fellow liberals.)

They say nothing good ever came out of Texas. (I just googled ["nothing good" came OR comes "from texas" OR "out of texas"] and got 7650 hits. And that is not a listing of every website that trashes Texas—only the ones that express their disdain by way of that particular expression.) Texans have received some particularly harsh criticism from the left in recent weeks in response to a Texas State Board of Education vote that approved more conservative- and/or Christian-based standards for school textbooks, as well as a shout of "baby killer" from a Texas congressman during the recent House vote on the health-care reform bill (for the record, I am as outraged as anyone by those particular actions). In the recent past, the U.S. saw eight years under President George W. Bush, and it's fair to say his administration was not popular among liberals. But rather than state intelligent and constructive criticisms, too many, on too many occasions, took the opportunity to snicker: "He's from Texas. What do you expect?" This widespread and wearyingly familiar chorus of hate and ridicule directed towards Texas and all things Texan continues a perennial litany of sentiments suggesting that Texas' 25 million citizens all think and act in lockstep as hootin', hollerin', Bible-thumpin', pickup-drivin', shotgun-totin', prisoner-executin' redneck yahoos. (Except in Austin, that "blue dot in a sea of red." [Austin blue "sea of red"] gets 4480 Google hits.)

I am a Texan and reasonably proud of it. Not in that stereotypical strutting (or that sitting-back-in-a-leather-armchair-with-crossed-leather-booted-feet-propped-up-on-the desk) sort of way, but. . . I was born and raised in this state; I enjoy Texas lore and find much to admire in this land, its people, and its history. I am also a liberal, freethinking person who votes Democratic in the overwhelming majority of instances (most of the exceptions have been when I have voted Green). And I want to make it clear that this makes me neither a contradiction nor anything close to unique.

True to the spirit of my disclaimer at the top of this piece, it is not with conservatives but with many of my fellow liberals (whose values and worldview I otherwise generally share) that I am here taking issue. I consider it one of the fundamental tenets of liberalism that if people must be judged it should be on their individual merits (or faults). Liberals can and should be proud that their way of thinking and their actions have advanced the statuses and causes of numerous minorities and oppressed groups. I am as disenchanted as anyone with good-ol'-boy networks: the very idea that the only people fit to run things are conservative heterosexual white churchgoing-Protestant middle-aged males of Anglo-Saxon descent is appalling to me. I would personally be thrilled to have a disabled Native American lesbian as President, as long as she was a good, fair-minded leader who was well-versed in public policy. Where I differ from the clearly- and oft-expressed views of many so-called liberals is that I make a real attempt not to discriminate. For example, I question such practices as quotas and race-based affirmative action (while I applaud the good intentions behind the latter, I consider it discriminatory in practice: it makes policy decisions based on skin color). We as liberals must not dismiss the fitness, the intelligence, the progressiveness, the liberalism of a person just because he is a guy. Or Caucasian. . . . Or Texan.

Texas is a "red state" in the current political parlance (terminology that originated in network television coverage of Presidential elections, where states were shown on a wall map as red [Republican] or blue [Democratic] according to where their Electoral College votes would be going [N.B.: I am strongly opposed to the Electoral College system. But I digress.]). The red-blue dichotomy started out as a visual aid but over time has helped contribute to an illogical, divisive, and destructive us-vs.-them mentality: "The Texans want to secede? Let them! We'll all be better off!" I may be paraphrasing, but I'm not imagining. I've seen that sentiment expressed (usually in much more colorful language—blue in more than one sense of the word!) a few hundred too many times.

Many liberals blame Texas for afflicting George W. Bush on the country for eight years. Like him or not, he would not have ascended to office were it not for the fact that he had broad-based nationwide support and received a majority of the electoral votes from the entire United States. It can reasonably be argued that he got an assist in the 2000 election from the U.S. Supreme Court, but how is that Texas' fault?

25 million. Indications are that when the 2010 census results are released, the population of Texas will be quite close to that figure. There's a lot of room for diversity among a group of 25 million souls whose only common attribute is that they reside on the same 270,000-square-mile expanse of land. Texan-bashers would point out that there's a difference between "room for diversity" and the actual thing. I'm here to show the doubters and haters just how wrong they are.

The Dallas Morning News published the results of a poll recently. Texans (statewide) were asked to place themselves in one of five categories:
Independent, leaning Republican
Strictly independent
Independent, leaning Democrat
As one might suspect, Republicans outpolled Democrats. What might come as a surprise to some is the numbers: 31% Republicans, 28% Democrats. Not exactly overwhelming. Still ready to consign us all to fiery right-wing hell?

But "Austin is a blue dot in a sea of red"!!! We all know that! We heard that over and over from people who said so knowingly! And the rest of Texas, everything outside the borders of Travis County, is that sea of red!! Perhaps a few other stray Texas voters here and there voted for Obama in 2008, but only Austin could (and did, with much fanfare and amused derision towards non-Austinites) rightly and righteously pride itself on voting for him in significant numbers. . . . Right?

It's been said that a lie, repeated often enough, becomes accepted fact. Whoever said that was definitely on to something: dear smug Austinites, your "fact" is a crock of, um, baloney. Check this webpage:
What do the actual data tell us?
Among Texas counties, Harris (county seat: Houston) ranks #1 in population (2008 estimate: 3,984,349). Harris County went for Obama in 2008.
Among Texas counties, Dallas (county seat: Dallas) ranks #2 in population (2007 estimate: 2,366,511). Dallas County went (very strongly) for Obama in 2008.
Among Texas counties, Tarrant (county seat: Fort Worth) ranks #3 in population (2007 estimate: 1,717,435). Tarrant County went for McCain in 2008. (I had to put that in in the spirit of fairness!)
Among Texas counties, Bexar (county seat: San Antonio) ranks #4 in population (2008 estimate: 1,622,884). Bexar County went for Obama in 2008.
Among Texas counties, Travis (county seat: Austin) ranks #5 in population (2008 estimate: 998,543). Travis County went (overwhelmingly) for Obama in 2008.
Among Texas counties, El Paso (county seat: El Paso) ranks #6 in population (2008 estimate: 755,085). El Paso County went (overwhelmingly) for Obama in 2008.
Among Texas counties, Hidalgo (county seat: Edinburg) ranks #7 in population (2007 estimate: 710,514). Hidalgo County went (overwhelmingly) for Obama in 2008.

Have I made my point? Texas "went red" not because every corner, nook, and cranny outside of Austin went for McCain—in fact, virtually every urban area in the state went for Obama—but only because most of the rural counties (except those along the Rio Grande, which pretty much constituted a "sea of blue") voted for McCain. I would think that those fond of the Austin-is-a-blue-dot-in-a-sea-of-red argument might find it kind of hard to dismiss with a smirk and a wave of the hand those 9 1/2 million folks in the blue counties of Harris, Dallas, Bexar (all three bigger than Travis!), El Paso, and Hidalgo.

All told, 3,528,633 Texans voted for Obama in 2008. That is the number of people who actually went to the polls and cast ballots. Three states—California, Florida, and New York—had more Obama voters. Forty-six states (plus D.C.) had fewer. More Texans voted for Obama in 2008 than the entire populations—men, women, and children, voting and non-voting—of 29 U.S. states. Liberals, do you still want to lump all Texans together and condemn the lot of them as nothing but an unbroken homogeneous mass of right-wingers?

I was a 7-year-old 2nd grader sitting in a Dallas public-school classroom when, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was gunned down about 10 miles to my west. Even at that tender age, I was stunned and devastated. My parents had been staunch Kennedy supporters: I even remember the Kennedy–Johnson sign we had had in our yard before the 1960 election, which happened when I was 4. When JFK died, my mother cried through most of her waking hours for three or four days.

What I was not prepared for was that Dallas would be labeled "City of Hate" and treated accordingly nationwide. Oswald (who, incidentally, was born in Louisiana, and lived in Texas for only a small portion of his 24 years), or whatever conspiracy one believes in, didn't kill Kennedy, according to the prevailing "wisdom"—Dallas did. I went with my family on a cross-country car trip the following summer, and time after time our mentioning our Dallas or Texas origins was responded to with looks or words of hate. We learned to keep quiet: we were supposed to be ashamed. I found that over decades—yes, decades—many who were old enough to remember the assassination had not changed their attitudes and would not do so.

As recently as last year, 2009, a piece was published in the newspaper in the wake of Senator Edward Kennedy's death, relating how he had crisscrossed the country tirelessly throughout his life and career. But after 1963 he could never bring himself to set foot again in Dallas: it was just too painful. . . . It is not for me to question or judge a person's private and personal grief. But I couldn't help wondering why it didn't say Teddy had also avoided Los Angeles for the rest of his life. After all, Teddy's brother Robert Kennedy was assassinated there. What's the difference? It must be that LA is a big city where all kinds of things happen all the time. Bobby Kennedy's death was a tragedy, but you can't blame the land it happened on, can you? LA just happens to be where it happened. But Dallas: a city that breathes and breeds hate and shall bear the shameful stigma for generations to come. "They're Texans. What do you expect?"

Sorry, folks, I don't get it. People, and certainly those who would call themselves liberals, should know better than this. Judging others based on geographical origin or place of residence is no better than judging them based on skin color, gender, religion, or sexual preference. It is bigotry, and it is prejudice, plain and simple.