Messing with Texas
Michael Lind’s willingness to buttress what the establishment Left wants to believe (and wants the rest of the country to believe) is perhaps one explanation for his sudden splash into celebrity only a few years ago, but surely not the only one. His first full-length book, The Next American Nation, was a learned and cleverly argued interpretation of American history that comprised the ideological foundation of the author’s “liberal nationalism,” a creed he has served up in most of his other books as well.
Of the three Lind books that I have read, all, including his latest, display the same flashes of brilliance and often ingenious talent of spying historical and cultural patterns that no one else has detected. All of them also suffer from the same flaws: his efforts to push cultural, political, and historical realities into the convenient categories he has discovered, even when they don’t fit, and a steady, harsh, almost obsessively angry polemic directed against a standard set of the author’s favorite targets: conservatives (neoconservatives in particular); the American South, especially its Celtic manifestations; and religion of almost all species (especially “supernaturalist” Christianity). In Made In Texas, Lind not only trips into the same fallacies but also eagerly seizes the opportunity offered by the administration of George W. Bush to clobber the same targets.
The argument is that Texas, or at least one cultural-political pattern in it, has taken over the country through the persona of George W. Bush, his Christian Right allies, and a Republican Party controlled by fellow Lone Star rangers Dick Armey, Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, and Dick Cheney. With a little help from the brains provided by the neoconservative Jews of the northeast, the Texas mafia has plotted a cowboy crusade against Iraq and other Arab states, permitted the country to be flooded with illegal immigrants to supply cheap labor, and, out of subservience to Texas oil and agribusiness interests, gutted all the environmental policies constructed by previous administrations. In addition to warmongering, greed, and reckless disregard for nature, the Bush gang is also racist, and while no special manifestation of that sin comes easily to mind, Lind throws it in anyway to complete the picture he is trying to paint.
The Texas Mr. Bush and his cabal represent is symbolized by the city of Waco. It is in Waco that Baylor University, a Southern Baptist center, is located, there in 1916 that Jesse Washington—a black teenager who confessed to raping a white woman—was burned alive and there that the Ku Klux Klan in 1923 held a public parade of some 2,000 members. It was in Waco, too, that David Koresh and his Branch Davidians nested, and the city is thus doubly notorious, “first for the ritual public burning of Jesse Washington and then for the apocalyptic immolation of David Koresh and his cult.” The relevance of the heart of darkness that festers in Waco ought to be obvious enough, as the city is only 18 miles from Crawford, where President Bush has a ranch. If you think that Waco, Crawford, and the demons that seem to reside around them are all that Texas has to offer, be not deceived. As Lind makes clear, Waco and Crawford are not really in the West at all, “but in the Deep South.”
There is another Texas, one that shines in Lind’s eye as a kind and gentle land, not settled by Anglo-Celtic Southern Protestants whose ancestors “had been conquering and expropriating other ethnic nations for centuries,” but by German and Scandinavian pioneers, who made friends with the Indians, collected large libraries, cultivated orchards, and in general just loved mankind. It was out of this “German-Scandinavian” Texas that one of Lind’s heroes, Lyndon Johnson came, as did the author himself.
Lind, you see, is from Texas, and in the preface to his book he spends nearly three pages telling us all about his ancestry and why they have little to do with the Evil Texas. It soon becomes clear that in spite of a good deal of erudition in Texas history, geography, folklore, and politics, much of what he might have imparted to his readers is soon immersed in a fog of ideological-political bias, social snobbery, and personal resentment. At every opportunity he delivers a few more insults to the Anglo-Celtic lowlifes he despises.
“While the Waco/Crawford area is infamous for its violent religious fanatics and its shocking lynchings,” he writes, “the [German-settled] Hill Country has long been a haven for mavericks of all kinds—the very sort of people who are not welcome among many of George W. Bush’s neighbors,” and in contrast to the utopian German-Scandinavian areas of peace-loving orchard-keepers,
In the regions of Texas infused with traditional Southern culture … deviance in political views, religious belief, behavior, or even dress could—and sometimes still can—subject one to ostracism, verbal harassment, physical beatings, or even murder. A small-m maverick in the vicinity of the present-day Johnson ranch could always be certain that his life and property would be secure. Throughout most of the history of Texas, a maverick living near the present-day Bush ranch could not be sure about his safety.
This sort of bitter characterization of the conservative, Confederate, fundamentalist, and mainly Anglo-Celtic Texas he hates—“a toxic by-product of the hierarchical plantation society of the American South, a cruel caste society in which the white, brown, and black majority labor for inadequate rewards while a cultivated but callous oligarchy of rich white families and their hirelings in the professions dominate the economy, politics, and the rarefied air of academic and museum culture,” on the one hand—and the “modernist” or “cosmopolitan,” Unionist, secular, and mainly Germanic-Scandinavian Texas he coos over—“a society eager to embrace the Space Age and the Information Age … led … by a visionary and earnest elite of entrepreneurs, engineers, reformist politicians, and dedicated civil servants, many of them self-made men and women from humble origins … a broadly egalitarian meritocracy, not a traditional social order stratified by caste and class” on the other—continues without surcease throughout the first two chapters and is a steady refrain in most of the remainder. Lind’s inability to let it go for even a moment is at first offensive in its determination to issue the meanest and most sweeping generalizations he can imagine about an entire population group and its culture but soon becomes merely tiresome and at last comically predictable and childishly one-sided.
Lind insists that George W. Bush is a creature of the degraded culture, he describes. However improbable that may seem for a descendant of New England Brahmins, whatever the president’s antecedents, he is certainly the arch-villain of the book, while the collective hero is a whole tradition that Lind dubs “Texas modernism.” Its proponents include Edward House, Woodrow Wilson’s adviser at the Paris Peace Conference and author of a novel advocating a Progressivist dictatorship in the United States, and continue with Lyndon Johnson himself, Ross Perot, Bobby Ray Inman, Barbara Jordan, Sam Rayburn, and John Connally. “Their goal,” much like that of House’s fictional dictator Philip Dru, “was a modernizing economic and social revolution from above in Texas, and their chosen instrument was state capitalism—civilian or military. They were not socialists, but they were statists,” and they “were the major rivals to the traditionalists in twentieth-century Texas.”
The “traditionalists,” of course, are the genocidal religious neurotics whom Lind thinks have the Good Guys surrounded down at the corral. When Lind is forcing himself to be nice, they are representatives of “traditional Southern conservatism,” but more often he prefers the term “reactionary.” Indeed, it seems to be an unexamined article of Mr. Lind’s simple faith that human history is a unilinear process involving a continuous struggle between the Good Guys (“modernists”) and the Bad Guys (“reactionaries” and “traditionalists”). Lind seems to think that Progress must come, even if a small band of “modernists” needs to seize power in the state and force utopia onto the unwilling. “Texas modernism” is merely the local manifestation of the “liberal nationalism” that Lind has boomed in his other books, a “nationalism” that relies on the centralizing federal government to sponsor social reforms, economic growth, and progress in general.
Lind is quite right that just such a tradition exists in American history, and his analysis of who does and who does not belong to it is usually keen. It is also, of course, a tradition that, pace Mr. Lind, is responsible for just about everything wrong in the annals of the American nation, launching most of the wars in our history, ballooning the size and power of the federal government, and wrecking American society through state-managed social engineering and economic regulation.
Given Lind’s affection for statism, his hostility to the projected war against Iraq may seem difficult to explain—until one recalls that the war is in part the brainchild of the wicked President Bush, in league with what Lind keeps telling us are the “mostly Jewish” neoconservatives allied with the “reactionary white Southern Protestant fundamentalists.” Lind does offer a brief paragraph explaining that the “Jewish hawks” are not representative of “Jewish-Americans in general” and that not all neocons are Jewish, but the paint on his picture is already dry by the time he scribbles in the obligatory disclaimers.
Despite Lind’s own thinly disguised ethnic hatred of the Other Texas, his book contains quite a bit of useful information and some striking insights. His account of the neoconservative policy empire in Washington and New York is valuable in itself, as is his discussion of the Judaeophilic theology of the Christian Right as a foundation of its alliance with the neoconservatives. Lind also effectively demolishes the claim that reducing immigration will result in higher production costs and shows how free trade leads to colonial dependency on the part of those countries that practice it. As for George W. Bush, Lind has probably attributed to him a far more sinister and sophisticated character than this president possesses. The president’s actual personality and character vanish as Lind stuffs them into his prefabricated bag of cultural and political stereotypes.
What Lind wants for the future is simply the triumph of “Texas modernism” forever and ever, with the federal government managing American society and the economy in such a way as to redistribute the urban underclass away from the “coastal rim” of the country throughout the rural heartland and to construct a “high-tech infrastructure” throughout rural areas. If nothing else, such a state-managed program of demographic and economic redistribution would gut the Evil Texas and its analogues in other states that Lind loathes so much. Had he been able to overcome whatever demons seem to haunt him, Lind might have written a far more useful contribution to American political-cultural analysis. Sadly, he has not.
Samuel Francis is a nationally syndicated columnist based in Washington and writes a monthly column for Chronicles.