What’s the Matter With Texas?

by Nancy Jane Moore

TexasTexans don’t have much use for ideas. Or at least, that’s what the eminent historian T.R. Fehrenbach says. In an essay in November’s Texas Monthly, he observes:

[T]he people who settled Texas were primarily people of action. They did things, sometimes great things, but they rarely contemplated their meaning. … Texas is now rich and powerful, but we still talk up other men’s ideas.

His theory explains why I’ve always felt out of place in my native state. I love ideas. Nothing makes me happier than stumbling across some concept that makes the world a little clearer, unless it’s toying around with an idea and making it my own or coming up with a completely new take on the situation. And my favorite social activity is talking to other people who are in love with ideas.

My love of ideas is why I go to WisCon every year, and why no other science fiction convention is ever as satisfactory. I not only run into a multitude of new ideas every year, but I find more and more people to discuss them with. It’s my definition of heaven.

But I recognized myself and my ancestors in reading Fehrenbach’s essay. My people were part of that Anglo horde that swooped into the state in the first half of the 19th Century, seeking land and freedom — “freedom” being defined as being able to do as you damned well pleased (at least if you were white and male). I, too, react negatively to corporate or government bureaucracy, and, unfortunately, I have the same craving for land. My lifestyle and interests are more suited to apartment living, but once again I’ve bought a house with a yard that needs lots of tender loving care. I just can’t seem to help it.

Fehrenbach was talking about the Anglo culture, for the most part (Anglo being a general term for non-Hispanic white people, some of whose old country roots are from places other than the British Isles). And these days, that’s a minority culture in Texas; non-Hispanic white people like me make up less than 50 percent of the population. They’re still powerful, especially in state government and business, but their significance is declining. I hope their anti-intellectualism is declining as well.

But it’s not just Anglo Texans with roots going back before statehood that exhibit this tendency. Given the rapid growth of the Texas population — it was the only state to pick up 4 congressional seats after the last census — I suspect that the family tree of most Texas Anglos doesn’t go back as far as either mine or Fehrenbach’s. That would mean a lot of the people who’ve moved here more recently — including Yankees like the Bushes — subscribe to that same contempt for things intellectual. Apparently you don’t have to have ancestors stretching back to the Texas Revolution or even to have been born here to distrust pointy-headed intellectuals.

Frankly, I’m tired of it. And so is Fehrenbach. He writes:

Is there meaning to Texas’s history and culture. Or is it all chaos tinged with evil?

Our ancestors made us rich enough to stop talking about prices, crops, politics, or oil and to start debating concepts and meaning. This, after all, is what great and mature societies do.

Like most people, I love the place I’m from. I’m sentimental about large swaths of Texas — the Hill Country west of Austin and San Antonio, the beaches at Galveston and Corpus, even the vast flatness of the Panhandle. My current favorite place on Earth is the high desert country out in far West Texas.

And I’m from here, damn it. A few years ago, an African American friend of mine referred to me as European American and I didn’t like it. I don’t feel any ties to Europe. My place is here. I’m a Texan American.

So while I’m getting really tired of the elevation of ignorance in my native land, I’m not ready to cede Texas to the yahoos and move on somewhere else.

Fortunately, I’m not alone. Just listen to a few songs by Butch Hancock and the rest of the Flatlanders and you’ll realize there are some real idea people native to Texas. You’ll find others of us in nooks and crannies, not just in Austin but throughout the state.

As for those who are determined to keep up the ignorant image, I’ve only got one thing to say:

Grow up.

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