Point Austin: Welcome to the Future
Texas is just like America, only more so
It's the tradition of this column (maybe just a habit) to welcome the thousands of SXSW visitors to Austin with some small attempt to explain a few things about Our Fair City and its curious co-location in the Lone Star State. In his new book, God Save Texas, peripatetic Austin writer Lawrence Wright remarks how many bi-coastal folks he meets find it incomprehensible that he continues to live in Texas, then grudgingly forgive him when he mentions Austin – although most have never been to either place. The outsize mythologies of both places travel far and wide.
Wright's book, generally available next month, is likely to become a handy guide and introduction to both the state and the city, from a writer who acknowledges his greatly ambivalent feelings about his home state. (Like many current residents, Wright's family moved here when he was a boy, but he's Texan through and through.) The book is both celebratory and melancholy, as suggested by its title, which Wright says is borrowed from a song he wrote with Marcia Ball (another Texas transplant, from Louisiana), featuring the refrain, "He's the only one who can." Any Texan with any sense often finds themselves wondering if their home state is salvageable – or even worth saving. In light of our current national "leadership," that's definitely a question that can be more broadly applied.
It's got "the friendliest people and the prettiest women you've ever seen." That longtime Austin City Limits anthem, written and performed by Gary P. Nunn (yet another transplant), is noteworthy not only because it's a great song, but it's a song about being literally homesick for Texas: "London Homesick Blues." One of the first things newcomers learn about Texas is that once you live here, you're continually irritated or flabbergasted by the sheer pure-D idiocy of so much that goes on here – until you leave, and find yourself yearning to be back in the middle of all the nonsense. Wright recounts phoning his daughter, away in college, about a half-assed, sleepy rattlesnake roundup at the Capitol, and her response: "Oh, I love Texas!"
Although he's written about Texas before, Wright is of course better known for his long-form reporting for The New Yorker and his books about Scientology (Going Clear, 2013) and international terrorism (The Looming Tower, 2006; The Terror Years, 2016). He acknowledges his provincial concern about being considered a "regional" writer (an anxiety that seldom bothers writers microscopically dissecting Manhattan), but added that he'd had a "wonderful time" writing God Save Texas. That engagement shows, in his writing about Texas history, landscape, people, music ...
But the book also reflects a persistent concern that the worst things about Texas – revivified racism, gun fetishism, reactionary politics, militarism and criminal injustice, rampant institutional greed – are steadily infecting the rest of the country, nowhere better embodied than in the "narcissistic Manhattan billionaire now sitting in the Oval Office." People still blame Dallas for Lee Harvey Oswald; does anybody blame Queens for Donald Trump?
Although he's fascinated by the people pursuing Texas politics – George W. Bush and Ann Richards, Joe Straus and Dan Patrick, Greg Abbott and Sally Hernandez – he's recurrently foreboding about the ultimate consequences. "I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation. ... Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana may be more dysfunctional, but they don't bear the responsibility of being the future."
Full Speed Ahead
The grand scale of Texas, and the sheer range of its places and people – Houston to El Paso, the Panhandle to the Valley – is inevitably compelling to any writer, and Wright is happy just trying to get his arms around it all. But he notes that Texas is growing in population astronomically, and is therefore likely to dominate national politics for the foreseeable future. Simultaneously, the state's Republican leadership – with a stranglehold on a Legislature seated in a town where they happily reside yet pretend to despise for its own easygoing, expansive, progressive, Texan culture – remains determined to further militarize the state's borders, further undermine its public schools, further weaken public health care (especially for women), all in a quest to maintain white suburban political power over the multicultural majority of Texas cities and small towns, and the multicultural population of our common future.
Sounds a lot like America, doesn't it? As all y'all meander through the Austin blueberry in the tomato soup of Texas – enjoying all our very spring-like and energized attractions – you might ask yourself why we're so Uber-strangled in stupid, primitive traffic. Because our state politicians – and our (few) voters – like it that way. Why the town seems split between exploding, wealth-generating gentrification, and a ring of poor neighborhoods steadily pushed outward from the city center – because in Texas, them that already has, gets.
And you might consider why the best and worst of Texas is steadily becoming the best and worst of the country, for good and ill. Welcome to your future.