A Thanksgiving visit to my Texas hometown provokes the
question: it is possible to adore the people and enterprising ethics of
a place while abhorring its politics of nonchalant imperialism?
There are plenty of theoretical problems
with combining laissez-faire economics with the belief that the Texas
political establishment ought to otherwise run the world. But such a
stance, however contradictory, seems unquestioned and nearly
instinctual here. The paradox should cause some rethinking of some
entrenched notions concerning the links between politics and culture.
Before brooding from the depths, let us begin with the
Up With Enterprise
The usual confusion and envy that greets Wal-Marts in many
places in the country were absent when a superstore came to Brownwood,
Texas, five years ago. In fact, it seemed to be the spark that brought
economic growth and modern amenities to this little college town. Today
the evidence is all around: new homes, new businesses, Starbucks, Home
and lots of homegrown restaurants downtown that serve upscale food.
This town has suffered in a static state of economic doldrums
since World War II. At last, evidence of liberation, growth,
development, change is everywhere. No one is complaining about the rise
and expansion of choice. These stores mean more convenience, more jobs,
and a higher standard of living for all. What’s to complain about?
Even the hometown hardware store will survive the onslaught
of chain stores. For decades it had been in a bad location but had no
real incentive to move. When the new CVS caused the local pharmacy to
shut down, the hardware store took over the old pharmacy’s real estate
closer to the main drag.
The prospect of grueling competition focused the mind of the
owner and inspired him to do something that he should have done years
ago. Meanwhile, the business has been transformed and the place is
crawling with customers. The owner has no regrets, and struts around
the store with a big smile on this face, anxious to help in any way
Age of the Beep
Holidays give parents time to reflect on how different the
world is from that in which we grew up. The conveniences, the access to
information, the ubiquity of material goods, the vast choices that are
made available everywhere, our kids grow up in a world of plenty
compared to our relative deprivation.
Being in a number of different houses over the holiday, for
example, one sees how having local retailers serve domestic interests
has transformed the home. Everything beeps. The clothes and dish
washers beep when they complete their cycles. The water dispenser on
the fridge beeps when it functions. It also beeps when you switch from
crushed to cubed ice.
The oven beeps when the correct temperature arrives, and
beeps again when the time is up, and yet again when it is room
temperature again. The microwave beeps. The toaster beeps. The clock
beeps. Computers, cell phones, CD players, car doors, watches, locks,
coffee pots, and just about anything else that is electric beeps.
Note to manufacturers of the world: Surely this is not
necessary. At least, like the car airbag, one should be able to turn it
Get Your Goat
Another observable change in this Texas town: the goat
population has vastly increased. Everywhere you look, you see them
penned up in people’s backyards. On a casual morning walk, you might
expect to encounter barking dogs. But the braying tenor voices of goats
are a strange addition indeed.
It turns out that my own dear bother too keeps goats in his
backyard. It finally occurred to me to ask: hey, what’s with all the
crazy goats? Do they keep the grass cut? Do kids love them? Are they
nice pets? My brother explained that while all of this is true, the
crucial factor can be found in the idiosyncrasies of tax law. It seems
that if you raise goats on your land (3 acres or more), your property
taxes tumble after a few years, saving the landowner thousands of
He explained all this as if it were a perfectly normal thing
to become a goat herder solely for the purpose of saving in taxes. What
else would an intelligent person do? What a world these taxes, and
peculiar tax breaks, have made.
So many of life’s strange things—the shape of houses in
Charlestown, SC, the length of newspapers, not to mention revolutions
of all sorts—can be explained by taxes. Why not the prevalence of goats
in Brownwood, Texas?
Fishing, Sort of
The rise in prosperity means that we even can afford to
upgrade even our “back to nature” experiences.
When I was growing up, my father had decided that we would
master the art of fishing, and so most all vacation time was consumed
with driving to lakes and sitting waiting for fish to bite. We became
used to the strange idea that a vacation consisted in a full day of
sitting in a chair holding a stick, reeling in a line from time to
time, stringing a worm on a hook, waiting more and more, and getting up
the next day to do the same again. A good fishing trip meant 2-5 caught
fish in the course of a weekend.
Now we pay professionals. They take us out on lakes with
their special boats and fish finders and tested techniques. They
instruct us on bait, hook size, fishing depth, when to sit and when to
move. Forty-five minutes of work yields 15-20 pounds of the best fish
available anywhere. Some might say this is a decline, that it takes the
sport and relaxation out of it. I disagree. I would rather relax some
Actually my brother has found the best approach. After a
lifetime of boring fishing trips, he finally dug a big hole in his back
land and filled it with water. He redirected the runoff to go there as
well, and stocked it with baby catfish. He has fed them everyday for
two years. Today, the huge fish barely have room to swim.
And so, to catch dinner, one steps out back, throws a hook in
the water, takes out as many as one needs, and fries them up. Somehow
this moment sums it all up: the world we grew up in as versus the one
our children live in.
Materialism and the Arts
The tale of Brownwood is not only about stuff you can buy and
catch. The arts, are, flourishing in town, in churches, civic events,
commercial art galleries, and ongoing local performances. Now, as
in all times, the arts require sacrifice and are hardly ever profitable
in any pecuniary sense. But rising prosperity permits people to turn
their attention from essentials to luxuries. (Rothbard explained that “an
advancing market economy satisfies more and more of people’s desires
for exchangeable goods. As a result, the marginal utility of
exchangeable goods tends to decline over time, while the marginal
utility of nonexchangeable goods increases.”)
Attending a late night session of music reading and singing
with some friends at the School of Music, at 10:30pm, the day before
Thanksgiving, the halls were filled with the strains of Bach, Mozart,
scales, exercise, solos, duets, and more. Here were the music students,
utterly dedicated. They had been working for many hours. Some had been
there all day at the piano, playing the French horn, reading through
scores, working on scales.
Non-musicians would be amazed at how much time and
self-discipline it requires to become proficient in any instrument. It
requires a time commitment that expands over ten and twenty years. It
requires daily work and grinding repetition. This is conventional among
musicians—a minimum investment means total life dedication.
And so these kids practice, every night, all year long. Who
are these students and what do they hope to gain from it? They are very
aware that they stand a near-zero chance of landing jobs as performers.
Of the hundreds and thousands of annual graduates from music school who
specialize in, for example, flute playing, there are perhaps a half a
dozen position open up every year.
Pecuniary gain isn’t it. They know this. So what drives it?
It is something inside a person’s heart and soul that drives the person
to create and become not just a passive listener but an active
performer and creator. It is an unstoppable urge that goes way beyond
the commercial incentive. I suppose without this mysterious something
that drives people to do utterly crazy things, like master a musical
instrument, the world would be robbed of many beautiful things.
But while such an inner drive may be necessary, it is not
sufficient because these students in this small town must still cobble
together resources to pay for their studies both in out of pockets
costs and in forgone opportunities. They must still find a way to pay
bills after graduating. They must eventually find a vocation to
supplement their avocation.
Somehow to be surrounded by opportunity and prosperity opens
up new possibilities and imparts a confidence that gloriously
beneficial but finally unprofitable endeavors can still be part of our
But This Is Bushland
More than any previous visit, one enters Texas aware that
this is the state running the world—via that man in the White House,
who will rule for another four dreadful years of war, debt, and
arrogance, and cultural decline. All charms aside, this is a fact
difficult to ignore. I’ve always adored Texas, but this paradox
requires some rethinking of relationship between culture and politics.
The political culture here is dominated by white Christian
males who enthusiastically voted for Bush by 75%. Add the words
conservative and protestant to the mixed and you have a consensus for
Bush that approaches nearly 100%. One doubts that any dictator or Pope
in the history of the world enjoyed such universal uncritical support
from a dominant group.
Yet in casual discussions with actual members of this
group—having cleverly won their trust by being a white male myself—I
found virtually no awareness of any of the basic facts concerning the
ballooning budget, the chaos and bloodshed of Iraq, the vast expansion
of federal power, the shredding of civil liberties, or anything else.
To speak of these matters comes across as boring and
irrelevant as a lecture on the chemical properties of the rings of
Saturn. All Texans know is that their man in Washington
guarding their interests, slaying bad guys, and doing something to make
everyone really prosperous. The big threats they see on the horizon are
gay marriage and Islam—sentiments easily manipulated by a cynical
These charming and peaceful people who go on about what the
Middle East needs now are the same ones who routinely and dismissively
refer to non-Texans as Yankees, with a studied indifferentism. Iraqi,
Iowan, it’s all the same to them. It’s bad
enough that the people of the state to have given the world this man
and celebrated his works, but to have done so with willful ignorance of
what he has done to the country and the world, and with little concern
for the fate of anyone but themselves, this is really unforgivable.
Rethinking White Christian Patriarchy
If you have read the conservative press over the last decade
or two, particularly that concerning the much-vaunted culture war, you
find vast fretting about the exorbitant and rising political power of
blacks, women, campus elites, non-Christians, and various
countercultural elements, who, if they grab hold of power will destroy
everything we’ve known.
Well, their writings must have thwarted the imminent power
grab because there is no question who is running this state, and
thereby the country and the world. To be sure, power shouldn’t be
trusted in anyone’s hands. But this literature carries with it an
implication that somehow keep the Christian white male on top will
preserve what’s left of freedom and the social order.
Sure, that’s the ticket. The white racialist literature is
even more explicit: whites build civilization whereas other races
destroy it. Well, that is precisely who is running the show, and what a
bloody mess they have created. Somehow the realization that this
demographic group is as unknowing as it is reckless and irresponsible
should prompt some rethinking of these issues.
During the Progressive Era, it was the leftist intelligentsia
of Wilson’s generation that toyed with the idea that Kingdom of God on
Earth would be brought about by eugenics policies that subsidize
breeding among elite whites and discouraged it among the lower classes
and “inferior” races. These views were part of intellectual apparatus
of public management and social uplift that enraptured this generation
of elites. To hold such views was not out of the mainstream in the
interwar era but rather an indication of high-brow sophistication.
It wasn’t just the experience of Nazi Germany that purged
such views from mainstream thought but also the realization that whites
had been responsible for the two most ghastly totalitarian regimes in
the history of the world. Whites might have created cities on hills but
also gulags and gas chambers. Racial purity as a means of social
salvation proved to be just another false theory in the search for
Race, religion, and political identity are not wholly
separable, as a quick glance at exit polls reveal. But what this fact
reveals about white voting preferences, and the evidence of vast power
worship for that man in the White House, is not at all flattering. The
realization of just who constitutes Bush’s uncritical base should
similarly cause a rethinking among those who have identified the cause
of liberty with the cause of white, male, Christian political
Moreover, it is not at all clear that the white protestant
Christians that serve as Bush’s base reject the victim-group politics
that have been a mainstay of left-liberal rhetoric. On the contrary,
there is a tendency to fully embrace civil-rights socialism, quotas,
and group privileges.
On these subjects the GOP faithful have become reliable
backers of social engineering, provided it is carried out by the right
people. The same is true as regards education: the Texas base of white
Christians believe that their beloved public school system ought to be
the model for the world, no matter what it costs.
Meanwhile, in Texas,
it is the immigrant classes, the Hispanics, the academics, the urban
elites, and educated women who have kept their heads enough to oppose
Bush. For the right reasons or wrong ones? Well, is it really necessary
to parse all that out when freedom is being imperiled at the hands of
power-drunk regime in D.C.?
In any case, what you find that all these groups have in
common is that they despise Bush’s insane wars. They see in him an
element of power lust, and they wanted him stopped. And on this, there
is every reason to agree with all the groups that the GOP has
traditionally assailed as drains on the public treasury.
Violence Is Very Fashionable
Even in this little town, Oliver Stone’s Alexander
was available for viewing on opening day during a time when the
desirability of a one-world empire is a core assumption of every loyal
Republican. Stone’s films have always shown a strong skepticism of
power, or so I thought, but this one turned out to be different.
I suffered through the three long hours of this film that has
been rightly savaged by critics. The real trouble with it is not the
lead character’s blonde highlights, the absence of character
development, the incomprehensible battle scenes, or the meandering
The real trouble was the core message: Alexander was brutal
but what he did to unify the known world was worth the price. It was a
selfless act, illustrated by his promotion of universal education, his
defense of intermarriage, his rhetoric about freedom, and the devotion
he inspired in those who followed him.
Why would Stone allow his film to promote this message, one
that surely appeals to the prejudices of Bush supporters? It is due to
the core ideological confusion of the left, or so it seems to me. They
claim to abhor violence and power. And yet the world they want to
create of perfect equality requires massive uses of the same.
Too often the left finds itself in the strange position of
loathing petty local despots while celebrating far more dangerous
versions that sit in higher seats of power. Something like this might
have been at work with Stone’s rendition of Alexander.
There is another factor. Left-liberalism in our time lacks a
robust theory of what holds society together. Having a distaste for
consumer culture, capitalism, and the bourgeois works of peace through
churches, families, and localities, and hit with doubts about the
viability of full-blown socialism, the typical leftist is left with no
viable model of makes the world livable, peaceful, and civilized.
The political right, of course, has long suffered under the
delusion that all good things come from the barrel of a gun. But even
for the left, supposedly against political violence, it always comes
back to the same ideal of a world run by a benevolent despot. Their
hope for a political messiah never quite goes away.
Even if the impulse can be explained, it is a sick view of
the world that confuses the mass violence of war with the bringing of
Give Peace More Chances
Between the imperial indifferentism of Bush voters and the
celebration of forced unity by the left, what is missing in our times,
and in the minds of the good people of Brownwood, is a clear
understanding of the works of peace that make towns like this so
magical and beautiful.
these are times of plenty. And to what do the residents owe this? It is
not because modern day Alexanders march their armies around the world
slaughtering inferiors in the name of liberating them. It is because
people make lakes, raise fish, practice music, perfect the art of
commercial relations, open up new stores, and live their lives
peacefully and productively.
As a final note, it was
much to our astonishment that despite my brother’s pond being thick
with life, we failed to catch a single fish before dinner. It turns out
that the fish weren’t hungry. There was nothing we could do to make
them so. Respecting their right not to bite our hooks, we reeled in our
lines, hopped in our cars, and met at the new seafood restaurant for a