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 glories.
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 Depot, Chili’s, 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 possible.
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 off.
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 dollars.
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 other way.
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 world.
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 political elite.
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 utopia.
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 consciousness.
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 plot.
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 civilization.
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.
For Brownwood, 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 proper dinner.