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Anthropology

A Sociology of Texas

by Christopher Landrum

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (Knopf, 2018) is Wright’s tenth work of nonfiction. It was released 17 April and contains bold verso illustrations and endpaper maps by David Danz.

Seal of the State of Texas (public domain, source: Wikimedia Commons)

This book falls into a traditional subgenre where male writers from Texas (usually of European ancestry) seek to understand better, apologize for, and thoroughly explain to their readers the conditions of the author’s home state. Previous works such as Frank Godwyn’s Lone-Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective (Knopf, 1955), Stanley Walker’s Home to Texas (Harper, 1956), and William Humphrey’s Farther Off from Heaven, (Knopf, 1977) mark this Heimat tradition. Criticism of the status quo is an important but secondary intention of the subgenre.

To inform others of, as well as to criticize, one’s own homeland have always been difficult—and as the progress of the subgenre demonstrates––Sisyphean tasks. Godwyn’s account was too optimistic because he could not predict the national backlash against Texas following the JFK assassination. Walker’s book––with its naming of names as an attempt to settle old, personal scores from his hometown of Lampasas––was too cynical to find a broad, sympathetic readership. Humphrey’s memoir, while beautifully written, was simply too nostalgic of the bygone Jim Crow era in East Texas. In contrast, Wright’s perspective is refreshingly sober, balanced, and patient.

If one of founders of sociology, the erudite Ferdinand Tönnies, was correct when he declared––

We are not considering people with regard to race, nation or tribe as biological units, but in the sociological sense. We are therefore looking at human relationships and connections either as living entities, or conversely as artificially constructed ones. (p. 21)

––then it is accurate to describe God Save Texas as a casual survey of the sociology of Texas for the past 40 years. Yet, though its focus is on sociology, the book is written in a casual style and is not an academic work. (It contains, for example, no index.) Instead its style presents readers with a “journey” narrated mostly in the first-person perspective, a journey that considers nearly all variables comprising the recent political economy and multicultural urbanization of the state of Texas.

Each chapter is an essay covering many topics broadly, rather than a few intensely. Chapters 1, 4, 6, and 12–14 focus on various aspects of culture in Texas, such as the state’s enthusiasm for gun ownership, ownership of pick-up trucks, its local music and entertainment accomplishments, its unique cuisine, as well as its intense religiosity and infamous political and social conservatism. These chapters also describe the strong, historic and cultural influences that came about via nineteenth and twentieth-century Czech, German, Mexican, and Vietnamese immigrants, as well as through their native-born offspring––influences which have, in turn, laid the foundation for some of the more recent influences Texas now has on global culture and economics in the twenty-first century.

Chapter 2 discusses the energy economy in Texas, from classical oil-well drilling, to natural gas extraction, to the recent fracking boon, to the wind farms in the western portions of the state—some of which are heavily invested in by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It’s here where Wright warns of the ever-potential “corporate fascism” that can germinate not only amid the geopolitics of petroleum producers, but in other markets and industries where hyper-deregulation of corporate accountability is strongly encouraged and practiced, as it is in Texas (pp. 173–74).

Three individual chapters discuss the cities of Houston (ch. 3), Dallas (ch. 7), and Austin (ch. 9), which, in terms of population, are respectively the first, third, and fourth largest cities in Texas.

Chapter 11 concerns the state’s relationship with Mexico and involves, among other things: the border wall proposed by President Trump, immigration policy at both state and federal jurisdictions, as well as assessing and appreciating the cities of San Antonio and El Paso, respectively the third and sixth largest cities in the state.

Silently abiding by Max Weber’s definition that politics “means striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state,” (pp. 77–78) chapters 5, 8, and 10 of Wright’s book are about Texas politics both within the state and the political representatives its citizens send to Washington. Chapter 8 focuses on the three most recent presidents to come from Texas: Lyndon Johnson and the father and son Bush.

Some secular readers may understandably question the meaning of the word “God” in the title God Save Texas. Just as there is a faint echo of benign nationalism evoked when the British sing “God Save the Queen,” so too might the phrase “God Save Texas” cue some readers of Wright’s book to recall the state’s early history as a republic independent of the United States. Or the wording of the title might also refer to lyrics from the last chorus of the state’s anthem “Texas, Our Texas”––lyrics which say: “God bless you Texas! And keep you brave and strong.” Yet the author was also likely reminded of a popular country music song from 1995, titled “God Bless Texas,” by a group named Little Texas, but who were themselves from Tennessee. Even today, nearly a quarter-century after that song debuted, it continues to be used in radio and television commercials that advertise Ford trucks to customers living in Texas.

But, regardless of the origins of the book’s title, the fact that Texas needs saving implies some underlying sense of guilt. There may be other sins for which Texas must answer, but there is no question, as Chapter 2 ably demonstrates, that the state is ecologically guilty of energy extraction. Habermas once pointed out that––

The exchange of imported raw materials for finished and semi-finished domestic goods must be viewed as a function of the process in which the old mode of production was transformed into a capitalist one (pp. 18–19)

––and this should be compared with an observation from Texas’s own esteemed, though not impartial, historian, T. R. Ferhenbach (1925–2013), when he wrote in 2012:

Texas remains something of a colonial economy: we still export huge quantities of raw materials. Agrarian and mining complexes are normally politically conservative, and their owners define our state’s culture more than do managerial types. Some Texans still think of professionals as hired hands.

Wright’s survey is expansive but not all-encompassing. For example, the book’s various discussions on religion and conservatism omit mentioning some of the more extreme cases: like the inferno that followed the 1993 gun standoff between federal agents and members of the Branch Davidian religious cult at Mount Carmel, just outside of Waco; or the removal of hundreds of children by state officials from the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado in West Texas in 2014––a removal based on reports of sexual assault and polygamy by a sect that had already been disavowed by the Mormon Church (Langford 2014).

But to his credit, Wright analyzes the frequent, but not endemic, anti-LGBT+ rhetoric of many of the state’s politicians—a rhetoric that obscurely magnifies a hostility not quite as prevalent among the general population as the most outspoken in Texas would often make it seem (pp. 262–71).

God Save Texas offers some discussion of the African-American experience in Texas for the last 40 years, particularly in the chapter about Dallas, but Wright admits to some shortcomings in this regard. He confesses to still struggling to overcome his isolated upbringing, part of which meant never having a black classmate while in grade school (p. 57). Yet, by this honest admission, Wright seeks to avoid the temptation, as Texas novelist Larry McMurtry tells him, “to reinforce provincialism” (p. 102).

While much of the book examines how Texas’s economy, population, and political influence over the rest of the nation have expanded since about 1978, Wright remains ambivalent, and more than a little impatient, with the continued “immature political culture” of Texas. This immaturity, according to Wright, influences everything “modern” in the state, subsequently many issues across the entire nation, and therefore, some matters, particularly energy policy, on a global scale (p. 9).

The rhetoric of Wright’s ambivalence is certainly provocative (and, as a fellow native Texan, the present reviewer thinks rightly so), as when Wright complains how Texas’s spirit of “timidity” means it would rather peer backwards and contemplate the past instead of planning forward for the future (pp. 281–82).[i] For Texas continues to grow; its population is expected to double in the next 30 years. Wright’s ambivalence to how Texas handles this oncoming growth amid its political immaturity is reminiscent of Goethe’s observation that: “If children continued growing according to early indications, we should have nothing but geniuses; but growth is not merely development” (pp. 55–56).

Oil well in West Texas (photo by Ficell0guy, used under CC BY SA 3.0 Licence, Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Some minor criticisms: Wright does mention the cultural contributions of African-Americans and Tejanos, such as Beyoncé and Selena, as well as concisely summarize the history of the Texas global exports of rock and roll, blues, and country music (all of which share a family resemblance to one another) through the careers and legacies of: Bob Wills, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Wright might also have mentioned other contributors to the great diversity of music Texas has produced in the past 40 years such as: Pantera (from the Dallas area) for heavy metal, The Butthole Surfers (from San Antonio) for psychedelic punk rock,[ii] Norah Jones (from the Dallas area) for jazz, DJ Screw (from Houston) for hip hop, or, most recently––and certainly on a slightly lower scale than those listed above––one might have mentioned the subtle but substantial electronic impressionism of VVV (from Austin) that has currently found favor among several influential club scenes of Europe.

Probably the most glaring cultural omission, particularly for Europeans, is any reference to the farce and fraud of laffaire Lance Armstrong, the discredited participant of several Tours de France. While Wright’s book begins with a description of himself and a fellow-writer friend both biking through the rolling hills of Central Texas, it nonetheless seems as if the fiasco in France remains something too taboo for some writers from Austin to directly refer to, though some exceptions exist (Dille 2012). Wright’s silence about the notorious (yet, admirably cancer-surviving) cyclist from Texas is perhaps comparable to a moment in his book when––in the theater where a professional acting troupe was to perform a play Wright had written––Wright was unexpectedly reprimanded by the actors for uttering aloud the superstitiously unlucky word “Macbeth” (p. 85).

So what kind of non-Texan should read this book, and why? The casual style makes it accessible for any common reader interested in the present-day culture and political economy of Texas, as well as the sociology of the past 40 years that underlies them. Serious readers––such as specialists of petropolitics, critics of American gun ownership, or those who study the complexities behind any state’s (or nation-state’s) immigration policy––will encounter in God Save Texas adequate, informative starting points of discussion from the perspective of Texas. These points can then be further compared and contrasted with other cases from around the world.

“The philosopher,” said Wittgenstein, “treats a question; like an illness” (I, §255). But as the journalist Wright contemplates his large, diverse state, the tone set throughout God Save Texas is generally not that of a melancholy writer suffering any kind of love-sickness (Werthersfieber) for his homeland. Rather, in this book Lawrence Wright tries to objectively diagnose the illness of the times (Zeitkrankheit) afflicting the social pathology of twenty-first century Texas. But for Wright, again much in the spirit of Wittgenstein, any remedies for that illness are left for readers to render themselves.

 

Lawrence Wright,
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State
New York: Knopf, 2018
ISBN: 9780525520108
3
49 pages, Hardcover, US$ 28.00

Christopher Landrum’s work has appeared in the Fortnightly Review of London and Real Clear News of Chicago. He lives in Austin, Texas and writes about books at Bookbread.com.

 

Sources

Dille, Ian. “Ghost Riders: with the Lance Armstrong Era Over, a Generation of Cyclists Who Insisted on Racing Clean Comes to Terms with What was Lost,” Texas Monthly, December 2012.

Fehrenbach, T. R.. “Drain of Thought: Why Texas has never had much use for ideas,” Texas Monthly, November 2012.

Goethe, Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit, (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949) In Goethe’s words:

Wüchsen die Kinder in der Art sort, wie sie sich andeuten, so hätten wir lauter Genies; aber das Wachsthum ist nicht blos Entwicklung; die verschiednen organischen Systeme, die den Einen Menschen aus machen, entspringen aus einander, solgen einander, verwandeln sich in einander, verdrängen einander, ja zehren einander aus, so daß von manchen Fähigkeiten, von manchen Krastäußerungen nach einer gewissen Zeit kaum eine Spur mehr zu finden ist. (Tiel II)

Habermas, Jürgen. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere) (1961), trans. Thomas Burger with assistance of Frederick Lawrence, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991).

Langford, Terri. “Texas Seizes Polygamist Group’s Ranch in West Texas,” Texas Tribune, 17 April 2014.

Tönnies, Ferdinand. Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) (1887), trans. Jose Harris, (Cambridge UP, 2001).

Weber, Max. “Politik als Beruf” (“Politics as a Vocation”) (1919) in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York: Oxford UP, 1958).

Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations), trans. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; Revised Fourth Edition by Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 255. In Wittgenstein’s words: “Der Philosoph behandelt eine Frage; wie eine Krankheit.”

Wright, Lawrence God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, (New York: Knopf, 2018).

 

END NOTES

[i] By his use of the word “timidity,” Wright may be goading the more biblically-minded to recall: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7). Many modern English translations use the word “timidity,” instead of the Authorized Version’s (1611) choice of “fear” in this context.

[ii] Despite their prolific musical output, talent, and influence on others, certainly the “earthiness” of this band’s name is reminiscent of Wright’s observation that Texas stereotypes often embody “a lowbrow society, in other words, [one] that finds its fullest expression in a truck stop on the interstate [highway]” (p. 5).

 

 

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