The Texas Past and the National Future
John Willingham has an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin. His novel The Edge of Freedom, A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution will be published in February 2011 by Inkwater Press. http://edgeoffreedom.net/
This fading year has provided even more evidence that many Texans remain loyal to the defiance and extreme individualism that have characterized much of the state’s past. But the year has also witnessed a convergence of Texas attitudes with those of angry people across the nation.
The year 2010 gave not only the state but all of America the “history wars” of the Texas State Board of Education. That running gunfight between moderates and social conservatives gained the attention of people all over the world. HNN published a comprehensive series about the Board and many individual articles. Major newspapers, including the New York Times andthe Washington Post, ran long articles in either their daily editions or their magazine issues about the history wars in Texas. There was much outrage; but there was much applause among conservatives.
Then came the November election in which Rick Perry assured his place as the longest-serving governor in Texas history, riding a wave of Tea Party support to an easy victory. Perry had also teased the state and national media with comments at least implying his sympathy for Texas’s seceding from the Union. His book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, is notable for its use of the word “Our” in its title. Texans are leading the fight, but the rest of the whole dang nation is going to join it.
Is this another Texas boast? Maybe not. What many observers might not appreciate is the degree to which the Texas past, as it has been defined by the state’s conservative Anglos, remains so powerful in the present—and so very compatible with both the Tea Party movement’s anti-government crusade and the agenda of social conservatives.
The Texas State Board of Education has been the laboratory for this fusion of conservative interests. The board wanted the traditional Anglo views of America’s wars, and Texas’s history, to be paramount. The board favored and emphasized Christianity in the curriculum wherever it could. And the board completed the conservative trifecta by substituting the term “free enterprise” for “capitalism” on grounds that the latter was insufficiently reinforcing of the aggressive free-market economics embraced by conservatives in Texas, most notably Governor Perry.
While the state board has been the laboratory for promoting extreme nationalism, fundamentalist Christianity, and unfettered capitalism to the students in the state, the governor is carrying the standard to the nation. Not only extolling the state’s pro-business climate, Perry and other Republicans in the state are also giving consideration to opting out of Medicaid, and Perry and the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, are defying the Environmental Protection Agency. Secession this is not, but it is slap at the federal government—or maybe a deep line in the sand, daring the “Feds” to cross it.
The Alamo story about “drawing a line in the sand” is a myth, but it is still expressive of the attitude held by many Anglo conservatives in Texas today. Joseph Campbell famously wrote about the “Power of Myth”; Texas is writing the book on translating myth into political power.
How is it that the Texas “past,” as opposed to its full history, continues to be so potent? For a state whose best-known historical events include the “Victory or Death” fight at the Alamo and the independent republic that followed, it is all too appealing to assume absolute, defiant, and independent stances. The hardships of the early Texas frontier, with frequent Indian wars and confrontations with invaders and outlaws, reinforced the justification for violence and the need for self-reliance. Religious fundamentalism came to the state with many settlers from the Deep South, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
The Civil War committed the state to another all-out conflict, and the defeat of the Confederacy left most Texans distrusting, even hating, the federal government. Racial prejudice, brought in earlier by slave owners or arising from the war with Mexico, took on a new vehemence during Reconstruction.
The mythical aspect of this experience arises from ignoring contradictions and excluding history that does not comport to the longstanding, dominant Anglo perspective. Again, with the iconic shadow of the Alamo hovering over the state, the default reaction to complexity and ambiguity is that they get in the way of what is right or wrong. As David Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The state board of education and Governor Perry would agree.
But for the last twenty years, a genuine history war has been going on in Texas. Being “sure” about what is “right” is at the center of the war. One side in the war favors the collective memory shaped and still revered by conservative Anglos, and the other side is the historical memory being developed by professional historians, men, women, Anglos, African Americans, and Latinos.
The nature of David Crockett’s death—was he wounded and captured, did he surrender, or did he fight to the death, swinging his broken Old Betsy long rifle at charging soldados until a battalion of them took him down?—is of great importance to the conservative Anglo memory because the Old Betsy version is the only one that affirms the Victory or Death pledge of William B. Travis. But the most interesting professional historians see this adherence to the Crockett myth and to others less familiar as confirmation that Texas is the mecca for memory studies. The stubbornness of the Texas “past” has provided the impetus for scholars to analyze that very phenomenon.
One of the most interesting books to come out of this path of inquiry is a 2007 volume of essays titled Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas (Texas A&M University Press, Gregg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, editors). The editors write that “this collection offers numerous examples of the ways in which a ‘Texas’ identity, rooted in the remembered past, has been perpetuated and intensified, rather than dissolved, by the forces of modernity.”
Modernity is the challenge to this remembered past, a challenge met by a line in the sand. This is what we see in the actions of the Texas State Board of Education and the governor. But another fascinating aspect to the debate in Texas is that many historians, most but not all of them Latinos, are adding convincing “counter-memories” of Tejano contributions—the ranchers, farmers, businessmen, civic leaders, and Indian fighters whose culture and influence pre-dated, shaped, and eventually merged with Anglo culture.
The current generation of Texas historians is bent on telling a more complete story. The Revolution was not only a force in spreading liberty and democracy; it also gave rise to prejudice, violence, and the disruption of what had been mostly amicable relations. Not all the battles in the Revolution were glorious victories or noble defeats: the surrender near Goliad was more a pragmatic effort involving well-meaning commanders on both sides, though their desire to save Texan prisoners was thwarted by Santa Anna’s determination to execute them.
Thus the emerging history of Texas is like all experience—complex, ambiguous, rarely heroic, often violent, and occasionally inspiring. Being sure of what is right will be more difficult to determine; the assurance that you are right will be more difficult to maintain.
Texan self-reliance is admirable, but conjoined with the mythical past it too often turns harsh, narrow, and absolute. This year has shown the abiding power and influence of the mythical Texas past and the facility with which that past can merge with national conservative positions. Will that past lengthen its reach and mark national policy as it has during the service of previous presidents from Texas? Or will the emerging historical memory in the state take hold and have its own, rightful share of the future?
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