Monday, May 13, 2013

What Texas and South Carolina Should Teach Us

What Texas and South Carolina Should Teach Us

My father liked Country Western music.  Not the sleek and glamorous Nashville product, but the old fashioned hard-core stuff: fiddling, picking and twanging.

Now, to understand how incongruous that was, you would have to know the man.  It’s not as if he had deep Southern roots.  And, he was the kind of guy who would sing opera in the shower (not so well) and later grill you on what aria he had just sung, including the act and scene. So,  how does a child of Ellis Island immigrants come to like what was sometimes called in those days “hillbilly music”?  Basic training in WWII, where college-bound boys from New York and Boston were thrown together with sometimes-illiterate  men from the Ozarks.  My father liked Jazz, he like Boogie Woogie, he liked Swing. He liked Beethoven and Puccini.  And he liked music that used a jug for the bass line. 

Dad was an old fashioned New Deal Democrat.  His guys were FDR, Truman and Kennedy  (Clinton amused and exasperated him.) He thought like a New Deal Democrat, in fairly binary terms.  I have a vivid memory of him asking, during the debate over NAFTA, why it was a good idea.  True, Clinton supported it, but if all those Republicans liked it, something had to be wrong.  If he had lived to see the 2012 election he would have looked at the tax-cutting rich businessman and his eagerly hard-right theocratic younger sidekick, shook his head and said “what do you expect”?

It is fascinating to see just how much, and how little, has changed during the period that spanned  Dad’s adult life.  The world he returned to after his discharge in 1946 seems almost quaint.  The population of the United States was less than half what it is today, we still had only 48 states, and there were still large swaths of land that were basically open range, open prairie.  Just as importantly, news was local, written in local newspapers, heard over local radio stations.  In 1948 there about 100,000 TV sets in the entire United States, and about 2/3 of those were in the New York area.  In the early fifties, if you traveled more than 75 miles from a large urban center like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston or St. Louis, it was pointless to own a TV, because there was no signal.  Culture was local as well.  You came back to the old neighborhood, you worked locally, you found a job or opened a business, started a family, and put down roots not all that dissimilar to the ones your parents laid down.

But the post-war era brought huge changes.  Culturally, the growth of television tied people together; they watched many of the same shows and the same news programs. The development of the national highway system fostered a car culture that put people on the road and helped fuel the explosive growth of the suburbs. Air-conditioning opened up the South and Southwest to more than purely rural living. In the 60 years from the 1950 census to the 2010 census, of the states presently with populations of over 5,000,000, California’s population is up over 3 ½ times,  Texas has more than trebled, Colorado quadrupled, Florida’s has grown by a factor of seven, Arizona by eight.  Just three states, dead-red Texas, blue California, and swing-state Florida, have accounted for nearly 40% of the total national population growth.

The media explosion has had several effects.  On the one hand, it has helped to create a common language defined by popular programs.  But on the other, by (often superficially) touching on a range of social behaviors including sex and violence, or even positive portrayals of things like single parenting or gay relationships, it has reaffirmed to Conservatives, particularly in the South, that Hollywood (and liberals) are corrupted by sin.  Sin is at the gates of their communities, luring their children with the pleasures of permissiveness.  They feel a cultural assault on their virtue, just as they feel one at their borders, with hordes of Mexicans poised to change the very nature of the society they feel comfortable with.  Their fears are amplified by a conservative media who tells them every day that they are the victims of a secular humanist attack on the things they hold most essential to their way of life.

It’s easy for us who are more center and center left to scratch our heads at this, but we would be better off if we acknowledged it and learned to give it a wide berth.  Let’s not be so arrogant as to try to save people from what we think is their foolishness. It is obviously not foolish to them.

Two recent events demonstrated this quite acutely.  In South Carolina, disgraced former Governor Mark Sanford (who, 2009, left the state without his IPhone to commune with nature and his mistress) has just been elected to Congress, convincingly winning over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch. 

In Texas, just a few days after the horrific explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled much of a town and killed more than a dozen people,  Gov. Rick Perry pitched relocation to Illinois business officials by talking not just low taxes but limited regulations.  In Texas, they know how to do business, and in Perry’s opinion, more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the most destructive industrial accidents in recent times. Move to Texas, he said.  No new regulations. 

What about the old regulations?  The better question is “what old regulations?”  Texas has no state fire code, and in fact prohibits smaller counties from enacting their own.  Businesses don’t have to contribute to workman’s compensation pools and workplace safety rules are basically nonexistent.  Is that prudent?  Not really.  According a story in the New York Times this last week, Texas has the highest number of industrial fatalities, and (since property is more important than people, apparently) “(f)ires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012.”  But profits are really good, and you get to keep all of them, so businesses shop for Ten Gallon hats.

Does all this loss of life and property lead the people of Texas to demand more restrictions?  No more than the people of South Carolina’s First Congressional District demanded a Congressman who isn’t a cad.

So, are Texans daredevil idiots and South Carolina’s Republicans just hypocrites?  And, why should this matter to me in my Blue New York redoubt?

They aren’t, and it shouldn’t.  This is what Democracy (with a big “D”) is all about.  People should vote for the people they want to represent them, and the policies they support.  I may not agree with their choices, but I don’t have to live in Texas or South Carolina. 

But, is it possible to go back to a live and let live ethos? I have doubts, because what we have going on right now is akin to a domestic cultural war.

Part of the problem is that media creates the mechanism for instant nationalization of any issue. There is an insatiable desire for news of any type; everyone needs content.  And even the smallest events become big. A child is suspended for bringing a toy gun to school, and the entire blogosphere is lit up for a week.  An obscure candidate utters a few yah-yah lines to like-minded constituents and now it’s viral.

Secondly, elected officials now see their roles very differently.  It’s no longer “respect the institution and take care of your constituents.”  Instead, they all want to go to Washington to shake it up and tear it down, then to “share” the blessings of their local customs and mores with the rest of the nation.  The “Gentleman from Texas” is no longer one of one hundred gray-haired guys who sit on a few powerful committees and bring home the bacon.  Now he’s a Ted Cruz, a neutron bomb with a Messianic desire to purge ideas he finds impure and bring the entire country to heel.  

And, that’s a huge difference.  What we should be saying is, “Hey, I won’t tell you who to vote for and you won’t lecture me on my supposed lack of moral virtue.”  But what everyone is saying is “just wait until we are in charge…”

I don’t think my Dad would have liked that.  When he came back from the Philippines, he had a scraggly beard, an abiding dislike for troop ships (and sea-sickness) and some new and strange tastes in music.  That was about as “South” as he was going to get, but that was enough.  Respect other people, take what you like from them, but otherwise don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. 

He might have been on to something. I was poking around on Youtube and found Red Murrell and His Ozark Playboys 1947 recording of “Get That Chip Off Your Shoulder.” Give it a try.