Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. 345 pp.
Review by Snehal Shingavi
Lawrence Wright can write. He can write well. God Save Texas is an elegantly crafted book with so much attention to granular details often overlooked in the memory of Texas. The book is stunning and well worth a read.
But there is a problem with the book and this bears underlining because it is bound to be a recurring theme in the upcoming election cycle. Wright and his milieu suffer from a problem that has beset the Texas liberal for decades (at least since Ann Richards was governor): they are so convinced of their righteousness and of the failures of the right-wing of the Republican Party (in the book represented by Wright’s musings on Daniel Patrick), that they have no strategy to offer the rest of us in Texas. At best their strategy is to let the Republican party implode on its own contradictions (you can see Wright salivating over the fight between Joe Straus, the “sane” Republican, and Dan Patrick, the “rabid” one). At worst it is to placate the moderate wing of the Republican party with whom Wright seems to share a deep affinity and the occasional meal: “Republican political consultant Karl Rove sometimes drops in on my regular Monday breakfast.” No thought is given to changing venues.
At a minimum, Wright’s abiding love for the state (and he waxes near poetic when it comes to native flora and fauna) forces him into absurd positions: “Like many Texans, I harbor a fondness for the Bush family that has nothing to do with their politics. Numberless people can testify to their kindness and decency.” Ellen de Generes’s apologia of Bush Jr. notwithstanding, is this supposed to make Christmas dinner with the racist relative seem palatable? Later: “Both men [Bush Sr. and Bush Jr.] would invade Iraq, the first time for good reasons and the second time for a lie sold to the American people, which would cause enduring damage to our country and set fire to the Middle East.” The 1991 Gulf War was the opening salvo in some of the most brutal attacks on Iraqi civilians that continued for more than a decade under the sanctions, where more than 500,000 children died, and this is the good war? The deftly drawn, nuanced thumbnail sketches of the Bushes expose Wright’s soft underbelly: realpolitik is more important than real people.
If Wright comes out in defense of abortion rights, transgender rights, and environmental protections (he’s very good on the question of fracking), his progressive politics hit their limit when it comes to questions of racial justice. The long exegesis on Black Lives Matters in Dallas ends in an expose of the Methodist preacher, Walter Railey, and what can only be described as an ode to Dallas as a “noble city,” “far more tolerant than the one I grew up in” on the heels of the largest Black Lives Matter protests anywhere in Texas. Wright is sympathetic to immigrants seeking asylum in the US, but reminds us that “I believe in secure borders.” He “understand[s] but does not condone” the actions of migrants trying to find their way to the United States. One imagines he has one of a variety of convolutedly long, impossible pathways to citizenship in mind. Amnesty is, for Wright, beyond the pale. Literally.
The crowning bit of mansplaining, however, comes when Wright explains the three levels of Texas culture. In what can only be described as nativist snobbery mixed with paternalist pseudo-ethnography, Wright explains that Texas culture begins at level 1: “The paisano presses his tortilla, the slave mixes his corn bread, the cattleman rubs prairie sage on the roasting steer, and a cuisine is irrepressibly born from the converging streams of traditions and available flavors.” How marvelous that the slave is also present in Wright’s origin story, willingly or no, to contribute his “culture” to Texas. And has anyone ever heard of a Mexican in Texas being called a “paisano”? Now comes level 2: “expansive, neurotic, uncertain of its goals but deeply embarrassed by its native origins, Level 2 is the stage of sophisticated imports.” Wright has in mind placeless architecture, museums, Starbucks, “opera houses, ballet companies, symphonies, music halls … libraries, theaters, and schools.” Schools? Level 3, in crypto-Hegelian fashion, “when a culture matures and, having absorbed the sophistication of Level 2, returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.” It all sounds so anodyne, so perfectly appropriate, that one has to wonder just to whom Wright addresses himself. Who could afford a meal at his favorite Houston eatery, One Fifth, where the going rate for an entrée is between 32 and 65 dollars? Whose Texas and whose culture is this?
This is the problem with Texas liberals. They claim ownership of Texas, chafe at the criticisms Texans face in other parts of the world, savor the idiosyncratic sounds and sights of Texas, but they are woefully and blithely unaware of the real people who live here and the real ways that they survive while the stewards of Level 3 (whatever that is) continue to claim the right to speak for Texans. If the majority of Texas is no longer White, then Wright has to admit that his understanding of it is entirely inadequate. Beyonce is wonderful, but her “Lemonade” is not the only product of Black Texan culture since the Civil War. Does Wright even listen to Tejano music when he races through his FM radio (avoiding the racism and religiosity of AM radio, he reminds us)? Wright describes Texas as if he is an insider, but the more he describes Texas, the clearer it is that he has a very narrow understanding of the state he claims to represent.
But this has political problems as well. Love of land and people leads Texas liberals to believe that at best the religious right in Texas will self-destruct (hence the title of the book). There is no vision that leads from the ruinous social and economic policies that we currently encounter in Texas into one that could actually be livable for the vast majority of us here. It is the kind of thinking that led liberals in Texas to dreamy-eyed visions of Beto O’Rourke’s victory, despite the fact that he, too, had nothing on offer about the real problems that ordinary Texans face. If there is a Level 3 of culture in Texas, it will have no truck with Wright. It will be the Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian Texas that will have something to say about the future of the state. And that future is already taking a stand. And at a minimum, it knows better than to eat breakfast with the likes of Karl Rove.