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Going Wacko: Once upon a time in Texas – a very tall...

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Once upon a time in Texas – a very tall tale

Pro-choice supporters rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington in June 2016 before the ruling in Whole Woman's Health v Hellerstedt, that heavy restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas were unconstitutional. (Photo: EPA/Michael Reynolds)

A ‘what-if?’ tale of another time and place where eager, ambitious but totally thoughtless politicians manage to make pretty much everything they touch go much worse than planned.

“… The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 

All the livelong day. 

The Eyes of Texas are upon you, 

You cannot get away. 

Do not think you can escape them 

At night or early in the morn – 

The Eyes of Texas are upon you 

Til Gabriel blows his horn… ”  

– “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You”

   (Sung by 100k delirious football fans)

For most Americans of a certain age, most especially Texans, to hear the name, “the Alamo”, the site of the famous siege at a fortress-mission in San Antonio, the defeat of the small band of Texans there that paradoxically led to the territory’s independence from Mexico and thus the state’s Ur-legend, used to generate pride and nostalgia about the exploits of folk heroes like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis. Moreover, there was also the heroism of Sam Houston in winning the decisive battle in that struggle at San Jacinto. And there was also the entrepreneurial flair of Texas founding father Stephen Austin. 

The exploits of such men have often been depicted in films and in television series, with plenty of spinoff merchandising as well. In the 1950s, American young boys badgered their parents unmercifully until they owned a raccoon-skin cap à la Davy Crockett. 

Yes, more recent films portrayed those Texan titans as flawed humans, but the bottom line was still that they were heroes, and Mexican general Santa Anna and his deputies were still depicted as butchers and ruthless tyrants with bad accents, heedless of the death they visited upon those Texan heroes – and about as blasé about the fates of their own troops. 

On top of that semi-mythic history, there are also the stories – legends nearly – of a land blessed by the infinite wealth of its cattle ranching, those endless spaces, and the oil and natural gas just about pouring out of the ground. For the movie-going public of the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was the film Giant; and then, for the next generation, there was the television series Dallas. And, of course, there was Texas’s fecund myth-spinner writer, Larry McMurtry, with books like Lonesome Dove weaving fact and fiction into a seamless web. 

In a darker space, there was the assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas and then the killing of his captured assassin, all replete with legends of shadowy conspiracies about that event in 1963, and a multiple killing spree from a university campus bell tower three years later — the first urban mass shooting in modern America. And the song The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You, the fight song for the University of Texas sports teams, reaches back to the state’s harsh segregated past. 

The reality of Texas is, not surprisingly, a more complex saga than the movies. Begin with the Alamo. The earliest US migrants into northern Mexico to settle what became Texas had been invited by the Mexican government, newly independent from Spain, eager to stabilise a mostly unsettled, lawless region. 

Soon enough, though, the settlers and Mexicans reached a rather fundamental disagreement about certain things. The growing American contingent had largely come from the US’s slave-holding states and they planned to carry on with an economy based on the forced labour of slaves, even as Mexico was abolishing slavery throughout its territories. The Alamo battle arguably became the first open warfare about the future of slavery in the US, even if it technically took place on foreign soil.  

Following the Mexican defeat at the battle of San Jacinto and the capture of Mexican general Santa Anna by the US settlers’ army under Sam Houston, Mexico reluctantly acceded to Texas’s independence in 1836, although there was an ongoing, unsettled disagreement about the border. The Mexicans argued for a smaller Texas bracketed by the Brazos River while the Texans insisted their border reached much further south, all the way to the Rio Grande River, and deep into what is now the state of New Mexico to the west.  

For the next nine years, the question of Texas becoming a new US state was actively debated in the US Congress. The question hinged on the fact that admitting Texas as a state allowing slavery would upset the pro- and anti-slavery equalibrium in Congress and the country more generally – as the expansion (or continuation) of slavery increasingly became the most important national question.  

In the end, admitting Texas as a state (the only formally independent nation that voluntarily joined the US) meant it was required to yield much of that maximal territory it had claimed, and Texas’s admission to the US quickly set the stage for a war between the US and Mexico. The result of that war, given Mexico’s overwhelming defeat, meant it ceded the land that became the states of California and Arizona, as well as parts of several other states situated between California and Texas.  

Over time, these historical developments came to mean Texas’s population included major shares of Hispanic Americans (many of whose ancestors obviously had been in Texas for hundreds of years, along with newer Mexican migrants northwards), as well as African Americans in much of the state, many of whose ancestors, in turn, had once been slaves until after the Civil War. The new, federally-recognised commemorative anniversary of Juneteenth has Texas roots. The commemoration speaks to the date when the last slaves had been freed by federal order, once a Union army reached a distant part of Texas and effected that act of liberation. 

In some important historical footnotes, Texas founding father Sam Houston had spent the last years of his political career, after having been independent Texas’s first president, as a US senator, and in that role had unsuccessfully tried to keep Texas from seceding from the Union at the start of the Civil War. (Houston was one of the star figures in John F Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, written while he was a senator.) Interestingly, in a unique constitutional measure from when Texas joined the US in 1845, one of the special provisions of the act that incorporated it into the US was a clause Texas could decide to split itself into five separate states if it so chose. Keep that footnote in mind. 

Then, in the year 2021 the right-wing populist conservative Republican agenda of Texas’ state’s legislature led that body to pass several especially galling, and appalling, laws. There was a particularly pernicious law on abortion that banned any access to abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and that actually encouraged individual private citizens to rat out women seeking a pregnancy termination, thus opening them up to prosecution, as well as providing for parallel prosecutions for anyone who assisted them. In addition, the state legislature made it even easier than it already was for individuals to carry loaded firearms in the course of their everyday lives. Finally, the state made it that much harder for would-be voters – most especially people of colour and urban poor people – to exercise their franchise, even as it eased hurdles for disproportionately rural and white voters to exercise theirs.  

While the US national Supreme Court declined to rule this abortion law as unconstitutional in advance of any charges filed against individuals, nevertheless, with all three laws, broad national public opprobrium was fierce. The Biden administration’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, announced the federal government would actively support efforts to overturn the abortion law and to protect equal voting rights, and a broad coalition of human rights campaigners redoubled efforts to get those laws vacated or declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, mass protests were being held in many states and cities across the nation. In turn, many of Texas’s Republican political class became infuriated about this opposition to their new handiwork.  

In fact, those responses to the laws, the state legislature that had passed them, and the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, who had signed them into law grew so vociferous that within the Texas state legislature a clique of Republican legislators began fighting back. They argued the pressures they were facing, and the national opprobrium they were receiving was proving the moral vacuousness of the rest of the nation. It was proof of the desire of those campaigners to lead the nation into a 21st century version of Sodom or Gomorrah. There was a need to take protective action before it was too late. 

Internationally, as the not especially reliable British news site, News Thump, had reported, “As Texas lawmakers removed the right for women to terminate a pregnancy after six weeks, Taliban officials in Afghanistan have welcomed the move and praised the regressive thinking behind it. The news has been welcomed by the new Afghanistan regime, who spoke in glowing terms of the Texas lawmakers. 

“Taliban spokesperson Sayid Faizilliams told us, ‘We are delighted to see our brothers in Texas clamping down on the scourge that is ‘women’s rights’. Women making decisions about their own bodies will lead to them wanting to make more decisions about other things that affect them personally, and before you know it, women will be thinking they are equal under the law. We are relieved to see that our Texas brethren recognise this dangerous risk to our way of life, and have taken steps to reduce the rights of women under the law. Sure, they could definitely go a bit further with the whole ‘subjugating women’ thing, but this is an excellent first step and we look to them enacting further restrictions on the women of Texas. In the meantime, the Texas Taliban have our full support. Should they be looking for ideas on what to do next then all they need to do is call.’ ” 

By this point, Governor Abbott had authorised the Texas Rangers (Texas’s famed state police) to set up roadblocks on all major roads leading into his state to head off any troublemakers and, in that venerable phrase from the era of civil rights resistance, “outside agitators”. Meanwhile, caravans of protesters from Boston, Philadelphia and New York merged with others from St Louis and Chicago and other midwestern cities. In a particularly violent melee that broke out when many of the buses were stopped for road inspections, several Texas Rangers were assaulted while corralling protesters who had disembarked from the buses during those inspections. The Texas Rangers had been sufficiently rough that a number of elderly women needed stitches to close ugly head wounds, and two young women were knocked unconscious and needed to be hospitalised for concussions and further observation. 

The uniforms of the Texas Rangers, meanwhile, had required extensive dry cleaning to remove some unsightly stains, but nothing seemingly could assuage the humiliation brought upon them by those outsiders. Tempers were visibly rising by that point across the state. 

When State Senator Jubilation T Cornpone, a direct lineal descendant of the Confederate general of the same name, from Waco rose to speak in the legislative chamber, he evoked the spirit of both the disaster at the Alamo and the victory at the Battle of San Jacinto, and, in face of outrageous insults to Texans, urged Texans to think hard about whether it was time to rethink Texas’s decision to join that other country some 150 years earlier. The legislators – at least the Republican members – rose as one, spontaneously, and began singing The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You, and an internet-based petition quickly gathered more than two million votes in favour of rescinding the state’s admission to the US and taking a new direction. 

In the midst of this swamp of local patriotism, snap votes in the Texas legislature – in both Republican controlled houses – passed the resolution by wide margins. Governor Abbott, seized by the idea as well, then signed the proposal into law and dispatched a delegation to Washington to begin the negotiations over unravelling Texas’s status as a state.

How would Nasa continue to use the Houston Space Flight Center; how would the US military facilities across the state be transferred to the Texas National Guard; how would Texas arrange the issuance of its own national currency, the longhorn, named after its famous breed of cattle; and sort out the myriad details of national economic, financial, and administrative life? And perhaps most important of all for some Texans, how the new nation would control its southern border with Mexico – and then press its claims for the territories that had been surrendered to the national government back in 1845.  

Not everybody was pleased by this adrenaline-fuelled rush to disaster, of course. Even as the older, more conservative, more rural, largely white voters – and thus the Republican legislature and governorship’s base – hailed it, there was a whole other Texas. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank had noted on 1 September 2021 just after those new laws had just come along, “Texas became a ‘majority minority’ state more than 15 years ago – and the country as a whole will follow in about two decades. But White voters still dominate the electorate. Latinos are about 40% of the Texas population, but only 20 to 25% of the electorate. Texas legislators aren’t answering to the people but rather to the White, male voters that put the Republicans in power. The new voting law, by suppressing non-White votes, aims to keep White voters dominant. As demographics turn more and more against Republicans in Texas, their anti-democratic actions will only get worse.”  

Hispanic American Texans were already in the majority in whole sections of the southern region of the state as well as significant populations in the state’s bigger cities. Meanwhile, African-Americans were a major share of residents in the state’s big cities such as Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Galveston, and Fort Worth as well as in smaller towns and cities throughout the eastern half of the state.  

Moreover, Texans as a whole also had significant arguments with the objectives of these new laws. Milbank pointed to such awkward facts as, “Texans overwhelmingly object to permitless [firearms] carry. Fully 57% of Texas voters oppose such a law and only 36% support it, according to a June poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune. The partnership’s April poll found that, by 46% to 20%, Texans want stricter gun laws – and support for tougher laws is 54% among women, 55% among Latinos and 65% among Black voters. 

“Texans also oppose banning all abortions if Roe is overturned, with 53% against a ban and 37% for one. Women oppose the ban, 58% to 33%. A narrow plurality (46% to 44%) oppose the six-week ban, too. 

“Furthermore, pluralities of Texans opposed the ban on drive-through voting and restrictions on early voting hours. The drive-through ban was particularly objectionable to Black voters (52% opposed to 30% in the April poll) and Latino voters (44% to 36%), as were the limits on early voting hours, opposed 52% to 28% among Black voters and 46% to 31% among Latino voters.” 

As the full import of these laws and the seemingly inexorable move towards Texan independence swung into clearer view, the Hispanic and African American populations and politicians began to advocate not joining the rush to the exit and to declare continuing allegiance to the nation Texas had, until recently, been a major part of. It was at that point that an alliance of African American and Hispanic legislators, primarily Democratic in party, along with the Hispanic Democratic congressional caucus from Texas and the mayors of the state’s major cities had their attention directed to that old, nearly forgotten proviso in the 1845 accession law that the state was allowed to divide itself into up to six individual states. 

The Hispanic caucus convened a raucous convention that declared itself separate from Texas, renamed its substantial territory Nuevo Laredo and sought to retain Texas’s US Senate two seats and its appropriate congressional districts. Then the mayors of Houston, and most other big cities, insisted they too would not leave their nation behind and they claimed a discontinuous territory that included much of the state’s economically productive industry and population, even though it was divided into two wedges of territory. The first was along the south, stretching out from Houston to include San Antonio and Austin, while the second included Dallas and Fort Worth. The leaders of this territory insisted it would continue to carry the name of Texas, arguing they had never left their nation, although a significant fraction of this population had pushed hard for adopting the name of Jordan, in honour of the crusading African American congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, but finally agreeing to accept Jordan as the new name of that state’s capital. 

The US Congress moved quickly to admit Nuevo Laredo as a new state and to continue Texas’s statehood in its new, smaller configuration. This result, with a rump new nation nearly surrounded by the two other parts of the old, original state, and with only a narrow boundary touching Louisiana, meant independent Texas was now forced to court a migration of older, white, rural, conservative Texans from the other two states, and the newspapers, television, and the internet were soon filled with images of dusty caravans of migrants on the move from their former homes, desperate to find a place appropriate to their retrograde ways.  

They even accepted immigrants from beyond the original Texas from among truly religious conservatives in the US, along with numerous zealots and cranks, and the new nation found it needed to establish its state government in the city of Waco, inevitably rechristened informally as Wacko, in honour of what its leaders had accomplished. Given the nearly theocratic approach in the new nation, much of its frequently acrimonious public life ended up being tangled with religious arguments more in keeping with the bitter sectarian worlds of certain fissiparous Middle Eastern societies than with a thriving hub of economic growth. In fact, paradoxically, Texas even began receiving a small but steady stream of Afghan refugees, eager to live in a modern state, albeit one that also embraced a thoroughly religious foundation for its public life.  

Eventually, the rump state’s political leadership was increasingly embarrassed by what they had accomplished as the state of Texas continued to embrace its economic boom centred on its high-tech industrial core. Moreover, the new state of Nuevo Laredo, with its deep bench of bilingual residents, had become a hugely successful gateway to the vast markets of Latin America, including a very profitable relationship with the island of Cuba. As always, the muse of history seems to have a wicked sense of humour. DM

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