Any Texan will tell you that Texas is the most important state in America. That there isn’t necessarily a lot of evidence to support this belief is at best irrelevant and at worst heretical to those who would proclaim it. Texas is funny like that. It elicits opinions as outsized as the state itself.
It’s a thing worth remembering as we approach the midterm elections. Somewhere along the way, these local pageants became matters of national interest. It may seem strange that this is the case, that someone in Michigan would celebrate the victory of someone in Florida who will almost certainly never represent them. Except it isn’t strange. Civically engaged Americans should care about the constitution of their national legislature – even (especially) in a federal system in which states have their own cultures and mores and employ different mechanisms for electing their citizens to higher office.
State politics can’t help but shape national politics, and according to Lawrence Wright, no state does so more than Texas. If you want an explanation for why he thinks so, I’d recommend taking the time to read his 2017 article in the New Yorker titled “America’s Future Is Texas.” If that article can be summarized at all, it can be summed up by a passage in Wright’s newest book, “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State.” In it, Wright says, “I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation. Because Texas is a part of almost everything in Modern America – the South, the West, the Plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities – what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future.”
But that article is just a starting point for a deeper expedition into the culture, and especially the political culture, of Texas, a state that has earned its many stereotypes but, because of its size and demographic, geographic and economic diversity, often defies them. Because the state is part Hill Country, part High Plains, part Gulf Coast, and so on, it’s hard to pin down. It may always be a state of oil interests, yet it’s also a leader in renewable energy technologies. It’s a state in which wildcatters historically made illegal campaign contributions to politicians of every persuasion, yet it’s home to a progressive candidate for the U.S. senate who has outraised his establishment Republican opponent while eschewing big-money donations.
During the Texas revolution, Texians (as they were called) fought tooth and nail to maintain their right to own slaves, and years later, their descendants would fight for the Confederacy. Today, Texas is in a legal battle over race-based gerrymandering. But the state also produced Lyndon Johnson, who passed civil rights legislation after his predecessors couldn’t – or wouldn’t.
Johnson’s record is as checkered as Texas’. He was, after all, also responsible for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Another Texan president, George W. Bush, was responsible for the Iraq war, which continues today. A former Texas congressman, Ron Paul, is considered by many to be the ideological godfather of the tea party movement, which has divided the GOP on a host of issues. The list goes on. Reasonable people can disagree on the inherent vices and virtues of these episodes of U.S history, but only unreasonable people would say they were unimportant or inconsequential.
And that, ultimately, is what Wright is trying to do here. He’s trying to paint a fuller picture of a state that shapes America, the world’s only superpower, more than any other. And he makes a persuasive case. Wright doesn’t think Texas is uniformly bad – on the contrary, he has a tremendous amount of affection for the place he chose as his home – but it’s hard to ignore the things that made him so pessimistic.
Cole Altom, managing editor
I added this book to my reading list long ago despite my reservations about it. Thankfully, it’s not about science or health, although its author, Peter Macinnis, is an Australian science journalist. It’s about the history of a peculiar commodity that virtually everyone seems to love. It’s a history that goes back 9,000 years and implicates more countries than it doesn’t, starting in New Guinea, then venturing westward to India, then the Middle East, then the Mediterranean before finally reaching the New World.
Indeed, Macinnis focuses on how the cultivation and spread of sugar affected mankind. At different times, sugar was the cause of wars and the source of the prosperity of entire nations, becoming a symbol of wealth. Sugar spread not only because people wanted to taste its sweetness – they wanted a taste of the money it made its traders. Religion also played an important role in the history of sugar, though Macinnis doesn’t spend too much time on this aspect, other than to say sugar was brought across the Mediterranean by Islamic traders and was discovered later by the Crusaders.
A lot of the story is devoted to sugar in the New World – which is to say, naval superiority, the pirates and others who engaged in the trade and, more than anything else, the slaves on which the trade depended. In fact, the story of the sugar trade is basically inseparable from the history of slavery. This includes the importance of rum – and the policies and taxes that were introduced.
All this raises the question of whether sugar played an essentially good or essentially bad role in the history of human development. In the end, it is difficult to say how much the product influenced the history of mankind. The author comes to the conclusion that human weakness is as much to blame as sugar itself. Something to think about the next time you order dessert.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst