Everybody who’s heard Johnny Cash’s classic live album “At Folsom Prison” remembers the audience of convicts erupting in bloodthirsty whoops when the singer growled out the line “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” According to Cash’s biographer Michael Streissguth, however, it never actually happened. A studio engineer created the chilling moment by dubbing in sound effects to enhance the Arkansas singer’s “outlaw” image.
Alas, the cheers that broke out among a well-heeled Republican audience last week at the mention of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s execution of 234 convicts at a recent GOP presidential debate were all too real. Such is their anger and alienation that they’d gladly drag us back to the 19th century, when public hangings competed with traveling Wild West shows as popular entertainment.
Granted, these “debates” are basically TV game shows, with celebrity hosts and contestants competing for audience approval. Repenting of his early career as a Democrat, Perry has reinvented himself as the embodiment of the perennially embattled religio-political cult I call “Texanism.”
Texanism is basically the John Birch Society in a cowboy hat. Oh, and don’t forget the six-gun. Perry’s almost surely apocryphal tale (there were no witnesses) of shooting a coyote while jogging during an election campaign was calculated to enhance his image of manly self-reliance.
Now, where I come from, bragging about something like that — as Perry’s taken to doing on the campaign trail — would be an embarrassment. But then that ain’t the metaphysical realm Perry calls “the state uh Texas,” which has little to do with the actual state he governs, but everything to do with Texanism.
Maybe the best definition appeared in a 1954 letter from President Dwight Eisenhower to his ultra-conservative brother Edgar.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” Ike wrote, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
H.L. Hunt got rich essentially for the same reason Saudi Arabia did. He won a massive East Texas oil field in a poker game. By the time Ike wrote his brother, Hunt was one of the richest men on earth, a world-class skinflint and a far-right crackpot who reviled the New Deal and saw communists behind every tree.
By the time John F. Kennedy made his fateful visit to Dallas in November 1963, Texanists were circulating handbills accusing the president of giving “support and encouragement to … Communist inspired racial riots,” and consistently appointing “anti-Christians to public office.”
Sounds familiar, no? It’s always race and religion with these jokers; tycoon economics and Deep South authoritarianism.
Alas, Ike was mistaken about Texanism’s staying power. That’s partly because latter-day savants like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch brothers — not all Texanists are Texans — have bankrolled “think tanks” and propaganda networks to spread the doctrine, and also because it’s merged with a strain of fear-based evangelical religion that’s seized upon hard times to identify Barack Obama as the antichrist.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The real Texas became prosperous basically because, led by politicians like Lyndon Johnson and John Connally, it put oil money to work building an unparalleled highway system and world-class universities. The multibillion-dollar, petroleum-based Permanent University Fund underwriting the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems serves as one of the world’s largest university endowments as well as a perennial playground for crony capitalists allied to politicians like George W. Bush and Rick Perry.
Texanist myth, however, holds that all government is wasteful and wicked. Orwell called it “doublethink,” defined as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Thus we had the spectacle of Rick Perry denouncing wasteful federal spending while simultaneously demanding thousands of new Border Patrol agents and the construction of a 2,000-mile fence to keep Mexicans out.
Keeping cows out, I can tell you, would cost $2 a foot; the expense of building and maintaining the Great Wall of Texas, I can’t imagine. But you can bet your grandma’s unconstitutional Social Security check that some big Perry supporter would get the cement contract. Houston-based Halliburton could man the watchtowers.
Meanwhile, half of Texas is aflame while its governor’s on TV denying climate change. Having slashed state forest management and firefighting budgets in the face of historic heat and drought, Perry now demands that the accursed federal government turn over heavy equipment already engaged in fighting wildfires for the state’s largest employer: the U.S. Army at Ft. Hood.
But hey, there are a couple more executions coming up soon.