A home worth fighting for.
As I look out at the United States, I see a nation struggling with the rising challenges of division, authoritarianism, and a general dysfunction around priorities and passions. These concerning forces swirl with particular intensity in the fraught reality that is my beloved Texas.
Having moved permanently to the Lone Star State in the early days of the pandemic, I have felt a deep and abiding sadness as this state continues to be a model for how much can go wrong when political opportunists embrace ignorance, incompetence, cruelty, and lies.
There are many millions in Texas who see exactly what I see, and I know there are countless millions more around the country who look upon Texas with a mixture of abhorrence, disgust, and fear at what these contagions represent — and where else they might spread.
To even begin to catalog all that is disturbing about what is occurring here would take more articles than you would wish to read, or I would care to write. From voting rights, to the pandemic response, to abortion, to what we teach in our schools, to guns, to LGBTQ rights, to immigration, culture wars and fabricated crises animate the modern Republican Party. Texas, with its one-party GOP rule, has become a laboratory for outrage. Much of the ugliness around these issues that is spreading across the country is particularly acute in this state. Everything, after all, tends to be bigger in Texas.
Yet despite it all, there is no place I would rather spend the twilight of my life. There is a lot of truth to the old saying that "home is where the heart is": the notion that no matter where we travel in life, we feel a strong emotional pull to the people and the place we first called home.
My work has taken me very far away from the Texas of my youth. I embraced the life of a reporter, which meant following the story wherever it led. This journey has brought me to almost every corner of the globe. It also meant relocating my family, first to Washington, D.C., then to London, and later to New York, where I lived for decades.
In that time, I embraced my adopted city as my new home. Like many others who come to that remarkable metropolis, I grew to be a New Yorker. I loved walking its streets, strolling through its museums, rooting for its sports teams. But those who knew me best knew I still felt the deep pull of my original home. They would get tired of hearing me repeat that “I am Texas born, Texas bred, and when I die, I will be Texas dead.”
While I was living elsewhere, Texas changed a great deal — much like the nation at large. A lot of that change was for the better. The state of my youth was racially segregated and far more insular and parochial. My hometown of Houston was a small city with a rigid racial and social order. Now it is a bustling metropolis, and one of the most diverse places on Earth.
Politically, Texas is a microcosm of the broader tides that are buffeting the nation. Its cities have become more progressive and ethnically and racially diverse, with growing numbers of immigrants. High-tech jobs and other sectors of the global economy have drawn workers from across the United States and around the world. Meanwhile, in the exurbs and more rural parts of the state, the shift has been in the opposite direction. Once Texas, like much of the South, was solidly Democratic due to the legacy of the Civil War. President Lyndon Johnson, himself obviously a product of Texas, knew he would shatter those dynamics when he signed landmark civil rights legislation. And indeed, that is just what happened.
Texas, like most of the former Confederacy, now consistently votes Republican for the presidency, the Senate, and state government. Some hope that with Texas’s changing demographics, this red state can trend purple, if not exactly blue. That would be a game changer for national politics, but so far those hopes remain illusory. In the meantime, the state is led by hard-right extremists like Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz. They would rather “own the libs” than make sure the electricity stays on (and flee to Cancun when it doesn’t).
So why, one might ask, do my wife, Jean, and I choose to live here? After all, we are no longer constrained to a specific place by a job. And we are fortunate to have the financial means to be able to pick a place of residence almost anywhere. The answer to the question is, like many of our life's choices, complicated. There are family ties and other personal rationales for why Texas makes sense for us. But there is also something bigger.
I refuse to let others define what Texas is, or will be.
The artist and musician Terry Allen, who grew up in Lubbock, Texas, wrote a song called “Amarillo Highway” containing lyrics that reflect how I feel:
I don't wear no Stetson
But I'm willin’ to bet son
That I'm as big a Texan as you are
A lot of what I see now in Texas is performative poppycock. It’s a bunch of play actors pretending to be cowboys but not understanding what it means to work with calloused hands for a living. The ethos of rugged individualism that characterized this state shouldn’t be about imposing your vision of life on others. It shouldn’t be about spreading lies, or whitewashing history, or preventing people from voting.
What has made Texas great has been its capacity to grow, evolve, learn from its mistakes. The Texas ideal I saw growing up was one of hard work and humility. You didn’t pound your chest. You led by example. Your belt buckle might be big, but that was because your pants were made for physical labor. The brim of your hat might be broad, but that was to keep the sun out of your eyes when you were working in the punishing heat of a Texas summer.
To be sure, Texas, like all of the nation, has many ugly chapters in its history. We shouldn’t mythologize the past. And many of the injustices of the present are rooted in where we have been. There should be no misguided attempt to make Texas great again. What I yearn for is to see the lessons from the past applied to create a better future.
For all that is dispiriting about Texas, there is a lot that is inspiring. I see many people fighting at the level of neighborhoods, cities, and the state as a whole for visions of inclusion and progress. I see people who look at steep odds and only increase their motivation. They are saying some form of, “we will not let the forces of injustice define Texas. We are Texas, too. And we have just as much of a right to live here and build the home we want as those who would deny us our rightful place in this state and in this nation.”
This is a fight taking place not only in Texas, but across the country, and indeed around the world. The propaganda that accompanies autocrats, culture warriors, kleptocrats, and enemies of democracy is meant to make those who resist feel like their voices are powerless, that they don’t belong.
On a tragic scale, this is also what we are seeing in Ukraine. It is what we have witnessed in other war zones of ethnic and religious strife. This “us vs. them'' mentality, of who belongs and who doesn’t, has been a feature of aggression that likely stretches back to the earliest eras of human existence. But that also means that history is full of examples of when those destructive forces have been repulsed and defeated.
We must be careful to avoid stereotyping others, just as we are angry when others would stereotype us. People in real life, more often than not, defy simplistic categorization. Recently, there have been a few occasions where I have needed and felt the kindness of strangers. Some of these moments occurred in deep red parts of the state, where I know I am recognized but not always appreciated due to what I would argue is a stereotype of what I might represent. But on these occasions, I saw only people helping people. And it isn’t just with me. I’ve seen it in countless other situations where no one seemed to care how people voted — just that someone was in need.
I hold on to these examples for hope, feeling that maybe if we could get beyond the political madness being fomented by actors of bad faith, we could begin to make progress. I continue to believe in the basic decency of humanity. But I also know the power of anger, scapegoating, and propaganda is hard to overcome. I know that the tendrils of injustice rooted in our history are still holding us back. To bear witness to all this inspires me all the more to push back.
I don’t know if I will live to see Texas as I hope it will be. But I refuse to flee, especially when those with far less privilege have no choice but to stay. We owe it to our fellow humans, whether they are in Texas, the United States, or elsewhere in the world, not to\ let those who would tear us down impose their limits on what we can build.
I am a Texan. And I refuse to let others define what that means.