MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno
Patrick Michels
Before testimony at the State Board of Education, MALDEF attorney Celina Moreno says a new Mexican-American history course is at least "a step in the right direction."

Last November, Ruben Cortez casually proposed to his fellow State Board of Education members that Texas develop a course in Mexican-American history.

It seemed like a small moment, easily missed after a contentious debate over Texas’ new high school graduation requirements. Cortez’s suggestion seemed at first to gracefully sidestep the state board’s hyper-partisan tendencies. By adding the course to a “wish list” for the Texas Education Agency to work on, it seemed as though the Brownsville board member had secured a big win for the activists and educators who’ve spent years working to get more Mexican-American history and literature into Texas’ school standards.

“Nobody raised an objection to my request,” Cortez told the Observer in December. “I was kind of speechless, everybody just stayed quiet.”

But over the last four months a political storm has been brewing around the Mexican-American history proposal, as activists for and against the proposal have called board members and raised the stakes. This week, before the State Board of Education votes on whether to develop the course, they’ll do what they do best: play host to Texas’ culture wars.

A few Republican detractors on the board have already suggested there’s no need for the course. As Beaumont Republican David Bradley explained to the Houston Chronicle‘s Lisa Gray, “We don’t teach Irish-American history and Italian-American history.” Weatherford Republican Pat Hardy suggested students would be better off with world geography instead. And anyway, she told the Chronicle, “We’re citizens of the United States, not citizens of Mexico.”

The board will debate and take a preliminary vote on Mexican American studies Wednesday. Tuesday was for live public testimony, which was overwhelmingly in support of the course.

“Our history is skewed,” George Reyes told the board, “and as a result of this, bullying continues to invade our hallways with misrepresentations.” Vero Higareda, president of the Texas Freedom Network’s UT-Pan American’s chapter, drove from the Valley to tell the board that a Mexican-American history course would help students understand the stereotypes she hears all the time, and feel more confident tearing them apart.

For a few hours on Tuesday afternoon, students, educators and recent graduates told the board that a Mexican-American history elective would help students better understand themselves, and see how they fit in with an education system that often feels as though it isn’t meant for them.

Eloy Gonzalez told the board he’s a migrant farm worker from South Texas. “I went to college and I felt like college wasn’t the place for me,” he said—until he discovered Mexican-American studies. That changed everything, he said, and now he’s been accepted to Columbia University. That good news, in spite of the concerns that prompted his testimony, drew the only comment from board members. As he left, board chairwoman Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) cheered him on: “Congratulations! Job well done on your education.”

One of the reasons we’ve come to this point is that Texas’ current social studies standards give so little room to Mexican-American history. David Barton, the controversial far-right historian appointed as an “expert” reviewer during the last revision five years ago, even recommended deleting civil rights leader Cesar Chavez altogether. State approval for a new Mexican-American history elective would encourage schools to teach the course consistently around the state, and show that Texas’ schools are responsive to the more than 50 percent of its students who are Hispanic.

At a press conference before the testimony, Tony Diaz—the author and Lone Star College instructor who leads the “Librotraficante” effort to smuggle banned Mexican-American literature into Arizona—made a dramatic plea to embrace Mexican-American studies in Texas schools. Not approving this course, he suggested, would be a step on the path toward Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies in schools.

Other supporters said board approval for the course would be the beginning of a more inclusive set of state standards. “We hope this opens the door to a conversation about African-American studies and women’s studies and more,” said Texas Freedom Network president Kathy Miller.

State approval for this one course wouldn’t change the fact that so much of Texas’ education agenda—like the new graduation requirements the Legislature passed last year—is set without input from Hispanic leaders. Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Celia Moreno called the potential course “a step in the right direction,” but what’s needed more than anything, she said, is “a paradigm shift” to include more input from Mexican-American stakeholders about the rest of the school system. That, she said, “is long overdue.”

Cortez and his fellow state board member Marisa Perez (D-San Antonio) both said they hoped the board would support the new course, but they expected it’d be a tough fight when the debate begins on Wednesday.

KETK's Neal Barton
KETK's Neal Barton

Sometimes it’s baffling that the United States, unlike most of the world, continues to have a persistently large population of climate change deniers. But, then, you see something like this—a preposterously misleading commentary on climate change that ran on KETK, the NBC affiliate in Tyler—and you begin to understand why. The two-minute segment, which ran on Friday, was billed as “Global Warming, Laughable” and featured the commentary of KETK News Director Neal Barton. The piece is riddled with factual errors, bizarre assertions and it cites an obscure scientist and a committee of the United Kingdom House of Commons. Oh, and it’s also plagiarized from a British newspaper. Basically, Barton read portions of a story from the Yorkshire Evening Post on his “POV” segment, passing the views off as his own.

The story (or in this case, a text version of what aired) opens innocently enough:

Recently, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report in seven years on the now widely accepted phenomenon known as “climate change.”

For the record, the IPCC is the global authority on climate science, consisting of hundreds of climate authorities from dozens of countries. The panel’s recent findings call climate change “unequivocal” and warn of dire effects from sea-level rise, wildfires, flood and drought.

But then, Barton’s POV takes an abrupt (far-right) turn away from the broad scientific mainstream into a kind-of false-balance upside-down world.

But, one teacher says it’s all bunk and you won’t hear this on the mainstream media. So I’m glad to serve equal time.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report, damning the media for confusing ‘fact’ with opinion and pushing the message that, in terms of freak weather, ‘the worst is yet to come.’

Yeah, sure it is.

Barton doesn’t mention that the House of Commons is a British institution. But more important, he gets the committee’s report completely wrong. The report, in fact, laments  that the public is misinformed on what scientists know about climate change, and criticizes the media in the UK—the BBC in particular—for scientific inaccuracy and relying on “experts” with an agenda. Which is precisely what Barton does. So he says in his commentary:

Emeritus Professor Les Woodcock goes against the grain and when a reporter asks the former NASA scientist about “climate change” and “global warming,” he laughs.

He says the term “climate change” is meaningless. The Earth’s climate has been changing since the Earth was formed 1,000 million years ago. The theory of “man-made climate change” is an unsubstantiated hypothesis [about] our climate [which says it] has been adversely affected by the burning of fossil fuels in the last 100 years, causing the average temperature on the Earth’s surface to increase very slightly, but with disastrous environmental consequences..

Notably, Professor Woodcock gets the age of Earth wrong. it’s not 1 billion years old, it’s about 4.54 billion. But, then, why is Barton quoting a British professor when the U.S. has most of the world’s prominent climate denialists? I emailed Barton yesterday to ask about some of his claims and he sent me a link to a news article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, one of the leading newspapers of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Which is kind of a weird thing to do because, as it turns out, nearly every word of Barton’s commentary is lifted verbatim from the Yorkshire Evening Post story, which ran in February, including the quote from Woodcock. The only difference is that Barton noticeably pauses over the word “reproducible” twice, and then skips over it. He also adds a few choice interjections (“Amen sir”).

I asked Barton in an email about his apparent plagiarism.

“We’ve only been keeping records for 100 years,” he responded. “I was told this when I did tv weather 30-years ago. That’s was before I went through 40 hours of college meteorology. I was told this by meteorologist who trained me. They were absolutely right then—and now. The Evening Post was right on it.”

I asked him if it was appropriate to plagiarize in a commentary.

He responded (spacing in the original):

I attributed right from the article.

I said where I got it from.

Plagiarism is just saying here is what I think and never mentioned where you found it.

I cite articles all the time.

Of course it’s ok in a commentary.

It’s the basis many times for the commentary.

That’s where you start.

You agree or sometimes disagree.

This is not the first time Barton, or KETK, has run into controversy. In 2010, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy criticized the station for its cheerleading of a tea party event in Tyler that featured Glenn Beck and Rick Perry. The reporter responsible for that report explained to, “The TV station I work for, and I don’t necessarily agree, has taken a right-wing approach.”

But Barton explained that KETK is “right on track with our coverage of the Tea Party.”

Senator Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security. April 7, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Sen. Craig Estes presides over a meeting of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs, and Homeland Security on April 7, 2014.

For a year, gun rights activists have been holding protests around the state, demanding the right to legally carry firearms in public places. They took their assault rifles to San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza, and they showed international visitors Texas’ best at South by Southwest in Austin. On Monday, they got a sign from the Legislature that their “open carry” efforts might be bearing fruit. At a day-long hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, more than 60 witnesses, including a handful of opponents, testified in support of loosening the state’s gun laws—with an open carry measure at the top of the list.

Open carry supporters hope to codify the right to carry long guns like shotguns and assault rifles in public places—preempting local restrictions—and allow concealed handgun license-holders to carry their handguns openly. Last legislative session saw a number of gun bills passed, with “campus carry,” the right to carry firearms on college campuses, narrowly defeated after a lengthy debate. Notably, the open carry bills went nowhere, dying in committee. But now, open carry seems set to join campus carry as part of the gun debate next session, as the Legislature tilts rightward yet again.

In contrast to the passion and heated rhetoric from the open carry supporters who came to testify, the committee itself was poorly attended—only the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Craig Estes (R-Wichita Falls) stayed for the duration of public testimony.

The advocates invited to give testimony—among them, lobbyists from the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association, and C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas—sold open carry as the correction of a historical error. Alice Tripp of the Texas State Rifle Association said open carry would reverse a restriction put in place in the 1880s as a result of the “occupying federal army during Reconstruction.”

Some had the history a bit wrong. The gun restrictions were enacted after Reconstruction, by Democrats who were, in large part, fearful of gun-owning freed slaves. But that too was raised by witnesses. Michael Cargill, an African-American Austin-area gun rights activist, described the bill as “the last of the Jim Crow laws.”

That was a revelation to Estes, who repeatedly asked for information on the subject, so expect that to become a big talking point next session.

And there were other arguments that abused history to varying degrees.

“The fact that there was so little crime in the Old West is because everyone was carrying around guns,” Grisham told the committee. “Texas was a low-crime state until these laws got passed during Reconstruction.”

That, too, is a bit off. Gun laws in the South came about primarily because of a fear of armed black people, but restrictions on carrying guns in towns in the “Old West,” which were surprisingly pretty common, contrary to the image propagated by Hollywood, were a reaction to spreading violent crime, not the result of it.

“In almost every section of the West murders are on the increase, and cowmen are too often the principals in the encounters,” wrote the Texas Live Stock Journal in 1884. “The six-shooter loaded with deadly cartridges is a dangerous companion for any man, especially if he should unfortunately be primed with whiskey. Cattlemen should unite in aiding the enforcement of the law against carrying of deadly weapons.”

Many newspapers from the Old West, while generally supportive of the right to own arms, found their overuse (and public display in towns and settlements) a menace. But we’ve progressed. It’s 2014. Crime is low. The risk of being targeted by an Apache or Comanche raiding party, while not recently calculated with scientific precision, is also low. Texans predominantly live in urban areas: Five of the nation’s 20 largest cities are in the state.

Yet the demand for a greater variety of legal weapons—some at the hearing made a bid for the Legislature to make Bowie knives legal, and one bemoaned that you couldn’t obtain a machine gun without “jumping through a bunch of hoops”—and more ways to carry and use them has never been greater.

For many of those testifying, guns are the ultimate expression of self-empowerment. They represent the right to free one’s self from any and all collective enterprises—police protection among them. So the stakes are high.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” said Amy Hedtke, a homeschooling mom who brought one of her children to testify as well. “We are not asking you to plow new ground here. We’re asking you to stop salting the earth of liberty.”

Another open-carry supporter, William Brown, came for personal reasons. “At the age of 18, I committed a drug crime that cost me the next 17-and-a-half years of my life in penitentiary. I know what a human being is. I have a firm grasp on man’s true nature. I think people who disarm Americans don’t know what a human being really is. There is an element of humanity that is beyond sociopath. They make parole too.”

Brown, in a coat and tie and a long, braided goatee, added: “When I was a youngster, I used to commit robberies. I only went to places that beforehand I knew, they did not have firearms.” Open carry would be a deterrent to people like his younger self, he said. “Back then, if I had walked into a place and seen a gun in a holster, I would have turned right back around and walked out.”

New groups like Moms Demand Action—who were angry that they hadn’t been invited initially and were only included at the last minute—provide a potentially significant counterbalance to the gun rights movement, but they’re still dwarfed in terms of passion and numbers. Open carry will be a significant issue during next year’s legislative session—and Monday’s hearing was another demonstration, if it were needed, that those in support are by far the loudest voices. That counts for a lot.



Austin’s Fusebox Festival will begin with a sort of anti-elegy, a zombie score. “Mozart Requiem Undead”—a re-imagining of Mozart’s “Requiem” comprising new compositions by indie artists including Glenn Kotche (Wilco), Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Justin Sherburn (Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada (Grupo Fantasma)—will be performed by a full orchestra and a 150-person choir. Graham Reynolds and Peter Stopschinski of Golden Hornet Project will lead the piece outside the French Legation Museum.

The directors call Fusebox a “hybrid art festival,” because it plays host to music, theater, performance art, documentaries, artist talks and round-table discussions. Additionally, Executive Director Ron Berry has begun referring to it as a “festival about festivals,” i.e., an opportunity to measure the impact of a festival on it host community, especially when that community is as festival-happy as Austin.

The performance of “Mozart Requiem Undead” will launch the 10th anniversary installment of the two-week festival (April 16-27 at venues throughout the capital), as well as a new Fusebox initiative called “Free Range Art.” That’s a branded way of saying that all festival events are free. Registration and the schedule are available online at

The Observer caught up with Berry to find out why Austin needs a hybrid art festival, what Fusebox can teach about festivals in general, and why, after a decade, Fusebox has moved to a free model.

Matthew Irwin: How would you describe the Fusebox Festival to someone who has never attended or been to the website?

Ron Berry: It’s a 12-day festival of adventurous artists and projects from around the world working in a variety of different art forms. The festival takes place in about 20 different locations around the city. We view the festival as a platform for conversations and ideas.

MI: Can you provide some background on Fusebox?

RB: A lot of the work that was being made in Austin was happening in a vacuum, and we were really interested in creating a platform for that work so that you can live in Austin and make that work and have that work be seen by a much larger audience, and seen around the world, so we wanted to find other artists and other curators and presenters from around the country and around the world to come see the work. Then we also wanted to inject some new thinking into the local community by inviting artists from around the country and around the world.

MI: You mention what you call the Austin vacuum. In your experience, do some of the other communities you visit have a similar experience, if they’re not major artistic hubs?

RB: I think Austin has a pretty rich tradition in both music and film, but I also think that both of those art forms travel a lot easier. You can find a song and download it the same day. I think in regards to the live art—theater, dance, performance, any visual art, things you really need to be in the room with to experience—it is hard to engage with these things unless you’re traveling to New York, Berlin, Buenos Aires and Paris. I don’t think Austin is unique … that’s just inherent in those art forms.

MI: So over the last 10 years, what kind of exchanges have you witnessed by bringing diverse communities together through Fusebox?

RB: We’ve brought in artists who have been in residency here, so you’ve been able to take classes or workshops with them, and some who take the workshop with them actually build the project up with them, and there’s been opportunities for some hands-on work with these artists. There have been artists that we’ve featured that have done gigs that have toured outside of Austin because a curator came, saw their work, and then wanted them to do their work elsewhere—so that was something that was very exciting for us. It helps make Austin a more valuable place to live in as an artist—that you don’t necessarily have to go to New York or L.A. to have your work seen by people.

All of this to me is laying the groundwork [for] switching to a free model, especially if you take from the underpinnings of the festival this idea of exchange and encountering ideas and perspectives from outside of your immediate sphere. We felt like, when we were charging admission, that we were unmistakably targeting people we felt would want to buy tickets, and it would become this very insular conversation and exchange that was happening. We have a core audience, but they go see everything and engage with the festival very deeply, but aside from that, when people aren’t familiar with these artists and we are charging for each head, the likelihood of people going to see anything—because there’s more than one thing—is very low, so we felt like this was a smarter strategy for welcoming these people into the festival. And for me, that’s one thing I really love about this festival—that it’s kind of a place of discovery and you can discover artists that you’ve never heard of. I feel like Sundance, in the early days … was a place to discover independent thinking and voices, so I really love that about our festival and want to encourage people to take a chance on projects and artists.

MI: How might the festival be a place to have this conversation about what it costs to put on a production or hang a show?

RB: Yeah, I think that was another facet of this Free Range Art initiative, that we did want to talk about the economics of this work. Some of the artists I know are generally subsidizing their own work. Ticket sales are 10 percent of our budget, so in the first conversation about deciding to go free, pretty much the first question that everyone asked was, well how can you do that? And we’re like, really, ticket sales are a very miniscule part of our budget, and we needed all that, but we actually might make more money this year by going free. [In addition to private donations and grants, Fusebox successfully crowdsourced funding specifically for Free Range Art.] Or we’ll certainly be able to cover that amount. It’s very low-risk. We’ve actually already hit that number, so financially we’re totally fine… [W]e wanted to separate out the actual art and say, here’s this art that we believe in, we think it’s really important, and we think that everyone should have access to it, but at the same time let’s talk about the real cost of making this work. It’s not free, but it’s also not the $10 or $15 bucks that we usually charge. It’s much more than that, and we felt like in a way the ticket price was obscuring what was really going on.

MI: What does the real cost include?

RB: Our costs of presenting the work. The cost that the artist has put into filming the work, you know, months, years. It’s a real big question that we haven’t quite found the answer to, so it’s something we should talk about and look at.

A lot of this was inspired by a foundation in Brazil whose whole sort of mission is based around access. In São Paulo, they focus on three particular areas: the arts, athletics and dentistry. No one has dental coverage there. So they have this amazing center that runs a theater, an art gallery, they have a swimming pool there, and a basketball court, and a dentist office there. To me that was kind of hilarious, profound and amazing what it’s saying about arts and culture, and that it’s the same thing as going for a walk, or getting your teeth cleaned, brushing your teeth. To me that was such a radically different portrait of the arts in my mind, or understanding of the arts, positioning of the arts. It’s something that I really believe in as sort of the central part of being alive and healthy in the world, to have access to these things. Anyway, that struck me as profound, it was really about the proximity of those things all being in one complex.

MI: So how might Fusebox specifically address some of these issues or start this conversation?

RB: We want to have a sort of public forum there at the festival to talk about these things. One of the hopes is that along with this year’s festival we’re going to have a lot of information and a lot of data that we can compile and report back to the world—like here’s this big experiment that we tried and this is what we’ve found and this is what we think it means, at least in our particular situation.

MI: But will you have some things in the program specifically for table conversations?

RB: Yeah, I would love to do that. I mean, we have to do that. And we want to sort of touch on this conversation frequently, and also start the conversation around the reservation process and how people are learning and reading about the festival schedule. [The work is] not really free, so “free” is a problematic word, [but] it starts the conversation that it’s being paid for by someone else. So it’s almost like it’s a gift, and so there are other ways that we’re going to frame it so that we’re constantly reminding our audience that the attendance part is free … but there’s a whole process of how this conversation came into being and how these artists came into being in the same place and in this city together, and the whole thing is not actually free.

MI: Well, for me, a natural place to go when you start talking about free programming or free attendance is how the funding then determines what art is available, how that creates its own curatorial process.

RB: In many ways, it completely liberates it from any source of constraint. I mean, we’ve always been able to program pretty much anything we want, but when you’re relying on ticket sales, you have one or two shows that you really need to be your box office hits … We’re liberated from having to program these audience-pleasing projects. Not that we’re not pleasing our audiences, but it’s really about ideas and possibilities, and investigation, inspiration, all these things. We really love small, intimate projects and usually have a handful of these, but then you tie up all your ticket sales on projects only 16 people at a time can go see. But those are often some of my favorite experiences, and I really believe in creating the sort of tangible relationship with the work. So hopefully, with this particular model, we are liberated even more.

MI: I want to spend a minute on Fusebox as a festival about festivals idea.

RB: So this is something that we’re very aware of, like last year, I think, there were four or five other festivals going on while Fusebox was going on. It’s crazy. In some ways I think for years there’s been an exploration of a festival as an idea, as a thing, and what can a festival do that other things can’t? Specifically, what can our festival do that these other festivals aren’t? So that’s been central to our mission, and a joyous process.

MI: What, then, is Fusebox’s place in Austin, a city of festivals?

RB: One of the things that we’re doing aside from the specific programming that I think is unique to Austin, is we’ve been interested in using the mechanism of festivals to explore place; so we’re not just doing stuff in Zilker Park, and we’re not just doing stuff in clubs, but we worked with a composer to write a piece of music for his entire neighborhood. He went to the library and checked out a map, then you’d walk through this neighborhood and listen to this piece and the individual instrumentations of the piece were housed in different locations, so like the cello would be in someone’s study and then you would walk a couple more blocks and hear the violin. It was a unique musical experience, and it was also a way to encounter this neighborhood in a way maybe you never encountered it. So that’s an example of using the festival to investigate and encounter place that feels pretty different and unique from a lot of other festivals.

We’ve also been interested in food and the role that food plays; we’ve found it a really creative industry. We’ve partnered with a lot of chefs and bartenders who get really creative with it. Food and drink are such natural facilitators of [conversations]. So how can we use food and drink in organic ways to help facilitate more conversation? Often when I go to a conference or festival, maybe I see something that I really love, but often my favorite part is having a beer with a couple of people that I met and talking about the world.

MI: You talked about gathering some of this information and giving it back, and at the last Fusebox, at one of the round-table discussions, was this idea of what is a festival: Is it just a one-shot, or is there year-round programming? How much have you thought about these things in terms of how you program or organize Fusebox?

RB: That’s a great question. More and more this defines a different sort of relationship between artist and audience. I really do view all of this work as an ongoing conversation. And so the festival is a moment in a timeline where we can provoke and facilitate a lot of questions and conversations, and ideally these conversations continue after the festival and leading up to the next one. I think this is one area that we need to do more work on and put more resources toward helping to facilitate that conversation year-round.

MI: You know Austin is Richard Florida’s favorite town, and in his model, festivals are the jumpstart for the “creative economy,” and they may or may not continue in whatever forms, but the idea that they jumpstart a local culture—how does that line up with your own view?

RB: I certainly think that festivals play a huge part in the cultural landscape and help make Austin an exciting, attractive place to live. But the number, quality, atmosphere, I think, plays a part in the growth of Austin. To me, festivals are particularly exciting in that they provide an opportunity to encounter a bunch of different ideas and perspectives in such a concentrated period of time. They are inherently good at that, in many ways that’s what they are. Even if you’re just looking at a music festival, even at a genre music festival, there are still different styles and personalities and a different sort of message within that festival, and that’s exciting.

MI: I was just thinking that one of the things that I really enjoyed about Fusebox is that you don’t feel like the city is turning itself over to the festival, like with South by Southwest or the Austin City Limits Festival.

RB: We love that about it too. We also like this notion that we have these sort of hubs where we invite people and let the artists hang out, so as an audience member you can hang out with the artists, and I think that’s really cool, and definitely part of what we’re wanting.

Texas Renewal Project

The Hyatt Regency on the south bank of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake is a pleasant enough place, but its true purpose on April 3—a temporary respite from the licking hellfire consuming the United States—was not immediately apparent. But cross the threshold into the Texas Ballroom, where attendees of the Texas Renewal Project’s Pastor Policy Briefing are munching on little cuts of meat while a succession of speakers worry about the country’s terminal decline, and you start to feel the heat of the fire outside.

Hundreds of pastors have traveled from all over Texas to the conference, which, according to the invitation penned by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, aims to address the fact that ”our Judeo-Christian heritage is under attack by a force that is more destructive than any threat America has faced in decades.” There are speakers, and information sessions, though one suspects that for many the appeal of the event is a weekend in Austin with the wife. I stand in the back, where a stern-looking man unhappy with the offerings of ice tea and water sips on whiskey from the lobby bar. The woman in front of me picks away at her slice of bread, leaving the crust.

The message on offer is grim and fearful. This is a room full of people that are falling out of love with their country. It used to be a place that held promise for them and their cohort. But it’s changed, dramatically and for the worse, and the pastors don’t know if they can get it back in time.

The night’s speakers give them no comfort. There’s former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, who tells diners that America is “not great enough that we can shake our fist in the face of a holy god and expect to get away with it.”

“That World War II generation gave us something that we have squandered over the last 40 years,” Watts told the crowd. “They gave us an exceptional nation. I don’t want my grandchildren to inherit a normal nation.”

“We can’t just go to church on Sunday and pay our tithe and leave it up to Washington. Washington is a Babylonian system,” says Watts. (According to Revelation 17:5, Babylon is the “the mother of harlots and of the abominations in the earth.”)

Babylon’s enforcement arm is the Internal Revenue Service, which Matthew Staver rose to speak on. Staver, the dean of the Liberty University School of Law, took time to reassure the pastors on one point: The IRS is impotent. There are strictures on tax-exempt churches engaging in political activity, but you can easily work within them. And if you break them outright, it doesn’t matter. “The IRS doesn’t have any teeth in this,” he said. “Some of my friends take their [political] message and sent them to the IRS.”

It’s your duty, he told the pastors, to engage in political activity to the maximum extent you are able. Have candidates speak in your church, acknowledge them in sermons, have candidate forums and debates. “Voting is a prophetic witness to the community,” he said. “No church has ever lost their tax exempt status for lobbying or for political activity. You’ve got to replace the muzzle that the world has placed on you.”

When he shifted to why the muzzle must be removed, things got dark. Staver spoke about legislative restrictions in New Jersey and California on “pray-the-gay-away” counseling services.

“If a minor comes to you and is struggling with same-sex attraction—maybe they were molested by the likes of a monster like Jerry Sandusky—and they have this self-hatred, they want to kill themselves because they have these desires that they don’t want, the desire to act out in the manner that they’ve been acted on,” Staver said, “and they come to a Christian counselor and say, help me, that counselor can’t help that child with those thoughts and behaviors. They have to sanctify that behavior as natural, normal, and good.” The crowd murmured.

Staver stepped back.

“I never thought I would ever say this,” he said.

Recently he had traveled to Peru, where that country’s congress asked him to speak on religious issues, particularly, on the Obama administration’s support for LGBT issues abroad. He found himself unable to defend his country. He told the Peruvian legislators: “America used to be proud that we were a city on the hill, a shining example. In these areas of religious liberty, we are no longer setting the example. I received a standing ovation, and a Congressional Medal of Honor,” he said. “I never would have received that treatment in our own congress.”

His trip culminated in another appearance, at a 70,000-seat soccer stadium, packed full with Peruvian Christians. When the first speaker addressed the crowd, Staver said, he carried a stern warning. “Any nation that supports or proposes laws that are contrary to God’s natural created order is cursed and will cease to exist.” Back at the Hyatt, audible gasps. A man in the audience yells “that’s true!”

Staver continued: “Tears began to roll down my eyes, because I began to think about the United States of America—the country that I was born in, that I love.” He added: “What we are doing now is not only destroying this country, but we are working to undermine Christian values in Peru and in countries around the world. This country is doing that. Under our watch! We can no longer be silent.”

Politically-minded evangelicals have been warning about America’s fall from grace and downfall since time immemorial. But the ground really has shifted: The demographic changes that are concerning the whole conservative coalition will hit the Religious Right especially hard. Even within the Republican Party, more libertarian strains of thought are ascendant. There are national politicians who can speak the language of evangelicals—Cruz, with his pastor father, among them.

But he, like Gov. Perry, has adopted a state’s rights position on thorny social issues like gay marriage. That doesn’t go far enough for this crowd, who’d like to see gay marriage prohibited in the 50 states and territories and gay people disappear from public view.

Nonetheless, this has been a particularly good election cycle in Texas for evangelicals. That’s especially strange because evangelical candidates—think Rick Santorum—tend to underperform here. Both Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who seem set to win the GOP lt. governor and attorney general nominations, respectively, have received the imprimatur of Mike Huckabee, who spoke at the Hyatt the morning after. Cruz skipped the event, to the disappointment of the crowd, to appear at Fort Hood.

Even if Patrick and Paxton win this November, that won’t be enough to assuage the deep disquiet many feel about the direction of their country. This is a group that’s primed for disappointment—this is, after all, a fallen world.

WTF Friday: Glass Houses

Charles Murray
Charles Murray

Race and ethnicity and stuff: Let’s think big thoughts about it, together. Texas is an increasingly diverse place. That’s great for our palates, but sometimes it makes people “uncomfortable.” And “sometimes” we need to have “conversations” about whether it’s “inappropriate” to cite “white supremacists” in “policy papers.”

1) How about that Charles Murray, huh? Don’t get me wrong, Murray should be dropped down a well. Murray, a Thinker, earned most of his renown and public fame for Saying What We’re All Thinking about women and black people—they’re not as smart as Charles Murray and people like him (white, rich, men.) You could describe him as a sort of white supremacist, with the caveat that he doesn’t have much affection for poor white people either. He’s a sort of cheerleader for the elite, in the traditional WASP sense, or Mencken’s sense: Those with education and power have it because, on some level, they deserve it, and those who are poor are poor not because of history, or circumstances, but because they lack the natural ability and intelligence to not be as poor anymore.

That basic idea has been present throughout Murray’s work—implicitly and explicitly. It’s not too far distanced from the pith-helmeted Englishmen who wandered around darkest Africa a century ago measuring skull ridges. (And actually, Murray occasionally relies on contemporaries of those people in his work.) But his Straight Talk on Race has made him a popular figure among some in the Acela corridor, who, as luck would have it, look a lot like Murray. “A huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists,” said Murray about one of his turgid tomes. “This book tells them they are not. It’s going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say.”

“You want to have a job training program for welfare mothers? You think that’s going to cure the welfare problem,” Murray told PBS in 1994. “You had better keep in mind that the mean IQ of welfare mothers is somewhere in the 80s, which means that you have certain limitations in what you’re going to accomplish.”

For this and a hundred other reasons stemming from his disturbing and malevolent career, drop Charles Murray down a well. But when the Huffington Post and Wendy Davis jumped on Greg Abbott for citing one of Murray’s books in an education policy paper his team put together, they may have overreached. For one thing, the footnote is one of dozens. And while the book cited, Real Education, (though the Abbott campaign cited it as “Read Education”) makes some unusual arguments—Murray says all primary and secondary education in the United States should be privatized—the footnoted passage is actually pretty mundane.

The most WTF-y thing about the whole incident is Abbott’s reaction. Shortly after the original HuffPo story broke, Christy Hoppe at the Dallas Morning News wrote a follow-up. After a recitation of a few of the cringe-inducing things Murray’s said, Hoppe turned to the campaign for a reaction.

Abbott’s campaign stated that Murray is a widely noted education thinker, whose work is cited frequently, including by columnists for our own newspaper.

He told the AP:

Abbott on Thursday said Murray is often widely cited and ran down a list of mainstream publications that have published Murray’s work.

From KSAT:

[Abbott] also said Murray has been quoted by national media, and recognized as being among those who “define the contemporary intellectual debate about social policy.”

You want to put Abbott on trial? Abbott’s putting this whole court on trial. How can you get mad at him for deferring to a white supremacist when everyone else does too? He’s a “best-selling author” who holds a perch at a respected conservative think tank. He’s lauded as one of this country’s great original thinkers. People from Bill Clinton—”He did the country a great service,” the president said about his welfare reform advocacy—to David Brooks and the editorial boards of major newspapers celebrate him and his works. Far more dispiriting than Abbott’s footnote is the fact that he’s right. Charles Murray, after decades of racist pseudo-science and policy quackery, still has an important place in our discourse. WTF.

Drop Charles Murray down a well.

2) I may be astonished that America still has a place in its heart for Charles Murray, but state Rep. Dan Flynn sees things going in the opposite direction—and it sickens him.

It is the era of multiculturalism, diversity, and political correctness. Our society has been fooled into believing that differences must be accepted with an unobjective cordiality, without question and of course, at face value.

Flynn represents Van, Texas, population 2,600. It’s almost 90 percent white.

Many on the right have been warning us for years, when a culture weakens its own principles in favor of an amorphous multicultural society, eventually, a stronger culture simply undermines and supplants the impoverished values it encounters.

Unsurprisingly, he has a particular kind of person in mind when he’s talking about the dangers of diversity. Sharia law is coming to Texas, he says, and it’ll rule us all someday. To safeguard the social cohesion of Van from the encroaching hoards of halal food carts and madrassa-building jihadis, Flynn has a plan. Come next year, he’ll be introducing a bill “that will require our Texas Judicial System to only allow American Law on American Soil in our Texas Courts.”

What’s he talking about? Many religious communities prefer to use mediation to resolve legal disputes, and do so along the lines of their religion’s legal code. When bills to “ban Sharia” in other states have popped up, they’re most resolutely opposed by the Jewish community, whose members sometimes mediate legal disputes using Jewish religious law. So Flynn may scare away the hookah joints from Van, but wake up to find a flock of angry rabbis on his doorstep. Small-town Texas is going to seed, I tell you.

3) Speaking of Jews, steadfast weirdo Congressman Louie Gohmert has some words of encouragement, or—wait, I don’t really know what this is. Gohmert was being interviewed about the dying Israeli/Palestinian peace talks, and the possible release of Israeli spy-for-hire Jonathan Pollard as part of a trade.

“Well, I don’t know what the deal is,” Gohmert said.

Admirable! I wish more congressmen admitted they have no idea what’s going on. Let’s move—

“Since I do believe the Bible, those nations that divide Israel are going to be judged and it isn’t going to be pretty. I’d hate to be the country that betrays Israel, that demands that they give up land that had been given to them. I think that we’re in real trouble with the pressure that this administration’s doing.”

If Israel gives up the land that it annexed in 1967, Gohmert says, God—the one that blesses America, I guess—will take vengeance on America. And Israel? And Palestinians? Man. That guy is fickle.

4) Hey, it’s Steve Stockman (R-Huckster.) What have you been up to, bro?

“Only the most out-of-touch radical would try to disarm soldiers,” said the Clear Lake Republican, who lost the U.S. Senate primary in March. “It’s time to repeal this deadly anti-gun law before it creates another mass killing. This is another tragedy created by anti-gun activists.”

The day after the shooting at Fort Hood, Stockman stood up to try to resuscitate a bill he authored that would let military personnel carry personal weapons on military bases. Aren’t these the people that tell Americans not to “politicize” mass shootings? The fun thing about this one is that it’s moving towards a consensus position for Republicans: limelight-lover and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Michael McCaul endorsed it recently.

Not that it will matter, but the Army itself doesn’t want this. You know who’s leading the “out-of-touch radical” contingent? Some lib wacko, right? Oh, it’s the commander of Fort Hood.

Go forth and drink, WTFers.

Rick Perry at "The Response" in August 2011
Patrick Michels
Texas Gov. Rick Perry's prayer rally, The Response, at Reliant Stadium in Houston.

The companies angling to build a facility for high-level nuclear waste in Texas have found a high-level cheerleader: Rick Perry. This week the governor sent a letter to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and speaker of the House Joe Straus, urging the Legislature “to develop a Texas solution for the long-term resolution of [high-level waste] currently residing inside our borders.”

Perry’s boosterish letter follows Straus’ January directive to a House committee to study storage and disposal options for high-level nuclear waste.

The use of the phrase “Texas solution” in Perry’s letter is interesting. Go to and you will find a slick site for Waste Control Specialists, the radioactive waste company developed by the late Harold Simmons. Waste Control’s Andrews County dump was predicated on the notion that it would only take low-level radioactive waste, but just this week, the company began accepting—for temporary storage—transuranic waste from New Mexico’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project following a radiation leak at that facility.

In February, I asked Waste Control spokesman Chuck McDonald if the company was considering high-level waste.

“It is something we are open to the possibility of,” McDonald said. “We would obviously have conversations with the community in Andrews. … There is a new recognition that something may need to be done and interim storage may be something where we can provide a solution for the state and others if it comes to that. It’s very early in this process.”

Perry doesn’t mention Waste Control specifically and, indeed, there are other interests floating proposals for storing high-level waste in West Texas. Austin-based AFCI Texas, for example, has been sniffing around Big Spring for a while. AFCI is co-owned by a Perry crony—Bill Jones, who the governor appointed to serve on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department board.

Officials in Loving County, which is the smallest county by population in the nation, have also expressed interest in hosting spent nuclear fuel.

Perry told a West Texas TV station yesterday that he believes there is a “legitimate site in West Texas.”

“Sure. I think there are a couple of sites in the State of Texas that the local communities actively are pursuing that possibility,” Perry told KCBD during a stop in Lubbock.

Along with his letter, Perry included a 49-page report drafted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which lays out the options for storing high-level nuclear waste in Texas. Currently, the spent nuclear fuel from the nation’s 100 or so nuclear reactors has no permanent home. The federal government’s preferred option—burying the waste deep underground in the Nevadan desert at Yucca Mountain—has been more or less scuttled. In January 2012, a blue ribbon commission (are all commissions adorned with blue ribbons?) appointed by Obama recommended that work begin in earnest to develop one or more centralized storage facilities along with one or more deep geologic burial sites. The idea is that the waste would be shipped from the nuclear reactors to be stored temporarily for decades, until (or if) it could then be buried somewhere.

The report takes quite a bit of editorial license and seems to be particularly concerned with how to make a public-private storage option work. “The lack of an alternative to onsite indefinite storage is hindering nuclear energy from being fairly considered as an energy option and is an embarrassment to this country’s reputation for its capability to handle its waste.

Basically, the report suggests that the U.S. Department of Energy should own a centralized storage facility in Texas, where the spent fuel from nuclear power plants can be sent and held for decades, while it works on a deep geological disposal site. A private company, the report recommends, could operate the facility. The reason for the public-private arrangement is that the federal government would have title to the waste in case something goes wrong. Otherwise, building such a facility “may be too uncertain for a private company to attempt.” And we wouldn’t want that.

The authors stress the importance of finding a community that embraces radioactive waste, specifically citing the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico and Waste Control’s dump in Andrews. “Finding a site that has local and state support would greatly enhance the chance of a private centralized interim storage site being successfully sited and constructed,” the report concludes.

The legal, political and technical hurdles involved in establishing even an interim storage site, much less a Yucca Mountain-style disposal site, are obviously significant. Just for starters, Congress would have to change the law to allow for the arrangement TCEQ/Perry is proposing. There’s also the teensy issue of transportation. Moving all the nuclear waste to a single central storage unit would take 20 years and up to 10,700 shipments by rail or 53,000 by truck. The radioactive waste would inevitably pass through thousands of communities, many of which might not like the idea of serving as  corridor for a private company to profit from nuclear waste.

To my mind there are echoes of Rick Perry’s other splashy proposals: Think Trans-Texas Corridor or the mandatory HPV vaccine mandates—cronyism posing as bold public policy. Notably, both Trans-Texas Corridor and the HPV mandate were high-profile flops that nearly cost him his political career. Perry is not known as a Big Idea man or a policy wonk, despite his recent makeover with those MSNBC glasses and his appearance at Davos. Merits aside, his policy proposals have typically been the product of close allies and business interests pushing an agenda and using Perry as a pitchman. And they’ve not been popular with the conservative grassroots.

Perry’s executive order requiring Texas girls to get vaccinated for HPV caused an uproar on the religious right, who thought the state should have no business inoculating girls against a sexually-transmitted disease. Others were repelled by the crony capitalism angle: Perry’s former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck, the company that sold the HPV vaccine Gardasil. Perry was forced to scrap the mandate and it haunted him when he ran for president in 2011-2012.

The Trans-Texas Corridor had something for everyone to hate: Rural Texans took exception to the use of eminent domain to seize land for a private company; environmentalists loathed the notion of building a vast new fossil fuel-driven infrastructure; and tea party types (before they were called that) saw the making of a vast intercontinental conspiracy at the heart of the Corridor.

It’s not clear whether there is a larger plan to the high-level waste deal, or this is just the governor’s usual business cheerleading. But the extensive TCEQ report, commissioned by Perry, suggests that there is some long-term effort at work. The question is whether the conservative grassroots takes any interest in the issue. There is not an obvious bugaboo as with Trans-Texas corridor or the HPV vaccine.

If the private interests can lock down local support perhaps any widespread opposition can be blunted from the get-go.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker
Greater Houston Partnership / Richard Carson
Houston mayor Annise Parker at the State of the City Address

Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed civil rights ordinance wasn’t a day old before a religious group said it evoked “fear” that Christians would be punished for “practicing our historical beliefs.”

Ah, history. Have you ever gotten it wrong?

Parker announced the new ordinance yesterday in her annual State of the City address. Though still being drafted, it would codify an existing executive order prohibiting discrimination by city government and its contractors but also cover housing and public accommodations. That means retail stores, restaurants, bars, and any service provider with a brick-and-mortar location could be cited for discrimination based on age, sex, race, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation or gender expression. The Office of the Inspector General and a new seven-member Human Rights Commission would investigate complaints and try mediation first, though failing that the offender could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined.

The fuss, of course, is over including gay and transgender Houstonians among the protected. The Texas Pastor Council, a far-right group that has called Parker a “sodomite,” issued an open letter to the mayor today calling the “San-Antonio Style [sic]” ordinance a “Bad Fit for Houston.” It’s referring to the LGBT non-discrimination ordinance San Antonio passed in September after much hullabaloo. The letter says that the ordinance “assaults not only the values but the basic First Amendment rights of city citizens, business owners and churches to live, speak about and practice their faith.” It also spells Jim Crow “Jim Crowe.”

San Antonio had to pass an LGBT-specific ordinance because—like every other major city in the United States—it already had other civil rights protections. Houston, a majority-minority city and one of the most diverse in the nation, has none. Parker states her goal is not just to create local recourse for discrimination but to take a stand as a city. “[T]he Houston I know doesn’t turn its back on inequality,” she said.

In a press conference following the speech, Mayor Parker said the ordinance is not a primary focus of her final term in office and that she hopes the City Council will pass the measure quickly and “get on down the road.” But her administration must have known it would meet resistance. The whole State of the City Address, which was hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s most powerful business group, was structured to psychologically prime its audience for acceptance. The opening invocation by a Catholic priest mentioned diversity, differences and those needing “special protection,” and included Mayor Parker’s lesbian partner in its blessings. As the large, be-suited crowd enjoyed their chicken and haricot verts, three huge screens behind the stage alternated triptychs of Mayor Parker doing mayor things—plus one image of her wedding day—with affirmations like “Houston is tolerant” and “Houston is inclusive.” The sayings were pretty pointed. “Houston is open-minded. Houston is unbiased. Houston does not discriminate.”

When she spoke, Parker saved announcing the ordinance for last. The audience laughed at her jokes and interrupted repeatedly with applause as she detailed the city’s successes—a hot economy, infrastructure investment and lowered crime—but they responded tepidly to the speech’s capstone. That may have been because business owners are concerned about frivolous complaints or because the bathroom lines were going to be really long.

Parker plans to present a draft of the ordinance April 30th and place it on the City Council agenda for May 7th. She says most council members have expressed support for LGBT protections so she expects quick passage, but backers are concerned that groups like the Texas Pastor Council will successfully petition to add a referendum on it to the November ballot. Even if they do, they may have a hard road. Houston narrowly but consistently leans Democratic. Back in 2001, voters amended the city charter to ban city spousal benefits for anyone except “legal spouses,” but Parker recently defied that successfully.

“It’s long past time that we ensure equal protection for all of our residents,” Parker said in a statement yesterday. She’s betting the city that elected her three times agrees.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company
112 pages; $23

The experience of reading Kevin Powers’ new poetry collection, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is much like combat itself—long periods of calm and reflection broken by frenetic bursts of adrenalized action. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more clear than in the poem “Improvised Explosive Device,” in which Powers explores what was probably the biggest threat to American soldiers in Iraq. Those of us who drove the tattered roads of that nation remember too well the randomness and constant worry about IEDs, inanimate objects to which we had never before given a second thought. In the poem, Powers writes of the quiet moments before potential energy turns kinetic:

And if this poem was somehow traveling
with you
in the turret of a humvee,
you would not see the words
buried at the edges of the road.
You would not see the wires. You would not
see the metal. You would not see the danger
in the architecture
of a highway overpass.

“Improvised Explosive Device” is unsettling, each line teasing out the danger that lurks beneath the ground or in the trash. This theme of things buried—explosives, reality, grief, history—runs throughout Powers’ poetry, as it did in his 2012 debut novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers, a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army in Iraq. His poetry, like his fiction, weaves between Iraq and home.

In the opening poems of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, Powers’ narrator is relieved that he doesn’t have to choose whether to shoot a young Iraqi boy whose job it is to gather unexploded mortars for the coalition. In later poems, the narrator, back in the States, struggles to find his footing as he discovers that he no longer fits into the community from which he embarked on his tour of duty. He is a remnant of history.

And it is history that Powers explores next, reminding readers that so much of the United States was built with a disregard for the working class. “In the Ruins of the Ironworks” parallels this hazardous disregard—in this case, for coal miners—with that for green soldiers sent off to war. In “Church Hill,” the narrator laments his country’s ability to proceed with daily life despite knowledge of faraway—and even nearby—death. Depicting the called-off rescue of workmen buried in a collapsed train tunnel in 1925 in Richmond, Virginia, he tells us:

At some point
everyone stopped trying
to dig the survivors out and went back
to whatever it was they’d done before …
Everything’s exhausting.
No one should be blamed for this.

Frustrated with the repetitive cycle of destruction and its subsequent whitewashing, Powers’ narrator appears to abandon the theme of history’s significance and our ability to learn from it. Every beginning, he observes, is just a course correction, and each star is just a record of a million cities waiting to be burned and lived in again. “Order is a myth,” he concludes. In “The Locks of the James,” he walks by a statue of Christopher Newport, one of the earliest Englishmen to arrive in Virginia, and dismisses his record as a pirate and “murderer of indigenous peoples,” proclaiming, “If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history / that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.”

As with The Yellow Birds, Powers is at his best when he homes in on the restrained anger threatening at any moment to shatter the lull and disrupt progress—the narrator wanting to fight obnoxious young drunks in a bar, only to cry because he misses having his weapon; another veteran at the VFW saying he lost his leg, only to be rebuffed and told, “Naw, they took it, the fuckers.”

Powers other times drifts into philosophical extrapolations about humans’ place in the universe, as in “Advice to be taken just before the Sun goes Supernova,” in which he writes that we are just “another piece of sacking added to the swirl / of forgotten objects swinging round / a million little masses we can’t see,” or in “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” where he declares that “A complete picture of the universe / as it currently exists / is not impossible, / only difficult.” As a result of these digressions, the collection sparks a desire for more immediate examinations of veterans’ role in war and their troubles reintegrating into communities. This is what hits home—the attempt to throttle the angst built up during a deployment, or simply from years insulated in an aggressive bubble. What is the point of worrying about our role in the greater universe if we can’t even identify it at home? As the narrator tells us, trying to piece together the remnants of his pre-war self, “I am home and whole, so to speak. … But I can’t remember / how to be alive.”

Kevin Powers will talk about Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting with moderator Jake Silverstein as part of the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5, in the auditorium on the first floor of San Antonio’s Central Library, from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. FREE.

Powers will be in Austin on Tuesday, April 7, in conversation with novelist Philipp Meyer, at Stateside at the Paramount, at 8 p.m., presented by the Texas Book Festival. Tickets cost $15.