Purple Texas

Crazy Hearts

It was October 2008, a few weeks before that epic and tearful night when a non-white man finally got elected president of the United States, when yours truly touched down in Austin, rented a car, cranked the AC, headed to Wal-Mart to buy an air mattress and a cheap clean shirt, and started the next morning as editor of The Texas Observer. This noble experiment in honest liberal journalism was still producing some of the best political and investigative reporting in the state, but the magazine was also showing its age. The print edition looked like a newsletter circa 1975, and our online readers were too few. And who in God’s name was I—a lifelong non-Texan, a carpetbagger from New York by way of North Carolina—to try to improve things?

I was wondering myself, that first morning as I crept groggily into the old newsroom in downtown Austin. What was I thinking? I’d just published my first book, which did fine. I was leaving an enviable job at a national magazine. Why? For one reason only: to follow the whispers of my heart, an organ that had almost always led me disastrously astray.

I told my skeptical East Coast friends how I’d always loved the Observer, how I’d read through every issue of its vintage years, from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, when I was first learning journalism. “This is the Lord’s work,” I said, ignoring their rolling eyes. It was a  precious chance to do great, ambitious things at a publication that had been raising hell with the left and right alike for 54 years—and in Texas, of all unlikely places. It was an opportunity to help usher into the 21st century the magazine that had righteously savaged LBJ, that had helped bring down the Sharpstown Democrats, that had let Molly Ivins say the things she said. It was a chance to show that fearless, take-no-prisoners journalism could still flourish in a world of global corporate media.

It was brave talk. And now, as I’m packing up my beagle and belongings to head back east for another job at another national publication, I couldn’t be happier that I took the chance.

Most folks now read the Observer on the daily website, and find us through Facebook and Twitter and Google. We’ve redesigned the print edition and created a magazine with a modern, glossy look. The writing is just as fearless as ever and, I hope, a little edgier and wittier. The audience is steadily growing. And there remains the one great constant, the Observer’s trademark through more than a half-century of thick and thin times: bodacious, deep-digging investigative reporting, an ever-rarer commodity with each passing day in a Web-dominated, short-attention-span mediasphere.

Does it sound like I’m taking credit for making over this venerable old experiment? I’d love to, honestly, but I can’t. The credit for the lively and ornery magazine you hold in your hands, for the website you’re perusing, for the iPad you’re navigating, goes not to me but to us—to the Observer’s wonderful and amazing and self-sacrificing writers, editors, business staffers and designers. But more than anything, it’s thanks to the weird and wonderful people—you, dear readers—who still want to read an intelligent and contrary take on the strangest state in the Union.

You are not supposed to exist anymore. You’re supposed to want your journalism in tight, tiny, Tweet-sized packets. You’re supposed to want to see nothing but your own prejudices and easy assumptions reflected in the “news”—to watch the orthodox liberal blusterers at MSNBC, to read Democratic flacks masquerading as bloggers, or (Lord help us all) to ingest heaping helpings of The Huffington Post. You’re supposed to be the progressive doppelgängers of Fox Newshounds and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads. But somehow, bless your contrary hearts, you are not. You are reading The Texas Observer.

Keep your eyes on the prize, people—on the new Texas that will dawn, over the next couple of decades, as the hoggish Anglo majority that has built the meanest and most unjust state in America finally, justly, becomes inconsequential. Keep your eyes fixed, writers and readers alike, unblinkingly on the truth. Keep laughing through it all. And keep doing what I did three years ago, for whatever unaccountable reason: Follow your heart along the twisty and scary and strangely blessed paths where it will lead you, if only you let it.

Woe Unto the Hypocrite

Late in April, beneath the mainstream radar, Rick Perry took his “Please Don’t Elect Me President” road show to the North Texas studios of hellfire-breathing televangelist James Robison. In 2010, the governor mostly exchanged the Christian Right pieties of previous campaigns for Tea Party fundamentalism. God played only a bit part in his anti-government screed, Fed Up!, released just after his re-election to bolster his national profile. But Perry apparently has re-seen the light as he considers jumping into the GOP presidential contest and filling the gaping Christian Right Southern Populist void left by Mike Huckabee and Jeb Bush’s decisions not to run.

In the happiest kind of pure coincidence, Robison, who’s been in the vanguard of the Christian Right since the 1970s, happens to be Huckabee’s longtime friend and mentor. Presumably he’s looking for another “showhorse” to ride in 2012. His followers are, too. So there was the Methodist Perry, perfectly mimicking the glazed, faraway look of joyous rapture that often makes evangelical Christians look like they hold an exclusive patent on the world’s most potent weed. “I think we’re in a time of great revival in the world,” the governor declared, grinning and beaming up into the studio lights to signal that God was speaking through him and foretelling wonders.

“I think it’s an awakening,” Robison purred approvingly.

“I know there’s a lot of concerns,” Perry allowed, squinting with churchly sincerity. “You know, we’ve got this economic recession that’s going on.” But it’s all part of God’s plan, you see. “In America, from time to time, we have to go through some difficult times, and I think we’re going through those difficult economic times for a purpose: to bring us back to those Biblical principles of, uh, you know, you don’t spend all the money, you work for six years and put that seventh year in the warehouse to take you through the hard times.”

OK, so the sermon might need a little fine-tuning. But the delivery? Spot on!

There was never any doubt that if Perry ran for president, he’d spin the catastrophic 2011 Legislature into a heroic tale of unbending fiscal conservatism, sending Tea Partiers into paroxysms of glee. But if he’s going to have a shot at being the right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney, he must have overwhelming support from the Christian Right as well. Which creates a bit of a dilemma: How do you twist the decimation of schools and social programs into something moral, even “Biblical?” Perry will have to do better than quote Old Testament law and miss its point entirely: In Leviticus, the seventh-year Sabbath is recommended for pragmatic reasons; it’s good for the land. In Exodus, it’s so that “the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field shall eat.”

Justifying the politics of selfishness, it appears, is a matter best left to the experts. Luckily, the governor has self-righteous pals in high places, and they have been busy making a “Biblical” case that wealth-first economic policies are just what the Good Lord wants. None is more influential than David Barton, the fundamentalist “historian” and former vice-chair of the Texas GOP, who’s best known for his bogus-but-influential argument that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” Barton has been touring the nation’s megachurches for months with a fresh message: that Obama-style “economic redistribution” is “unbiblical.” Barton preaches that God despises capital-gains taxes, estate taxes, income taxes and universal health care. “Jesus did not like the minimum wage,” he asserted recently at a Rediscovering God in America conference.

It should be a tough sell, even to evangelical Republicans. After all, there is not one moral, ethical or rational justification for the politics of “I got mine” greed that Rick Perry personifies. All the creative Bible-spinning in the world cannot change the fact that what Perry stands for is economic Darwinism. But facts are increasingly irrelevant to a right-wing movement that has, in its quest to serve Mammon above all other gods, divorced itself from reason and reality—and from centuries of moral and ethical teaching, Christian and otherwise.

So what the heck: I’ll get in the spirit and recommend an unquestionably “Biblical” verse for the governor to contemplate. “For the vile person will speak villainy,” says the prophet Isaiah, “and his heart will work iniquity, to practice hypocrisy, and to utter error against the Lord, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail.”

King James Version, dude. Look it up.

Run, Rick, Run

It was the strangest thing. Mortifying but illuminating. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, or Donald Trump suddenly realizing he’d been out-Americaned by Barack Obama. The truth struck me like lightning during the turbulent middle week of May. The week that was supposed to end in the Rapture. The week when Texas legislators decided, once and for all, that they were going to gut public schools, dismantle social services and damn the consequences. The week when Rush Limbaugh & Co. restarted the Perry for President bandwagon with a desperate vengeance.

My revelation? I want Rick Perry to run for president. Texas needs Rick Perry to run for president. It could be the only hope, I suddenly saw, for reclaiming this state from the plutocracy whose interests Perry has served with Machiavellian cunning. The only way that this shriveled husk of a human being would ever be put in his rightful place—the only way he’d be unmasked, once and for all, as a pernicious, corrupt and morally bankrupt politician.

Thus enlightened, I proceeded immediately to DraftPerry2012.com. As the site requested, I left email and voicemail messages for Gov. Perry, rooting him on. “If you care about America, if you care about Texas, you must run for president, you handsome devil,” I pleaded. “Unless you toss your hat in the ring, Governor Perry, our future will be one of endless pain, bottomless misery and, quite possibly, the end of democracy as we know it in Texas. Run, Rick, run!”

Lest you fret, dear reader, that I have taken complete leave of my senses, allow me to explain. Or, rather, permit me to ask you to close your eyes for a minute and meditate on this image: Rick Perry on a debate stage. National TV, scorching floodlights, scores of millions of viewers. Hair just so, Grecian Forumla’d to a lustrous black sheen. He is furrowing his brow, squinting in an effort to look Presidential, reminding himself: Try and not sound exactly like George W. The Yankees don’t like that. He is sporting his lucky pink tie. He is fidgety. He is rarin’ to go!

Across the stage, Barack Obama. Supremely confident. Gray-headed. Exuding cool rationality.

And now imagine the questions from the panel of reporters. George Will, George Stephanopolous, Anderson Cooper, Lady Gaga—doesn’t matter. It goes something like this: 

“Governor Perry, you said before the campaign began that the single most important issue in 2012 was the Tenth Amendment. Do you honestly believe that the majority of Americans consider states’ rights a higher priority than improving health care or education or national security?”

“Governor Perry, you have hinged your campaign on your success in bringing jobs to the State of Texas. But during the period you boast about, your state added more minimum-wage jobs than the 49 other states combined. Texas now has more citizens living in poverty, more uninsured children and adults than any other state. Is that your vision for America?”

“As governor of Texas, Mr. Perry, you have doled out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, along with thousands of high-level government jobs and appointments, to your largest campaign contributors. As president, do you intend to continue this practice?”

Now, I fully understand that some nervous progressives might see more potential for disaster than schadenfreude if Perry runs for the White House. After all, didn’t Dubya win? Lord help us, yes. But Bush, as hard as it is to remember, ran on his moderately conservative and relatively respectable record as governor of Texas. In 2000, he offered a positive-sounding vision for better schools, the promise of a more “humble” foreign policy (!) and a “compassionate” version of Reaganism. Bogus, sure; dishonest, of course. But it wasn’t states’ rights. And Dubya, don’t forget, had the amazing good fortune to run against Al Gore and John Kerry. 

If I haven’t yet convinced you to join Rush and me on the Draft Perry bandwagon, here’s one last thought to chew on. If Perry runs and loses, he would return to Texas with his aura of invincibility shattered. The 2013 Texas Legislature would not be under his mystical sway the way the 2011 Lege has been, to such disastrous effect. He would no longer be the magic man from Paint Creek who never lost an election; he would be the Mike Dukakis of Texas, exposed and rejected on the national stage. And if there’s one thing Texans don’t cotton to, it’s a loser. Perry for President, it appears, is the only force capable of souring Texans on their vacuous governor.

The White-Power Legislature

Back in February, at a rally protesting anti-immigrant legislation, state Rep. Lon Burnam raised some eyebrows by letting loose with the “R” word. “You are here,” he told the crowd at the Capitol, “to say no to the most racist session of the Texas Legislature in a quarter of a century.” The Fort Worth Democrat had in mind such bills as Voter ID, which suppresses minority votes, and “Sanctuary City” legislation, which would legalize racial profiling. It had been decades, Burnam argued, since so many laws were aimed at putting non-whites, you know, in their place. “All of this legislation is really directed that way,” he said. “Everybody knows it.”

I can only pick one bone with Burnam: Sadly, tragically, everybody doesn’t know it. More than out-and-out racism—more than pure hatred, or a determination to subjugate non-whites—what afflicts the majority of our conservative lawmakers is a form of willful race-blindness. It’s that stubborn old “unconscious habit” of white supremacy, as W.E.B. DuBois called it. Rather than hating other races, the great black scholar and activist wrote in 1930, white people more often unconsciously—and fiercely—hold onto their privileges because of the psychological and economic benefits they get from them. “I began to realize that in the fight against race prejudice, we were not facing simply the rational, conscious determination of white folk to oppress us,” DuBois wrote, “we were facing age-long complexities sunk now largely to unconscious habit and irrational urge.”

Eighty years later, those urges and habits take different forms. White supremacy is no longer enforced by legal segregation and red-lining, cross-burnings and attack dogs. It’s now perpetuated by the right-wing mania for tax-cutting and government-shrinking. This is a subtler, less overt form of discrimination, which makes it harder to recognize and tougher to combat. And there is no purer, or more pernicious, model for this 21st-century white supremacy than the state budgets passed this spring by the Texas House and Senate.

Both chambers have approved radical, no-new-taxes budgets that take billions from public schools, Medicaid and social programs of every description. The House and Senate still have to reconcile their differences, perhaps in a special session this summer. But even if the Senate’s more “generous” budget wins the day—it cuts only $4 billion from schools and merely $3 billion from Medicaid—one thing’s for certain: The budget will perpetuate white privilege in Texas far more effectively than any racial-profiling law, however despicable, could ever do. It will make one of the nation’s most inequitable states the most inequitable. (Eat our dust, Mississippi!)

Am I saying it too strongly? Afraid not. Consider just a few ugly facts. The poverty rate among both African-American and Hispanic Texans is already three times that of Anglos. Drowning public education and health care in Grover Norquist’s bathtub will inevitably widen that obscene gap. Educational disparities in Texas are already staggering: According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, only 13 percent of Hispanic adults in Texas have college degrees, while 40 percent of Anglos do. Does anybody imagine that gap will close, now that funds for public education and higher education are being cut?

I’m not suggesting anything conspiratorial here—Heaven forbid!—but it does seem mighty suspicious that school funding is being decimated at a time when Texas schools are “browning” at a rapid pace. In the last decade, Hispanic enrollment in public schools jumped by 50 percent, with 775,000 more students. Meanwhile, 6 percent fewer Anglo students are enrolled, as well-off whites opt for private schools. Why is public-school funding less of a priority for Anglo legislators nowadays? You do the math. 

It’s much the same with Medicaid. Of the 3.5 million non-elderly Texans who rely on Medicaid for their health care, 63 percent are Hispanic; just 18 percent are Anglo. Five times more Anglos have health insurance through their employers than African Americans. Fifty-nine percent of Texans without health insurance are Hispanic; 26 percent are Anglo. So why are Anglo legislators hell-bent on decimating Medicaid? Here again, you can do the math.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether our lawmakers are motivated by blatant prejudice or “unconscious habit.” The toll that their slash-and-burn budget will take on Hispanics and African Americans is clear. It’s horrifying. It’s unconscionable. And it will, eventually, wreak economic disaster on the entire state, with millions more poorly educated, unhealthy citizens. That’s why the budget must be recognized, and called out loud and clear, for what it is: white supremacy masquerading as economic conservatism.

“Throughout our history, both as a state and as individuals, Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer. It is fitting that Texans should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this ongoing drought and these devastating wildfires.”           

—Gov. Rick Perry, declaring April 22-24 as Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas

 

MEMORANDUM
From: Office of the Governor of the State of Texas
To: All Non-Atheist Texans
Date: May 1, 2011  
Re: A Proclamation of a Month of Prayer
for Revenue in the State of Texas

 

WHEREAS, the State of Texas was—with absolutely no prior warning, and through no fault whatsoever of the Governor, the Legislature or the inerrant principle of Trickle-Down Economics—stricken in January of this year with an unprecedented budget shortfall of $23 billion; and

WHEREAS, $23 billion in budget cuts could result in the losses of hundreds of schools, thousands of teachers, scores of nursing homes and more than 300,000 jobs, at least if you listen to the doom-and-gloom crowd; and

WHEREAS, the Godless socialistic policies of Washington, D.C., have created a devastating global recession resulting in job losses, lower tax revenues and a general loss of Freedom across this land, affecting even the Economic Miracle that is the State of Texas; and

WHEREAS, these dire conditions emanating from Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Lloyd Doggett and Barack Hussein Obama are solely responsible for creating the most severe fiscal drought in the history of this devout and pennywise State; and

WHEREAS, our Faith informs us that tax cuts and tax breaks and tax incentives are the only reliable ways to raise revenue; and

WHEREAS, the Democrat notion that taxes create revenue is indisputably of the Devil; and

WHEREAS, we know that we are doing His will when we reject the calls of the weak and faithless to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy; and

WHEREAS, our Legislators have proven themselves powerless to erase this storm of red ink without divine intervention; and

WHEREAS, as your humble servant Grover Norquist keeps reminding the Governor of Texas, we must save the $6.1 billion in the Rainy Day Fund for a real emergency, and he just won’t stop pestering the Governor about it; and

WHEREAS, the Governor has discovered, to his considerable surprise and dismay, that federal stimulus programs, which balanced the State of Texas’ budget in 2009 and gave the Governor such a swell campaign issue to boot, have now been discontinued, wholly and purely out of spite and jealously toward the State of Texas; and

WHEREAS, the proclamation thing worked so good with the wildfires, which were Acts of Providence having absolutely nothing to do with Al Gore’s made-up theory of global warming; and

WHEREAS, we don’t really need the whole $23 billion, but if He could just bless us with $10 or $15 billion big ones, it would make everybody feel a so much better and maybe even get the Governor back in the presidential mix for 2012; and

WHEREAS, speaking of presidents, George W. used to pray all the time and look how that turned out!; and 

WHEREAS, given the size of this thing we’re dealing with here, it seemed like we needed a whole month of praying on it to make sure we got results;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the month of May as Days of Prayer for Revenue in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers for the healing of our budget, the eternal avoidance of taxes, the restoration of the Governor’s political credibility, and the avoidance of any special budget-fixing sessions of the Texas Legislature this summer, when the teachers will surely drive everybody plumb crazy with protests at the Capitol, because those people don’t even have to work year-round.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto signed my name and have officially caused the Seal of State to be affixed at my Office in the City of Austin, Texas, on this the 1st day of May, 2011.  

perry-signature

Rick Perry
governor of texas

The Magical Realm of Texas

...where bluebirds sing and massive budget cuts cause no human suffering.

Shame and despair. Those are, finally, the best words I can conjure. I’ve been sitting at the keyboard for a couple of hours now, straining my brain for some clever and catchy way to express how it feels to be a Texan right now. But it’s hard to be clever about an unfolding human catastrophe that appears unstoppable—and that’s exactly what Texas’ budget crisis amounts to. Only big, broad, dire words can capture the emotions of any decent Texan as we lurch headlong into a future of decimated schools, shuttered nursing homes, untreated mental illnesses, dirtier air, and a continent-wide gap between the richest and the rest. The shame stems from that. The despair arises from the sense of inevitability.

On Sunday, the cruelest and most crippling budget in Texas history passed the state House. The proposed budget rips, tears and tweezes $23 billion from current spending—nearly one-fourth of the state’s already rock-bottom funding for schools, roads, prisons and social services. Now that the House has done the devil’s work, it will be left to the Senate to scrounge around for new revenue sources—without raising taxes, which is forbidden by Holy Writ—to try to prevent the very worst: hundreds of school closings, thousands of teacher firings, and upwards of 300,000 lost jobs in the public and private sectors.

Most of the attention on this unfolding disaster has been focused on the big, bad hit to public schools. They stand to lose perhaps $8 billion, nearly one-fifth of their already-anemic funding. The long-term consequences of millions more undereducated Texans are staggering to consider. But the more immediate, visceral horror comes from even deeper proposed cuts to health and human services. Simply put, this budget is going to kill people. Not metaphorically. Literally.

Yes, I know: This is just the kind of talk that inspires Gov. Perry to poke fun at the “doom-and-gloom crowd,” those whiny babies who refuse to acknowledge that Texas is a magical realm exempt from universal laws of cause-and-effect. For instance, if we cut $6 billion from Medicaid, as proposed, fact-based doomsters calculate that the state will end up paying about 30 percent less per patient to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes and group homes for the disabled. Among other awful consequences, this could force one-half of the state’s nursing homes out of business.

What, exactly, does a sick old person on Medicaid do when her home closes—and when facilities that are still in business can’t afford to take Medicaid recipients anymore? If you ask our fine Christian governor, what seniors will do is thank the stars that they live in the kindest, gentlest place on Earth. “As Texans, we always take care of the least among our population—the frail, the young, the elderly. The people on fixed income. Those in situations of abuse and neglect,” the governor lied through his teeth at his latest inauguration. “They can count on the people of Texas to be there for them. We’re going to protect them, support them, empower them.”

Sure. With what? Here in the nation’s leading la-la land of anti-government ideology, any solution sweeping enough to close the budget gap—say, a state income tax—cannot even be seriously discussed. Many lawmakers are genuinely shaken by the nightmarish human impact of what they’re about to do. But the best they can do is suggest relatively small tweaks: systemic fixes that will save a little, cigarette taxes that will raise a little. Reps. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, and John Frullo, R-Lubbock, have even proposed allowing the state’s imperiled parks department to find “official corporate partners”—in other words, as the Observer’s Forrest Wilder puts it, “Welcome to Exxon State Park, y’all.”

Maybe we should take that idea to its logical extreme. Parks are one thing; why not peddle the whole damn Great State to the highest-bidding “official sponsor”? A market-based solution! And consider the poetic justice, the fundamental honesty, of rechristening ourselves as BP Texas, or Wells-Fargo Texas, or Boone Pickens’ Texas.

But there’s really only one corporate moniker that would truly encapsulate our dominant culture and politics: Disney Texas. Think of the possibilities. We could set up state-line roadblocks and charge a steep admission fee to Americans and other foreigners eager to experience a hot, dusty, Technicolor fantasyland where bad things only happen to bad people, and Ayn Rand reigns as the Fairy Queen of Freedom. At least we’d be making the truth official: Human reality is unwelcome in these parts. And so is anyone who can’t pay the price of admission.

Ramos Calls State Party Chair Racist

Refusing to resign, Bexar Democratic Chairman Dan Ramos reportedly calls Boyd Richie a

Last Friday, it looked like Bexar County’s Democratic chairman, Dan Ramos, had surely committed political suicide. In an interview with the San Antonio Current, Ramos equated gay Democrats with the “Tea Party and the fucking Nazi Party,” called them “termites” eating away at Democratic foundations, and sprinkled in some insults for African Americans and Anglos while he was at it. Boyd Richie, the state party chairman, quickly called for his resignation, along with the Stonewall Democrats. This morning, before Ramos held a press conference to address the matter, the San Antonio Express-News also called on him to step down.

Considering that even before the comments, Ramos’ eccentric and autocratic leadership style was causing division in the local party—a point Richie made strongly in his letter—resignation seemed the only logical step.

But Ramos, when the time came, did not even hint at leaving his two-year elected position. He would not resign or apologize.

How defiant was he? Let’s count the ways. How’s this for starters:

Ramos also referred to State Democratic Chairman Boyd Richie as a “racist bastard” and an “idiot” who’s been too busy to help the local party. “Gay people have been advising Richie,” he said, “and he slipped when he asked me to resign.”

Not only did Ramos refuse to apologize for calling gay Democrats “termites,” he defended his use of the term—and expanded on it:

Ramos reiterated that he believed that gays were like “white termites who have infiltrated the party much like termites infiltrate your house,” and were co-conspirators with direct involvement in the theft of over $200,000 from party coffers. …

“I’ve always tried to be politically correct, however the gays, through the Stonewall Democrats, have taken over the party. Hell, my opponent in the election, Choco Meza, she’s a lesbian,” Ramos said.

As QSanAntonio pointed out, Meza, his opponent in last year’s election, is not a lesbian. And, of course, taking a strong stand as Boyd Richie did against a county chairman who insults three of your major constituencies and tries to divide your party along racial lines—that hardly makes you a “racist bastard.”

During the conference, Ramos also tried to pin the alleged embezzlement of $200,000 from the Bexar Democratic Party on the gay Stonewall Democrats. The former county treasurer is charged with embezzlement. Whatever the sexuality of anyone involved, though, it sounds completely absurd for Ramos to claim, with no evidence, that the theft was some kind of organized gay Democratic scheme to destroy the party from within.

As sad as this situation is, there is one quote from Ramos’ unhinged press conference that inspires laughter:

“This was not a face-to-face interview, it was on the phone,” Ramos said of the Current interview, “How do we even know it’s my voice?”

How do we know? Probably because you sounded exactly the same way at today’s press conference.

As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s not easy to get rid of a county chair in Texas. There’s not much wiggle room for a state party that has one of its chairman turn into an outspoken bigot—and a potentially divisive force.

I asked Dan Graney, a party activist in San Antonio and head of the state Stonewall Democrats, what Democrats could do now. “My personal view is that a complaint should be filed with the State Democratic Party calling for Mr. Ramos’ removal as County Chair,” Graney wrote by email. “We may be on ‘thin ice’ legally to do this, but there is a process for doing this under the State Party Rules and a Bexar County Democratic voter must initiate the process to get it going.”

Ramos surely isn’t speaking for many people with his paranoid comments. But as party leaders who’ve worked with him told me, he’s not just shooting his mouth off randomly. Ramos is trying to tap into some Democrats’ unspoken resentments of their fellow Democrats. In a county as vital to the party’s fortunes as Bexar—one that’s home to many of the Democrats’ young leaders statewide—that’s potentially poisonous.

Will those young Democratic leaders—or older ones, for that matter—step up and make it clear they condemn Ramos’ tirades, and his attempt to foster racial divisiveness in the party? So far, not one has joined the party chairman in denouncing Ramos’ hate speech and bigotry.

A protest demanding that elected Democrats speak out against Ramos will be held tonight outside a Democratic fundraiser in San Antonio. (For details, go here.)

Get Up, Stand Up

Some liberals love nothing better than a good protest. I’ve never been one of them. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve yelled against plenty of wars and sashayed through my share of Pride parades. I’ve protested executions and Ten Commandments monuments and international torture-training schools. But it’s never been my idea of a rocking good time. I don’t like holding signs with slogans any more than I like mouthing the lyrics to folk songs I’m supposed to have memorized, or responding in unison to the inevitable questions of seemingly every protest rally: “What do we want? … When do we want it?” Somehow, that 1967-era protest shtick always leaves me feeling like we’re never going to get what we want, no matter how much we chant for it.

But there’s a time to kvetch about style points, and there’s this time. It’s a time when Texas has a $27 billion budget deficit and a right-wing Legislature determined to balance the ledger by depleting schools and services. It’s a moment when every Texan who believes in building a better future rather than a second-world society needs to be getting up and out and organized. It’s a moment to stamp and holler and insist. To make the Tea Party’s rallies look like polite, lightly attended little affairs. To stand up or be streamrolled.

Of course, the facts of Texas’ budget crisis are so drastic and so grim that it’s hard to perceive any potential daylight through the gloom. How are rational Texans going to turn back a right-wing Legislature bent on using this enormous budget deficit as an excuse to eradicate social services, schools and other vestiges of civilization as much as they possibly can?

Well, for starters, we can make it vividly plain that there are Texans who aren’t going to sit back and silently watch it happen. That’s a powerful message by itself, as we’ve seen recently in Wisconsin, among other states. Right-wing Republican governors’ coordinated efforts to dismantle both organized labor and the social safety net have prompted vigorous protests elsewhere. But not yet in Texas, where there’s just as much at stake for vulnerable and middle-class folks as anywhere else.

The national context of Texas’ historic budget crisis—and its vital importance to moderate and progressive Americans everywhere—has largely been missed. The effort to break the unions in Wisconsin and other states is, at root, part of a larger push to replicate the “Texas model” across America. In nearly two decades under Govs. Bush and Perry, we have become the low-tax, deregulated, minimum-wage paradise of Wall Street’s dreams. And Perry has done such a hard sell of Texas’ economic miracle, on his perpetual national tour, that a whole lot of people still believe it’s true.

The national prominence of the Texas model—and the use to which the Republican right is putting it nationally—is one more reason for moderate and progressive and otherwise civilized Texans to start acting up. If we’re going to be used as a model for other states, how far back toward the 18th century are we going to let that model go?

And look: If you organize and the worst happens—you lose this budget battle—you still haven’t lost everything. If reality-based Texans can mobilize effectively, they will have built a base for the future. And they will have made an important fact known to legislators and Gov. Perry: that there’s a sizable number of Texans who think the right-wing ideologues are heedlessly destroying everything that gives Texas a future, not to mention many of the qualities that make it a state worth living in. The right is creating a place where the wealthy live one way, cordoned off from everybody else—and where everybody else lives harder lives with less. That place is not America, and it’s not Texas, and we refuse to live there. Saying that is not just important; it’s essential.

Stripping workers’ rights is one thing—and it’s a rotten, destructive thing. But here in Texas, we have our own brand of rotten. To balance the state budget, about one-fourth of our state spending would have to be cut if no new revenues are found. And that, folks, is something to organize around and protest and live on the Capitol grounds and even sing songs about. If there’s ever going to be a time for Texas progressives to fight like hell to reorient this state’s compass back toward the 21st century, here it is.

The Barbara Jordan Cure

I was 12 when I fell for Ronald Reagan. It was the spring of 1976, when the B-actor and A-plus pitchman was mounting his right-wing challenge to the accidental president, Gerald Ford. After squandering an early lead in the polls and losing several key primaries, Reagan had to win my home state of North Carolina to salvage his chances for the GOP nomination—and his political career. So there he was, in my factory city’s plug-ugly auditorium, introduced by Jimmy Stewart and playing the role of a whole new Mr. Smith, eager to go to Washington and challenge the corrupt and godless enemy who’d stolen the freedom of everyday Americans: big, bad, grasping, evil Government.

The Gipper explained it all: How the Eastern liberal elites had ruthlessly conspired to steal the hard-earned wages of working stiffs like my daddy. How they’d used their ill-gotten gains to enrich welfare queens and union bosses and commie professors. But he conveyed this anti-democratic nihilism with a warm wide grin and an infectious, aw-shucks chuckle. I didn’t know it then, but Reagan was performing a terrible miracle: turning a rich man’s politics into an uplifting, flag-waving, Disneyesque populism.

I ate his bullshit up. And so did North Carolina Republicans, who gave Reagan a surprise victory and kept his hopes alive. But then, just a few months later, the strangest thing happened. Being a precocious little political geek, I watched every minute of the Democratic National Convention on our color-challenged TV—and was confronted, on its opening night, with a whole ‘nother brand of American idealism. It came in the form of the keynote speaker: a black congresswoman (say what?) from Houston, Texas. 

Like Reagan, Barbara Jordan spoke of “the feeling that the grand American experiment is failing, or has failed.” But the solution she offered was worlds apart. Where Reagan peddled black-and-white nostalgia, this shocking woman spoke of Technicolor truths, of racial, gender and class inequities. But she did not dwell on lamentations: “I could recite these problems and then I could sit down and offer no solutions,” she declared. “But I don’t choose to do that.”

What Jordan chose to do was inform the country that the government was not inevitably our enemy, for all its failures. “The people are the source of all governmental power,” she declared. If we didn’t take that power, she warned, we would “cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups: city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual.

“If that happens,” she asked, “who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?”

Where Reagan had tickled my fancy, Jordan had blown my tiny mind—and ruined a right-winger in the making. She’d delivered one of the greatest political orations in American history, a prescient antidote to Reaganism. 

But here in Jordan’s home state, 35 years later, we are now confronted with the dire consequences of the disastrous choice most Americans and Texans made—the embrace of a 12-year-old’s politics, of the simplistic fictions of the Reagans and Bushes and Rick Perrys. Millions of Texans suffer, every second of every day, while the rich get fatter and the corporations get meaner and the people’s government gets demonized. And those sufferings are about to be multiplied, as a $27 billion budget deficit created by Perry and his tax-slashing cronies threatens to decimate our already pathetic schools, to sentence our mentally ill to lives of desperation, and to condemn our impoverished elderly to die, uncared-for, in nursing homes with zeroed-out funding.

To care about any of this, we are told, is to be socialist, to be anti-American. Barbara Jordan told us something different: That we can either swallow the rich man’s lie that government is our enemy, or muster up the courage to make the government our own again.

Interestingly enough, in this centennial year of Reagan’s birth, it is also the 75th anniversary of Jordan’s. And as hard as it may be to imagine, we still have a choice—the one that Jordan articulated so masterfully on that July night of America’s bicentennial year.

“Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit sharing in a common endeavor, or will we become a divided nation?” Jordan asked. “There is no executive order, there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.”

No president, and no governor. The decision is still ours to make.

David Barton, Bully for God

Call me a masochist—or just plain weird—but I’m an incurable right-wing radio addict. Maybe I just don’t like being one of those cloistered liberals who require smelling salts every time election results roll in and the “rational” candidate, whether it’s John Kerry or Bill White, gets steamrolled by a wingnut. Or maybe I have suppressed hairshirt tendencies and take a perverse pleasure in hearing my queer, socialistic, Obama-voting self relentlessly flogged. But whatever the reason, my days and nights are incomplete without heaping helpings of Rush, Sean, Laura, Michael Savage and Alex Jones.

Naturally, then, I rarely miss WallBuilders Live. Hosted by Texas’ own David Barton—historical guru of the Tea Party, professor at Glenn Beck University, teacher of Michelle Bachmann’s “Constitution classes” for freshman members of Congress, and former vice chair of the Texas GOP—the show mostly focuses on Barton’s longtime project of inventing a fundamentalist Christian version of American history. Named by Time as one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals in 2005, Barton has made a lucrative career of cherry-picking quotes designed to show that the founding fathers committed a silly oversight when they left God out of the Constitution. In the counterfactual world of Barton’s wildly popular books, homeschool texts and videos-for-sale, church and state were always meant to be one and the same. Deists like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were the Pat Robertsons of their day. “He is to history what the creationists are to science,” said one of Barton’s most astute critics, Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Which no doubt explains why Beck has called Barton “the most important man in America.”

He is also one of America’s most important hatemongers. And Barton’s sharpest sallies are reserved—surprise!—for “militant homosexuals.” Last October on WallBuilders Live, Barton outdid even himself, calling on the U.S. government to “regulate homosexuality.” As Barton informed his audience, with all the scrupulous attention to facts that makes him Beck and Bachmann’s favorite Constitutional scholar, gayness is far more dangerous than smoking three packs a day or ingesting huge quantities of trans fats. “Homosexual/bisexual individuals are seven times more likely to contemplate or commit suicide,” Barton said. “Oooh, that doesn’t sound very healthy.” That’s not all: “Homosexuals die decades earlier than heterosexuals.” And there’s more: “Nearly one-half of practicing homosexuals admit to 500 or more sex partners and nearly one-third admit to a thousand or more sex partners in a lifetime.”

When Barton’s “regulate the gays” rant got picked up, and picked apart, by the likes of MSNBC, he immediately resorted to the haters’ last resort: claiming reverse victimhood. “If there’s a group in America that is hypersensitive, it is homosexuals,” Barton told his listeners. “They came after me in unbelievable ways.”

And now “they” are after him again. On the Jan. 24 installment of WallBuilders Live, Barton hosted Brian Camenker of Mass America, an anti-gay hate group, for a chat about the hot topic of bullying in schools. “Anti-bullying” initiatives, they heartily agreed, are actually just indoctrination tools used by the militant gays in their ceaseless recruitment efforts. As Barton said, “All this bullying stuff … it’s not the schools that are doing bullying, it’s the people from outside coming in and saying, ‘Oh, you got a bullying problem and we need to teach a course for you.’ “

“This is a very aggressive, fascist-type movement,” Camenker chimed in. “These guys define the term bullies.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right,” said Barton. “The perception out there is that they’re the only ones being bullied.”

Try telling that to Asher Brown’s parents. Last September, the 8th-grader from the Houston suburb of Cypress used his stepfather’s 9-mm Beretta to shoot himself in the head, becoming one of many gay teen suicides in 2010. His parents said he’d endured 18 months of non-stop harassment at Hamilton Middle School, and school officials turned a deaf ear to their complaints. Asher had told his parents he was gay. They were OK with it. “We didn’t condemn,” his stepfather said.

But loving parents are sometimes no match for the hatred stirred up and sanctioned by “Christian” bullies like Barton, who provide anti-gay tormenters with both  ammunition and “biblical” justification. Anti-gay bullies tormenting their fellow students are only doing God’s will, after all. They are helping to cleanse Christian America of its No. 1 health threat. And if you don’t believe it, tune in to WallBuilders Live. America’s “most important man” has a few things to teach you.

 


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