Until last weekend, I was blissfully unaware that liberal TV ego Bill Maher’s website had been hosting a Stupidest State in America tournament. My bliss was shattered when my friend Bruce, a lifetime New Yorker, sent me a link. He refrained from comment, but sending the link said enough. It said, for starters: Are you really sure you meant to move there? ¶ Texas, it seemed, had advanced to the semi-finals, and was in the process of giving Mississippi a thumpin’, as W. used to say. Many of the voters were offering comments that must have felt cathartic to make. You had your smug blue-state liberals: “The truth is I’d rather be poor in California than middle class in Texas,” confessed “Cynthia B.184.” “Simply being around people who aren’t brain-dead is reward enough.”
Then you had your better-natured liberal Texans, like Chris Del Regno, who noted that “conservatives have made our state a bad joke” and then snarkily pointed out: “Thank God we have Governor Rick Perry to carry on the Bush tradition, and maybe even go to the depths of stupidity that even Bush was too incompetent to discover!”
And of course you had your gleeful Texas-bashers, like “Black Mutch,” who exclaimed: “I’m vote 329, and it’s cool to be about something hating Texas.”
That had the ring of honesty, at least. We are the state they love to hate. George W. Bush sealed that deal. Rick Perry has built a career around it. He’s giving us an object lesson in the way scoundrels can manipulate patriotism—in this case, Texans’ flag-waving, come-and-take-it dedication to Texas’ specialness.
There’s a certain wicked genius to it. The more Texas is presented on national TV as the New Alabama, the more defensive and self-righteous your average Texan gets in response. It’s human nature: You’re attacked, you’re stereotyped, you don’t like it. And the more defensive and self-righteous Texans get in response to their star turns on MSNBC, the easier they are for a politician like Perry to manipulate with his “Texas is great, and y’all better leave us alone in our greatness!” act. The dumber the governor makes Texas look, the easier time he’ll have fooling people into voting for him again.
With W., you could never be sure: Was he making the world hate Texas on purpose, or because he couldn’t help it? With Perry, there can be no doubt: The man knows that our enemies are his friends. The more, the merrier. He’ll make Texas look as stark raving crazy to the rest of America as he has to. Nothing like riling people up, on both sides, to bring that aging Anglo plurality stomping out to the polls one more time.
I’m not saying that I don’t believe Glenn Beck fans and anti-tax extremists shouldn’t have their right to vote. It’s just that I’m also in favor of having other people vote alongside them, in equivalent proportions. These days, the main source of political irrationality in Texas is the fact that not enough working-class and non-Anglo people vote. The white right gets to keep its thumb on the balance—and because they elect people like Perry, who don’t want to run government right but strip it bare instead, stupidity will ensue.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Mississippi, there’s surely at least one columnist in Meridian or Oxford who’s doing a riff on Molly Ivins and suggesting that her state adopt a new motto: “Thank God for Texas.”
Which is fine. Why shouldn’t Mississippians get to think about Texas when they’re a little down in the mouth about their politics? Everybody can use a little Texas, when they think about their lousy public schools, for instance: Texas has all those rich people, and look at their schools! Or when their “redneck” governor pooh-poohs slavery: Yeah, but he hasn’t called for secession. Or when they worry about deeper cuts to social services: Hey, at least we still have some.
But I’m not casting any votes. Nobody’s going to convince me that any state is truly unique in the stupidity sweepstakes. Because Texas is so outsized, we’re bound to produce a larger volume of stupid than most. And because this is Texas, our stupid is going to be louder and prouder—and thus more telegenic. But when you get right down to it, there’s no state in the Union that doesn’t have its own special kind of stupid. Some of us just advertise it, and use it, a little more aggressively than others.