Twas Awe Like a Tewible Dweam


The truth is that I have not, since infancy, got on very well in Texas. This says a lot about me, I know, but it says enough about Texas that our lover’s quarrel is probably worth rehearsing here. So let me introduce myself: I am a Texas-born member of an aging and dwindling pride of squabblers known as the “international art critic crowd.†Obviously, since we are “international†art critics, we practice our craft in many lands and in many languages (even French). We also disagree about everything. We argue noisily on a daily basis in print and in public. We berate one another’s intellectual acuity and then go out and dine together. We strew chaos, doubt, and uncertainty in our wake and never come to a consensus opinion about anything except the quality of your taste, and this, I have long since discovered, means that, if you live in Texas and call yourself a Texan, we are pretty much everything you hate.

We “international art critics†fly around, you know, and pass judgment on things. We pass judgment on art, of course, but also on people’s manners and on their shoes, because that’s what we do. We provide lively commentary on the passing scene, and in Texas this has never been a “nice†(or even safe) thing to do. The wan protocols of Plantation gentility still reign in the halls of Texas culture, so nothing may be said about anything and especially not about Laura’s shoes, lest she neglect or, even worse, read one of our books. Thus, since I have in the past, declared open season on such trivia as Laura’s shoes, I am anxiously regarded by my Texas detractors as an intellectual snob, an epicurean libertine, and a sneering hipster who bites the hand that feeds—and all this is fair enough. My job is to distinguish eloquence from folly by my own lights—to heap scorn on the puerile efforts of well-meaning innocents and idiots—to celebrate things that you detest on principle and always shall.

In my own view, of course, I am a champion of thoughtful urbanity, an advocate of secular cosmopolitanism, a voice of considered judgment and intellectual rigor who has never once imagined that things are any better or that much different for having been done or made in Texas. So it goes without saying, I guess, that I am better off out of it. These days I divide my time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, between a blue state and a purple one, but I still remember what it was like to be in Texas and to grow up there. And I still feel its absence like a lifted weight. This morning, for instance, I drove down the Pacific Coast Highway to get some fish tacos at a surfer place in Huntington Beach. The weather was perfect, Pink Martini was playing Euro-cocktail music on the car radio, the sun spangled on the sleek Pacific as surfers tilted effortlessly into the leisurely waves—and not once, on this drive, did I feel obligated to think about California!

In Texas, however, it’s always about Texas. Even the fence posts, for Christ’s sake, are Texas fence posts. The music is Texas music. The weeds are Texas weeds with Texas roots. The poetry is Texas Poetry. Even PMS is almost certainly known locally as TPMS. And to all of this greedy, neurotic “name-it-and-claim-it†one can only exhale and murmur “Oh Please!†and then suggest to those who find this preening exceptionalism quaint or amusing, that the Texas habit of declaring the “inauthenticity†of anyplace else is somewhat less quaint and amusing when transferred to Washington, D.C., and brandished about by Neo-Straussian rednecks to deride the rest of the known world. This charming local quirk, I have decided, is Texas’ main contribution to the fall of the Republic, since romantic regionalism, revealed religion, and cultural exceptionalism have but one goal: to undermine the sweet, permissive transparency of commercial democracy with transcendental certainties and tawdry romance.

This has always been my position on “Texan Pride,†so any reader who has read this far has a right to ask why I was invited to contribute to this anniversary publication—and to ask further, even more pointedly, why I accepted. First, I was invited because during the 1960s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas, I wrote a column for this publication. Second, I accepted that invitation because I owe to the Observer my education in controversy, because even then, back in the ’60s, when I was officially a Texan writing for a Texas Liberal magazine, I was never a proper Texan in anyone’s view, nor a good enough Texas Liberal. Editorial caveats were routinely appended to my essays to assure readers that my views did not represent Observer policy. But they did print my opinions and no one else would have.

No young writer deserves a better gift than this, but, just before the end of my tenure at the Observer, I received one more. The late Larry Lee, who was my page editor and a wonderful dude, presented me one afternoon with a t-shirt upon which bloodstained bullet-holes had been silk-screened front and back. The emblazoned Gothic text read: “Dave Hickey/RIP/Shot by Both Sides.†I have lost the shirt, but I have always cherished the sentiment and cherished the Observer as well, for propping me up in the shooting gallery and teaching me how to live without being that well-liked. In fact, recalling that occasion on this one, it occurs to me that my critique of Texas Liberalism in the 1960s does not differ much from my critique of Texas Liberalism in the early 21st century. Then as now, Texas Liberalism seems to me rather uneasily grounded in a profound cultural conservatism that is perilously rooted in the assumptions of Agrarian Progressivism and High Modernist culture. Moreover, it seems to me now that, as a consequence of this cultural conservatism, Texas’ liberals must have been all but defenseless before the evangelical jihad of its “new†Republicans.

Strangely enough, the possibility of this happening was the subject of the first essay I wrote for the Observer. This was during Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater. My essay reviewed a book called A Texan Looks at Lyndon written by a hard-core West Texas conservative named J. Evetts Haley. In it, the old coot excoriated Johnson for his liberal views, his Jewish friends, his secular ways, his proffering of the welfare tit, and his rabid internationalism. The central point of my review was that Mr. Haley’s cultural politics, which we all deplored, differed in no substantial way from those of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Phillip Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, and Norman Mailer, whom we worshipped then as gods who walked the earth. Thus, I wondered whether Texas Liberals could really have it both ways. I thought I was touching a sore place when I wrote this, and even though my point was unassailable, I expected to be assailed, but I was not.

My essay was greeted with tight smiles from my colleagues and professors. These left me undaunted (on account of my being right), and I continued to press the point in subsequent essays about John Rechy, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer. I argued that liberal politics required lip service at least to the possibility of a liberated culture—that liberalism could not sustain itself wedded to prim morality and a nostalgic agrarian mythology. My point was never taken. Rather, its obverse was proven to me. My liberal friends just floated away into silence and the suburbs, not because of anything political I said or did, but because of my “international†aesthetics, my louche lifestyle, and my underground friends, who were way too fond of drug-store cosmetics to be altogether farmer-friendly. This bothered me not at all at the time. I was on my way somewhere. Today, however, I realize that I could not have been the only liberal firebrand who was pushed to arms-length for being a little too plain spoken and way too wild. There must have been hundreds of us—presently living abroad or near the water—and hundreds more, like my friend Larry Lee, who toed the line and lived in constant fear lest he be outed and disgraced before his beer-swilling liberal friends and their ardent floozies.

This saddens me now because in retrospect I think this was the moment. And we missed it. This was the moment when Texans of good will, and Texas liberals specifically, might have abandoned xenophobic exceptionalism and joined the rest of the urban world. They could have said, “Hey! We live in America! This is the freakin’ Sixties!†They might have embraced, or at least tolerated, the alternative lifestyles, the urban ethos, and anti-modern intellectual models that were blossoming up everywhere in that moment. These cosmopolitan idiosyncrasies might have been brought forward into the political mainstream as they were brought forward in other urban societies. But they were not, and the price Texas paid for this is clear today. If you live in Texas, you bite your tongue. If you visit, it’s like visiting Johannesburg in the Sixties or Salt Lake City on a Sunday afternoon, and this needn’t have been the case.

To understand just how unnecessary this all seems to those of us who fled, one need only examine Texas’ dubious honor as the “Queen of Red States.†It is, after all, the only one of these am-Bushed constituencies that doesn’t qualify for status as a National Park—the only one in which wealth is created, things are invented, books are written, technology is refined, architecture is built, and paintings are painted. Criticism, of course, is not permitted (see “Laura’s shoes†above) but if you drive through its cities, dine in its restaurants, and attend its parties, Texas looks just like urban America. There are tagger dudes in watch caps on the corners, rich sillies tooting up in the powder room, and longshoremen with old-school hooks. There are high school chicks in full manga, Pakistani taxi drivers, rappers with their hoods up, and surfers riding in the wakes of freighters. There are drag queens dancing to OutKast, skateboarders who own the urban night, and divorcees with big hair talking on cell phones, driving Mercedes’ with two kids in the back seat. There are, in fact, enough Brazilians in Houston to populate the whole of West Texas, and these citizens who dwell on the margins of Texas’ political culture, should, in my view, be the base of Texas liberalism. If they were, Texas would be a blue state and the world would be different, and you can’t blame Jesus for this one. You can blame the awful, putrid “special-ness†of Texas on the brain.

Dave Hickey is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism who lives in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.