The Great State of Piffle

Remember November? I’m trying to. Especially the giddy first Tuesday night of that month, when Barack Obama’s election made it easy-possible, anyway-to imagine that Americans were finally ready to creep out of their caves into the light of intellectual day after the 30-year fog and fury of Falwell, Bush and Buchanan’s culture war.

Perhaps culture-war politics, which had turned abortion and stem cells and Terry Schiavo into the most pressing issues of their day, had finally run its destructive course. The bitter battles launched by followers of the Prince of Peace had scorched our collective well-being by shunting health care, education and economic sanity to the sidelines. Now the times had turned bleak enough, thanks to all that shunting, that Americans had surely lost their patience with diversionary political piffle.

Americans, maybe. But not Texans. Here, piffle remains the lifeblood of politics. We revel and roll in it. And, naturally enough, we tend to elect people who gleefully (and conveniently) conflate nonsense with governance.

The month after the startling triumph of a brainy presidential candidate, with the economy tanking and Texas staring at a $9 billion budget shortfall, our piffler-in-chief, Gov. Rick Perry, called a fancy press conference at the Capitol to announce a “high priority” for the coming legislative session: creating “Choose Life” license plates. “Texans who believe in the sanctity of life will have another to way to tell the world in a subtle but meaningful way,” the governor told the assembled TV cameras and delighted fundies. “I hope that our Legislature will unite to offer them that opportunity.”

When the Lege convened in January for its biennial 140 days in Austin, you might have expected some serious, immediate grappling with the budget shortfall-not to mention with the nation’s lowest number of citizens with health insurance, with Texas’ second-world schools, and with a big chunk of coastline wrecked by the third most destructive hurricane in U.S. history. First order of business, then? Voter ID. Rancorous, time-eating debates over a Republican attempt to scare away a few Democratic voters-under the guise of ensuring that the grand total of eight Texans found to have voted fraudulently in recent elections will never be able to wreak their havoc on our democracy again.

Not to be outdone, the State Board of Education rekindled its long-running debate over whether Texas teenagers should be exposed to unexpurgated biology. Starving schools? One of the nation’s worst dropout rates? The challenges of bilingual education? Like the governor and the right wing of the Lege, the seven creationists on the 15-member board had something loftier on their minds: preserving a line in the state curriculum about teaching the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory.

For those with a stomach for it, this latest round of creationist follies-ending in late March with both sides claiming victory, but science-backers having gotten the better of it-did offer considerable entertainment value. For sheer yuks, it’s hard to top creationist board members repeatedly casting themselves not as exemplars of what H.L. Mencken called “Homo Neanderthalensis,” but instead as intrepid defenders of intellectual freedom. This was not about conflating science and religion, board chairman Don McLeroy assured the Observer. Heavens no. It was about the scholastic importance of evaluating the “strengths and weaknesses of different theories.” (See “The Curious Faith of Don McLeroy,” Feb. 20.) After all, he asked, “Don’t we want our kids to learn to think for themselves?”

Unfortunately, not all thinking is equal. And nothing reminds us of that like good ol’ Texas politics.

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Published at 12:00 am CST