I must say that today’s post will not be made in an intellectual manner. I won’t present research over a problem and offer solutions. It’s a purely emotional post.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but earlier this year I heard a radio ad while driving to work. A woman with a thick Texas drawl spoke about an ordinance that was proposed by Houston’s mayor, Annise Parker, that apparently centered on bathrooms. If this ordinance were to pass, the woman purported, then perverts will end up in our bathrooms, preying on our defenseless little girls. She implored listeners to vote against the ordinance, repeating an untold number of times that there should be “no men in the women’s room”, or something to that effect.
I hadn’t heard about the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, but I immediately understood what was going on. The mayor had probably tried to introduce a law stating that trans and gender non-conforming individuals should be free to use the bathroom that most accurately represents their gender identity. Other cities in other states had recently passed such laws. My circles of the Internet had repeatedly been abuzz with news and discussion on the effects of a transphobic culture: a string of trans teenagers had committed suicide, prompting discussion of the fact that trans and gender-noncomforming individuals are assaulted, harassed, and killed at rates damnably higher than the rest of the population, and that they were much, much more likely to harm themselves or attempt/commit suicide. For far leftists like me, the ability to use the appropriate bathroom for their identity is an extremely small gesture, but nevertheless one that moves us in the right direction. (Further discussion on the meaning of such gestures is a great topic, but one that will have to be explored in another post.)
I was born and raised in Texas, and my family has long-established roots in Louisiana. Growing up, I felt some sort of pride in where I came from. Until I began to spend a lot of time on the Internet, I was blissfully unaware of the way people thought about Texans. Sure, there was some hostility against “the north” but I figured that the issue was a matter of distance: fringe opinions seem mainstream when all you see is the outside. To be clear: we learned that the Civil War was about slavery, we called it the Triangular Slave Trade, and we learned about evolution, even though most people rejected it. The history I learned growing up wasn’t as realist as it could have been, but it hadn’t yet begun reaching the state it is now. The north-vs-south hostility struck me as harmless as the Coke-vs-Pepsi debate.
And, to be fair, looking at it with an adult eye, I see that I grew up around conservatism. I didn’t, and still don’t, find the conservatism that surrounded me back then as acrid as the conservatism that surrounds me now. It was annoying, but it didn’t drain me.
And so with all that in mind, I didn’t find it at all surprising that this anti-discrimination ordinance failed. I wanted it to pass, and I wanted Houstonians to want it to pass, but I figured it was a lost cause.
And yet, something inside me broke. My mind centered around the idea of the lost cause.
Of course, “lost cause” to a not insignificant amount of southern Americans points to how the south views the Civil War: a noble battle of upholding white supremacy, fighting back against a tyrannical, bloated government, and attesting that slavery was not as bad as popular culture made it out to be. In that sense, I wondered if there has been a time since the Civil War where the American south ever gave up that belief, and this morning I realized that it never had. The south appears to be a lost cause, but not for reasons that southerners tend to think.
As I mentioned, I grew up surrounded by conservative peers and authority figures. But it wasn’t hard to find liberals, as well. Sure, there were arguments back and forth, but for the most part it seemed that everyone just let everyone live. It wasn’t so hard to find common ground, nor was it hard to politely avoid particularly controversial topics of conversation. Again, when I hear about what other southerners grew up with, I realize that I might have a particularly unique upbringing: people my age but in different locales didn’t learn the same history I did, and perhaps the lack of diversity around them, as opposed to the large amount of diversity around me, created particularly nasty bubbles that pushed their inhabitants further and further to the right. In any case, I grew up knowing that Texas was deep red, but for the most part it didn’t antagonize me.
When I was in my late teens, I had become the stereotype of the annoyingly apathetic young civilian who thought she had it all figured out. I purposely won’t vote, I thought, couching my apathy in what I thought was an intellectual belief that I was merely an observer of this nation; I couldn’t influence what happens because this nation can only go the way the majority wants to go. In unpacking that belief, I realize that what I actually was was outnumbered. I didn’t feel like my votes counted because the vast majority of votes around me, if not the vast majority of votes in the nation, would go against mine. My vote would only get lost, wasted before it was even tallied.
Bush was elected one year before I could vote, and by then I had begun to do more reading about this nation and sociopolitics. I hated Bush, and I was fueled by the idea that a sizable amount of people hated Bush, too. I went to rallies and marches opposing war. I discussed politics openly, welcoming those who agreed to try to take me on, ignoring that I was painted as an ignorant liberal and largely ignored by people who didn’t want their opinions changed. I was energized to vote in 2004, and my fervor only grew when he was re-elected. We’re not going the right way, I thought, and it’s my job to make sure that we do. It’s my job to fight. To be fair, Texas did vote more blue than usual in the 2008 election. I was filled with glee. This was progress. This was why I fought and debated and researched and called my representatives. Maybe I could see a purple, if not blue, Texas in my lifetime.
And then the conservatives lost their shit.
It isn’t unusual to contest the legitimacy of a presidential win. After all, we seemed to associate the 2000 election with the phrase “hanging chads” because anyone who disliked Bush wanted so much for his win to be illegitimate. But the sort of vein-popping, frothing-at-the-mouth apoplexy conservatives expressed at Obama’s win went far beyond what is usual. They not only questioned his legitimacy, they questioned, and still question, whether or not he is even American. It’s not merely coincidental that the first noticeably nonwhite president is questioned on his civilian status; it’s a purposeful tactic to rouse the rabble and de-legitimize every word and every action Obama ever made. I never fully believed that the only reason people felt so uncomfortable with Obama in the White House was his race, but I do feel that his race contributed to the discomfort, even unconsciously.
What probably got more people’s goats was the idea that Obama was some sort of far-leftist agitator who would disrupt the very fabric of American culture, instead of the left-of-centrist that he actually is. My view changed from a warrior to a missionary, then. It wasn’t my job to fight, it was my job to peaceably push people into modernity. Once they see the errors of their ways, they’ll change their mind, after all. We can all still work together.
The Tea Party wasn’t invented on Election Night in 2008, but the election did provide a safe haven for racists, reactionaries, and nationalists to express “concern” about this big-eared, dark-skinned person with a “foreign” name who suddenly had his finger on some sort of button. It was dismissed early on as a fringe group of people making a fool out of themselves who would give up soon. No considerable amount of Americans could ever think along those lines, right?
And yet, we’ve been shown over and over that not only do the likes of the Tea Party command large numbers of voters, but also that so many Americans like them that they can decide elections and set the bars politicians must clear to be considered legitimate. Analysts talked about the problems the Tea Party created for Republicans, embarrassed their flagrant little siblings openly espoused inflammatory rhetoric that drove away voters in key demographics and ostracized even slightly moderate politicians as being too leftist. In order to keep or maintain votes, Republican politicians had to vote further and further to the right, out-Republicanizing everyone else to prove their authenticity. Did moderate Republicans fight back? Did conservative Americans distance themselves from this festering pit? No–they embraced it. And every single time we think the Republican Party or the Tea Party must have hit rock bottom and they would be forced to change to stay relevant, their constituents pick up their shovels and prove they can dig much, much deeper.
The result here in Texas was creating a Texas that turned from deep red to a necrotic red-black. The passionate-but-polite camaraderie I recall growing up died, a death so whole that it’s hard to remember the concept ever existed. It’s common to see bumper stickers and other memorabilia of the Texas flag with a bold “SECEDE” stamped over it, along with paranoia surrounding gun ownership, angry quips about taxes or welfare, and the Confederate flag. People here put strips of blue painter’s tape over their back windshield, a way to support cops, but think all the people, especially people of color, who are brutalized or killed by cops deserved it. They think the Black Lives Matter movement is a domestic terrorist organization. More than once I have heard that all of America’s woes can be traced back to hordes of “illegal aliens” arriving on our shores (and, to be fair, they’re correct–but it’s not the immigrants they’re thinking about). Gay rights? No, what about the gay agenda? Feminism? Don’t even start on those man-hating, baby-killing lesbians! The conservatives around me have become so conservative it’s hard not to believe they’re playing a parody of themselves. They’ve become allergic to the idea of accepting anyone who might be slightly different than them. And at the slightest challenge to their way of life, they start with the antebellum battle cry of cessation.
“The Republicans are the ones who freed the slaves,” conservatives like to say, as if the Republican party of the late 1800s and the Republican party of the late 2000s and beyond are the same thing. As if the Southern Strategy never existed. As if the decades-long category 5 hurricane known as Reagan never existed. As if we should be grateful that the last time Republicans did anything great for black people happened in 1863, politely ignoring the fact that slave owners, not slaves, were given reparations. A freedom not borne, mind you, of a president who thought the races equal or even wanted African slaves and their black American children to stay in America. (But I will give Lincoln the cynical praise deserved–I’m sure the slaves didn’t care whether or not the person who emancipated them for good actually liked them or not, in context.) Lincoln wanted to free the slaves because it was a popular political move. A divided America would have been a disaster for his presidency.
But the south never gave up its secessionist, Lost Cause rhetoric. And by now conservatives are a true lost cause. They’re not going anywhere any time soon, and they avoided any sort of real progress over the past 150 years. We thought we could drag them into humanity, and we have proven that they have only anchored us from progress. America is exceptional, but mostly in that it ranks low in happiness, productivity, health, education/research, and justice, and equality among its other industrialized, wealthy peers. It’s not because the vast majority of Americans are dumb, heartless, or even nationalistic. It’s that we have a burdensome weight tied to us and we continue to refuse to confront it, get rid of it, move on from it, or face it. The longer we legitimize this weight, the longer we treat backwards reactionary thinking based on emotions equal to progressive thinking based on evidence, the longer we coddle conservatives and their fake oppression, the further behind we’re going to get. And that’s just how they want it.
The zeal that I felt about “dragging” these people into the twentieth, if not the twenty-first, century had dwindled down to neutral wisps. This morning, reading the news, the rest of that zeal faded away in a bitter and frustrated sound I made. I was apathetic. I was the warrior. I was the negotiating peacemonger. I don’t know what role I’ll adopt next, but right now I know that I am done with dragging.