Posted: November 24, 2003
arly on in Made in Texas, Michael Lind recalls his grandmother's neighbor in East Austin who was fond of saying, "Tell the truth and spite the Devil." This sums up the purpose of his book, he says, adding quickly that for him, the Devil is a symbol. What the Devil symbolizes, it turns out, is George W. Bush and his constituency; all those red states on the 2000 electoral map. Given the persistence of this constituency in American politics, Lind believes it high time for "an uninhibited public debate about the Demographic Question." This book aims to initiate that debate.
There is a lot about Texas in the book, and Lind appears desperate to establish his bona fides as a Texan. His father, he reports, once met Frank Hammer, the Texas Ranger who tracked down Bonnie and Clyde. Even more impressive, Lind is a distant cousin of Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing on the 1980s soap opera "Dallas." And he owns a ranch, although he thankfully spares us the details. ("There are a great many pseudo-ranches in Texas," Larry McMurtry once wrote, "and they don't vary enough to justify more investigation. Some just have more telephones than others.") Likewise Lind overreaches in attempting to trace every perceived evil in American politics back to Texas, at one point even portraying William F. Buckley, Jr.—than whom, as Buckley might say, there are few people less Texan—as Texas-made, since his father made money in the oil business.
In the end, this all proves needless, for like the Devil, Texas is merely a symbol in Lind's book—sometimes for the South, sometimes for the red states, sometimes for conservatism. Texas is occasionally useful to Lind's storytelling because it played a part in the New Deal through such "modernist Texans" as Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and because it plays a part in the ongoing "counter-revolution" through such "traditionalist Texans" as Bush and Tom Delay. But it is not essential to his argument.
As for Lind himself, he grew up in Austin, a city looked on by many Texans as an anomaly because of its domination by the University of Texas, which—except for having prettier co-eds—could as well exist in Columbus or Los Angeles. For Lind, on the other hand, the University is all that redeems the city: "an island of intellect in a sea of Southern anti-intellectualism and Protestant fundamentalism." The Austin skyline, with the UT tower set against the State Capitol, represents for him the division in the state (and the nation) between "modernists" and "ignorant bumpkins" who—in addition to pronouncing Bible "Bobble" (yes, he makes a point of this)—suspect the university of being a hotbed of "secular humanism and socialism." Bumpkins indeed!
American history, by Lind's telling, consists of three great reactionary periods or, alternatively, one great reactionary period interrupted by the New Deal. Lind seems approving enough of the American founding, at one point referring vaguely to its "enlightened liberalism." Elsewhere, in a digression on street names, he seems to endorse a founding-era Whig tradition represented in particular by Washington and Adams. But he offers no details or explanation. He is clear and specific, on the other hand, about the fact that the first of America's three great reactionary periods began with Jefferson's election in 1800. This initiated a pro-states rights "Virginia dynasty" that culminated in the Confederate presidency of Jefferson Davis. The Civil War—portrayed by Lind as a war between Southern free-trade interests and Northern tariff interests—represents an interlude, but soon thereafter, Northern industrialists conspired with Southern oligarchs to begin our second great reactionary period. Then comes the New Deal, and then the third great reaction, in which "heirs of Jefferson Davis," using the party of Lincoln, succeeded by staging "two Southern coups d'Ã©tat"—the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the stealing of the 2000 election by anti-modernists on the Supreme Court.
The New Deal, obviously, is the central event in Lind's rendition of American history, and how he understands it shapes all else in the book. For one thing, Lind doesn't identify with the Democratic party of Al Gore, a relic, he says, not of the New Deal, but of the Civil Rights Movement. Gore's party sees interest group liberalism as an end in itself and pursues a simplistic policy of redistribution. Lind's New Deal model of governance, by comparison, subordinates interest group liberalism to the greater end of "state capitalism," pursues increased production as well as redistributing wealth, and operates through a partnership between government and business. But the key to the New Deal for Lind was the development of national industry in the backwards South and West. Its great triumphs were projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority. Such projects employed industrial capitalism "to promote democratic social and political goals," e.g., to "civiliz[e] the American frontier" through "geographic decentralization of both productive industry and people." The New Deal's ultimate aim, in other words, was some kind of social and political homogeneity among regions.
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For Lind, the great tragedy of American history is that the New Deal was left unfinished. This tragedy has two parts. The first is that the Second World War, and then the Cold War, diverted the efforts of state capitalism. The warfare state replaced the welfare state; the Pentagon took precedence over agencies like the TVA. Secondly, and even worse, the New Deal had left in place "an infrastructure for the South and West that conservatives inherited and used for their own illiberal purposes." Reactionary forces in red-state America—forces that would have been rendered irrelevant if the New Deal had been allowed to take its course—were able instead to take advantage of the federal revenue-sharing that continued through the Nixon years, e.g., by employing low tax rates to attract investment and people to the South and West, thus increasing the electoral power of these regions. Texas, for instance, became the home of the space program and the microchip revolution, even while those damn Texans kept voting for "aberrant" politicians like George W. Bush. The end result of this tragedy is a "horrible hybrid society" in Texas, the South and West, the red states. And Lind really means horrible: He compares what has happened in these states since World War II to the Nazi takeover of industrial Germany in the 1930s.
Clearly, Lind doesn't approve of life as it exists today in the American heartland. So how would the "democratic social and political goals" of the New Deal, had they been accomplished, have changed things? The answer to this question begins to emerge in Chapter 5, "That Old Time Religion." "The money that the New Deal modernizers put into the pockets of the Southern white majority," Lind explains, "ended up in the collection plates of the Southern Baptist Convention and other Protestant denominations." And indeed, by Lind's telling, what makes George W. Bush "the most dogmatic conservative ideologue in the White House since the Great Depression"—and his conservative constituency more worrisome by far than Reagan's—is his and their strong religious leaning. Lind characterizes this leaning as "nominal Christianity," suggesting that "Southern fundamentalism" (Bush is a Methodist) emphasizes the Old over the New Testament. Perhaps he means to indicate here the fundamentalist tendency towards legalism. Or perhaps not. Lacking theological subtlety as well as other kinds, the only example he offers as proof of his point is fundamentalist disapproval of sodomy—a disapproving view shared by most non-fundamentalist Christians as well. Even less convincingly, Lind attributes opposition to New Deal liberalism in America's hinterlands to fundamentalist Christian pre-millenarianism, whose adherents, he claims, oppose social reforms out of fear they will delay Armageddon.
By Lind's account, Bush's religion also lurks behind his knuckleheaded foreign policy: "The figure with the greatest influence on [Bush's] Middle Eastern policy," he explains, "is a long dead English preacher, John Nelson Darby," champion of the idea that the end times require the Jews back in Israel. Then Lind really unwinds: Since the conduct of reactionary foreign policy, unlike that of reactionary domestic policy, requires brains, and since the South is "incapable of producing intellectuals of its own," Bush and the Southern fundamentalists hooked up with Northeastern Jewish neo-conservatives. As for the neo-cons' motives, some are spurred to this unholy alliance out of allegiance to Israel, others (Lind singles out Gertrude Himmelfarb) actually believe in the idea of "culture war," but most simply pretend to go along in order to get jobs. (These opportunistic neo-cons, Lind further asserts, justify their hypocrisy in terms of Leo Strauss's distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers.) Lind compares the result to Frankenstein: the "bodiless head of neo-conservatism" joined to the "headless body of Southern fundamentalism."
As for his own foreign policy views—and this is a bit of a letdown after his dazzling explanation of the Bush-Wolfowitz axis—they are the conventional wisdom of the Howard Dean crowd: The Iraq war, a matter of blood for oil, squandered the sympathy of the world after 9/11; Arafat is a legitimate leader of the Palestinian people; any hope for peace and justice in the world rests with the United Nations and the European Union.
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Having demonstrated to his satisfaction that America is going to hell (symbolically speaking) in a hand basket, Lind is ready to kick-off that long-overdue "uninhibited public debate about the Demographic Question." The key to understanding the disastrous outcome of the 2000 presidential election, he explains—three times in four pages; it really irks him—is over-representation of rural America in the Electoral College (a result, remember, of hijacked New Deal-inspired revenue-sharing). To address this, Lind would revive the New Deal policy of regional decentralization, this time decentralizing the main ingredient of blue-state modernism: intelligence. In short, the "Federal government should build a brain belt in the continental heartland." To this purpose, it should revive something like the New Dealers' Resettlement Administration, with the aim now of resettling coastal urban dwellers rather than farmers. One is reminded by this of the libertarian dream of converging in large numbers to become the voting majority in one of the less-populated western states. But of course that is a dream of individuals choosing freely to relocate in order to live as they please, while Lind's is a dream of centrally managed relocation in order that all of us will live as he pleases. And just how, a practical man might ask, would such a thing be done?
In a chapter called "Phillip Dru, Texan," Lind recounts the plot of a 1912 "progressive political manifesto" in novel form called Phillip Dru, Administrator. In this novel, a Southern military man turns idealist, becomes a journalist, uncovers a cabal of Eastern plutocrats, leads a successful revolution, becomes a dictator with the title of Administrator of the Republic, fixes the republic, and sails out of San Francisco into voluntary exile with his girlfriend. Written by Texan Edward "Colonel" House, a friend and advisor of Woodrow Wilson, this novel represents for Lind the admirable spirit of "Texas modernism." Presumably it's this spirit that will be required to carry out the mass relocation needed to fix red-state America.
It's also worth recalling here an intriguing part of Lind's thumbnail history of Texas, presented earlier in his book: Although Texas is mostly portrayed as a place that thrives on lynchings and other forms of human depravity—the Waco area, including Bush's current hometown of Crawford, receives special treatment in this regard—Lind praises certain 19th-century settlements of "freethinking Germans" in the Central Texas hill country. These freethinkers established a "dynamic culture," he writes, which has since been crushed by "persecution" at the hands of surrounding rednecks. One such town singled out for special praise is Boerne, which today is a lovely and friendly place on the far outskirts of San Antonio. But at its founding, when it was named after a German anarchist—and at the time Lind holds it up for praise—it banned churches. Elsewhere, in an essay written shortly after the attacks of September 11, Lind argued explicitly that Christianity (like Islam) is "incompatible with a liberal, democratic, secular society that has an economy based on applied science and commercial exchange." Food for thought, this, in the context of an uninhibited discussion of revolutionary dictatorship.
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It is remarkable about Made in Texas that it never comes close to a discussion of big ideas or principles. Another way of saying the same thing is that as a book about American politics, it is un-American. America, after all, was built on big ideas and principles. Even New Deal opponents of America's original big ideas and principles tended to speak in terms of newer and better big ideas and principles of their own. But not Lind. He just wants to move us around, heft up our incomes, and maybe take away our churches.
Unlike FDR, but exactly like Bill Clinton, Lind's historical consciousness seems stunted. Or perhaps the phenomenon is better explained in terms of his regarding the past as of simply no value. (The "pre-modern mind," he writes—and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he means any and all minds preceding his own and Bill Clinton's—thinks in outdated categories.) How else to explain his equation of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, with Southern secessionists who rejected the Declaration's "self-evident lies"? Or his assimilation of Lincoln, who carefully explained his every action in terms of the Constitution, to progressive politicians who openly opposed and rejected constitutional restraints? Or his idea that religious freedom—the sine qua non of American liberal democracy—is incompatible with liberal democracy? Or his reduction of politics to demographics? Or his notion of a republican dictatorship? And all without any real arguments, as if none was needed?
It is striking how many of Lind's historical errors (notably, but not solely, his economic rather than moral view of the Civil War) coincide with those of paleo-conservatives. Also like the paleo-cons, Lind rejects the view of American politics as a struggle of big ideas, preferring to speak in terms of a choice of traditions. But unlike the paleo-cons, the choice of traditions he presents us with—a choice between the Saudi tradition (oligarchic, militarist, localist, religious) and the Japanese tradition (egalitarian, high tech, centrally planned, secular)—is totally abstracted from American experience, not to mention weird. Lind could be labeled, one supposes, a paleo-liberal.
Lind's next book is reportedly on Lincoln, and one shudders at the thought. Even more, however, one shudders at what he and his fellow blue-state "modernists," given half the chance, would do to our country. The question is whether red-state statesmen will prove any more willing and able to stand up for the big ideas and principles of America. As Lincoln pointed out, that's why the founders wrote them down—"for future use," meaning to provide "a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism."