The city of the damned
The media is all abuzz over the truly outrageous proposals of the ultrarightist-dominated Texas Board of Education. The NY Times reported on March 12:
In economics, the revisions add Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, two champions of free-market economic theory, among the usual list of economists to be studied, like Adam Smith, Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. They also replaced the word “capitalism” throughout their texts with the “free-enterprise system.”
“Let’s face it, capitalism does have a negative connotation,” said one conservative member, Teri Leo. “You know, ‘capitalist pig!’ ”
In reporting on this development, the outstanding Harper’s Magazine linked to a collection of items about Texas that had appeared on their monthly Index, a roundup of startling factoids—always backed up by a citation. Here’s a few that should give you an idea of the kind of swamp from which these toxic weeds sprang:
- Number of Texas high schools that offered Bible courses as electives last year: 25
- Number of these courses that broke the law by being primarily devotional and sectarian, according to a September study: 22
- Amount appropriated by the governor of Texas in June to set up border-watching webcams: $5,000,000
- Number of U.S. counties where more than a fifth of “residents” are prison inmates that are in Texas: 10
- Rank of Texas among states in which the largest percentage of citizens lack health insurance : 1
All this brings me back to the time I spent in Texas in the early 70s as a Trotskyist on assignment. I reported on the confrontation between the party and the KKK here. I think that it would be worth it to give you a flavor of daily life in Houston that was less dramatic than that but related to it nevertheless. These are some random reminiscences about what it was like to live in Houston in 1973 and 1974.
Since this was before the SWP launched its “turn toward industry”, I still could work as a programmer without having people look dagger eyes at me. So within a month after arriving I had a job at Texas Commerce Bank (TCB) reporting to Billy Penrod, a 50ish Gary Cooper look-alike who had been a football player at Texas A&M until a knee injury forced him off the team. Billy once told me that he came from Gonzalez, Texas, a town he described openly as a “Sundown” town although he didn’t use that word. He put it this way: “Louis, if you were a nigger and found yourself in Gonzalez, you’d better not be seen on the street after dark.” Here’s how the preface to James Loewen’s recent book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism” put it:
Anna is a town of about 7,000 people, including adjoining Jonesboro. The twin towns lie about 35 miles north of Cairo, in southern Illinois. In 1909, in the aftermath of a horrific nearby “spectacle lynching,” Anna and Jonesboro expelled their African Americans. Both cities have been all-white ever since. Nearly a century later, “Anna” is still considered by its residents and by citizens of nearby towns to mean “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed,” the acronym the convenience store clerk confirmed in 2001.
Unlike my native New York City, Houston took its jaywalking laws seriously. I was warned by comrades not to ever try to cross the street when the light was red. I got an idea of what frightened them one morning as I approached the front door of TCB and heard the traffic cop telling some guy in a business suit who had gotten on his wrong side: “Mr., I got a bullet in this here gun with your name on it so you better not give me no lip.”
My first year or so at TCB involved a fair amount of hazing until people got used to me. I might have been a Yankee and a red but I knew well enough to keep my politics to myself. I worried especially about the guy who sat in a cubicle opposite mine who used to read the bible everyday at lunch. I now understood why people had coined the term “Bible Belt”.
Whenever I got restless and went to a nearby shopping mall to find a book to read, the pickings were really slim. On the tables at my neighborhood Barnes and Noble, you’d might find some vaguely interesting postmodernist novel or a quasi-Marxist analysis of the pirate trade, etc. but down in Houston it was wall-to-wall “inspirational” texts with titles like “How Jesus can make you rich”. The obsession with getting rich in Houston was widespread. If Jesus couldn’t help you, you’d be able to pick from a thousand different books on how to make a million dollars in real estate or franchise businesses that everybody referred to as bidness.
I lived in the Montrose neighborhood, not far from downtown. Montrose was home to Houston’s bohemia, what there was of it, and the gay community. On the main drags, Montrose and West Alabama Boulevards, you’d see lots of adult (pronounced Ay-dult, emphasis on Ay) bookstores, topless dancing clubs, Burger Kings and Liquor Stores. My girlfriend Debby had been working as a topless dancer until the SWP organizer told her to cut it out. Yes, our branch had a rather heterodox membership.
One of the more interesting branch members native to Houston was a guy named Gene Lantz who was living in a commune in Houston as a kind of benign Charles Manson who slept with various female members of the household. They struck me less as flower children than as Desperate Housewives. All had become separated from their husbands and suburban lifestyles and were eager to blend in with the motley crew of Trotskyists that had colonized their city.
One day Gene brought me by to visit an old friend of his who was famous for keeping a 700 pound gorilla in his living room. Not quite in his living room, but in a cage that abutted it. The animal’s pen was at the end of a twenty foot tunnel that led toward the living room and was in the habit of running down the tunnel gathering speed until he careened against the bars. The owner got a big kick out of this since it tended to scare the bejeesus out of first-time visitors like me. I fantasized occasionally about the gorilla getting his hands on his captor and ripping his face off.
One of my best friends outside the party was a young woman who had graduated from the University of Texas and had taken a job at TCB. Her boyfriend, like my boss, had been a football player whose college career had been cut short by a knee injury. She was the first person at work I felt free to discuss my politics with but she was more amused than shocked by my beliefs. It was close enough in time to the big SDS goings on at the U. of Texas for her to understand where I was coming from. I used to spend lots of time hanging out with the two of them at their rented house in Montrose drinking gin and tonics and shooting the breeze. They tried to hook me up with a friend of theirs named Dana something who was a reporter for the local television network. We never really hit it off but I was glad to spend time with her occasionally, a welcome break from the increasingly cult-like feel of the SWP branch.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I got from living in Houston for close to three years was how out-of-touch the Trotskyist leadership was with conditions on the ground in the USA. The city was swept up by a mad appetite for getting rich and the unionized workers, mostly in the oil refineries we first considered colonizing long before the turn, were totally into the cowboy life-style of the Lone Star state whether they were Black or white. Everybody dreamed to have a pickup truck, a four-bedroom house and a weekend ranch if they ever got that promotion that would afford it. I found my socialist ideals increasingly out of whack with the reality and sooner or later the contradiction would be too great to bear. Within three years the SWP would discover the industrial working class and make “petty bourgeois” elements like me so unwelcome that resignation would be the only acceptable course of action. More about that on another day.