Opinion

Texas’ Toxic Heart

There are states worse than Texas — states even more regressive, states even more oppressive, redder states and madder states and states without its complicated charisma and pockets of charm.

But is there a state more meanspirited these days? A state prouder of its divisiveness? A state more committed to vilifying an enormous share of its citizens and to making sure they have no say? In those regards, Texas has plenty of competition but no superior, at least not of late.

When I say “Texas,” I’m obviously referring not to all or even a majority of its citizens but to those with a domineering grip on political power, by which I mean Texas’ Republican leaders.

Not a week goes by when I don’t smack up against — or get smacked down by — fresh news of their gratuitous mockery of President Biden, their excessive provocation of Democrats and their unapologetic suppression of democracy. The national crackup you keep reading and hearing about? Its fault lines are as wide and deep and vivid in Texas as anywhere else.

That was part of what Steven Pedigo covered in an excellent guest essay in the Opinion section of The Times this week. It’s titled “Texas Is the Future of America,” and he spends most of its first half focused on economic and demographic matters. Then comes this:

That’s the part that fascinates and infuriates me. Our country’s second most populous state, Texas has become a provocative theater of performative defiance and a laboratory for imposing the will of the minority on the majority.

The state has much physical beauty. It has even more political ugliness.

Last weekend The Times published an article by Nick Corasaniti, Ella Koeze and Denise Lu about how Texas Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office, plan to gerrymander the state’s congressional districts beyond even the currently ridiculous map, which has created an imbalance — 23 Republicans and just 13 Democrats represent Texas in the House — unreflective of the state’s narrower partisan split.

The new district lines that Republicans have proposed are meant to “lock in the party’s advantage in Washington over the next decade” and “offset recent population growth spurred by communities of color,” the Times journalists wrote. With similar goals in mind, Republican leaders in Texas have also moved to restrict ballot access.

And Gov. Greg Abbott projects a disdain for President Biden that I’d call operatic if that adjective weren’t so dissonant with his and other Texas Republicans’ strenuously rough-and-tumble affect.

Democratic governors certainly went out of their way to thumb their noses at Biden’s predecessor in the White House, hewing to a new norm of outright contempt for leaders of the rival party. But they had more cause, and Abbott has less tact.

A looser grip on reality, too. Shortly before he issued an executive order forbidding any “governmental entity” and “any public agencies or private entities receiving public funds” to require proof of Covid vaccination, his spokesperson put out a statement saying, “Texans and Americans alike have learned and mastered the safe practices to protect themselves and their loved ones from Covid, and do not need the government to tell them how to do so.” Mastered? That’s one part hype, one part hooey and hilarious through and through.

Intent on humiliating Biden during the latest border crisis, Abbott didn’t merely pledge the deployment of the Texas National Guard; he said he would park vehicles end to end for miles and miles to create a “steel barrier” to hold migrants back.

Intent on turning Texas citizens against one another, he signed a horribly restrictive abortion law, being challenged by the Biden administration, that encourages vigilantism by abortion opponents.

This is much of Republican politics now — simultaneously seething with rage and siring it — and deep in the toxic heart of Texas, it thrives.



For the Love of Sentences

Credit…Getty Images

Every so often an article spawns so many favorite-sentence nominations that showcasing it here seems superfluous: Seemingly everyone has read every word of it already! That’s the case with Pete Wells’s recent review of Eleven Madison Park, which, he wrote, is following its vegetable worship to ungodly places:

“In tonight’s performance, the role of the duck will be played by a beet, doing things no root vegetable should be asked to do. Over the course of three days it is roasted and dehydrated before being wrapped in fermented greens and stuffed into a clay pot, as if it were being sent to the underworld with the pharaoh.” (Thanks to Jennifer Eames of Marion, Mass., and Linda Perez of Coral Gables, Fla., among many others for nominating this.)

Here’s Christopher Buckley, in The Washington Post, on the Vanderbilt family: “Boy, did they love to build stuff. We’re talking edifice complex.” (Meg Meyers, Columbia, Md., and Judith Leep, Olney, Md.)

Kate Cohen, also in The Post, on the religious/secular divide: “If religious people can opt out of secular laws they find sinful, then maybe the rest of us should be able to opt out of religious laws we find immoral. That’s right: immoral. We act as if religious people are the only ones who follow a moral compass and the rest of us just wander around like sheep in search of avocado toast.” (Taylor Moon, Orange Park, Fla.)

Jill Lepore, in The New Yorker, on the unearthing of Black history: “Underneath America lies an apartheid of the departed.” (Linda Perlmutter, Ramat Hasharon, Israel)

Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Times, on how time alters perspectives: “In the tribunal of posterity, what were matters of pride regularly become sources of shame.” (Judy Distler, Teaneck, N.J.)

Ali Smith, also in The Times,on her trepidation about her child’s return to in-person instruction at a Manhattan school with poor ventilation and scarce outdoor space: “A mom friend recently said: ‘I’d feel better just sending my son down the East River on an inner-tube and seeing what he can learn. At least he’d be outside.’ And for a split second I thought, ‘I own an inner-tube!’” (Niles Oien, Boulder, Colo.)

Lara Bazelon, also in The Times, on her decision to divorce: “I would picture myself, a few decades into the future, sitting next to my husband at our daughter’s wedding. One of the guests, well-meaning, would raise a glass to toast our own happy marriage — what footsteps the bride was following in! And there I would be, skinny and sunken in my sea-foam mother-of-the-bride dress, the smile on my face freezing the resentment beneath it, a third vodka tonic sweating in my hand. Our daughter would know the truth — that it had not been a happy marriage at all.” (Migs Halpern, Asheville, N.C.)

Finally, an especially sly riff from Paul Krugman on Japanese people’s references to a “babaru” economy: “I am not making fun of the Japanese for using an English-derived term. English speakers — among whom everyone from policy mandarins to business gurus finds it de rigueur to borrow foreign terminology — have no right to feel schadenfreude when someone else borrows from us.” Go back and tally up the foreign terminology therein. (Seanain Snow, Davis, Calif., and Frances Manly, Buffalo, among others)

To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here, and please include your name and place of residence.


What I’m Reading

  • I saw flashes of my own Italian American family in Stanley Tucci’s, who populate his new memoir, “Taste: My Life Through Food.” Overall, I had mixed feelings about the book, which I just reviewed for The Times.

  • I’m a big admirer of Kathryn Schulz’s journalism and I’m fascinated by Jonathan Franzen, so her recent review in The New Yorker of his new novel, “Crossroads,” represents some sort of harmonic convergence for me. Here’s one standout sentence: “The Hildebrandts, in other words, are a nuclear family chiefly in the fissile sense, rendered unstable and explosive by reactive elements at the core.”

  • Is American democracy on the brink? And are Americans themselves descending into a new civil war? These questions intensified over the course of the 45th president’s tumultuous term and are at the core of two recent essays — one by Robert Kagan in The Washington Post and another by David French in The Dispatch that drew considerable attention.


On a Personal Note

Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

My grass-challenged front yard is too dense with trees. I knew that the landscape consultant would tell me that, and I wasn’t surprised when she suggested an irrigation system, maybe a bit of soil replacement, possibly some rerouting of the runoff from my gutters.

But when she pointed to a subtle churn of the lawn in various spots and said that I had moles? That threw me. And that’s when I finally accepted that I hadn’t bought a house.

I’d bought a zoo.

I moved to my forested neighborhood in Chapel Hill, N.C., in mid-July, and in my first week here, before dawn, I heard a shuffling in the crawl space above my second-floor study. I tried to convince myself that it was some echo of rain hitting the roof, but the sound was still there when the weather cleared. So I called in a wildlife removal company, whose workers confirmed my suspicion: I had a raccoon. Or two raccoons. Or a family of raccoons. They couldn’t be sure of the number, but they were definite on the encampment.

They showed me the telltale claw marks on the tree being used to climb up to the roof for daytime sleeping and back down for nighttime foraging. That was where they put the trap: at the tree’s base. The raccoon or raccoons ignored it, so it was moved up to the roof, snug against the exit and entry point, where the raccoon or raccoons continued to ignore it. But sometime during all this human activity, the raccoon or raccoons must have decided that there were safer homes to invade. They left. The company cleaned up the traces of them, disinfected the area and tightly sealed any and all access to it.

Which left only the bats to attend to. They were discovered under the eaves above my garage, and they couldn’t be disturbed until Aug. 1, because the weeks before then are when they’re nursing baby bats, who need to be old enough to fly away with their parents. Once they were, a screen with a one-way portal was placed across their nook, and then, upon the whole brood’s departure, a screen without any portal — a barrier — was put in its place, to create, well, a no-fly zone. I have been bat-free since.

So I can focus on the woodpeckers.

At least one and maybe more of them are fond of the siding on the back of the house, just outside the kitchen. I’ll be sitting at the kitchen table, working on this newsletter, when the drumming — no, drilling — commences, a sound that’s not entirely familiar and yet immediately recognizable. It’s insistent. It’s maddening. It’s loud. I’ll go to the nearest window and bang on it, and that usually does the trick. But what’s happening when I’m not home? I regularly inspect the siding, knowing that one of these days, I’ll find a big hole, which will equate to a big bill. Nature is lovely. It’s also costly.

The other morning, I woke to four deer in my front yard. Rather, Regan woke me, realizing before I did that we had visitors and racing to the front door in the hope that I’d let her out to chase them. I didn’t, but we both marveled at them through the window. I think deer are beautiful. I just wish they wouldn’t eat the plantings skirting the path to my front door.

Need I worry about the coyote that I heard one night in my backyard? There’s a fence, but I’m forever leaving the gates open, given Regan’s disinclination to stray. Better attend to that.

What about snakes? When the landscape consultant talked to me about plantings, she warned me about using too much of certain kinds of ground cover, lest I create too snake-friendly an environment. I already have rabbits living under the hedges between my and my nearest neighbor’s driveways, and I deliberately make noise before letting Regan out the side door, so that the bunnies can find shelter before Regan finds them. So far, so good, but it’s like living in an animal-kingdom version of a serial-killer movie. The clock is ticking. The predator is primed.

And me? I’m convinced that one of these days, I’ll take a cocktail out to the deck and find a bear standing at the gas grill, trying to figure out how to work the dials. Are there bears in these parts? I don’t think so. I don’t know. I don’t want to.

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