EVENT TRANSCRIPT: [God Save Texas]
DATE: [1pm-2pm] [15.05.18]
VENUE: [Henry Jackson Society]
SPEAKER: [Sir Lawrence Wright]
EVENT CHAIR: [Jason Pearlman]
FULL NAME OF FIRST SPEAKER: [Sir Lawrence Wright]
JP: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to The Henry Jackson Society today. We are looking very far to our west as we have been looking so much at Europe and the Middle East so much over the last few days, now it’s time to look the other way, and I am delighted to welcome our speaker today, Lawrence Wright, thank you for joining us. ‘God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State’ is a fascinating read and comes after a fascinating career of amazing books, that have turned into tv series of course. It’s a way of the world that if you are not on Netflix then you are nowhere, but its tremendous to see the uptake on your work and ability to see far beyond the issues that go across our front pages and understand actually how and why these things have happened, and how these critical events have shaped our world. It’s a tremendous pleasure to invite you to speak about your latest work. SO ladies and gentlemen, Sir Lawrence Wright
LW: Well I live in Texas which won’t be a big surprise to you, but the question is why? That is the question posed to me by my editor at the New Yorker, he asked me to explain Texas and I reminded him I get paid by the word – and that’s a big question you asked me. And it’s a question I’ve asked myself. I think we all ask ourselves about where we live, why we live and if there is another place in the world that would be better, and those questions crossed my mind many times. I fled Texas when I was young. I grew up in Dallas, and was there when Kennedy was killed. If you lived there at that time, there was a terrible stigma – no city in American has ever been taken down the way that Dallas was because of the Kennedy assassination. People held Dallas responsible although Dallas was a very fundamental right wing – and Kennedy was killed by a Marxist. I didn’t know we had any Marxists! I didn’t know any democrats. But still, to be from Dallas, operators sometimes wouldn’t place your calls, people wouldn’t serve you. The sense of shame and condemnation was with you. Besides the assassination, being from Texas had a sort of cultural fright that I didn’t really want. I remember the first time I heard myself speaking at length, I was trying to speak Spanish and I started speaking in Spanish [puts on heavy Texan accent] like this. So I thought I’m going to put that part of myself away as I thought I’d never come back. Good riddance. So many years later, I was working for [unclear] magazine, and I returned to Texas for a story about the 12 men who walked on the moon, and one of the men was working in this tiny town in the centre of the state, and I wound up that night at a dance hall in central Texas and a band was playing and it just felt really familiar – the accents, the people, the food – and I just thought for better or worse, this is home. And just after my article came out, the editor of Texas Monthly called me to see if I would write an article for that magazine, and by the end of the conversation I was moving back to Texas. So I went back. It’s not that I because something other than ambivalent – I was always ambivalent. Texas has always been a strong cultural [inaudible]. Texas has always been its own world and as readily an identifiable brand as Texas in the sense people have expectations about Texans. I remember when I was a young man teaching in the American University in Cairo, and I used to go horseback riding out in the pyramids – there was a stable under the sphinx – and I’m no cowboy, I’m a city boy. And they found out that I was from Texas and they started calling me ‘Texas’ and one day I went out to the stable and they said ‘Texas, we have a horse for you!’ and they brought out this stallion that was pawing the air and it was scary, but being Texas I had to get on this thing – and it took me half way to Libya. [audience laughter]. Then I felt I was literally astride the Texan myth. I think everybody in Texas, men in particular, feel that dissonance between who you are and what people expect you to be. And I wouldn’t change that. There is something lovely, something empowering about it. But it’s also a sense of, it feels a little less than the image… anyway has anyone ever seen the movie ‘Midnight Cowboy’? Well when I was in Cairo, during Ramadan when the fasting goes on, some of my students were fainting in class and I was like that’s not going to work, I would in the evening after the breaking of the fast I would take to the movies, and one of them was Midnight Cowboy. Movies about Texas back then were John Wayne cowboy movies filmed in Arizona parkland. Here was a movie about a guy who worked in a drive in movie theatre in Texas. He dressed in this cowboy regalia. He was a nobody, and in his room he had this picture of Paul Newman who was probably the classic cowboy look. Then our hero Jon Voight goes off to become a gigolo in New York, and I found this movie really exciting as it was not about the myth. It was about the effect of the myth on real people, real Texans. I noticed my students were crushed as there was something about the idea of Texas was cherished. The idea that there was a place where men could run free, good versus evil, where cowboys [inaudible] – that’s not the life I lived but it was the Texas of their imagination. So I began to think about how culture, at least how I experienced it, has 3 levels. Level 1 is the primitive raw materials – the stuff in the case of Texas you think about: barbecue, boots, oil men and cowboys and rattlesnakes and all those things are the elements that go together to create the myth that everyone on the planet has a sense of. Level 2 is when money arrives and people begin to look around at other cultures, now that we’ve got a little money, how do other cultures do it, and this is most of my life in Texas, this is when the museums began to be established. The ballet companies, kids are sent away to learn, people learn other languages. This is a very valuable period of time, but it’s also neurotic cos there is a sense of shame about your roots, where you came from, that level 1. Like when I tried to get rid of my accent, that was real level 1. You disavow a certain portion of your culture and your food, and you being to get ethnic restaurants, your architecture, you get architects to build ‘world class’ – that’s a real level 2 saying – buildings, so you get this homogenisation. That’s the Texas I grew up in. But I think there is a 3rd level where you achieve, you’ve gone through that period of education and sophistication, and you look back to what the roots are, that level 1 material, with a sense of understanding and forgiveness, particularly in art. A good example is Beyonce who is from Houston, her most recent album ‘Lemonade’ quotes her experience in that little Methodist church and the country music she grew up with, [inaudible] choreographer who came from a fly speck town and his greatest dance is called ‘Revelation’ and it’s about growing up in this little Baptist church. The architects, some architects [inaudible] boxes. They look at the material around them. Central Texas is the limestone, the Spanish tiles on the rooftops, stuff like that, look like Texas rather than any place. That I think is even the cuisine. I remember once in Houston in a place called Café Annie and I ordered a Rabbit Enchilada and I’m telling you I had achieve level 3 and it was wonderful – but the idea that you would have this enchilada with crème fraiche on it, and it was for whatever reason it really worked and I thought all that sophistication that went into making this enchilada. It’s sketchy and we can’t ever say we achieved a culture that is transcendent, but sometimes it happens. Now, I’ll just talk a little bit about politics as I know it’s what you guys are into [audience laughs].
JP: We just like the river
LW: [inaudible] It’s a city that has a river that goes right through it. You know, Texas has this history, people just think of it as solidly red and republican and conservative right to the very core. And it’s certainly the characteristics of our electoral representatives. We haven’t elected a Democrat state wide in Texas in more than 20 years. Yet the demography of the state is far different to that. Texas is a majority minority state. There are very few states like that. California being the most notable. New Mexico and Hawaii are the only two but the future of America is that so Texas and California, being the largest states are seen as being total opposites – and yet they are very similar in many respects. I wrote a book once about twins, and there’s a form of identical twin, they are the last ones to separate in the womb and they are mirror image twins. So one would be left handed, and the other would be right handed and they are genetically identical but they are biologically opposite each other. California and Texas are a lot like that. California hasn’t got a single Republican elected state wide and we have the same 40% Hispanic population. In California they voted, in Texas they tend not to. There are similar problems with immigration, education, despite having almost polar opposite politics and economic models. For example, in Texas we have very relaxed, very liberal gun laws but the same murder rate, so we have the same outcomes despite very opposite political systems. But when I was a young man, Texas was blue. Texas produced Lyndon Johnstone and [inaudible]. California was entirely red, it produced Ronald Regan and the modern conservative revolution. So they are in relation to each other, to use a different image – they are like strands of DNA, they revolve around each other and are constantly changing themselves, but the entire body politic of America relies on these two states. Now California is, now in America we vote our presidents by electoral votes which reflect the population, and California is 40% larger than Texas, its economy is larger than the UK and it’s got 55 electoral votes, Texas has got 38, but California hasn’t added any electoral votes since, and won’t during the next senate. New York, the 3rd largest state has been losing population and influence since the Truman administration. So Texas gained 4 electoral votes in the last administration, will gain another 4 – by the year 2050, Texas is predicted to double in population and by then it will be the size of California and New York combined. 10% of all the school children in America right now are in Texas, so the decisions we make in Texas determine the future of America, and when we speak about education, we do a very poor job of preparing our kids. We don’t speak about the infrastructure [inaudible] those are responsibilities we are failing at. On the other hand, in producing jobs, the Texas economy grew by 5.2% – there is only one other state that got to 4% and that was Idaho, think a run on potatoes accounted for that [audience guffaws] but it’s clearly outstripping every other state in terms of its demographic and economic growth and that’s why they say the future of America, like it or not, like in Texas. And I’m ready for your questions.
JP: Well I’ll through one straight at you. You say ‘God Save Texas’ – what role does religion play in that set up? You talk about the mythology of Texas, and Britain is just as susceptible as anywhere to falling for that, but of course the image over here of Texas is of ‘Bible belt’ – you have a diversifying population, not an unreligious population, so what role does God play in Texas?
LW: Well the title ‘God Save Texas’ is a kind of prayer. [audience laughs] Religion is very important in Texas. It is distinct. South Texas being largely Hispanic is mostly Catholic. My daughter is a great dancer so I’ve gotten acquainted with the dance crown, and they’ve told me there’s a dance trail that starts in New Orleans and with the Jazz scene, then it goes up to Cajun country, then it crosses over into South Texan, then into Central Texas and then it arrives in Austin. Beyond that, you are facing North Texas which is Southern Baptists. There is a joke in Texas where Baptists don’t screw standing up because then someone will accuse them of dancing. You just don’t see dancing up there. So there are different cultures in North and South Texas, but there tends to be a social conservatism that’s common and that is what killed the last candidate, Wendy Davis. She was known for her stance, pro-abortion, she lost South Texas to Greg Abbot the current governor. So in that sense I think religion still plays quite a role.
JP: I’ve got loads of questions, but I will throw it open: yes, gentleman over here.
Q: Thank you very much indeed. The joke about the standing up, that is very much told in the North West of Scotland about the Presbyterians. I’m very interested in your opening remarks as I do have a friend who was born in December of 1963 and his name very much reflects that, and we are still very much mystified why he has the 2 given names ‘Lee Harvey’ – I’m still trying to work that out. My question is based on something I saw many years ago, in the 80s, was diverged societies. Chalk and cheese. Can it hold, and as you said in your final remark, what implications does it have for America? Frankly, I’d be rather worried.
LW: Well Texas has [unclear] racists and bullies and so on, you know when we came into the union, every Texan will also tell you, Texas was a republic. That’s not unique – Vermont was also a republic but no one ever talks about that. But when we came in we had the agreement that Texas could divide itself at any given point into 5 entities, 10 senators, and we’d never exercised that option. So why not? Texas is really diverse. North and South Texas are as different as Idaho and Indiana to throw an example out there. And East and West Texas… my friend says Texas is where everything peters out, the South comes to an end in East Texas, Mexico comes to an end in South Texas, the mountains in West Texas and the great plains in North Texas. So you know they really – ach of these is not just different environments, but different cultures. But there is something that keeps Texas together and not just geographically, but notionally. People in Texas identify as Texan and part of it I think is the myth. It’s a very powerful force in people’s lives. Its puzzling. You know, as far as the races getting along, in cities like Austin or Dallas, economically very similar, that’s a real problem. A lot of Texan sports heroes are Hispanic or Black.
JP: [interrupting] You mentioned Beyonce as well..
LW: So I think you know as a complicated stew pot, it’s been able to cohere and I don’t think it’s in danger of breaking apart.
Q: My partner is from Louisiana. Observation and question. Observation is, I grew up a generation that grew up with Dallas the show. One of the things I understand from the states is that here in Europe and the UK, we underestimate the scale of the states – the size of Texas as you referred to, there is just so much space. My question refers to the wall Donald trump wants to put up and I want to know what you think about that whole issue.
LW: Texas is like 20% larger than France so it’s really big. If you were in Houston and you wanted to walk to LA, El Paso would be the half way point. So it just spans a good part of the continent. It does take your breath away when you realise how big it is. Here’s my thinking about the wall. First, I have spent time writing about terrorism, and uncontrolled immigration is not a good thing. However, the idea that Hamas will come across the border, the only actual terrorist we ever captured came through Canada but we never talk of building a wall there. But tens of thousands of people cross in to Texas every week without documentation. Now, I don’t think that is a good idea. We need to have an immigration policy based on labour. I can tell you now: Texas, Arizona and California are suffering due to lack of labour because people are frightened to cross the border. If they do come across, they have no legal recourse, they are criminals and are likely to be thrown out and separated from their children. Totally heartless. So we need an immigration policy that allows labour to come across – and go back, and keep their dignity. I do think we need to have some border controls whether a wall or not. The boundary between Mexico and Texas is the middle of the Rio Grande, well it’s a river and rivers don’t always stay in the same place. It’s beautiful and I’d hate to see it defaced with a wall. I have no problem with putting a wall over urban areas. Stuff with drones and sensors we are already doing, but nothing will make a difference without a change in policy.
JP: Can I just sharpen that: have you noticed a difference on the ground in attitudes between now and the Obama administration?
LW: It’s a hotter topic now. People are very focused on the border. It’s interesting – the border itself. There are these 2 countries and there is this third country that runs between them in a little ribbon called the border and it conceives of itself as a different entity and people move across it all day long, and there is a sense that the more you move away from the border, the less you understand it. And a lot of times, people along the border just want to be left alone. The situation we have now, we have checkpoints and they are about miles from the border so you can cross the border with impunity until you reach the checkpoints. Of course some people come there because they don’t feel safe where they were, some of course come to work. So we need a different policy.
Q: Having grown up in the North East, we view Texas as this red state, and you said it used to be a blue state, how do you see especially in terms of its politics, do you see a different trend? Are we not going to see Texas as this deep red state in the future?
LW: People ae always asking me if Texas is going to turn blue, and it is. Demography insists on it at some point. There are 29 million Texans. 19 million are registered to vote, in the last presidential election only 9 million voted. Bearing in mind that Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were the 2 most disliked candidates in history will have had something to do with it. People were not compelled to vote. I think that’s been a problem all along. There has never been a single compelling Hispanic candidate. If you are a Hispanic voter in South Texas, what candidate has ever spoken to you, or even spoken in your language? Now you mentioned the upcoming senate race. Ted Cruz is running for re-election. He got through with a handful of votes. He’s running against [unclear] from El Paso. We’ve never elected anyone from El Paso to state-wide office. The democratic party in Texas is just like the republican party in California, a wounded animal, so he is on his own. But if he wins, he will be a giant slayer. After that, anything could happen. He speaks Spanish. Now Ted Cruz, the Hispanic candidate doesn’t.
Q: I read in the brief of this event that there are the largest number of Muslims in Texas?
LW: Muslim adherents is the distinction the census makes. Is that different from Muslim extraction? I don’t know. Especially in Houston, there is no single majority and it has accepted more political refugees than any other city in America – more than many countries. It’s a fascinating city. In Dallas, we looked down on Houston. Now it has these amazing fusion restaurants and nowhere is as committed to the idea of diversity as Houston.
Q: My sister lives in California and whenever we speak she goes on and on and on about the financial drain to California caused by immigrants, and when I mentioned you would be speaking today she said ‘Everybody from California is moving to Texas now’ and she alludes to a brain drain from California to Texas. So is Texas a new haven away from immigration for Californians or will they find more of the same?
LW: It’s not immigration they are running from, it’s taxes. We have plenty of immigrants in Texas.
Q: Yes but she is saying the reason for the taxes is the immigrants.
LW: In my experience that’s not the way it is – in Texas anyway.
JP: Texas has natural resource
LW: Oil. Let me speak about this for a minute. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for oil. Oil made Texas important. Now 18% of Texan energy comes from wind, it’s the highest in the United States. Solar is also catching on in a big way
HJS: Your income comes from oil surely
LW: It used to be that it was almost like Saudi Arabia in terms of its dependence. In the beginning of the 20th Century, there was this conman who decided to drill into this hill that was gassy. Boys used to set it on fire. At those times you pounded for oil. He decided to use this innovation called a rotary bit and that’s how the modern oil drilling industry began. This is really where Texas began. After that the price of oil fell. So we had boom, then bust. And we did it again in East Texas. Suddenly you had oil rigs everywhere. Then the price fell again and it was cheaper than water. Then you had fracking.
JP: Best not to talk about fracking in the UK
LW: best way of looking for it, it’s better than coal. Natural gas is the link between them.
JP: So to bring you back to the question: you think the California brain drain is due to taxes, not immigration
LW: Although California has performed a miracle in the last 7, 8 years, it was in financial chaos. Now it has a budget surplus of 6 billion dollars and under the administration of Gerry Brown, amazingly what he has been able to do, and in Texas where we are fiscally conservative, we’ve got an 8-billion-dollar deficit. So we wonder how conservative they really are. So it’s been amazing. But these problems still exist. So companies move their headquarters outside of California, companies are looking at a 2nd headquarters like Texas where taxes are low. So I think that accounts for most of this
Q:[inaudible] Houston most diverse [inaudible] despite those divides you can drive down and you can still see people flying the Texan flag. Does Texas and America in general do a better job of integrating?
LW: America has this myth of a melting pot, and it’s good to have these myths to live up to even though you fall short. My first job as a reporter was to cover the civil rights movement. We certainly weren’t standing up for diversity then but we were trying to, and I think it was the greatest adjustment in American society since the revolution. After the civil rights movement, and we were treating Blacks and Whites as equal, it seemed wrong to discriminate against who was coming into the country. We used to show bias towards European immigrants to the US, they had a preference. So that stopped in the late 60s and the huge flows of new people began. A lot of young Americans seem to think that was always the case, but it’s not. When I was growing up in Dallas, I remember the first time I had a pizza – ethnic food! How long did they keep this from me? Now Dallas state department uses some kind of algorithm to create communities, there’s a large Ethiopian community area. And maybe there is some wisdom in this sort of guiding hand. So there’s these communities of like and at the same time they are part of the fabric and you can drive through Houston and you will go through a Salvadoran neighbourhood, then a Kurdish neighbourhood and suddenly the street signs are in Mandarin. And that’s Houston. It’s really fascinating. Trying to keep everyone in the same boat is a massive project and a worthy one. We’re all from different places, cultures, different languages so it’s not easy to force everyone into the same boat, but to be able to have free communication between the groups, and examples like military, sports, schools and that’s where I don’t think we are doing a good job, especially with our Black and Brown citizens.
Q: [inaudible] I think despite little pockets of different ethnicities, there is still a pride of being American [inaudible]
LW: I’m not qualified to talk about the situation here. Take the example of France where every school child turns the page at the same time. It hasn’t worked very well. They say we are all going to be French citizens but what you have created in some ways is essentially these suburban areas is a tremendous sense of disillusion and alienation, maybe because there is too much effort to create a single identity rather than allowing the diversity.
JP: I’m going to throw 2 last points at you if I may. The 1st is about terrorism, [unclear] you pointed out the need for basic coordination for security services. In a one-word answer, is America safer today than it was before, and then lastly, if God doesn’t save Texas where would you go?
LW: I’m not going to be able to give you a one-word answer as there are two edges to it. Yes, our intelligence agencies have reformed and are communicating with each other, what we recreated after 9/11 was a national counter terrorism centre. So yes, the intelligence agencies are working better together and with other countries. But on 9/11, there were about 400 members of al-Qaeda. Now there are thousands and thousands and thousands, and there are chapters in 18 countries. And that doesn’t include the progeny like ISIS, Boku Haram and so on, so the spread of this jihadist ideology has widened considerably, and the intentions haven’t changed, and I feel that countries in Europe and Britain are at greater risk than the United States, but I feel that none of our countries are safe from terrorists. I think terror, in addition modern technology, drones for instance, has made the likelihood of terrorist strikes, has increased it. [inaudible] So soon, high school students juke they can make computer viruses now can make biological weapons, so I think we are in for a challenge but I think we are better equipped to deal with it. As to where I would live: I love New York, that’s where my work is. I love the theatre as well. Now London is paradise for the theatre, I’d love to get my play into some of these places. There is something about feeling at home, even in a big city. But wherever I was I’d need to be able to access the natural world.
JP: Well thank you very much, it’s been a tremendous pleasure to host you here, we have copies of your book outside, I’m sure there will be requests for some signatures on those. As you said, Texas the myth, I think you have brought that to life for us, but you haven’t tarnished it either, so it very much remains the image of the cowboy, the Marlboro man. So thank you very much.