American politics are dominated by culture war, and one of the most disturbing aspects of the culture war is the quest for authenticity—especially since what is considered most authentic is usually measured in the ugliest possible way. Take, for instance, Paul Waldman's examination of how Rick Perry plays the "authenticity" card. Perry's schtick is that he's more Texan-than-thou, and his Texanness is defined very specifically as a brand of hyper-masculinity: the bigger man/Texan is the meaner, stupider, more violent man/Texan. There's a lot of ironies inside this kind of authenticity-tripping, the biggest being that the measure of what is "authentic" are based in plain old myth-making. Waldman talks a bit about how the myth of the cowboy is beloved in the U.S. because it appeals to this sense of authenticity, but it is pure myth:
Violence and the culture of honor have always been key themes in cowboy mythology, which is less a construction of history than a production of the American entertainment industry. It was essentially invented by Buffalo Bill Cody, whose wild west show toured the country and the world beginning in 1882.
This is absolutely correct. Unlike 95% of Americans, I've actually known cowboys in my time, as in "men (and women) who work huge Western cattle ranches" kind of cowboys. The job always struck me as uniquely boring and people's attachment to it was baffling to me. You spend a lot of time…..watching cows. And if you've never watched a cow before, I can assure you, cows are not here to entertain us. Quite possibly the opposite. Cows, like Rick Perry, are boring and stupid. Perry is actually puffing certain aspects of his persona up in order to be considered more "authentic", a contradiction that should cause the concept of authenticity to fold up on itself and die, but unfortunately, in an America that cannot tell fantasy from reality, exaggerating your life in order to seem more authentic is surprisingly effective.
But outside and within the state of Texas, this idea that Texans are Real Men, and Real Men are stupid, violent assholes has this hold over people, and it pisses me the fuck off. It's bad for the country, bad for men and women, and bad for Texans as a whole, because it erases the truly vibrant culture of the state and replaces it with the image of a whooping redneck with shit for brains. Take, for instance, this bit of shameful business:
You may have heard the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and executed for murdering his daughters by setting fire to their house, a crime of which he was almost certainly innocent. As Politico recently reported, when the campaign of Republican senator Kay Baily Hutchinson, who was challenging Perry in a 2010 gubernatorial primary, considered raising the issue, they tested it with focus groups. One voter memorably told them, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
Actually, it does not. It's an act of cowardice, as proved by Hutchinson's eventual fear of bringing it up. That's always the contradiction at the heart of the manly man business—it's about acting all tough, but preening masculinity is fundamentally an act of cowardice. It's rooted in insecurity and fear of how others will see you. When you kill an innocent man because you're too afraid to let him go because you live in fear of people who've decided that masculinity is mutually exclusive from morality, you are a coward. A quivering-in-your-boots, pissing-on-your-jeans coward.
But hey, I'll give you this: you're still a Texan. For some reasons that are obvious and some that are not, I'm not fond of this Real Texan bullshit. Texas, like any place else, should be defined by the people who actually live there. Which isn't to say that the state doesn't have a distinct culture that can be identified, but that can also evolve, as cultures do. As I noted in the most recent Bloggingheads I was on, there's a lot of iconic Texas culture that isn't politically loaded with these sexist, racist, anti-intellectual, pro-violence cultural markers. Living in Austin, for instance, you would suffer occasionally from ignorant rednecks pulling the "Austin isn't real Texas" card, to which I'd say, "Yeah, Stevie Ray Vaugh, Willie Nelson, and some of the best barbeque in the country somehow means we're not real Texas". I'd go further much further even in rejecting the concept of "Real Texas". Texas is country-western, barbeque, and guns, but Texas is also the eccentric Houston hip-hop scene, the imaginative vegetarian cuisine of Austin, and people swimming in some of the coolest natural spring pools in the country. Texas is Wille Nelson, but Texas is also Spoon. Rick Perry is a Texan, but so is George Bush, and, more importantly, so were Ann Richards and Molly Ivins and Barbara Jordan, and so is Jim Hightower.
I'd genuinely like to see this whole cult of authenticity fall away. The irony is that when it does is when we can finally take a look at ourselves and see ourselves for what we really are, and we're more complex and interesting than any myth-making about authenticity provides.