The Roots of the Agony

Reece McGee
The Nation
, 21 December 1963, pp. 427–431

Reece McGee is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas. He is co-author of Academic Marketplace (Basic Books) and the author of Social Disorganization in America (Chandler).

    A lady in Dallas said, “They ought to put this place under martial law and keep it that way forever.” A man there told a commentator, “I wouldn’t blame them if they sent a regiment in here and wiped the city out.” My own first reaction was that it couldn’t be true, that even in Texas they didn’t shoot Presidents. Curiously enough, a number of my students, natives of the state, had identical reactions. Reflection on these stunned and unbelieving first responses, however, convinces me that they were naïve, and that barring the probability of Mississippi, in a doomed and fated way it had to be Texas and, in Texas, Dallas.
To truly understand the necessity of Texas, and this strange land itself. One must live here awhile. The time required is indeterminate. In the November, 1963, Harper’s, Barbara Solomon wrote a moving and perceptive evocation of the place after a year’s residence in it. On the basis of my seven years here, I found it generally accurate and surprisingly unprejudiced. It was greeted by the local press, both student and commercial, as a vitriolic and harshly biased attack upon the state and city. Had Mrs. Solomon lived here fifty years, the reaction would have been the same. Texans are immensely touchy with regard to criticism of their state, especially from outsiders; they hunger for visitors’ impressions, but want to hear only favorable ones.
Something Mrs. Solomon learned here, but that escapes most visitors—and, indeed, most natives—goes far in explaining Texas and the recent tragedy in Dallas: behind the verdant fields, magnificent highways and looming skyscrapers, Texas is still a harsh and violent land, in climate and in culture not so far removed from the savage wilderness it was only 130 years ago when the early “Texians” wrested it away from the dominion of Mexico and the perhaps greater authority of the Comanche. That history and that hardness has done much to determine the present nature of the state and its people. The climate alone breaks weaklings in a year. Air conditioning and central heat have done much to make it tolerable, but “tolerable” is the best that can be said for it. A hundred years ago the immigrants wrote home that Texas was hell on women and dogs. It still is.
These conditions, when ratified and exacerbated by an overlay of twentieth-century America—which is to say urbanized and essentially Northern America—explain that great agony begun here such a little while ago, and which still continues. Fortunately for the future of the state, and indeed for any hope for the future of mankind at all, the same conditions will in time yield sweeter fruit. But now let me attempt to explain why it had to be Texas.

      President Kennedy could, of course, have been assassinated in any other state. In our frantic society lunatics abound, and everywhere and any time a President is in the presence of the public he is in danger. But I believe that (again and always barring Mississippi) the probability of that danger’s actually striking may have been maximized in Texas by five elements either peculiar to the state at this time or peculiar in their unique intensity here. These are, in the order I will discuss them: (1) the absolutistic nature of local thought; (2) the institutionalization of personal violence; (3) the proliferation of firearms and the habit of carrying them; (4) the political respectability of the radical Right; and (5) the nonexistence, publicly, of a radical Left.
A Land of Moral Absolutes. The mores of Texas are more absolutistic than those of any other state I know. In politics, ethics, civic morality and individual taste, relativism is unknown to or suspect by the general public. One is a Texan or a Yankee; there are no other kinds of people. One is good or one is evil, honest or criminal, a booster or a knocker, a patriot or a Communist. Most students at the university expect their instructors to reveal to them The Truth about any subject in question, want the One Right Answer to their queries and, in my own case, expect sociology to offer them quick solutions to the social problems with which they are confronted in their society. When I give my classes the suggestion that there may be no general solution to such problems as the arms race, but only shifting accommodations, they become frustrated and often hostile.

      This habit of thought seems best explained by the religious fundamentalism still dominant in the state. Texas is, for all practical purposes, a Southern Baptist community (despite the large number of Catholic Mexicanos whose culture has in so many other ways influenced its society). Though the cedar-shake churches in the hollows have everywhere given way to great edifices of brick and stone, the simple moral imperatives of the old-time religion yet dominate Texas life and thought. I think it is significant that my students always use the phrase, “see both sides of an argument,” never “all” or “the.” (There can be but two, one of which must be, clearly, the right side since the other, clearly, must be wrong.) This same basically Baptist orientation has been particularly visible in the organization of the two churches in town which I have occasionally attended. One, of the “liberal” theological bent, has little general difficulty between minister and congregation because it adheres closely to the congregational mode, but is deeply rent within the congregation by factional schisms, often following political adherences. The other, of Episcopal form, has a unified congregation which, consisting largely of converts, experiences great difficulty in accepting the minister’s authority.
This fundamentalistic absolutism (which, again, may be supported by the frontier heritage) easily categorizes men and ideas and movements as “for” or “against” the values Texans hold most dear. And since being “against” such ideas is equated with sinfulness and the devil, in effect if not actual reason, hate breeds free and dies hard. I am sure many Texans sincerely, if unconsciously, associated John Kennedy with Sin (his religion may have been relevant here), and with Sin there can be no compromise and no solution save destruction.

      The Habit of Personal Violence. “Taking the law into one’s own hands” is not unique to Texas. Americans are a violent people, and they live in, and have created, a violent society. (Our custom, for example, of insisting that we hold human life in high regard ill matches our flat failure even to attempt to curb the carnage on our highways through concerted action.) Nevertheless, in the South in general, and perhaps in Texas in particular, this custom reaches levels unknown elsewhere, maybe because violence is more commonly accompanied by gunplay here, and arguments that might be settled with an exchange of blows in Minnesota end in homicide in Texas. Houston and Dallas are widely known as the murder capitals of the nation and have been so for some time. That Chicago no longer maintains that unenviable reputation does not signify the migration of its organized crime to Texas. The Texan homicide rate—both vehicular and personal—is largely a consequence of individual efforts by normal citizens, not professional criminals. Much of this, I think, must be a simple matter of tradition. The nation is by now amply aware of Texans’ touchy pride and of the pride they take in it. This is in part a heritage of the frontier (not really long removed here: a friend of mine, a recently retired professor in the university, can recall students fresh off the Western ranges appearing in the classroom wearing six-guns). In part it is an Anglo adaptation of an ethic known by its Mexican name: machismo.
The frontier ethic is the easier to comprehend: Texans, to hold their land, had to fight the Mexicans, the Indians, the climate and one another. They fight the climate still and they do not always win. Machismo is more tenuous. In Mexicano culture in Texas it is connected with, and signifies, masculinity, virility, courage and the ability to “take care of oneself.” The Anglos have adopted it in a cultural diffusion noticeable with regard to a great variety of customs and ideas. (An engineer friend of mine, a native, nearly started a brawl in a beer joint when he got a wisecrack from a group of lounging oafs. When I asked him why he had not simply shrugged it off, he was nonplussed that I would expect him to ignore such an affront to his honor.)
These elements of an ethic that holds the individual personally responsible for the solution of quarrels are further institutionalized by Texas law. “Self-defense” is a common explanation of homicide and suffices to excuse the act if the defendant even believed himself to have been in danger of attack and can scrape up some evidence that the belief was reasonable. In cases of murder resulting from actual or suspected adultery, the “unwritten law” is scrupulously observed by many Texas juries. The law of trespass, as it is applied in practice, similarly reflects the customs of violence. A man’s property in Texas is first of all his to defend (in custom), and if you are ordered off and do not go you may pay for your recalcitrance with your life. Thus in history and tradition, and supported by law in many instances, violence is expected as the natural reaction to many situations. Sufficient provocation is often sufficient excuse.

      The Proliferation of Firearms. The wide diffusion of firearms among the general population is again not peculiar to Texas; but the manner of their diffusion and the types of weapons commonly owned and carried seem unique in local custom. Any adult who is not a felon may buy any common type of weapon in Texas, and no registration or adequate record is usually made. Cheap guns are sold in department and sporting goods stores, and I know of drug and liquor stores that carry them. Ammunition may be purchased at the supermarket or the drive-in.
Texans do not find this surprising. A series of censuses of my classes has revealed that, on the average, about half the boys and perhaps a third of the girls have weapons with them at the university. Normally about 25 per cent of the gun owners in my classes admit to keeping pistols. When I have asked the students why they feel the necessity for firearms in their rooms or glove compartments, they have universally replied that they need them “for protection.” When I have asked what they have that needs protecting at the hazard of their own lives or another’s, they have become confused. As a result of a number of unfortunate incidents the university now prohibits the keeping of weapons in dormitory rooms—but this rule is frequently violated.
Again these habits are supported by Texas law. Although there are registration laws for heavy pistols, they are negatively enforced. When I arrived in Austin, I went to the Police Department to register a side arm I owned as an Army reserve officer. The police lieutenant who interviewed me, called by a flabbergasted secretary, was immediately suspicious and seemed little reassured of my intentions by my AGO card and identity as a professor at the university. I was later informed by an attorney friend that no honest citizen brings his weapon to the attention of the police. The law also permits one to carry a weapon in the glove compartment (in most states stringently prohibited as “concealment”) on trips of a distance greater than a hundred miles—again, for “protection.”

      The Radical Right and Its Respectability. Another peculiarity of the state is that rightism of the most radical nature, explicit fascism, is politically respectable here. This was particularly borne in on me this year when I left the state to spend the summer in Berkeley. Although Southern California is as hot a bed of Birchers and allied fanatics as is Texas—and the breed appears to be even more virulent there—the newspapers of the Bay Area and the state government were unanimous in their condemnation of them as irresponsible lunatics. Not so in Texas, where reaction of the most extreme sort is, or was until November 22, entirely respectable. This fact of local life is probably not unrelated to the cultural absolutism described earlier. The responsibility of a candidate’s or a party’s politics is seldom an issue in Texas, where public alignments seem to take place largely on the basis of personality and ideology.

      The respectability of the reactionary radicals surely comes in part from the identification of their ideas (it is impossible to say “their program”) with patriotism, and with their flamboyant rhetoric. Texans are intensely patriotic and like their loyalties to state and nation loud and clear. Thus the same drives which have given the nation in all its wars unit after unit of magnificent Texas fighting men ratify and give respectability to the ultranationalistic politics of the far Right.
It is impossible to judge the actual strength of the extreme reaction in the state, or its actual power. Its political effect is not at all proportional to the noise it makes, however, which suggests its strength is often overestimated. When former General Walker entered the gubernatorial primaries two years ago, he ran a poor last in a field of six or seven candidates. Senator Tower’s election is often viewed by the rest of the country as a measure of reactionary strength, but is interpreted in Texas as being largely a function of the Democratic Party’s having fielded a candidate so reactionary himself that no real Democrat would vote for him. (A number did vote for Tower, in protest.) Not long ago members of the Birch Society and their allies succeeded in attracting a great deal of attention by attacking the state’s selection of texts for the public schools, but after weeks of legislative hearings and state-wide interest most of the books objected to were adopted anyway.
The textbook controversy became so acrimonious that a joint committee of the state legislature was appointed to look into possible Communist influences in the books available to and adopted by the state. I attended most of the hearings as an observer for the local chapter of the Civil Liberties Union, which eventually felt itself forced to appear before the committee itself. Hostile witnesses most often identified themselves as simply representing themselves, but were given to quoting from publications of the John Birch Society, the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade and some local organizations such as Texans for America and the National Indignation Convention (Peter O’Donnell, the instigator of the latter, is now Chairman of the Republican Party in Texas and the initiator of the national “Draft Goldwater” movement). Members of the Constitution Party, a local extreme right-wing third party, were also present. I was struck in hour after hour of these witnesses’ testimony by the almost universal recurrence of three themes that characterized their orientations to the world: (1) a hostility to and incomprehension of the twentieth century, coupled with (2) the erection of a pseudo-history of the nineteenth century and its characterization as a Golden Age, plus (3) a ubiquitous and generalized fear. Their comments upon the present were replete with words and symbols of danger, conspiracy, threat, attack and broad-gauge hostility. Their ideas about the current state of the world and its recent history were confused, to say the least, and unrealistic to a remarkable degree. Their views of the nature of the American society of the past were a jumbled mass of inaccuracies, falsehoods, misinformation and nostalgia.
Primarily from this experience I began to formulate a hypothesis to explain the existence of the radical Right and which, in awful hindsight, explains also why it had to be in Dallas that the President lost his life. From all reports the far Right has its greatest strength in two rather well-defined areas of the general Southwest: in Texas and in Southern California. Its membership, like that of the original Nazi Party, seems concentrated in the middle class. There are not many “Rednecks” in the local Birch Societies and there were none at the textbook hearings. These facts in the context of the history of this century and of the areas involved suffice, I think, to let us understand the phenomenon.

      There are remarkable parallels between Texas and Southern California, reaching even into climate and recent modes of urban development. Their populations also have some similarities in nature and experience. Until quite recently both areas were essentially rural and agrarian, and both have been subjected to sudden, radical social change in the form of immense urbanization, immigration and industrialization. Both have significant segments of their population characterized by Protestant fundamentalist polities (in California, in large part through immigration), and both have seen the sudden emergence and expansion into dominance of a middle class with rural origins. Both have been beset with the problems of a new wealth widely distributed into the hands of a population unused to it. Both have suffered population explosions. All of these phenomena precipitated widespread social change and dislocation of former tranquilities. These facts taken together suffice to explain the radical Right: it is the irrational and often frankly paranoid reaction to sudden social change on the part of a segment of the population ill-equipped to deal with or adjust to it.
In Texas, certainly, the majority of the newly monied middle class springs from rural origins. It has no experience of wealth or liberal education and has not been middle class long enough to have adopted the general cultural values and attitudes of that class elsewhere. Its historic culture has been radically disturbed by an invasion of Eastern and Northern people, ideas, capital and outlook. The century-long accommodation of the races has been upset, and for perhaps the first time since Texas won its independence from Mexico, the wide world has begun really to intrude upon it. For a people with a culture in many ways that of the nineteenth-century American agrarian, the twentieth century as it impinges upon them must be a terror-filled place. The old certainties of their traditional religious securities are patently absurd; their old sovereignties of state and nation have been overthrown or subjected to fundamental dislocation from without; their new, first wealth seems threatened by the entire pattern of domestic politics since Theodore Roosevelt.
It is no accident that while many professional men are members of the John Birch Society, few of them seem to be from the scholarly professions. Most are in fields characterized by technical training. The professionals who are members heavily represent medicine, accounting, the military, engineering and the illiterate clergy; there are few lawyers, professors, writers or educated clergy from the major denominations among them. Neither does it seem an accident that the “Communist Conspiracy” they define is exclusively internal to the United States, (i.e., a projection rather than a reality), and that their program, to the degree it can be called that, for dealing with the international reality of Communist states is nonexistent. (We have only to withdraw from the UN and ignore them and somehow they will cease to have any significance for the United States.)

      This terrible fear and incomprehension of their present reality quite naturally culminated, for the radical Right, in a personalized hatred of John F. Kennedy and everything his administration represented. For Kennedy and his New Frontier maximally symbolized exactly those features of their lives most disturbing to this segment of the population. He was urban and urbane, Eastern and educated, aristocratic and international, Catholic and pragmatic, welfare-minded and racially liberal.
By the same token it is not surprising that his assassination occurred in Dallas. For Dallas more than any other major Texas city seems to have been captured by the radical Right and to have fewer balances against it. The rightists are a vociferous, although small, minority in San Antonio, and that international and cosmopolitan city has taken them in stride. They have considerable apparent power in Houston but are balanced by its working class and organized labor, for Houston is a seaport and manufacturing city. Dallas is almost exclusively middle class in its ethos, functions and dominant population, a business city par excellence. It has little industry or farm-service function and is the headquarters for the financial and oil interests of the state. It is, further, and unlike either of the others, a newer city, without a hereditary local aristocracy to mind the civic welfare and without, really, any particular reason for existence except as a financial headquarters. (Excepting Denver and Indianapolis, it is the only major American city not located on a navigable waterway.) It has for some years now been the center of rightist activity in the state. General Walker and Peter O’Donnell both live there. The Hate-Kennedy Cult of Texas headquartered there. (Shortly before his final, fatal visit, placards had been distributed bearing the President’s photograph and with the legend: Wanted for Treason.) Thus, even though the assassin does not appear to have been a rightist, if there were a climate anywhere in America that permitted assassination to become conceivable, to be defined as something that might in fact be culturally legitimate, that climate obtained in Dallas.
The Destruction of the Left. One more grim strand to the peculiar fabric of contemporary Texas completes the weave: there is no Left in Texas. The actual political alignments might be given something like this: reactionaries are “conservatives” here; conservatives, “moderates” and moderates, “liberals.” Actual liberals are “radicals” and suspect. True radicalism does exist, but has been forced entirely into hiding and is incapable of participating in or even communicating to the normal political dialogue. To illustrate again from the textbook hearings: a number of university professors testified before the committee against the proposed censorship of schoolbooks. The chairman of the committee, almost without exception, opened the committee’s questioning of each by asking him if he was a church member. (Anti-censorship = liberalism = atheism = communism.) The same chairman had, a year or two earlier, narrowly been prevented from introducing a law requiring anyone teaching in a state-supported school to swear his belief in the existence of a Supreme Being as a condition of his further employment. Under such circumstances a true radical literally has no place to go politically, and nothing to do but hide. Unlikely as it first appeared (in Dallas), it may be that the President’s assassin was a leftist: in its mute frustration the Left there may have no other recourse than violence.

      To summarize: a congeries of events and qualities of contemporary Texas combined November 22, if not to predetermine the assassination of the President, at least to maximize that terrible possibility. The combination of moral absolutism, the habits of violence and the use of arms, the respectability of political irresponsibility and the—for all practical purposes—absolute repression of the Left together have created a climate in this strange and mythical state where this frightening rejection of the American political discourse could occur. Given the madness abounding in our lunatic society, it could have occurred anywhere; but where it did—where, in this nemesis of hindsight, somehow it had to—was in Texas.

      The Hope for the Future. These admittedly speculative conclusions do not mean that I feel the nation need give up hope for Texas; quite the contrary. For the same forces of the past which in part explain the Texas present will, modified by that present, shape the future. Judging from my students and my city here, Texans overwhelmingly were stunned by that Friday’s horror; and the first shock of incredulity soon gave way to open grief. Austin had all but closed down to greet the President in an arrival timed for only three hours after the fatal shots were fired. On the weekend of his death the city was like a raw and rained-on grave. As late as the following Wednesday, university students still wept unashamed as they walked past the half-masted flag.

      More important by far than the fact that the vast majority of Texans are good and decent people, like most Americans anywhere, is the nature of the land itself and the men it breeds. For the same land and the same cultural forces that produce men who carry weapons and who hate hard determine that those same men love as hard and guard the things they love. The real Texas is not the glass and neon of Dallas and the wheeler-dealer Cadillac owners of the (quite empirical) stereotype and their gilded women, nor is it the loud-mouthed lunatics. It is that hot land, black dirt and timber in the east; and to the west, sand and rock and prickly pear, that harsh land that demanded and bred strong men to break it and to make it yield. Those men live here now; I know a number of them, white and black and brown, and they are not the diamond-studded millionaires. They are soft-spoken men, honest men, men of courage and of patience and high humor. Their friendship is hard to earn but, once won, is legendary, and they have a toleration for individuality and a love of freedom for themselves and for others that is a main stream in the American myth, but is a reality here and only a myth in most of the rest of America. Sam Rayburn was one of them; Lyndon Johnson is one of them. There will be more. They are legion in Texas and they are its splendor; like its earth, they endure.

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