Gail Collins Almost Remembers the Alamo

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John Willingham is the author of "The Edge of Freedom," a novel about the Texas Revolution.  His latest book is "A Review of Fifty Public University Honors Programs," and he is editor of the site PublicUniversityHonors.com.  He holds an M.A. in American history from the University of Texas at Austin.

The first chapter of New York Times columnist Gail Collins’s new book about Texas is called “Remember the Alamo,” and the last chapter concludes with the words “Victory or Death,” proclaimed to the world by Alamo commander William Barret Travis before the fall of the old mission and the deaths of Travis and the other defenders.

The witty, incisive, but occasionally flippant story that emerges between these bookend pages is indeed defined by the columnist’s own battle with the Alamo, or, rather, with what may be called the Alamo mentality. From this battle she emerges with an impression that will be shared by many outside the state, reviled by most Anglos within the state, and welcomed by the state’s emerging majority of Latinos.

In the book, As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, she is closer to the truth of the matter than most of the Texans who will disagree with her. But both Collins and the guardians of the Alamo mentality exaggerate the extent to which that mentality is uniquely Texan in origin, though she does glimpse the legacy that a true remembering of the Alamo can yield.

Most of the men who fought and died at the Alamo, including Travis, David Crockett, James Bowie, and James Bonham, were men of the Old South. They were not of the genteel Old South associated with Richmond, Charleston, or Savannah, but the edgy reaches of the South where the romanticism and notions of chivalry extolled by the cultured classes often found expression in frontier duels, bloody encounters with Creeks and Cherokees, and a fierce determination to brook no insult or challenge. The rise of abolitionism in the North and recent slave rebellions in the South reinforced a defiant, defensive attitude.

And often, as in the case of Travis, Bowie, and others, the impulses associated with this attitude could lead to reckless behavior: not only duels, but the illegal “importation” of slaves, and even the abandonment of women for the sake of personal gain. For some of these men, the lure of Texas was that it promised the opportunity for them to assert themselves anew against their problematic pasts, not as simple farmers but as powerful figures, leaders in politics, wealthy planters, or, most compellingly, military heroes -- roles honored in the culture of the South.

The point is that Anglo Texas, the Revolution and the Alamo were products of the westward thrust of the Old South at a time when the South was under attack, when cotton required new lands and more slaves, and when the cult of “chivalry” was ascendant, however crude and violent in its manifestations. Many figurative lines were drawn in the sand and river bottoms of the Old South before legend ascribed to Travis the most famous line ever drawn.

It is the size of Texas now that makes the state so influential and so tempting a target for Collins and others. If Alabama had 26 million inhabitants today instead of Texas, a story about the influence of that state would be similar despite the change in locale. This is not to say that Texas is not significantly different from Alabama; but the aggressive conservative mentality that Collins confronts is very much the same in both states. (One difference, as we shall see, is that Texas carries a latent power that will one day transform the state.)

For Collins, it is Rick Perry who now most clearly represents the Alamo mentality, and in the widespread sense that the Alamo bestows a degree of justification on rigid, absolute stances, she is correct. She is most trenchant and entertaining when discussing the many examples of how this absolutism translates to policy views on sex education, the deregulation of financial institutions, on public education, and on environmental policy. (She neglects to emphasize how the financial wizards in her present hometown took the deregulation promoted by Phil Gramm, Tom DeLay, and Dick Armey and multiplied the resulting damage to the economy geometrically.)

The influence of these extreme views on the nation is not amusing, however, and she makes a strong case that Texas-backed policies, with the exceptions of LBJ’s civil rights and environmental initiatives and Bush 41’s support of the Clean Air Act of 1990, have burdened the nation, even to the extent of costing taxpayers in other states to pay for Texas’s refusal to fund social services and education.

Writing for the state’s leading magazine, Texas Monthly, James Henson grants that Collins has written a “solid summary of the liberal critique of the Texas model.” But, he writes, “…she never fully appreciates the class and ethnic divisions that have long defined political power here. This leads her to over-generalize about what ‘Texans think.’ The occasional interviewees on the left side of the spectrum are presented as lonely voices of reason in a state full of self-defeating nuts.”

“When it comes to taking potshots at Texas,” Henson concludes, “Collins is almost as quick on the draw as the governor she relies on for easy laughs. Unlike Rick Perry, though, she only wounds her prey.”

Some of the easy laughs come when Collins discusses the sex education practices in Texas. Take the headliner for Chapter 8, one “Speedy the Sperm.” According to Collins, an abstinence-only curriculum product called “Why kNOw” that has been used in Texas “has the poor teacher construct an 18-foot-long model known as ‘Speedy the Sperm’ to demonstrate condoms’ alleged failure to guard against STDs.” The result of poor sex education can be seen in the example of a male college student in Texas who asked his professor about the student’s risk of developing cervical cancer.

Seriously, as Collins notes, the birth rate in Texas is the second highest in the nation, behind the state of Utah. The state’s abstinence-only sex education policy is a biological line in the sand that is continually erased by the actions of young Texans. But the demographic feature that will transform the state is the rise of the Hispanic population.

“Before long,” Collins writes, “this is going to be a majority Hispanic state, and there’s no way the political or business leadership reflects that fact.” Demographers predict the change will occur by 2030, and many Latinos in Texas believe it will happen sooner than that. Where the Old South stopped in 1836, the new Texas, increasingly less Southern, will emerge two centuries later.

So what will happen when the Alamo mentality, largely Southern in its origins, meets the Latino majority? Over time, perhaps, the Alamo itself, a real place and a real event in history, will be remembered less as a mythic symbol of glorified heroism or as a subject of casual derision, and be understood for what it was: a real and lasting wound shared by two cultures that now must live together. If Texas can heal that wound, what a different message will emerge from the Lone State State.

In her final pages, Collins reports a conversation with Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and a cabinet official in the Clinton administration. She asked him about the Alamo. “I came to terms with it a long time ago,” he told her. “It’s not about wars or Mexicans versus Americans or victory or death. It’s just something that happened.”

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