I am about as Texan as anybody could be. A fifth-generation native of Austin, the state capital, I lived there for my first 21 years. I return frequently, own a small ranch about an hour west of town, and will inherit part of another one. Larry “J R” Hagman, star of the 1980s TV soap opera Dallas, is a relative of mine.
Moreover, my book Made in Texas: George W Bush and the Southern takeover of American politics (Basic Books) was a bestseller in the US and has been translated into several foreign languages. I have written for the New Statesman and Prospect and hundreds of people paid “cash money” (as we say in Texas) to hear me discuss it at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival last summer.
So you would have thought I was a natural this year for the annual Texas Book Festival – particularly since the organisers sought me out when I published a narrative poem about the Texas revolution, The Alamo (1997), and a book in which I defended the goals (though not the methods) of America’s tragic effort in Indo-China, Vietnam (1999). But no. Made in Texas has been excluded from the Texas Book Festival. I won’t be present with the other authors at the ceremonies in Austin next month.
Why? Perhaps it’s a clue that the Lone Star State’s major literary festival was founded by Laura Bush in the 1990s, when her husband was governor of Texas. Laura’s mother-in-law, the mother of the incumbent president, is featured at her book festival, while I, the author of the critique of George W Bush that has gained the most attention worldwide, have not been invited. Is there a pattern here?
I’ve asked the organisers of the festival to explain. They have refused to respond. They have also excluded my other 2003 publication, Bluebonnet Girl, a children’s book in verse about a Texas Indian legend, illustrated by the renowned children’s artist Kate Kiesler.
Last year, even though I had published no book, the organisers overcame my initial resistance and persuaded me to take part in two panels discussing the subjects of my earlier works. Laura Bush herself came to listen to me read from The Alamo in 1997. Yet now that I have published a book about how the pathologies of Texan conservatism have shaped the Bush presidency, they seem to have lost my number.
Instead, those who attend the festival, from Texas and around the world, will be treated to such literary powerhouses as the former first lady Barbara Bush, Cheryl Rogers-Barnett, author of Cowboy Prin- cess: life with my parents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Terry Conlan, author of Fresh: healthy cooking and living from Lake Austin Spa Resort.
True, the liberal columnists Molly Ivins and Lou DuBose, who have published several witty and well-informed anti-Bush polemics, have been included. But this is hardly proof that I haven’t been excluded for political reasons. It merely means that Laura Bush’s book festival feels obliged to include a few token critics of her husband.
Although her smiling face greets visitors to the Texas Book Festival website (yes, she is presiding over it from Washington, even though Texas has a new first lady in the Governor’s Mansion), I don’t think Laura Bush personally made the decision to freeze me out. I assume the selection committee decided on her behalf.
That’s how these people operate – in Washington, as well as Austin. Earlier this year, Laura Bush arranged a White House poetry conference. It was cancelled at the last moment, when the White House discovered some of the poets were planning to make statements in opposition to the imminent war in Iraq. It’s kind of hard to be a patron of writing when you ostracise the writers on political grounds.
Perhaps, by making the president’s mother the star of the book festival this year, the Bush family has found a solu- tion to its problem with the literati: keep it in the family.
Hell, it could have been worse. I’m merely banned from the major book festival in my home town in my native state, for the sin of having offended a dynasty of rich Connecticut carpet-baggers who gained office by opposing civil rights for blacks (the older Bush ran for Congress denouncing the Civil Rights Act 1964) and for gay men and lesbians (the younger Bush supported the Texas state sodomy law which the Republican-majority US Supreme Court recently overturned as barbaric).
A few decades ago, the Texas State Police would have kept a secret file on me as a suspected integrationist and communist, and I would have received phoned and mailed death threats from some of my patriotic, God-fearing fellow Texans.
The Southern right is as vicious and demented as it always was, but it’s less dangerous than it used to be. Made in Texas is dedicated to the memory of the late Decherd Turner, the greatest librarian in Texas and a lifelong, passionate liberal. He was a friend of John Howard Griffin, who in the 1950s used chemicals to darken his skin and described how he was treated in Texas and the rest of the South in Black Like Me, a book admired by W H Auden, among others. After it was published, Griffin, fearing for his life, moved in for a time with the Turner family in Dallas.
I grew up hearing stories like this about the bad old days in Texas. But things become real only when they happen to you – like the censorship of authors too critical of the president, in what the Bush dynasty seems intent on turning into the world’s greatest banana republic.
Michael Lind is Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, DC