Sunday, November 13, 2005

LBJ Shat Turds Larger Than John Culberson, and Other True Texas History Facts

Two stories in the Chronicle last weekend illustrated the durability of Faulkner's over-quoted maxim that in the South the past isn't even past---most especially when it comes to the naming of public buildings (the rest of the time it's usually ignored or paved over).

In the first, D.C. bureau correspondent Samantha Levine reported that at least half of Texas’ Republican members of the U.S. House, including Slampo’s Place’s own representative, John “Kid” Culberson, were refusing to co-sponsor legislation to name the Education Department building after LBJ, the first Texan to serve as president. In the second, Eric Hanson detailed a slightly more nuanced controversy in the Fort Bend school district over naming a new school after Billy J. Baines, a longtime educator and the first black principal in FBISD.

Such matters were simpler in the old days: Most buildings and other public projects were named after long-dead white males (not that we find anything intrinsically wrong with dead white males, seeing as we’ll be one sooner or later), and nobody much cared one way or another, if but for fact that a small and select group of white males had all the power and usually made such decisions without further consultation. Now, in this day of asymmetrical identity politics (and our definition of that term includes white identity politics, too,) and hpyer-partisanship, nothing is so siimple.

Culberson initially was on board with the renaming but changed his mind, presumably after pressure from the House Republican leadership not to name a building after the Democratic president. Or, apparently, even a men’s room in the building. This is how Culberson explained his newly discovered opposition to naming the Washington non-landmark after LBJ:

“I strenuously disagree with the way [LBJ] expanded the size, power and cost of the federal government. I just don’t think that he’s a good role model for young people ..."
Since when do long-gone public figures have to have been “good role models" to get a slab named after them? JFK was probably the closet we’ve had to a gangster as president, and of course there are no airports, school buildings or expressways named after him, are there? And what about, for instance, Andrew Jackson, whose name we pull out of the air simply because he's the subject of a hot new bio by Longhorn-turned-Aggie-turned-Longhorn historian H. W. Brands? Old Hickory was a stone killer---one of only two of our presidents to have actually slain another man---and a horrible racist, even by the somewhat loose standards of the early 19th century frontier, who pursued our red brothers with a genocidal fury, a bully and a braggart, etc.---not to mention a war hero and small-D democrat!---but we doubt those documented historical facts have led Culberson to refuse any $20 bills that have come his way. And the very town Culberson represents in Washington of course bears the name of the “Big Drunk.”

True, LBJ was not a nice person. He was crude and boorish, famously did his bathroom business in full sight of humiliated underlings, was a philanderer and probably a crook, pulled on his dog's ears, showed off his surgery scar, lied his ass off about Vietnam (something you won’t find these Texas Republican congress people objecting to), and certainly expanded the size, power and cost of the federal government (although how Culberson can cite this as justification with a straight face, given that the current Texan occupant of the White House has done the same thing---and is in danger of becoming a LBJ-like figure, with the descriptive tragic eternally attached to his name---is beyond irony). But now he's history, which, like life itself, is not so easily reduced to silly talking points about role models.

(And which of these expansions of federal power does Culberson object to? Medicare? The Voting Rights Act? Maybe Culberson could lead the charge to repeal those intrusions. The fact is, though, that Culberson and every other Southern Republican ought to be moving to erect a statue to LBJ in front of every mall on the freeway feeder, because LBJ is inarguably the figure most responsible for the party realignment that eventually made Texas GOP congressmen like Culberson a dime a dozen.)

The Chronicle story even-handedly noted that House Democrats voted along the party line against renaming D.C.’s National Airport after President Reagan, which just goes to show how silly these “debates” are. Who, flying in to D.C. today---including those Democratic congressmen and even, say, Barbara Streisand en route to a Kennedy Center function---thinks, Oh, I can’t land at an airport named after Ronald Reagan. Nobody thinks about it, of course, as they wouldn’t when they carry out the very mundane business of the federal education bureaucracy at the LBJ Building.

In Fort Bend, the move to name a new middle school in the planned communnity of Sienna Plantationafter Baines did prevail despite resistance from those who wanted the name to reflect “the history and flavor of the area’s rural past,” as the Chronicle reported, with River Ranch being their preferred choice. The history and flavor of the area's rural past are not altogether a wholesome and salubrious thing, of course, given that Fort Bend's 19th century economy was almost exclusively underpinned by slave labor, and the area was the site of one of the more notorious episodes of the Reconstruction, the Jaybird-Woodpecker War.

A point in River Ranch's favor, explained one free citizen of the present-day Sienna Plantation to the Chronicle, is that it “does not designate a specific culture group.”

Except Billy J. Baines isn’t a specific culture group. He’s a real living person, an individual who happens to be black, who spent 33 years with FBISD and was the first black school administrator in a district in which African-American students now constitute a plurality. He’s real history, with a face and name and a story to tell, about a life that was at least marginally enhanced by the activist government of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

We know nothing of him personally, but on the face of it Billy Baines seems to be a role model that even John Culberson couldn't object to.

Houston, The Missing City
In keeping with this posting's history theme, we'd like to point out a local Web site brought to our attention by Kevin Whited at the rascally blogHOUSTON. It's called Missing Places, and, in Whited's words, it's oddly compelling (if just a wee artsy-conceptual and whatnot for us). Anyway, we loved Missing Place's description of Houston as
a city whose urban development has long been distinguished paradoxically by the impermanence of its architecture rather than its fixity. Houston is literally defined by geographic disruption---the buildings of the city are quickly altered, roadwork and redirected streets are the norm and volatile weather continuously pummels the city, to cite just a few examples. These disruptions create a city of revolving contradictions and perpetual discontinuity, and the job of making sense of this city is left to a scattered population.
Yep, that's pretty much our agenda: trying to make sense of this place, which can be so weird, wild and wonderful (when it's not so dark, depressing and scary).

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