culture

In Support of Indiana

A lot of people are upset with Indiana right now, thanks to an anti-gay (or, I guess, a pro-bigotry) “religious freedom” law passed by the Indiana legislature and signed by the governor. Despite this being a political matter created by a select group of politicians, a lot of the comments I’m seeing on social media conflate “the government of Indiana” with “the people of Indiana,” damning everyone who lives in the state. As a Texan, I know what it’s like to be damned for the decisions of politicians.

If you have left-leaning Facebook friends or read comments on stories in liberal publications, you’ve likely seen more than few remarks that go “I would never set foot in Texas” or “Texans are all a bunch of idiots” or “I hope Texas secedes; I hate them.” Usually, if pushed, people will grudgingly acknowledge that maybe Austin is okay. Of course, thinking Austin is the only “okay” thing about Texas is the first sign that someone knows nothing about Texas.

I know nothing about Indiana. I’ve never been. And the only aspect of the state I can discuss with any authority is a fictional town. But I’m willing to bet Indiana’s governor did not win with 100% of the vote. And I’m willing to bet that 100% of the people who did vote for Indiana’s governor aren’t super happy about the state’s newest law.

Which is to say: I voted against Ted Cruz three times before he was elected to the U.S. senate. Once in the Republican primary (we have open primaries), once in the Republican runoff, and once again in the general election. And yet I’ve seen people imply or flat-out state that the man should make me ashamed to be Texan. Why? Because I live in a state where 56.5%  of people who bothered to vote did so for a less-than-qualified man with some seriously wrongheaded ideas?

“Well, you’re okay,” people have said to me. Great. I’m the Austin of my coastal compradres. But, let’s be clear, I’m not in Texas because I have to be. I’m not suffering through it or yearning for the blue lands of America’s love handles. Nope. I choose to be here. In fact, I absolutely love it here. I love heading down to the Pearl Brewery for a drink. I love hiking Big Bend National Park. I love camping in Marfa. I love kayaking the Colorado River. I love sitting on the beach in Port Aransas. I love taking my kids to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Fort Worth Zoo and the Dallas Museum of Art. I adore Fiesta. I have a blast at Dallas Cowboys games. And at Spurs games. I look forward to my neighbor’s crawfish boil. I’ll take any excuse to stroll past the old homes up the street, or walk along the Museum Reach. And I am proud of Gemini Ink and particularly their Writers in Communities program.

Oh, and yeah, Austin is okay too.

I could go on. Seriously, the list of things I love about my home state would exhaust you. The list of things I don’t like is a heck of a lot shorter. The eternal construction on I-35 sucks. August temperatures over 105 are not enjoyable. And a fair number of the decisions made by our state-level and national politicians do not conform to my political leanings. That’s all I can think of to put on the dislike list right now. And yet that third one is supposed to make me want to run screaming from my state? Heck, that third one is the only one that I have hope can improve!

When I see someone spitting vitriol about Texas, I have several reactions. First, I am irritated. Then I feel sad that someone would deny themselves the openness to love such a lovable place. Then I end up feeling disheartened that so many view politics as The Defining Thing About a Place. Or: The Defining Aspect of Who We Are. In the past, I’ve been guilty of making politics too central to my enjoyment (or lack of enjoyment) of life. So I know how it happens. But I try not to let it happen anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I do care deeply about homosexual and transgender rights (and many other political issues). And I do think Indiana’s law is a harmful law. But I am also convinced that the politics of Indiana is a tiny fraction of what Indiana really is. If economic pressure helps right the wrong of that law, I’m all for it. Let’s do it. Let’s just do it without labeling all Indianans as some lesser species and their state as some cesspool.

We can’t allow politics to deaden our empathy or shut us off to the rich complexities of people and places. When our desire to reform a law—or when our disagreement with a politician—causes us to send a surge of hate into the world, we’re making the world less. There’s no sense in that. Not when there’s so much out there to love. In Texas, and in Indiana too.

Why the Oscars Matter

I saw a number of people on Twitter dismissing the Oscars as irrelevant. That was their way of expressing frustration over the Oscar nomination’s incredible whiteness and (in categories not specifically designated for women) maleness. Their frustration is a good one, but their critique is incorrect. The Oscars are very relevant. Not just because their results drive the industry (or at least the part of the industry trying to make something other than superhero blockbusters) but because, in an increasingly shattered culture, the Oscars represent one of the few mass-culture moments. Even those who don’t watch the broadcast (or the movies awarded) are likely to hear about the results. And those results help sculpt our perceptions of and our relation to the greater culture.

The lack of color and femininity amongst this year’s Oscar nominees is not a good thing at all. But the problem isn’t that the well-reviewed and well-received movie Selma failed to earn a nomination for any of its black cast or for its black, female director. These kinds of snubs happen to good movies all the time. Indeed, the history of what didn’t win or wasn’t even nominated is as rich, if not richer, than the history of the winners themselves. No, the problem is: Selma was about the only place from which there could’ve been a nomination for an actor of color or for a female, black director. What other Oscar buzzy movies featured black leads? Latino leads? Asian leads? Middle Eastern leads? Women directors? Women cinematographers. Etc. Etc.

I have nothing against the many white actors or the male directors who were nominated. They are all surely talented and deserving. But is it a fair competition when the opportunities for people of color and women are so slim? I mean, even if you put aside the fact that Robert Duvall was nominated for playing pretty much himself (according to many critics) instead of David Oyelowo for playing a nuanced Martin Luther King (again, according to many critics), you have to ask the question: did the role Robert Duvall play have to be played by a white man? Could the judge not have been black? Or Latino? Or Asian? Or, good lord, an Asian woman?

You could do that exercise for several of the nominated roles. But not all of them, of course, because biopics dominate the Oscars once again. Even Selma is a biopic. Why are there so many of these “looks back?” Do we, culturally speaking, need so much celebration of Great Men in lieu of original storytelling? Is, for instance, The Imitation Game really all that culturally critical? Or did it get made because it was considered “mainstream” arty while movies that didn’t feature white actors or weren’t produced and directed by white guys (Alejandro González Iñárritu aside) weren’t considered mainstream enough and thus never received the opportunity to be made?

We have to be cautious of the word mainstream. It usually just means: what the powers that be deem inoffensive. And if the powers that be are predominately of one gender and one race…?

That’s the problem. The Oscar voters are just the symptom. The malady is in the system itself. When so few Oscar-type roles go to people of color and so few women or people of color are given the opportunity to direct or be cinematographers, etc., the pool of Oscar contenders becomes very white and very male. And that’s bad for our culture. Because a diverse people deserve a diverse art.

Art, after all, is one of the most vital ways humans connect. Through our art, we should be connecting with all of America and the outside world. Instead, because of a lack of opportunity, we are continually connecting with the same old, same old.