Austin at Large: Really? You and What Army?
Hand-wringing on all sides of all issues reflects our emerging crisis of legitimacy
When I first married into a largish Italian family spread across two continents, I remember hearing some words of wisdom: "In Italy, there are rules for everything but nobody follows the rules." My subsequent visits to the homeland have borne this out; while much of la dolce vita seems spontaneous, charming, and sometimes chaotic, there are fussy little hidden traps all over waiting to be sprung on dumb tourists (me) who don't know the language or culture. No, you can't sit at that end of the bar to down your espresso without paying extra, only at this end of the bar. No, your ticket does not allow you to go to the top floor of the museum, only the first, second, and fourth. Yes, you must sort your garbage quite precisely for collection on designated days for each type. Nine times out of 10 you will not know these rules exist because they are ignored by everyone. That 10th time, sucks to be you.
This is becoming a norm for the nation, state, and city where we live. There's much hand-wringing from the #resistance left about the GOP's increasing "turn to authoritarianism" as exemplified by the lawless lifeways of now-deposed President Apesh*t. In turn, the #MAGA right flares its nostrils at public health measures and other routine tools of civil society as "overreach" and "threats to freedom." And so it goes. Everyone will, at some point in the #discourse, be called a fascist. The Italians of my acquaintance, who actually were, and sometimes still are, fascists (for the record, some are also communists), think this is quite an overstatement in a nation/state/city where all these feints are mostly hypothetical, based on stuff people see online or on TV and not in real life. I tend to agree. But the corrosive effect on the framework of public life – the emerging crisis of legitimacy – is not hypothetical.
Take a Break, Delta-8
My pagemate Nick Barbaro delves into one example in his space this week, which we'll be following: The state has, for the second or maybe the third time, aimed to make rules to ban cannabis products containing Delta-8 THC. This is just one expression of the omnishambles Texas has made of its drug laws as it's tried to pander simultaneously in opposite directions. The bluenose Baptist crowd, championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, is still firmly committed to keeping the devil's lettuce out of the Great State. Large rural landowners, championed by Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, want to get into the large and growing hemp market. Normally, Patrick and Miller are only distinguishable by the contours of their clown makeup, but on this issue they are Not Friends. Add into the mix advocates from both right and left for criminal justice reform and decarceration, and a host of small boutique CBD artisans and retailers whose own politics may be decidedly libertarian, and you get the status quo, where weed is basically legal because nobody can or does or even really wants to enforce the hemp laws, yet we pretend to.
The porousness of the nation/state/city's controlled substances laws is not news. What is news, or at least Fox News, are the cascading moral panics whose progression we can chart quite effectively simply by looking at the press feed of Gov. Greg Abbott. As he continues to fall apart in public under the first real political pressure he's ever experienced in his decades of service to the red regime, he keeps attempting to throw the entire weight of Texas against the doors standing between us and feared, yet mythical invaders. Critical Race Theory! Voter fraud! Trans girls playing sports! Leaving aside the merits of any of Abbott's tough stances, how does he expect all of these things to be enforced?
Mein Kampf, for Kid Readers
The Southlake teachers who sprung the CRT trap last week, being told that young readers needed to learn about both sides of the Holocaust, sent an unmistakeable message to the state's other 1,700 school districts: You should just keep doing what you're doing and roll the dice, because any attempt to comply with the regime's desire to insulate whiteness from criticism will be clumsy and controversial. The people who want these things mostly live in places where they already have the culture they want. If even Southlake – which is 75% white with a median income nearly four times the Texas average – is uncomfortable with your racism, that means you don't actually have the power to back up your tough talk. Against what do you have power? Primarily the weaker, unfavored, marginalized, like migrants crossing the border who are now getting arrested just for show. But even there, your attempted feats of strength will be called out and held up, reduced to an airing of grievances.
Eventually, most Texans will be in a place where, whatever norms and values they hold or that may prevail in the places they live, nobody takes the attempts of the state to enforce its preferences seriously, and it becomes clear that Texas not only does not, but cannot use the power of the state to help anyone (e.g., 70,000 deaths from COVID-19) or fix anything (e.g., the power grid). Austin is in the same boat with many of its own efforts to lay down the law, as is seen every week when Council, neighbors, and developers try to understand, let alone enforce, provisions in the Land Development Code. Witness the zoning case at 2700 S. Lamar, where neighbors are hiding behind a supposedly airtight regulatory regime to enforce housing affordability that the city does not deliver in real life. As we strive to provide decent housing to everyone in town who needs it, where it's needed, we will have to decide who we trust to make sure it happens, or whether the best advice is to simply not follow the rules.