Friday, October 23, 2009

Not my idea of 'Texan'

    I remember being at many enjoyable places with my grandfather, M.K. Young. But I knew his favorite place, regardless of locale: the fence line.
   Wherever he was, he went to the stranger next door. Whatever the circumstance, he struck up a conversation. In the campground. In a son's neighborhood. At a roadside stop. It was his way. I came to think of it as the Texan way.
   "Friendship" is Texas' motto. I long considered that to mean welcoming, quick to shake a hand, slow to cast aspersions or to harp on divisive distinctions.
   In most ways the state has held up to that in my estimation. Yet some ways . . .
    Texas has begun a governor's race that, before it officially was a race, was already as mean as they come. The incumbent, banking on the grumpiness of 39 percent of the general election voters last go-around, seeks to lock in the same bloc in the Republican primary. Rick Perry says Kay Hutchison isn't conservative enough. Look, he says: Back in the '70s she didn't support Ronald Reagan for president. She supported the incumbent president, Gerald Ford. Egads. Her camp points out that Perry, at the time a Democrat, was Al Gore's Texas chairman in 1988.
    Sad to say, Texas has modeled a lot of mean. In 1994, Republicans promoting George W. Bush for governor sparked a whisper campaign questioning Ann Richards' allegiance to the heterosexual world. About the same time, agents of the religious right took over the state school board with gay-baiting smears and assertions that their foes would order schools to hand out condoms.
      In Waco, a bitter battle raged for years at Baylor University over the direction of President Robert Sloan. His idea of "intentional Christianity" in the classroom alarmed and alienated many God-fearing educators, and chased some away, while drawing others so inclined. Sloan is gone. Efforts to produce regimentation and to enforce group think are not.
     The Baylor regents are trying to force the Baylor Alumni Association to give up its independence and meld with the university. What is portrayed as a gesture of reconciliation amid a lingering philosophical conflict, many in the association see as a hostile takeover.
     This may sound like one of those arcane "Baptist things." It's not. Indeed, the issue is as fundamental as free speech. The association, which oozes love for the university and its traditions, also has a publication, the Baylor Line, which is not afraid to air the controversies surrounding the institution. Shutting up the Line and making the association a regent mouthpiece is what this is about. Though they could jeopardize future relations with Baylor, the alumni aren't caving.
     In recent years the association and the university reached an understanding to allow them to coexist as separate but supporting players, and to agree to disagree from time to time. The regents appear to have decided that so much as a speck of disagreement is a speck too much.
     In a commentary in Baylor's student paper, The Lariat, immediate past student body president Bryan Fonville noted the role an independent alumni association played in Baylor's audacious move in the 1990s to proclaim autonomy from the Texas Baptist General Convention. Those were the days when independence and intellectual integrity were paramount for Baylor.
     At some point in subsequent years, what became paramount was a test of fealty to a ruling clique. Either you were with "them" or you didn't support Baylor. (Sounding a lot like a certain Texas-spawned presidential administration and its divisive rhetoric.)
     I see in a university, or a state, what my grandfather saw in a neighborhood: a community of shared interests and collegial differences. To discuss isn't to tear down. To differ isn't to denounce. To agree that we can disagree is the definition of neighborliness, as is ending a conversation with an outstretched hand.
     That's what Texan means to me. You?
      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

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