Place and identity

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert looks at the connections between place and identity, and wonders what sort of influence a state’s history may have on its political leaders.

(Gilbert) Does where you come from make who you are? That’s a question that’s being tossed about in connection with Howard Dean’s quest for the presidency. Some people say that because he’s from Vermont, he’ll never get nominated, much less elected, president. It’s not just Vermont’s small size and minimal number of electoral votes that stand in his way, observers say. It’s also the kind of place we are — our outlook and history. Vermont is seen as out of step with the rest of the country. Some say that Dean is similarly out of step.

George Bush, on the other hand, seems keenly in step with the rest of the country. Could it be that Texans have an outlook and history that give candidates from their state an edge? I turned to Molly Ivins’ irreverent political biography of George Bush, “Shrub,” for some help in understanding Bush. Ivins makes it clear that Bush comes from a state that prides itself on wheeling and dealing, and action. I wanted to know why Texas is that way. So I checked out a book on Texas history.

Jeff Long’s “Duel of Eagles” tells how Texas was created by grabbing land from Mexico. In the 1820s and 1830s so-called “freebooters” from the U.S. took advantage of cheap land offered by Mexico in its most northern province. When the U.S. freebooters had reached a critical mass, they took up arms against Mexico and claimed independence. It was a pretty straightforward case of American “manifest destiny” running into the pesky problem of a foreign power in the way.

The battle of the Alamo in 1836 became the emotional center of the freebooters’ cause. In actuality, it was a debacle, the result of awful planning and a smug feeling that a hundred or so Anglo-Americans could easily defeat several thousand Mexican soldiers. Many Americans in the northern states had no sympathy for the Alamo victims; they felt that the Texans had created their own disaster. When the U.S. finally went to war with Mexico 10 years later, there was tremendous opposition. Troops deserted from the U.S. Army in record numbers — 13 percent, the highest of any war that America has ever fought.

The slogan of the freebooters was, “Make sure you are right, then go ahead.” That sounds noble, but there was an interesting corollary to the maxim: You know you’re right by going ahead. In other words, the end justifies the end.

I thought of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, and George Bush and the Iraqi War, when I read the freebooters’ slogan. To both presidents, victory on the battlefield was thought to justify the actions taken on the road to war. Is that what the majority of Americans believe? Take action first, and then figure out the rationalization for the action as you go along?

One footnote to Texas history: A Vermonter, Miles DeForest Andross, was among the freebooters present at the Alamo. He was a young man from Bradford, and little is known of him. But his name is enshrined on the walls of the Alamo in modern-day San Antonio, Texas.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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