Friday, September 23, 2011

The regional basis of a hard heart

Last night, during the Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Florida, Governor Rick Perry defended his state’s decision to admit the children of illegal immigrants into Texas universities at in-state tuition rates. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own,” Perry concluded, “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry’s words have been roundly booed by the right, and even my colleagues at Commentary, who are likely to agree with Perry on the substance, winced at the comment (here and here and here).

What has gone little remarked is that the Texas House adopted the original state law (HB 1403) in 2001 by a vote of 130 to 2, while the state Senate voted 27 to 3 in favor. How can it be that a law which won overwhelming approval from a Republican-dominated legislature has come to be almost unanimously rejected by the national party just ten years later?

If you grow up in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas, you don’t grow up thinking of your Mexican-American friends and classmates as illegal immigrants or children of illegals. The cultures of the border states are shot through with Hispanic influences. Larry McMurtry says somewhere that the most interesting cities in America are those that are the most thoroughly Hispanicized. You are at home with the influences, because you are home in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas.

Thus Governor Perry struck a chord with many of us when, in the first presidential debate, he spoke of “Anglos” instead of “whites.” Northern conservatives were disgusted, but I’ve always preferred the spicy ethnic term. “White” erases differences—between Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, for example—while “Anglo” acknowledges the most significant difference in the southwestern states. The counterbalancing term is chicano. Together they identify the inhabitants by their history.

My guess is that Bostonians would consider anyone heartless who wished to stigmatize their Irish classmates, and those who grew up in Buffalo would probably feel the same about their Polish friends. Heartlessness is a regional phenomenon; no one can accept without protest that the people he grew up with are somehow alien. Those from outside the region who speak of them like that—they are the ones whose voice and phrasing sound so strange.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Men and friendship

This morning I heard from a longtime friend who, like me, has recently moved from Houston to another city. “Big community here and easy to get lost,” he wrote. “The wife and kids seem to have plugged in socially, but I’m having a hard time getting excited about meeting folks.”

Me too. Is it a male thing? Or a middle-aged thing? Or both at once? My buddies are scattered around the country—Iowa, Houston, New York, Boston, D.C.—and I am apparently in no hurry to add to their number. On Sunday afternoons I watch the Texans on satellite TV with chile con queso and a beer as my only company. I’m not lonely, but I worry that maybe I should be.

At a certain point, men no longer go out of their way to cultivate friendships. For twenty years, when I arrived in College Station, I would find my heart rising to see Bedford Clark in the office across the hall. We would close the door and trade witticisms and outrages. Now at Ohio State, I have no colleagues—I don’t belong to a department—and it feels strange not even to get the looks of hostility I used to get from leftist English professors. (No one at Ohio State knows that I am a spy from the other side.) But I can’t say that I miss having colleagues. I miss Bedford.

I think men, as they age, come to value the history that they share with their friends—their friendships are repositories of memory—more than they value “shared interests” or whatever else it is that draws younger persons together. Not that men don’t look for excitement. Just not in new friendships. And many men, even when tempted by the excitement of new sexual experience, withdraw into familiarity. The prospect of developing a new history with a new wife, and uprooting and plowing under the old history, is horribly unattractive—no matter how good-looking the new woman might be.

Men aren’t lazy about friendship. They are committed to habit. Come to think of it, this also explains why male friends can go months without talking to each other, and yet neither one will feel as if the friendship has lapsed or even diminished.