Americans have become used to engaging in vigorous national conversations over momentous topics in the past few years. There was the Mr. Potato Head gender issue. The cancellation of Dr. Seuss after his family withdrew a couple of his lesser-known books from circulation. Reports that the Biden administration was planning to cancel beef. 

And, of course, the War on Christmas is about to resume.

I’m pleased to report that the state of Texas and its leaders have become national leaders in initiating such national conversations. 

You remember Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggesting that we citizens of Social Security age would gladly risk dying in order to keep the economy humming for younger generations. 

Patrick has made numerous other contributions. In the arena of race alone he fostered discussions by blaming a surge in COVID-19 cases on Black Americans. He followed up by generating a serious debate over whether Democrats were importing thousands of Haitian immigrants so that their children would eventually become citizens and vote Democratic.

The recent session of the Texas Legislature contributed with new laws on guns, transgender athletes, and voting. The loudest conversation — including among members of the U.S. Supreme Court — was generated by the extraordinarily creative Senate Bill 8, which allows individuals to enforce the law’s ban on abortions performed more than about six weeks after a woman’s last period. Those subject to legal action can include the doctor, clinic clerk, Uber driver, loaner of money, friend who accompanied the patient — everybody except the woman who actually sought and got the abortion.

Nearly every national discussion of the law mentioned the fact that pregnancies caused by rape or incest are not exempted. Gov. Greg Abbott then prompted an auxiliary national conversation by announcing that people shouldn’t worry about pregnancies from rape because “Texas will work tirelessly to make sure that we eliminate all rapists from the streets of Texas by aggressively going out and arresting them and prosecuting them and getting them off the streets.” He added that “goal number one in the state of Texas is to eliminate rape, so that no woman no person will be a victim of rape.”

The entire nation is watching to see how Texas accomplishes that. 

Texas’ latest contribution to the national conversation came last week when a school administrator in the Carroll Independent School District in Southlake, Texas, was caught on tape reminding teachers to “remember the concepts” of a new state law that mandates that teachers present more than one side of controversial topics.

“Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives,” the administrator said.

The story provoked conversations from the Jerusalem Post to Rolling Stone magazine. It was a calm, measured discussion that led the district’s superintendent to apologize two days after the story broke. 

For all those non-Texans who are concerned that Texas will mandate that a Nazi perspective on the Holocaust be required reading in Texas schools, I have good news. 

The Legislature was only kidding when it passed House Bill 3979. While passing that law the Legislature and other state leaders made it abundantly clear they do not want to hear, much less allow to be taught, all sides of key issues.

They had already passed a law requiring doctors to tell abortion patients that an induced abortion increases the woman’s chance of contracting breast cancer. They did not require the doctors to provide a link to an American Cancer Society web page that lists multiple studies thoroughly debunking that claim.

HB 3979 itself prohibits teachers from presenting slavery as being a true principle of the founding of the United States, but was a “deviation” from the nation’s ideals. Reasonable people may consider the Constitution itself a deviation, since it not only permitted slavery but gave Southern states a 3/5 credit for their massive enslaved population when it came to determining how many seats they had in the House of Representatives, despite the fact that enslaved persons were considered property, not fully human.

State law requires that students be taught the Declaration of Independence, but not that they be taught the 1861 “Declaration of the Causes which impel the State of Texas to recede from the Federal Union,” also known as the Ordinance of Secession, which goes to great lengths to place Northern opposition to slavery as the major cause for siding with the Confederacy. 

Patrick’s devotion to hearing all sides was demonstrated earlier this year when he strong-armed the Bullock State History Museum into canceling a panel discussion by the authors of Forget the Alamo, a book that cites many scholars as placing the desire to keep slavery as a major incentive for the Texas rebellion against the Mexican government. 

Then there is the 1836 Project, which the Legislature passed this year at the request of Abbott to promote a “patriotic education” to the state’s residents. Nine members of the project’s board will be tasked with promoting the state’s “history of prosperity and democratic freedom.” 

Ironically, the 1836 Constitution for the new nation of Texas formed as a result of the Texan victory appears to have clearly established slavery as a major cause of the rebellion. It not only prohibited the new Texas Congress from abolishing slavery, but required that any free black persons be granted permission by the Texas Congress in order to remain in Texas. It also required congressional permission for slaveholders to free their slaves and specifically excluded descendants of Africans and Indians from the class of “persons” having rights.

Among the six appointees by Abbott and Patrick to head the project (House Speaker Dade Phelan hasn’t made his three picks yet) are former Republican Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who has argued forcefully against slavery as a key issue in the rebellion, as well as the CEO of the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation and Sherry Sylvester, a San Antonian and former top aide to Patrick who now sports the title Distinguished Senior Fellow at the TPPF. 

The foundation describes itself as a “think tank” and exercises considerable influence over the Legislature. Examples of its thinking are captured in a daily email it puts out. The one Friday said, “Critical race theory threatens to undo all of the good achieved by the Civil Rights movement.” Like most of those using “critical race theory” as a bludgeon these days, it didn’t define it. Ironically, it is an approach initiated by academics trying to figure out why the civil rights movement and the legislation it won have not led to more gains for Black people. It seeks to solidify gains from the civil rights movement, not to undo them.

The Friday email also described hospitals that take the not unreasonable stance of requiring nurses who come in contact with sick people to become vaccinated against COVID-19 as “treating [nurses] like pariahs, because they’re not submitting to political dogma. The Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that we all get vaccinated against the coronavirus is not “political dogma” but scientific recognition that vaccines have massively lowered hospitalization and mortality rates among those who have been vaccinated. 

Unfortunately these leaders of the 1836 Project are likely to be as dedicated to serious history as they are to serious science.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.