I spent most of last week in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma. I have a friend from the 1970s who lives in that neck of the woods with his extended family. Since it has been 20 years since I last visited them–in fact, on the even of my departure for NZ–I decided to make the trip and introduce them to my Kiwi family. It was a great personal reunion and an eye-opening experience in general.
The region between Dallas and the Oklahoma border town of Durant is dotted with small towns separated by low rolling hills dedicated to small-scale ranching. Old oil derricks litter the landscape, and many are still in service. Much of the industry in the region is dedicated to ranching and drilling services, although larger towns like Sherman, TXÂ (pop 38,500) serve as commercial and entertainment hubs for the surrounding communities on both sides of the border.
The region as a whole is known as Texoma, but the contrast between the two states is significant. The Texas side is relatively prosperous in a low-key, country sort of way: people are unfailingly polite, cowboy culture is enshrined, the pickup trucks and ten gallon hats American-made and expensive, and the music runs the gamut of country and western sub-genres (I had never heard of the phrase “country pop” until I heard it on the radio while driving from the Forth Worth suburbs to Durant). Although I did see a dead deer with an arrow sticking out of it along state route 51, there was otherwise a peaceful air about the countryside. There is no personal income tax in Texas so state revenues depend on assorted value-added taxation schemes, where ranchers with oil on their land receive a percentage of (and pay taxes on) the revenues accrued from their wells. Property taxes are relatively high even if working land is taxed lower than residential or commercial lots. This helps explain why education in Texas is pretty well-funded and scholastic achievement statistics are generally good. Not suprisingly unemployment in NE Texas is low and other social stats are on the positive side.
Crossing the Red River into Oklahoma things change. The landscape remains rolling but gets more barren. Dwellings are more run-down, trailer homes more prevalent, commercial buildings are often shuttered and the people appear more hard scrabble. In the US Oklahoma has the fourth highest percentage of indigenous people living in it, and the part of SE Oklahoma where I visited is the home of the Choctaw Nation. Along with sister tribes like the Chichasaw and Cherokee, the Choctaw were removed from their ancestral lands further East in Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Removal to what were then known as the “Indian Lands” was contentious and often bloody, but in then end the Choctaw and other tribes were settled on land that was largely infertile or otherwise not suited for agriculture.Â This led to a steady slide into poverty on the reservations, something that was paralleled in the non-Indian communities adjacent to them. That situation has been slightly ameliorated by the promotion of gambling industries on Indian land, something permitted by federal law. Not surprisingly, the largest commercial enterprise in Durant (pop 16,600) is a casino resort operated by the Choctaw Nation, although the sum effect of its operations is as much making money off of misery as it is adding opportunity to the Choctaws. I do not gamble but stayed one night at the casino resort as part of a larger gathering. Suffice it to say that the demographic cross-section in the gaming rooms was, to my untrained eyes, a sample of despair, desperation and delusion under bright, blinking lights.
Beyond that, economy of the region is driven by small-scale manufacturing and services related to ranching and mining, public sector agencies and public goods provision and small-scale professional services such as lawyers, doctors etc.
Interestingly, unlike Texas, in Oklahoma ranchers do not control the mineral rights to the land underneath the topsoil that they own. State regulations allow commercial drilling underneath private land and what revenues are extracted from that drilling goes to the commercial outfit and the state by way of taxation on corporate profits. This includes the practice of side-drilling from one property into another and fracking, which is the mechanical introduction of highly pressurized water mixed with leaching chemicals into defunct, low yield or potentially productive shale deposits in order to force out oil and/or natural gas. Since fracking is very destructive to aquifers due to its contamination effects, the introduction of fracking spells the end of ranching on the land above it (since trucking in water is not economic for any commercially viable herd). This could well explain in part why ranching in SE Oklahoma is not as healthy as it is across the southern border.
Oklahoma also spends the least amount on education of the 50 US states. It shows. From what I gathered people’s social horizons are very limited, their knowledge (and interest in) of public affairs outside of their immediate communities is negligible, their access to a cross-section of media and opinion non-existent, and their prospects for the future mixed at best. Some people are doing pretty well, such as the remaining local ranchers in and around Durant and Ardmore, OK (pop. 32,300). Many others seem to be living a sort of Oliver Twist existence, scrambling to get by on odd jobs or menial, manual or semi-skilled labor. A large share of people are on some sort of benefit, although preference is given to those with indigenous blood lines or lacking any source of income. Unemployment in Durant is listed at 4.2 percent, higher than the surrounding Bryan County average of 3.8 percent. Yet those living in poverty in Durant amount to 25.3 percent of the population (18.3 percent in Bryan County). The dependency rate in Bryan County (those people on some sort of benefit) is at 56.6 percent, well above the national average of 49.7 percent, as is that of Durant (52.7 percent). Along with the data on poverty, that suggests that under-employment is a problem in that corner of Oklahoma, and that the official statistics hide a grimmer reality between the lines.
One such reality is an epidemic of opioid addiction. For a variety of reasons intrinsic and extrinsic to the people involved, the supply and consumption of prescription painkillers is rampant. Most of the pill trade is legal, as pharmaceutical companies have discounted the price of prescription painkillers, doctors are inclined to prescribe them even for minor ailments and pharmacies all too happy to supply them to otherwise able-bodied people. The result is a vicious circle of addiction in which the main impediment to sobriety is the incentive structure built into the supply chain. Short of a doctor refusing to prescribe more pills, patients are shuttled conveyor belt style through the assembly line of pain clinics and pharmacies catering to their vice. Even when doctors refuse to continue to write scripts for patients clearly suffering from addiction symptoms, other less scrupulous physicians will step into their place. And then there is the black market trade in opioids, which overlaps with the illicit drug trade in cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine and which intersects with the legal trade in alcohol outside of the reservations (but available inside of the casinos, as it turns out).
I was astounded at the amount and variety of drugs prescribed, some of which I have never heard of before but which are apparently many more times stronger than morphine or heroin. Within the extended family that I visited there were two people suffering from addiction to opioids, one ostensibly for pain and the other for anxiety. Both were well down the path of chemical dependency and both had dysfunctional lives as a result of that.
The other grim reality, at least in my view, was the presence and amount of guns in that society. Every adult that we came into contact with had guns, in most cases multiple guns. They had guns for hunting and self-protection. They had guns in their homes, sheds, boats and cars. They had pistols, revolvers, bolt-action single shot rifles, multiple shot carbines, shotguns and semi-automatic military-style long arms. Some liked to collect guns, some like to target practice and some liked to hunt. At least two had shot at another person in anger(although my friend, a Vietnam War vet, had done so while in combat). These were responsible people, so the guns that they were not carrying on them were presumably locked away. But I had an uneasy feeling when interacting with strangers at places like gas stations or bottle shops that I was one misunderstanding away from getting a hot lead injection.
Although the region is also heavily religious, especially of the Protestant-Baptist variety, guns are the secular equivalent of a religion in Texoma. People worship, in fact deify guns. Some of that worship is fetishistic, but most of it is cultural. The love of guns is not driven by National Rifle Association Second Amendment lobbying or public advertising. It is driven by something much deeper, much more visceral than rights-based. That deeper root is fear.
I was struck by how much fear is layered into the lives of Texoma residents even though the threats that they face are comparatively few and relatively minor. Some of that fear is of the unknown–of Muslim extremists (none of whom live anywhere near the region), of hordes of undocumented Latinos (although the region has a long and amicable history of Mexican migration and settlement, to include generations of intermarriage with Indians as well as Anglos), of unseen liberals and “others” who want to destroy their way of life under the guise of PC mandates and forced toleration of non-Christian customs and behavior.
They also fear a known threat: the federal government. Yet, although the threat is identifiable and in the case of the Indian Nations historically grounded in fact, the degree of threat posed by the federal government to the people of SE Oklahoma seems exaggerated. Sure, there are taxation issues, but no more than any other semi-rural jurisdiction. Sure, there are complaints about federal regulations interfering with the right to make a living, but these are far fewer than those that are imposed by the state legislature and are more focused on things like environmental security than the pursuit of profit per se. Sure, there are central versus local government disputes involving decision-making about public funding priorities and levels, which are compounded by the sovereign status of Indian nations and the autonomy of reservation governance. But these are no more or less than in other states with significant Indian populations. Likewise, there are fears over federal seizure of lands, yet the possibility of this in SE Oklahoma (and the extent of federal land ownership itself) is less than in other Western states where arguments about grazing rights on federal land have descended into violence. And then there is the conspiracy side of the equation (although it is not so crazy to think if one happens to be Indian): fear of the Feds coming to take their guns and/or sending troops to impose central rule over them. Since I try to deal in practical realities of the current and immediate future, there is not much I can say to counter those concerns.
The contradictions inherent in hatred for the federal government are mulitlayered. Much of the welfare dependency of Bryan Country is tied to federal benefit programs such as social security and Medicaid (in fact, the majority of people in Durant stand to lose medical benefits should Obamacare be repealed). The fear of “the Feds” is contradicted by the dependency on them on the part of a significant portion of the local population, on the one hand, and their relative absence from daily life, on the other. Added to this is the worship of the US military by non-Indian Oklahomans, something that is attached to the gun culture and which serves as an avenue of recruitment for the military and upward mobility and mind-broadening for many local youth (recalling the adverts about “joining the military and seeing the world,” which were quickly subverted into “join the military, see the world, meet new people, and then kill them” piss takes).
In sum, fear of “the Feds” is seemingly out of proportion to the threats to local harmony, identity and prosperity emanating from Washington, DC. In other words, there is a fair bit of paranoia imbedded in what is an overall sense of false consciousness on the part of many living in that part of the country. Yet that is the reality that they perceive and live.
The combination of cultural, economic and sociological traits embedded in the Texoma demographic gives rise to what one of the family members that I visited called the “camo people”: beer and bourbon drinking, tobacco chewing, gun-toting, lower-income working and middle class, God-fearing patriotic folk who love the flag while wearing camouflage during their daily trips to the Wal-Mart down the road and to their cousin’s weddings. That is their culture and they want it to stay that way.
All of this makes for an obvious thing: Texoma is a hard red political district and it lies at the core of Donald Trump’s support. No amount of disdain or argumentation by “flyover” effete liberal coastal elites is going to change their minds or shake that support. Nor will the glaring contradictions between Trump’s words and deeds or his background and theirs. Many of them may be close to down and out or one beef jerky pack away from starvation, but they know what they fear and don’t like even if they do not personally have contact with or understand what they fear, and they know what they do like when it comes to guns, God and the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the conventions of propriety prescribed by others.
All talk of the “land of the free” aside, it may not be an exercise in freedom as might be understood by the likes of me, but then again, what understanding of freedom they have is circumscribed by the opportunity structures to which they are exposed given the cultural, socioeconomic and political contex in which they live. If freedom is defined, as Janis Joplin once sang, as “having nothing left to lose” rather than having range of choice and control over the circumstances of their lives, then indeed many of the people of SE Oklahoma are free. If they are happy for it thanks to the power of God, guns, flag and drugs, then more power to them.
In the upper reaches of Texoma, serfs rejoice that Trump is King.